Jaclyn Kelley-Widmer

Students and professors travel to Texas during the winter break to assist detained families

January 22, 2019

At the Border, Cornell Law Students and Professor Help Detained Mothers and Children Seek Asylum

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A law professor and six Cornell Law students spent their winter break at the largest immigrant detention center in the country, helping recently arrived asylum seekers prepare for the vetting process.

They were part of the Dilley Pro Bono Project, which provides legal services to mothers and children detained at the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas, according to the program’s website.

Prof. Jaclyn Kelley-Widmer, law, heard about the project from a number of colleagues while practicing immigration law in the San Francisco Bay Area. Though she was long interested in working in the center, she finally took the plunge after the separation crisis of this past summer during which the Trump administration separated 1,995 children from their families at the border.

President Trump’s administration has received “public backlash and a lot of outrage for separating families and kids and detaining them at the same time,” Kelley-Widmer told the Sun, and she felt compelled to take action.

As a Cornell professor, she also felt that “it’s important for students to get exposure to public service, especially with vulnerable populations.”

Kelley-Widmer described the detention center as a large complex made up of many large temporary buildings, located in a fairly remote part of Texas. Only mothers and children under the age of 18 are detained here.

“If a dad arrives with a family, he would be sent to a different, adult-only detention center. If a child over 18 arrives, he will similarly be separated from the family and sent to an adult detention center,” she explained. In other cases, “sometimes people have de facto kids that they are caring for, like nieces or nephews, and that child who is not a biological child will be separated and sent to the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement,” she said.

During the week that Kelley-Widmer and her students were at the center, they helped several detained women prepare for the first steps of the interview process — the so-called “credible fear” interview — which determines whether asylum seekers were truly persecuted in their home countries.

“We explain to the woman what that interview process is going to look like. We talk to her about her story so she has an idea of what kind of information is important to reveal to the asylum officer,” she said.

Every woman that she worked with had a heartbreaking story, she said, describing it as a “privilege” to work with and help guide them.

The professor shared that the most memorable moment was when she talked to a group of women who had passed their interviews and were about to be released from the detention center. “It was very poignant to see them having come so far, and again see how much further they still have to go before they can have true safety.”

Diana Caraveo Parra grad, one of the law students who went on the trip, said that what really struck her was interacting with the children at the detention center.

“A lot of them experienced first-hand the persecutions that their mothers had experienced,” she said. “The amount of trauma [the women] faced is so substantial.”