Spring Break Caravan: Family Detention Center at Karnes, TX

by Giovana Felix Teodoro LL.M. ’18


Caravan participants at the Alamo Mission, San Antonio landmark. From left to right: Megan (J.D. ’19), Giovana (LL.M. ’18), Anna (LL.M. ’18) and Ruth (J.D. ’19).

Joining a caravan for spring break was something I wanted to do because it felt like (yet another) “one-of-a-kind” opportunity the LLM at Columbia was throwing at me. The math for choosing the caravan I wanted to apply for was relatively simple: I wanted to go somewhere I could put my skills to good use (including language skills) and that would allow me to do more “action” and less research-related work (it is a BREAK after all). I read the description for the work at the Family Detention Center in Karnes, TX and…it was a match! In a nutshell, the caravan was intended to help prepare asylum-seeking women for their “credible fear” interviews, an important step in the process for them to leave the family detention center and start their immigration procedures on the asylum track. The center could use people who spoke Portuguese (my native language) and Spanish (which I also speak, but definitely got to a whole other level after the caravan, and now I am proudly standing up to the “proficient” level on my resume).


I got the email saying I was selected (yay!) and in a few weeks got to meet the caravan leader and the other two students who were joining the caravan. We were a team of four women: two JDs (one of them as the Caravan leader) and two LLMs. I knew it was all going to work out because the four of us reeeeaally wanted to do the type of work the caravan was offering.


Remember how I was looking for action? Well, action I got!


Following an afternoon training session on Sunday we were ready (or as much as we could be) to perform essentially four tasks at the Karnes Family Detention Center: keeping intake records of the women who were talking to RAICES (the NGO sponsoring the activities at the center) for the first time, prepping the women for their credible fear interviews with an immigration officer, drafting advocacy statements based on their experience at the detention center, and lastly, talking to the women who were being released from the center, explaining the next steps on the formal asylum proceedings before an immigration court.


We got to the Center at 9:45am the next morning. Check in at the entrance, no cell phones. Go through the metal detector, scan your belongings in the x-ray. I was just putting my bag down when the RAICES’ on-call lawyer came to me: “we have a Brazilian who is having her interview at noon—can you prepare her now?” It was the first of many stories of courage that I heard as we went through our long days at the center, which completely flew by until it was 8:00 at night and the center’s visitor center where we worked was closing down for the day.


We all agreed that going through the “release charlas”—preparing an asylum-seeking woman for her to be finally released from the center—was by far the best part of our days. Every day we would look forward to saying to those women whose braveness we were lucky to witness, that they were now leaving the place where all the women in there—asylum seekers, ourselves, other volunteers, RAICES’ lawyers—thought they did not belong to in the first place.


In times when immigration policy in the U.S. has been taking wrong turns, I got the chance to see for myself how the idea of a family detention center that deprives asylum-seeking women and their children of freedom when they are at their most vulnerable is a bright red wrong- way sign. I am glad CLS gave me the opportunity to see how important it is to take action so that we can turn back to more dignifying and humanitarian pathways for asylum seekers in the United States.


Giovana is an LL.M. student from Brazil who earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Sao Paulo, where she was also engaged in pro bono activities. The Karnes Pro Bono Caravan was her first time working with immigration law.