According to US asylum law, women who have crossed the southern border and want to stay in the United States must prove ‘credible fear’ in an interview with an asylum officer. At the South Texas Family Residential Center, the largest detention facility in the US, I talked to thirty women about why they’d risked the perilous journey north. The word ‘credible’, it soon became clear, was mostly redundant.
The centre is on the outskirts of Dilley, a fracking town of deserted lots, cornfields and gas stations. I volunteered there over the Fourth of July weekend, with the Dilley Pro Bono Project, an organisation dedicated to providing legal counsel to detained women – as many as 1500 a week – who would otherwise receive none. The volunteer's main job is to prepare women for their credible fear interviews.
The standards for determining credible fear are strange, and crude. To avoid deportation, you must demonstrate a ‘well-founded’ fear of future persecution, which must be ‘on account of’ one of five ‘protected grounds’: race, religion, nationality, political belief or membership of a particular social group. Your persecutor must be the government, or an entity that the government is ‘unwilling or unable’ to control. I listened as the women described their experiences, and helped them to parse the most legally relevant parts.
They described rape, murder, children kidnapped and recruited by gangs, the destruction of homes, businesses and livelihoods. Descriptions of violence, though, were not sufficient to demonstrate credible fear. On first telling, they were not precise enough. I probed them for specifics – ‘Where on your body did he hit you with the belt?’ ‘What was the last thing your son said to you before he went missing?’ – and got used to the perverse satisfaction of landing on an especially awful, but legally applicable detail.
It was an exercise made all the more graceless by my rudimentary Spanish, which forced me to ask women to repeat themselves, to slow down, or to resort to the incongruent, agreeable tones of an interpreter at the end of a phone line. The women were always patient, smiling at my errors. In circumstances already deeply unconducive to dialogue, I foisted a structure onto the stories they told of their lives, suggesting different points of narrative emphasis, to follow the credible fear process.
Legal definitions of fear are unaccommodating. Threats can be hard to prove. The women spoke of gang members trailing their children after school, of anonymous phone calls, of armed strangers standing outside their homes for nights in a row. It’s also difficult to come up with actual evidence of co-operation between criminal gangs and law enforcement.
Drawing a line to one of the ‘five protected grounds’ isn’t always straightforward. The women spoke of domestic violence, of being locked in rooms, chased by cars, and beaten. The protected ground here is gender. A Guatemalan woman mimed the action of a hand holding her head by the hair and smashing it repeatedly against the wall. Her 11-year-old daughter was in the room. ‘Did he ever call you his personal property?’ I asked her. It would help her case. ‘Claro,’ she said. Of course.
Proceedings at the Dilley detention centre rarely have the certainty of that ‘claro’. It isn’t surprising that the complexities of women’s lives can be overlooked by the legal system. But the more time I spent at the detention centre, the more I saw it was systematically prone to the dynamics of evasion and rhetorical slipperiness of the phrase ‘credible fear’. The name ‘Family Residential Center’ is disingenuous, too. Owned by a private prison company, the centre – a collection of pre-fabricated huts – is surrounded by mirrors, surveillance cameras and coils of barbed wire. US immigration policy is based on an irrational fear of the people detained here. There is nothing credible about it.