Project Description and Methods

Site Visit, July 22–24, 2015

The team traveled to Dilley, Texas, on July 22, 2015, to conduct interviews in the Dilley detention center.

Weeks prior to this, however, Kathleen O’Connor submitted a request to ICE to visit the Karnes detention center. She included all requested information about the team, including the surveys, the research protocol, flyers, consent forms, signed ICE code of conduct forms for all investigators, photocopies of team members’ driver’s licenses, and a form required by ICE requesting permission to visit. After several days investigating to whom to send this information, she was provided the name of Norma Lacy in the San Antonio Field Office by ICE Communications Director Richard Rocha. Lacy was out of town, so there was another delay of a few days. After sending the team’s information, however, O’Connor almost immediately received an e-mail response denying permission. The team was advised that the information and request had been forwarded to Washington, D.C., to the juvenile outreach coordinator (no name provided). There was no explanation. Rocha thought the denial might have been because the team was requesting a visit of more than one day. However, notwithstanding ICE claims of transparency and our best efforts to conform to ICE rules, there was no reason given for the denial and no suggestions provided as to how to change the research plan to be acceptable to ICE so as to obtain permission to visit. No explanation was provided for the decision to forward our materials to juvenile outreach in D.C. There was no transparency.

The team coordinated with RAICES to conduct the surveys in support of their legal work with refugee families at Dilley and Karnes. Mohammad (Mo) Abdollahi, the contact person at RAICES, arranged for the team to visit both Karnes and Dilley centers as legal assistants. Abdollahi also arranged for required clearances for the team from ICE. Because O’Connor’s clearance was curiously held up, the team had a plan B, which was to have Guillermina Gina Nuñez-Mchiri and Claire Thomas-Duckwitz work inside Dilley while O’Connor worked with refugees who had been released and were in San Antonio. Ultimately, all three investigators worked one day in Dilley and two days on the outside (plan C) because ICE arbitrarily kicked the team out and revoked all clearances (read more below).

To enter Dilley, the team gave their driver’s licenses to the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) guard at the front desk. Dilley is run by CCA under contract to the U.S. government. Team members passed through a metal detector. After passing through the security at the front entrance, the team walked across a short outdoor corridor to another building, where the attorneys met with interned clients. Each team member signed in again. We met with the attorneys, who showed us where we could sit to do our interviews.

The room was a large metal trailer that had several private rooms. There were 15 round tables and four chairs per table out in the open, where we conducted our interviews. These were not totally private, but it was possible to sit close to the participant for a confidential interview. Legal and paralegal staff were using the private side rooms to meet with detainees. One section of the room was a waiting area, and we were advised that we could approach the women in the waiting area to invite them to participate in an interview. There was a sense of pressure, as if the opportunity to speak to an attorney might be taken away at any moment or that time would run out for the refugees and they would be sent back to their living areas without seeing counsel.

The room was not unpleasant but very noisy and chaotic. There was a soft drink machine. It was not an ideal place to conduct confidential interviews because of the noise, the disorganization, the desire to not impede the attorneys, and the time pressure. A few fliers on the walls read: “Gymnastics for children” and “Crochet and Origami for mothers.”

Another sign read: “Aviso traiga todos sus documentos (Notice: Bring all your documents).” Another poster read:

Lack of Transparency and Intimidation

The team was abruptly stopped from doing interviews by an ICE officer on the first day at the Dilley detention center at 4:30 p.m. At approximately 2:30 p.m., an ICE officer began hovering and looming over an interview being conducted by O’Connor. She reported the peculiar feeling of a large, dark presence behind her that moved from side to side but that she couldn’t directly see and that shifted out of sight when she looked behind her. She moved closer and closer to the participant to speak as softly as possible. Later she realized that the participant could clearly see the looming ICE agent and that it must have been intimidating, especially in an interview about very confidential matters such as rape, fear, depression, and other traumatic experiences. The looming was extremely inappropriate. According to attorney Aseem Mehta, such tactics of intimidation are common practice: “testimony from clients has revealed that [Dilley] operates through the use of intimidation and manipulation of its detained population” (Mehta 2015).

When the interview was concluded, the officer sat down and advised O’Connor that he hadn’t wanted to interrupt the interview but that he needed the investigators to immediately stop what they were doing and provide copies of the surveys for approval by ICE Deputy Chief Counsel Herbert. Aseem Mehta, a pro bono attorney, had come up to listen to the exchange and talked with the officer at some length. Ultimately, the officer indicated our surveys had not been cleared. We were asked to return the next day, and the attorneys requested that we arrive at 7:00 a.m. so that we would get there when the attorneys got there.

The team returned to the Dilley detention center at 6:50 a.m. the following morning. After waiting for an hour, accompanied by Brian Hoffman, lead attorney for the CARA Pro Bono Project, we were advised that our clearances had been revoked and we would not be permitted entry to complete our work. No reason was provided by ICE for this decision.

In a subsequent conversation with Hoffman, he advised us that ICE told him that the team was cleared as legal assistants but not as “doctors.” This explanation seemed irrelevant, as we were acting as legal assistants conducting intake assessments and were not providing any medical services. In addition, we are all PhDs but only one of us is licensed to provide psychological services — in Colorado, not Texas. Again, we witnessed a lack of transparency on the part of ICE.

Intent on continuing this study, we left for San Antonio and drove to the Hospitality House to continue our work with detainees who had been recently released. We believe that the contretemps with ICE was actually a benefit, allowing us to capture a variety of viewpoints. We were also correct in assuming that the women would feel freer to share their experiences outside the confines of a detention facility, with no one looming over them.

San Antonio Greyhound Bus Station

We followed up on the release process at the bus station. Families there had finally been released from detention and were en route to resettlement areas, but we were concerned to find that the conditions under which they were released could cause them additional anxiety and pain. Women and children were sent with vouchers, not tickets, and communication with ticket agents was sometimes difficult. On a few occasions, women were dropped off at the bus station without vouchers and had to call family or friends to send them a ticket however, phone calls were a challenge since they neither had cell phones nor access to public phones. Refugees often seemed to arrive at the station hungry. On July 23, two families were dropped off with sick children but without medication for them. Two women from Honduras arrived from other detention centers, not Karnes or Dilley, and had not bathed for five days. One woman received a blouse from another passenger so she could change. These two refugees described feeling tired and dirty because they had not been able care for themselves.

The specific needs of women and children went unmet. For example, there were quotas for sanitary napkins. One teenage girl dropped off at the bus station had been on her menstrual cycle and had neither sanitary napkins nor money to buy them. Nuñez-Mchiri observed that most mothers arrived at the bus station with one to two children each one had three children. Many did not have diapers for small children or money to purchase necessary supplies.

The most difficult thing investigators observed were families who boarded buses with up to five transfers, going long distances to New York, Maryland, California, or Colorado, without sweaters or blankets for their children and without money to buy food on their way. With luck, some refugees received money for their trip from their family members. One young woman was very excited to receive a meager USD$50 for food on a trip of about four days from Texas to Virginia, with a small child. Some refugees had no money at all and nothing with which to buy food. A bus ride of three to four days without food or blankets for small children was going to be terribly painful for mothers and children. The investigators, having the advantage of a car, bought medicine, granola bars, and diapers at the local Walgreens and gave cash to several family groups, as did RAICES volunteers.

Nuñez-Mchiri reported: “I felt distressed wondering what their bus rides would be like without food, money, medicines, and something to cover their children with. I only hoped that there would be other Samaritans on the bus who would be able to help these families throughout the way.” Asylum seekers should not have to hope for Good Samaritans to help them on their bus journeys to resettlement they should be resettled formally with appropriate infrastructure and care.

The Hospitality House

The Mennonite Church owns several homes, in a neighborhood not far from the bus station, which are leased by RAICES as shelters tor transiting refugees. The shelter is known as the Hospitality House. Refugees can wait in the shelter for their bus bathe, eat and change and stay overnight as long as they need to while waiting to be resettled. Each refugee is given an emergency backpack by volunteers that contains a few necessities and toiletries. However, some have little time between their release and their bus departure and do not have time to purchase food for the trip to the resettlement area, which may be several days on the bus. Filling this gap with packed lunches or other traveling food or funds for food is another recommendation.

Overall, the field conditions were not ideal and were often noisy and chaotic. It was not always possible to find a completely private space for the interview, especially at Dilley. The Hospitality House had plenty of rooms for interviews and proved to be the best field site for this research.


At each venue, participants were approached and invited to participate in a study, which the team described as aiming to understand how people were feeling after their experience in the sending country, traveling to the United States, and living in an immigrant detention center. If agreeable, participants were escorted to a private space in which the interview was conducted. The project was explained to participants, who were given time to ask questions. Participants signed informed consent forms, and minors signed assent forms. Copies of the forms, signed by the investigator, were given to participants. During data analysis, all materials are being kept in a locked filing cabinet in the locked office of one of the investigators and will be destroyed when data analysis is complete. Total confidentiality of refugee participants in this study has been preserved.

Investigators administered a short demographic questionnaire that collected information about sending country, family and marital status, means and cost of travel to the United States, participant occupation in the sending country, and length of time in the United States. The Hopkins Symptom Checklist and the Harvard Trauma Questionnaire were administered, and trauma narratives were collected and audio recorded. The Spanish-language version of the Connor-Davidson Resilience Scale was also administered. Responses were added up and calculated per survey instructions. A database was created in SPSS data was entered into the database, and frequencies were calculated.

Data showed that more than half of all respondents reported clinically significant levels of symptoms of anxiety and depression nearly half showed clinically significant levels of symptoms for post-traumatic stress. Among the four children, half reported extremely high rates of symptoms for anxiety and depression.


The Harvard Trauma Questionnaire (HTQ) and the Hopkins Symptom Checklist (HSCL), generally used together, were developed by the Harvard Program in Refugee Trauma in the early 1990s to evaluate the mental health of Southeast Asian refugees. The HTQ has subsequently been adapted to address trauma from political violence on a global basis. There is one abridged adaptation of the HTQ for children, the Harvard-Uppsala Trauma Questionnaire (HUTQ) that was implemented among Kurdish refugee children in Sweden ages 6–18 and includes only 30 items from the original HTQ (Sundelin-Walsten et al. 2001). In studies that have used the HTQ or HUTQ to assess child trauma, most of the children assessed have been adolescents age 15 or older (Geltman et al. 2005, Geltman et al. 2007, Punamaki et al. 2005, Hossein et al. 2010, Ovuga et al. 2008, Sundelin-Walsten et al. 2001). In previous research, the Harvard Trauma Questionnaire, which assesses symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and the Hopkins Symptom Checklist, which assesses depression and anxiety, were revised and adapted for children between 8 and 12 years of age (O’Connor, Vizcaino, & Benavides, manuscript in preparation). This version was used with minors in the current study. Increased attention on resilience reflects the clinical importance of understanding why some individuals develop negative mental health outcomes and others maintain health in adverse circumstances. The Connor-Davidson Resilience Scale (Connor & Davidson 2003), Spanish- language version, was administered to assess resilience among refugees.

[7] Chart transcribed by Nuñez-Mchiri.

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