Every summer for the past three years, Guild member Camille Goulet, a faculty member at Los Angeles City College, participates in the Dilley Pro Bono Project, joining other volunteers for a one-week stint at an immigration detention center in Dilley, Texas, the largest such facility in the U.S., holding up to 2,000 people.
“It’s a collaborative effort to provide assistance to asylum seekers,” says Goulet, who teaches law, including the ABA paralegal program, a pathway to Law School Program, and “Street Law.” She is also LACC’s Title IX Coordinator - a job the former General Counsel for the LACCD is well-suited for - and advisor to the IDEAS club - the undocumented student club.
She explains that those seeking to enter the U.S. don’t know how to present themselves at a port of entry and are entitled to legal advice.
“People don’t know what the asylum law is, so some will say ‘I’m here to work’ – to explain that they’re not looking for a handout,” says Goulet. “But that answer isn’t the real answer to why they are entitled to asylum in the U.S.”
Volunteers like Goulet as well as other attorneys and interpreters spend a week in Texas to help those seeking asylum to be prepared for the interview. “They are entitled to a credible fear interview to see if they have a basis for asylum,” says Goulet. “They usually don’t have evidence with them. All they have may have is their story. The interviewer has to decide if he/she believes this person. If so, you have a basis for release.”
The facility in Dilley, operated by customs and border protection, houses women and children, most of whom are under 10 years old because, she says, parents can’t leave them behind. After the interviews, their cases are referred to lawyers in the U.S. to do the actual filing of their asylum claims.
“We try to get them to understand not to lie or make up a story and to understand what asylum law requires,” says Goulet.
A video explains the major components of asylum law: Race, religion, national origin, expression of political opinion; being a member of a particular social group; living in an area with rampant lawlessness caused by gangs, which are particularly prevalent in Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala.
“The last test is having no ability to locate safely in your own country,” Goulet says. “Nearly everyone comes from that northern triangle and they tell us stories about domestic violence, extortion and gang violence.” Now, however, she says that claims of domestic violence are sometimes not enough.
Since asylum seekers are entitled to be interviewed in their native language, the volunteers work with translators, so Goulet notes that one need not be fluent in Spanish to work in the program and training is provided. She encourages interested volunteers to get involved.
“I’ve been there three times,” she says. “Unless they end family detention as we know it, I’m sure I’ll be back there next summer.”
Read Camille Goulet's account of her work at the South Texas Family Residential Center here.