TU Student Chelsea Shotwell Tabke: Assisting Refugees in Karnes City, Texas

TU clinical psychology student Chelsea Shotwell Tabke shares her account of working with refugees in the Karnes County Residential Center in Karnes City Texas. 

TU students and faculty at Karnes County Residential Center.
TU students and faculty at Karnes County Residential Center.

It is 3 p.m. at the Karnes County Residential Center in Karnes City, Texas. The TU team assisting the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES) has already been working for six straight hours when an announcement is made by the RAICES coordinator: “We have 40 women who have signed up on the waitlist. They will start coming in at 4 p.m., and we will try to see as many of them as possible before we are kicked out of here at 8 p.m. Get ready.”

Instead of the ensuing confusion and panic that might be typical after such an announcement, the TU team calmly gathers and restructures so that six legal teams divide and reorganize to become 11. The TU students and faculty survey the room and set out to arrange the space so each team can work with their client as privately as possible. Within 10 minutes of the announcement, the team is ready, waiting to help the women detainees who are hoping against hope to gain asylum in the United States of America.

This was a typical scenario during the TU service-learning trip led by the Institute for Trauma, Adversity and Injustice (TITAN) co-directors Professor Mimi Marton and Professor Elana Newman. When chaos threatened due to high demand for services, the team remained focused on the tasks at hand. The TU team traveled to the Karnes County Residential Center during the second week of May 2018 to assist RAICES and help prepare asylum seekers for their credible fear interviews (CFI), the first step in their asylum applications. Besides Martin and Newman, the TU team consisted of an attorney, a clinical psychology doctoral candidate and TITAN member, 13 law students and five interpreters.

During a CFI, asylum seekers must establish that they have been persecuted or have a well-founded fear of persecution due to their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion. Students interviewed multiple clients each day, helping them to identify important elements of their personal experiences that would be relevant to their asylum claims.

The clients held in the detention center hailed from all over the world. However, the majority of clients seen by the TU team came from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. These countries are consistently ranked among the most violent in the world, largely due to rampant gang-related extortion and violence. Consequently, the stories told by clients over the course of the week involved extreme and often multiple forms of harassment, extortion and trauma. Newman and Chelsea Shotwell Tabke, a clinical psychology doctoral candidate and TITAN member, assisted the law students in conducting trauma-informed interviews with clients, provided crisis intervention for distressed clients, and helped in mitigating the legal team’s secondhand trauma.

In addition to preparing clients for their CFI’s, the TU team conducted intake interviews, prepared advocacy briefs, searched for sponsors and led informational sessions on steps to take after release from the detention center. By the end of the five-day trip, the TU team had served more than 233 detainees.

Students on the trip agreed that it provided them with one of the best learning experiences they have had at TU. Furthermore, students stated that the trip had allowed them both to realize and to expand their competence in the law and working with traumatized clientele.