Girasol program launched to support immigrants seeking asylum

Gracie Awalt

Women and children awaiting the outcome of their immigration status are not allowed to hug each other at the T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Taylor, Texas. Often, these women and children stay for months in detention seeking asylum from their home countries. 

The Texas Institute of Child & Family Wellbeing, a research unit within the Steve Hicks School of Social Work, launched the Girasol program this semester to help Texas immigrant children and
families heal from trauma through support, education and connection. 

The Girasol program supports immigrants by sending social work students in the Social Work Detention Response Team with law students from UT’s School of Law Immigration Clinic to work together to help immigrants through the complex
asylum process. 

“We drive two and half hours to the detention center in Karnes, Texas, and inside the centers you have to pass through a metal detector and security so not just anyone can walk in,” said Ana Hernandez, program and research coordinator of Girasol. “It feels like a prison and there’s kids as young as three years old in detention.”

Texas has several immigrant detention centers, which house immigrants seeking asylum in the U.S. until they pass a credible fear interview. The interviewer asks questions about traumatic experiences to determine if they have enough fear to claim U.S. asylum, said Denise Gilman, director of the UT Law Immigration Clinic.

With the guidance of social work and law advisers, students counsel immigrants through the credible fear interview process.

“You’re going through a legal process that forces you to relive some of the worst moments of your life in order to prove that you have enough fear to be
released to seek asylum,” Hernandez said. “Someone who has experienced trauma is often re-traumatized through having to recount the story in the interview several times over.”

Gilman said interview preparation is essential for immigrants who often have little understanding of the legal standards they have to meet to seek asylum. Gilman said the legal definition of “credible fear” is constantly changing.

“Again and again you meet with women who don’t realize how important it is to explain that they’ve been raped,” Gilman said. “They might not bring that out because it is so traumatic unless they understand that it would be the critical difference that will allow them to seek protection.” 

The Girasol program offers trainings for lawyers, social service providers and educators so they can better work with immigrants who have experienced trauma. According to the official website, the goal of these trainings is to create a network of professionals who are able to provide expertise for the cases of individuals and families seeking asylum.

 The Girasol program provides undocumented immigrants with available public resources through their website, Navegando Austin. Students working toward a degree related to mental health can volunteer with the Social Work Detention Response Team and travel to detention centers to provide support to immigrants. 

“The most essential part of being on the team is being there and showing your humanity,” said Dora Gonzalez, a social work and Latin American studies graduate student who has visited the detention centers. “We’re there on a human level to bond and break that isolation. I want to keep fighting because this is somebody’s reality and I would really like to change that.”