The asylum seekers currently detained in Karnes, Texas may be far away from Boston, but for students at Harvard Law School’s Immigration and Refugee Clinic (HIRC), the issues and work couldn’t be closer to home. This past winter break a group of Harvard law students spent part of their January term volunteering and providing pro-bono work to Central American women and children held at the Karnes detention center.
Combining what she learned in the classroom and at HIRC, Katrina Fleury (HLS ’16) spent part of her January term working with the asylum seekers in Texas. She recently provided HIRC with a description of her experience and why she believes the work being done there is so important.
HIRC: How did your experience at HIRC prepare you for volunteering at the Karnes detention center?
KF: The clinic at Harvard was invaluable; I don’t think I would have been an effective advocate at the detention center without it. During the semester clinical course we learned about the asylum process and the necessary elements to prove an asylum case. It’s critical to understand those in order to prepare detainees to explain their stories during their credible fear interviews.
HIRC: What was a big difference between the work at Karnes and your experience at HIRC?
KF: One of the biggest contrasts with the clinic was how detention center work required a drastically different approach to interviewing and advising clients. In the clinic, students are assigned a client to work with over the course of the semester. The client is generally not detained and the court date is often months or a year or more away. The theory of the case comes to light slowly throughout weekly interviews as students develop trust with the client and she/he gradually reveals traumatic details.
In the detention center, you have an hour or two with the asylum seeker to understand his/her story, figure out if he/she potentially qualifies for asylum, and then help the asylum seeker practice explaining it for the credible fear interview.
This means having to ask those sensitive questions regarding horrific events and delve into the details of painful experiences the client often has never revealed before to anyone. As you hear story after story, with details of rape, murder, violence, and unimaginable examples of human cruelty, you have to find a way to remove yourself. What I learned quickly was that you end up compartmentalizing what you hear. I was still listening and understanding the stories and trauma, but not quite fully processing it.
At the end of the day, I was often physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted. One way to get over this was to do something fun, spend time with loved ones, or watch something funny to remind you that while humanity has the ability to be unspeakably cruel, it is still capable of compassion and love.