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‘Actual people in plight’: ND sophomore reflects on summer spent advocating for asylum-seekers

and | Friday, February 7, 2020

When refugees leave their countries from persecution or war conflicts, they do not directly start a new peaceful life after entering the United States. In reality, when they arrive at the border as asylum seekers, the first step upon arrival is the credible fear interview, a 30-minute-long screening with an immigration official to establish whether there is a “significant possibility” of such persecutions. If they fail to convince the official, they will be deported almost immediately.

Many asylum seekers fail the interview, not because of the lack of legitimate claim, but because of language barriers and because they do not know what information is legally relevant, according to NPR.

To help asylum seekers prepare for the interview, Camila Antelo Iriarte, a sophomore studying political science and economics, participated in RAICES, a nonprofit agency that provides free and low-cost legal services to underserved refugees. Antelo Iriarte spent 10 weeks last summer in San Antonio, Texas — an experience she said “changed her life.”

The refugee detention center is an hour and a half away from San Antonio.

When Antelo Iriarte arrived, she left her phone outside, passed the security check, walked through the dark corridors and met her clients in a dark, cramped room with gray walls and no windows.

She received a list of her clients with only names and alien numbers beforehand, then met the asylum seekers, helping them prepare interviews and translate documents from Spanish to English.

The immigrant officer will give a positive or negative result after the interview, which decides whether refugees can get out of the detention center and go to the next step of asylum, or get deported almost immediately, Antelo Iriarte said.

Though the procedure is long and complicated, Antelo Iriarte said she can only help them with one step.

“I have seen my clients get a positive result, but I don’t know when they can finally go through the asylum procedure and start a normal life,” she said.

The worst situation is being deported, Antelo Iriarte said. She said the refugees flee their homes not because of the idea of a good life in the United States, but because they literally have no life in their home countries.

“There is an armed conflict in their homeland,” she said. “They may be killed, detained, raped. They ran away from there not because of the ‘American dream,’ but because there was nowhere to go.”

Most asylum seekers spend one year in the detention center, and the living condition is rough, Antelo Iriarte said.

“You are put in rooms with hundreds of people,” she said. “You don’t get enough food. You barely can brush your teeth or take a shower. Girls don’t have sanitary pads when having a period.”

In fact, this detention center is the best facility in the United States because it was also built for children, Antelo Iriarte said, adding she found it hard to imagine what the other detention centers must be like. Still, she’s seen children get separated from their families — once she saw a lone three-year-old have to defend himself in court with a lawyer.

Part of Antelo Iriarte’s job is listening to asylum seekers’ personal stories, which she says became extremely personal.

“They are not only names or numbers — they are actual people in plight,” she said. “I would see my family, my friends in that.”

Once Antelo Iriarte stepped outside of the detention center, she called her mom and started to cry.

“They have been tortured, raped, detained and their houses were burning down,” she said. “They lost their family and home. They crossed the border and still suffered every single day. They have gone through such a catastrophic life, and I have no idea how I can help them get out here.”

Antelo Iriarte said she shared several of these tear-filled phone conversations with her mother.

“I just needed to call my mom and cry,” she said.

But Antelo Iriarte said she “never broke down in front of [her] clients.” She said she heard their pain but felt she needed to hinder her emotions. At the beginning of her work, Antelo Iriarte said she realized instead of crying to her clients, the only helpful thing she could do was find the best way to share their stories. Some asylum seekers left important details when speaking about their experiences and she had to be cautious to find such details.

Some people repeatedly asked her, “When can I get the asylum?” Antelo Iriarte said she couldn’t answer one way or another so as to not give them unrealistic expectations.

“Being professional is the best help I can give,” Antelo Iriarte said.

She said she struggled to reconcile the professionalism required for the job with the heart-wrenching nature of the work.

“It’s so frustrating,” Antelo Iriarte said. “Their stories entirely touch my heart but I couldn’t touch them. I couldn’t hug them. I couldn’t cry with them. I couldn’t tell them things are fine and you’re going to be OK, even though I don’t know if that was even possible for them to be OK.”

Nevertheless, being constantly exposed to catastrophic stories had the opposite effect on Antelo Iriarte. Instead of repressing her sorrow, she unexpectedly felt apathetic.

She received many cases from the same countries of similar scenarios, and she soon learned that some experiences were “not bad enough” to pass the asylum process.

“I was like, OK, what else? You have been raped. Your family has been killed. They took away your house. OK. But what else? These things can’t make you fit into the asylum,” Antelo Iriarte said. “What else?”

Antelo Iriarte said this was a scary realization.

“I was so hurt inside and became indifferent to so much pain,” she said.

The hardest time came when Antelo Iriarte returned to Notre Dame. In the first two weeks of class, she had six referrals to the University Counseling Center because she couldn’t stop crying. Every time people asked about her summer and congratulated her work, she felt awkward and rejected their praise.

“When I saw how normal my life was in Notre Dame, I would think of the kids [who] lost their parents in the armed conflict, the girls being raped and the people being tortured,” Antelo Iriarte said. “Then I thought, ‘Why [do] I deserve it more than them?’”

Antelo Iriarte is originally from Bolivia, where many asylum seekers come from. But she said she also comes from a “good background,” and hasn’t faced the same hurdles they have. She said her good fortune makes her feel sad for her clients.

“I live in a peaceful life just because of pure luck,” she said. “The asylum seekers come from the same or similar places as me. When I looked at them, I found it could be my family. It could be my friends. It could be myself. I try my best to help them because when I help them, I feel like helping my friends, my family and myself.”

Antelo Iriarte’s efforts have paid off. When she prepared her clients and they received positive results after the interview, she said she felt like “the happiest person in the world.”

“It was the highlight of my day, like my birthday for five minutes,” she said. “It was so amazing because this result was so hard.”

Maria Luisa Paul | The Observer
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