J. Reuben Clark building

Most credible fear interviews start the same. A woman is sat down in front an asylum officer. They are put under oath. They’re asked if they understand their interpreter. And then they’re asked why they are afraid to return to their country.

It’s a question that could be terrifying for a woman fleeing violence in her home country.

“Most of the women I have met with made the decision to leave their countries really quickly,” said Carolina Núñez, the associate dean of research and academic affairs at the Brigham Young University J. Reuben Clark Law School. “They are still traumatized.”

Núñez and Kif Augustine-Adams, law professors at BYU, have been leading the Refugee and Immigration Initiative at BYU since 2016. The initiative is a weeklong experience during placement week in the fall and winter semesters where a group of students travel to Dilley, Texas, to do immigration work at a detention center for women and children who are seeking asylum in the United States.

The group’s most recent trip was in February and they are set to return in October.

That work includes preparing women for a threshold evaluation where they have to assert they have a credible fear of returning to their country in order to be released from the detention facility to pursue their asylum claim.

The students do personal consultations and group discussions about the law in addition to anything from writing data entries, to writing briefs, to helping children while their mother recounts the violence she’s attempting to escape from.

Núñez said it’s a week spent working long hours in a town described as a “glorified petroleum camp” in an area with a few jails and the detention center.

“It’s a great opportunity for our students to really take their legal education to serve others,” Augustine-Adams said.

The students have to undergo a background check with Immigration and Customs Enforcement before they can enter the facility. They must go through metal detectors to enter and are not allowed to bring in items such as a cellphone, lotion or lip balm.

There’s barbed wire around the facility and students can not be allowed in for anything from the length of their skirt to if they are wearing open-toed shoes.

They used to be able to pick up the children. Not anymore.

“We aren’t supposed to hug our clients,” Augustine-Adams said. “We can shake hands, but that’s it.”

The group talks to the women about how to present the facts of their past in a way the law recognizes, how to use the chance to tell what has happened to them, how to tell their story in chronological order and which parts of their story are the most convincing to an asylum officer. That can sometimes include waiting until the women feel comfortable enough to explain what happened to them.

Most of the women in the facility speak Spanish, however the group has also helped women who speak languages from around the globe. The students meet with women with varying education levels, from those who are highly educated to those who can barely write.

Augustine-Adams said the week is an opportunity for students to learn about what different clients need and how to explain the law. It’s a high-stakes, stressful environment that serves as a learning opportunity for legal skills.

“I think it is important because people’s lives really depend on this work,” Núñez said.

They’ve helped women who have escaped gang violence, gender-based violence, rape, torture and sex slavery.

The interviews can be stressful for the asylum seekers. Sometimes, a volunteer can go into the credible fear interview with them. If they’re in the room, they not technically representing the client, but accompanying them and providing support.

Núñez said some women leave when they first get a threat, while others stay.

“You know the more horrific the story the more likely this woman is going to meet the credible fear standard, and yet you wish that she didn’t have to have that and the U.S. didn’t require so much,” Núñez said.

She said a quarter of the students change their career path after the trip or decide to do immigration work pro bono. Many do repeat trips to Dilley.

“Almost without exception, students say it changes their lives,” Núñez said.

The students received training last year from BYU’s social work department on how to deal with hearing about the trauma the asylum seekers have undergone. The professors speak to the students during car rides about what they’ve heard and they keep track of students to assure they’re coping well.

The threshold for asylum is changing. Last month, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the administration was overturning asylum protections for those seeking asylum due to domestic violence and gun violence, and that those seeking asylum would have to show that the government of the country they are fleeing from condoned the violent actions or demonstrated an inability to protect them.

Núñez and Augustine-Adams said BYU is incredibly supportive of the work. The law school held Families Together: Immigration Law Colloquium and Service Project in late June, where people could learn about the basics of immigration law, asylum, family separation and detention policies. The event also included a service project where participants did remote data entry for the CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project.