Who chooses to spend a week at a federal detention center run by a private prison company on the border with one of Mexico’s most dangerous cities? I do, and that’s what I did in Laredo, Texas last week through a partnership Global Cleveland has with Jones Day through our work with the National Project for New Americans. Hello, my name is Elizabeth Cusma and I am new the new Administrative Coordinator at Global Cleveland. 

A little about me that is relevant to why I had this amazing opportunity: I lived two years in the Catalunya region of Spain for graduate school studying migration policy after having lived 18 months in Phoenix, Arizona looking for work without much success after having lived in Morocco with my young family upon graduation from OSU with a major in Arabic and Middle Eastern Studies. It was the Arab Spring and we didn’t feel safe moving further in the Middle East with a new baby to study after my internship with the UNDP was cancelled to remove all non-essential personnel from the region. This is all to say that the Laredo Project opportunity dovetails perfectly with my experience and interests.

My husband and I lived undocumented in Europe trying to find a way to raise our family there, unsuccessfully in the end. We’ve not had to flee any persecution or mortal danger, thank god, but I understand the anxiety and confusion that goes with living in a foreign country with very little context of the larger system and trying to navigate a monstrous bureaucratic process like immigration. From my youngest years I had a special love and appreciation for foreign nationals. My first best friend was a Mexican immigrant we called Frankie. His dad was a substitute teacher in our school district and we loved him. As I grew older the Levantine-American community (Palestine, Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon) in North East Ohio captured my imagination and I chose to focus on the middle east hoping to work abroad. As luck would have it, I married a Spanish<>English linguist who also was studying the middle east. As the Arab Spring took off we decided to raise our family with at least Spanish, if we couldn’t live in the Middle East, hence why I’ve been slowing improving my language skills over the last 8 years. And now, immersed in world of language access rights, immigration policy and advocacy, I was hired by Global Cleveland in November. Immediately the Laredo Project was brought to my attention and I jumped at the opportunity. You’ve got to make hay while the sun is shining, but I didn’t think that in my first month I’d be flying south to the border!

I will say that the Jones Day pro bono team has this operation down tight. They’ve got a machine pumping a new set of volunteer attorneys, law students, paralegals, and interpreters to Laredo each and every week. Some volunteers are repeats, most are not. Most are not even immigration attorneys, but the material Jones Day provides prepares them sufficiently for the sort of council the project provides to the detained women. Jones Day mission with this project is to do something exceptional in the American migration arena. This is the only project and only attorneys who see women for free at this stage in their immigration process in the entire country and they are serving a specific group of migrants. From a program perspective it was seamless.

From a personal perspective, it depends how comfortable you are with jails, with telling people hard truths about their situations, about hearing some pretty horrible things, and about working long days (12-14 hours). As one attorney said, “they told me this wasn’t going to be a vacation from work, and it hasn’t been.” The biggest take away for me was that most of the women who were detained had practically no understanding of our immigration process, of our political climate, or the reality that they would be put in jail upon crossing the border. Most of the women did not want to come to the US, per se. It is truly challenging and tragic circumstances that drive people to move so far away.

A few notable cases: A Nicaraguan water inspector who was tortured for a month because she is from a political family that is openly opposed to the government and chose not to attend pro-government rallies (but neither did she attend pro-opposition rallies); a Nicaraguan nurse who gave aid to students hurt in protests by government fire and was fired for her first aid care and then put on a government list to be targeted. A lesbian couple from El Salvador who were violently attacked many times, who were threatened with death in ways similar to a trans-family member who was dismembered and murdered. A Honduran woman who left a marriage she entered at 13 years old to try and be with a childhood friend in the US who made some romantic overtures toward her in the hope of bringing her two small children after her safe arrival as a way to start fresh with a man she cared for. A Guatemalan woman who lived in the US, has US citizen children and went back home for a family death hoping to re-cross without problem but was detained and was not allowed to reunite with her United States citizen children.

It was nice to see some of the SW that was not the Sonoran Desert, where one could pay in pesos, where the main language was Spanish, where you could see into Mexico and listen to the Mexican news and get a different version of events. But it was long, it was hard, and it was worth it.