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Hanover Native Plays a Role on Front Line of Immigration Conflict

  • Hanover, N.H., native Katy Murdza is advocacy coordinator of the Dilley Pro Bono Project, which aims to represent immigrant families from varying countries who come to the U.S. in search of asylum. (R. Tomas Gonzalez photograph)



Valley News Correspondent
Friday, April 06, 2018

Katy Murdza arrives at work every weekday at around 8 a.m. When she enters the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas, some 90 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border at Laredo, she surrenders her cell phone to guards and puts both her laptop and her clear plastic backpack in a tray which then goes through an X-ray machine. She walks through a metal detector, shows her government-issued ID and is cleared to head to a visitation trailer.

She then begins a 12-hour day as an advocacy coordinator, working with mothers and children housed temporarily in the detention center while they await what is called a “credible fear interview.”

During the hearing with an asylum officer at the detention center the refugees tell why they left their country of origin and why they are afraid to go back. Asylum-seekers wait an average of three weeks for a hearing.

“We don’t want a single family to go to their interview without being prepared,” Murdza said in a telephone interview last week from Dilley.

If they clear that hurdle, they are then given a Notice to Appear before an immigration judge nearest the location where relatives or sponsors are receiving them. The judge ultimately determines whether they will be granted asylum in the U.S.

Murdza, who is fluent in Spanish, grew up in Hanover, where she graduated from high school in 2008. She is one of a small team of people in Dilley working for the Washington, D.C.-based American Immigration Council (AIC), a nonprofit organization that works to shape immigration law and policy.

The AIC is part of a consortium of nonprofits, collectively known as CARA, which includes the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, and the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

Murdza’s team is part of the Dilley Pro Bono Project, which brings together lawyers, advocates and volunteers working at Dilley.

“The size of the team at Dilley varies. The work down there is pretty tough, and it’s hard to find people to do the work. We have four or five people right now, but we can go from three to eight people on the team,” said Kathryn Shepherd, lead attorney for the Immigration Justice Campaign at the AIC.

Most advocates are in their 20s and early 30s, because of the demands on their time and because they’re less likely to be married and have families, although there is nothing precluding people with families from taking the job, Shepherd said. Murdza is 28.

There are three family detention centers in the U.S. Dilley is the largest, with the capacity to hold 2,400 people; the Karnes County Residential Center in Karnes City, Texas, 95 miles from Dilley, and 50 miles southeast of San Antonio is the second largest and can hold 850 people; both facilities are for short-term stays. The Berks County Family Residential Center in Leesport, Pa., has a 100-person capacity and is intended for indefinite detention.

“Last year we provided services (in Dilley) to about 12,000 families. At any given time I think we might be serving about 600 families,” Murdza said. Those numbers can fluctuate.

The AIC puts quotation marks around “Residential Center” because they say that the conditions at the three facilities are less residential than punitive, with the aim of both intimidating asylum seekers into giving up their rights to a fair court hearing and acceding to deportation, and discouraging other putative asylum seekers from leaving their home countries.

All three family detention centers are controversial, because of allegations of mistreatment or indifferent treatment, hard conditions, insufficient medical care and the separation of families. The Dilley center is not so much a compound with buildings, but a series of trailers, surrounded by barbed wire.

The majority of recent asylum-seekers are from what is called the Northern Triangle, the Central American countries of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, which, since the civil wars of the 1980s, have experienced record levels of violence, political turmoil, murder and drug-related crime.

According to a report by the Council on Foreign Relations, the number of asylum seekers coming from those countries reached 110,000 in 2015. The majority were unaccompanied minors.

Other asylum seekers have come from Mexico, Cuba, Brazil, Syria, Haiti, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Romania, Murdza said.

“The overall system is meant to make life here extremely difficult and re-traumatizing to people who have already been through horrible situations in their home country and then tough journeys,” Murdza said.

“We find that all of the families we talk to have a very legitimate reason for coming under asylum law. Families don’t travel with a 3-year-old under dangerous circumstances for no reason,” she added.

Most of the mothers are between the ages of 17 and 30, and the children are as young as 1 or as old as 17. Young adults over the age of 18, regardless of gender, are sent to an adult detention center, some of which may be hundreds or thousands of miles from where their parents are being kept.

If fathers have accompanied their families, they are housed in a separate detention facility for men.

The two Texas family detention facilities were built in 2014 during the Obama administration, in response to the unprecedented number of asylum seekers coming across the southern border. A detention center was also opened that year in Artesia, N.M. but was closed after a few months, Shepherd said.

What is different under the Trump administration is not so much the intention to discourage asylum seekers, or the policy of family detention and deportation, which was put in place during the Obama administration, but the form the discouragement takes, Shepherd said.

The AIC has seen a shift not only in enforcement tactics, but also in the nature of the population being targeted, Shepherd added.

Before President Trump came into office, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) targeted people with criminal histories. The net is much wider now: People without criminal histories and people who have complied with every regulation are being swept up.

It’s not uncommon, said both Shepherd and Murdza, for asylum seekers to report that Customs and Border Protection agents (CBP) at the southern border have told them, “This is Trump’s America now.”

They also have reported being mocked, intimidated, told that they stand no chance at being granted asylum and given little to no information, or misinformation.

It is not the job of CPB agents to “decide an asylum claim, there is a process in place,” Murdza said.

Yet, Murdza said, people working at the southern border on behalf of asylum seekers have heard stories of refugees being denied entry to the U.S. before they are even counseled on their rights. Asylum seekers are first held at a CPB detention center before being passed on to Dilley or Karnes City.

Of the three recent presidencies, including the current one, the enforcement policy was the least harsh, and number of admitted refugees admitted was greater, during the Bush administration, Shepherd said.

Murdza has delved into public policy and social justice issues since Hanover High School, when she was a member of the school’s chapter of Amnesty International.

At the University of Notre Dame, in Indiana, she used her vacations to travel as part of the university’s Center for Social Concerns immersion seminars, which took her to El Paso, Texas, and southern Arizona. She spent her junior year in Chile and France. Although raised in a Catholic family she does not consider herself a practicing Catholic.

“We’re very far away from all this in New Hampshire, and when I first visited the border I had never seen anything like that,” she said. “I was upset to learn that people who come to seek asylum, which is their right under U.S. and international law, are detained often for long periods of time, often without access to an attorney.”

After graduation from Notre Dame, she worked for the southern Arizona nonprofit organization No More Deaths, which offers humanitarian assistance to people crossing the Mexican and Arizona deserts. She spent two years in the Peace Corps in Panama, and then received a master’s degree from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, Calif. She has been in Dilley since the end of May 2017.

She lives with two co-workers in a ranch house about a mile and a half from the detention center. “At night we can see the floodlights; it’s never really night outside.”

The town itself has a population of about 3,800. On days off, the AIC staff in Dilley tend to head to San Antonio, 90 minutes away. Murdza rock climbs on days off to relieve stress.

“Your life is the work,” she said.

She has heard a range of reactions to both the presence of the detention center and the people being processed there.

Some residents thought that when it opened it would provide jobs for local residents, but that hasn’t really been the case, Murdza said; most workers come from San Antonio.

Another fairly common reaction is that the asylum seekers don’t have it that bad: They get three meals a day, a place to sleep and the promise of a “credible fear interview.”

What people don’t see, Murdza said, is the toll that living there can take on detainees.

The uncertainty and anxiety of what lies ahead is compounded by the uncertainty and anxiety they’ve experienced making the long, arduous trek from Central America, and beyond. Many families have fled threats of violence and death from organized criminal gangs in their countries of origin. Many women have been raped, either at home or on the journey, or both.

In detention, children may regress in terms of behavior and they often become depressed or stop eating. Medical problems may arise. The separation of families, fathers and grandparents and other relatives from mothers and children, can be difficult.

For families who do not speak Spanish fluently or at all, advocates must find ways around the language barrier. Murdza recalled one family who only spoke a rare Mayan language, whose case took longer because they had to find an interpreter.

The position of the Dilley Pro Bono project is that it would be preferable to instead release asylum seekers quickly to their sponsors so they could appear before an immigration judge in that location, rather than detaining and separating families at the border, Murdza said.

The Department of Homeland Security and President Trump have made the counter-argument that asylum seekers would not show up for their court dates, or that they would melt into the larger population. In an executive order signed by the president on Jan. 25, the process of evaluating asylum claims would be expedited, which the AIC and other like-minded organizations argue would contribute to genuine asylum cases falling through the cracks.

In October of last year, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, in an address to the Office of Immigration Review, stated that the immigration system was overburdened by fraudulent asylum claims, according to a report in The Hill. Both the president and members of Congress have claimed that many asylum seekers want to take jobs from Americans, or that they are criminals.

While this is true in some cases, it is not true of the majority of asylum seekers, Murdza said. Families detained in Dilley and Karnes County are admitted only if they do not have a criminal record.

“These people are overall fleeing countries with the highest murder rates in the world,” she added. Further, asylum seekers are released with an ankle monitor and are tracked by GPS.

In mid-March, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit against five U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement field offices, arguing that asylum seekers “should not be subject to prolonged detention. The argument there is that the government is detaining asylum seekers as a deterrent to other seekers,” Shepherd said.

But the government’s policy confuses deterrence with results, Shepherd added.

“It’s a no-brainer to choose between detention and being killed” in the country of origin. While detention does bring about mental and physical changes in asylum seekers, she said, it “doesn’t change the number of people seeking asylum.”

Because the job does require stamina, organization and coordination, it’s not one that people can take on for years at a time.

Murdza will stay through at least through September, then decide her next move. Eventually she will leave Dilley. But that doesn’t mean abandoning the field.

“I will be staying involved in fighting for immigrant rights whenever I do leave,” she said.

Nicola Smith can be reached at mail@nicolasmith.org.