In November 2016, Maru Del Real-Gwin, a volunteer interpreter for the Dilley Pro Bono Project, was at the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas, the largest immigrant detention center in the United States.
They had received a young mother with a 'NO' ruling for her Credible Fear Interview, the initial hearing that determines if a person can seek a hearing for asylum. A lawyer was assigned to accompany the woman to appear before the immigration officer for a review of a negative credible fear determination. The lawyer explained what she would do in order to obtain a 'YES' decision and asked the young mother if she agreed to that.
The woman replied, “No. I do not understand why you want to go with me when you do not even speak Spanish?!” The lawyer asked, “Well what do you want to do? You have only one opportunity to appeal the NO decision.” The woman said, “I want Maru to go with me!”
The lawyer explained that Maru was not a lawyer. “But she speaks Spanish,” the woman replied. The next day Maru and the young woman went before the immigration officer. Maru says, “Obviously I was shaking from head to toe. It was a big responsibility to represent her, especially not knowing the immigration laws, rules, policies, etc..”
The immigration officer started with, “Lawyer, for the record, could you please tell me your name?”
“Officer, my name is Maru Del Real-Gwin and I am not a lawyer. I am an interpreter.”
“Hmm, are you sure that you want her to help you?” The officer asked the young mother. She emphatically said “SI!” The interview lasted about an hour. The next day they received the decision: “YES.” The young mother and her two daughters were released and they now live in New Orleans.
Maru is a volunteer interpreter working with pro bono lawyers helping asylum seekers with their quest to stay in the United States. Maru's main role is helping with interpretation and translation between the detainees and the immigration lawyers, but her help is invaluable in gaining the trust of the people they serve, many of whom are desperate and suspicious of any authorities.
Previously, Maru had worked to help a young family from El Salvador that had been separated for about six months. They had spent five months in immigration detention centerhieleras (ice boxes) – so called because of their lack of heat. The father, 21, was held in Texas. The mother, 23, and her 6-month-old baby were in New Mexico. The family had been separated by immigration authorities and detained in perreras (dog cages). A relative in Colorado paid their $16,500 bond so they could be released, and with the help of the pro bono lawyer and other volunteers like Maru, the family won their appeal and were reunited and granted asylum. The boy will become an American citizen when he turns 8. The entire asylum process took almost three years, and this is not unusual.
Scenarios like these play out every day. Most of the asylum seekers are desperate to remain in this country. Deportation often means returning to violent situations. According to an expert witness who testified in court during the Salvadoran family's hearing, when someone is deported, the airplane full of deportees arrives at a different side of the airport where the gang members are waiting for them. The gangs seem to have access to this information and usually know who is on the planes, so when the deportees arrive, it is like a death sentence for them. It is vital that the immigrants receive their hearings and have their cases judged quickly and fairly so that they don't endure months of separation and detention in sub-par conditions, or are deported back to violent situations.
After her work with the Salvadoran family, Maru was asked to work with the Dilley Pro Bono Project in Dilley, Texas. The DPBP “operates a non-traditional pro bono model of legal services that directly represents immigrant mothers and children detained at the 2,400-bed South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley. In any given week, the volunteer teams of lawyers and interpreters like Maru provide a variety of services, including, among other services, helping immigrants prepare for their Credible Fear Interviews and bond hearings. They also assist the release of families and ensure that they have information about what to do post-release.
Maru's first language is Spanish and she learned English on her own as a second language. She says, “Despite that my English is not perfect, despite that the use of the prepositions often are incorrect, despite that my grammar is vice versa, I have been able to help some human beings in need. I have to recognized that this journey has been painful in so many ways. The stories that I had heard are heartbreaking, but those stories full of fear are the ones to make me continue.”
The asylum process is painfully slow. And without volunteers like Maru, it would be almost impossible.
It is essential that they be supported, both financially and emotionally, so they can continue this important work.