The Room Where the Stories Emerge

The South Texas Detention Complex is a little over an hour from the Migrant Center for Human Rights office in San Antonio, where Sara Ramey ’05 is executive director.

She makes the drive once, sometimes twice weekly, crossing the gridded sprawl of the state’s second-largest city to spare rural development, where the four-lane interstate elbows around the small, mostly Hispanic, farming community of Pearsall. The sky is so big here, the land so flat, the sun so relentless. Eighteen-wheelers going to and coming from Mexico pass in both directions. It’s about 100 miles from Pearsall to the border. Once, Sara saw a group of riders on horseback traveling along the edge of the highway to the San Antonio Rodeo. Some days, she listens to recorded court proceedings during the drive. Some days, she tunes to 104.5 Latino Hits or a standard top-40 station. Some days, with a buzz of thoughts about the work ahead, she just needs the quiet.

Sara founded the Migrant Center for Human Rights, a nonprofit organization, in 2017 to provide free and low-cost legal services to detained migrants, particularly those seeking asylum in the United States. She isn’t just the founder and executive director, she’s the organization’s sole permanent, full-time staff person. Working with about 50 migrants simultaneously from all over the globe, Sara’s organization has put her at the heart of the complex world of immigration and border politics.

Under federal and international law, any individual has the right to seek asylum in another country. In order to qualify for asylum, an applicant must prove that they fear persecution at home, and that this persecution is based on the applicant’s race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or social group.

The majority of people detained at the South Texas Detention Complex, Sara explains, want to apply for asylum or are already in the process. Some are undocumented immigrants who had been living in the United States before being picked up by authorities. Most of the Migrant Center’s clients are people who voluntarily presented themselves at the border and asked for protection or were otherwise apprehended at the border. All of them are facing deportation.

It’s typically early afternoon when Sara arrives at the South Texas facility. She pulls into the visitor parking area and, after showing identification and an appointment list to a uniformed guard, she settles into a chair and waits until she’s called by a guard and led into a small, concrete block visitation room.

Sprawled out over six flat, sunbaked acres, the detainment center holds up to 1,900 people and is run by the Geo Group—the nation’s largest private prison company. Sara will be here for hours meeting with clients; the dinner shift comes and goes at the center. Her consultations last 15 to 30 minutes, unless she’s working with someone on an asylum declaration, preparing them for an interview or court appearance, or writing up an appeal. In that case, the meeting might last up to three hours. She is, in many ways, the lifeline these migrants have to the outside world, and she serves as their guide to a complex legal system in the United States.

Sara sees critical problems in this system, namely that the international laws that govern asylum, which were formed in the wake of World War II and haven’t been updated in more than half a century, are out of date. “They’re not responsive to the kinds of protection people are seeking today,” she says. Many of her clients are fleeing violence—including gang and domestic violence—that present credible threats but don’t fit neatly into the law’s categories.

Sara grew up in Northern California, born into a family of entrepreneurs and self-starters. Her grandparents owned their own business.

Her father was an independently published author. Her family developed—and sold—a board game. In the summers, when Sara was staying with her grandparents at Lake Tahoe, she’d sell fruit along the lake’s beaches. On the Fourth of July, she’d sell glow sticks. “My family always supported developing ideas, trying them out, and taking risks,” she says.

During high school, Sara helped her mother make and sell stuffed bears with rice kernels inside; when microwaved, the bears became heating pads to warm up kids’ beds. Sara says that being trusted to co-manage the business and make decisions was empowering, and she also learned how to develop a creative idea and bring it to fruition.

And ideas were always popping up. Sara was ravenous to learn, explore, and understand. She set a goal to be bilingual before graduating from high school. To reach it, she spent the summer in Mexico, living with a host family in Guadalajara and enrolling in a Spanish language and culture program. When she first arrived, overwhelmed by being far from home, she cried on the phone to her mother. But by the end of her stay, when her host brother dropped her at the airport, she cried because she didn’t want to leave.

Sara chose the University of Puget Sound because of the International Political Economy Program. With her background in small businesses, she felt that economic opportunity was the key to unlocking the potential of low-income people and communities.

But the classroom held her for only so long. “I wanted to learn more about the world and how the world works,” she says. She traveled widely during college, spending two semesters abroad and traveling during the summers—to Spain, Chile, France, and Costa Rica. Already fluent in Spanish, she studied French at Puget Sound, and has since studied Portuguese, Arabic, and Italian.

After graduation, Sara bought an around-the-world plane ticket and hatched a plan to travel for 11 months while figuring out what was next. Starting in Portugal, she spent time in Australia, Belgium, Chile, Morocco, Spain, Greece, Holland, New Zealand, and Argentina. Everywhere she went, she asked herself: What is important to this place? And she sought to learn about it. In Sydney, she volunteered for Amnesty International, working on immigration issues. In Belgium, she got an internship with a member of the European Parliament. Back in San Francisco, she worked at the Foundation for Sustainable Development doing translation work and producing materials for the organization’s Peace Corps-like programs.

She was eager to learn and gregarious with strangers, and all her traveling proved to be formative. “There are definitely cultural differences, but there’s also a common humanity,” she says. “My eyes were opened to a wider complexity in the world. Our geopolitical borders are really artificial.”

Upon her return to the U.S., Sara knew graduate school was on her horizon. Experience at the European Parliament and Amnesty International had shown her how powerful legal tools could be in supporting justice. “I wanted to be able to have a say in shaping policy,” she explains. She enrolled in law school at American University in Washington, D.C., and soon after graduating, began a career in human rights. Her first job out of law school was as a legal fellow at the Center for Justice and International Law, an organization that promotes human rights throughout the Americas. Then she worked for the American Friends Service Committee, helping the Quaker organization improve their human rights high school curriculum.

She could have taken a comfortable position in Washington, D.C. Instead, she headed to the U.S.-Mexico border, where she spent two years at ProBAR, the South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project, working with migrants by providing education about their legal rights and direct representation.

Later, she joined the staff of RAICES, the largest immigration legal services provider in Texas. In addition to her responsibilities as a staff attorney, Sara was in charge of responding to correspondence from people detained at the South Texas Detention Complex. Time and again, she explains, she’d have to reply to their letters by saying that the organization didn’t have the resources to help them. She still read every letter. “I was reminded of how hard it was for people in detention,” she says.

Not being able to help was hard for Sara. At the same time, she was looking to grow in her career and challenge herself. She knew her skills were needed at the border, and she wanted to continue working directly with migrants, especially asylum-seekers.

In 2017, she put her entrepreneurial skills to work to recruit a board of directors comprised of three immigration lawyers and two religious leaders who work with migrants. Together, they formed the Migrant Center for Human Rights. Sara was anxious about starting the organization, about putting her name and reputation on the line and being responsible for not just the work with clients but most of the administration and nearly all of the fundraising as well.

Since the organization’s founding, she has worked with clients from 36 different countries, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, El Salvador, Eritrea, Guatemala, Mexico, Rwanda, Sudan, and Yemen. Their first languages include everything from Spanish, French, and Arabic to Amharic, Tigrinya, Somali, Bengali, Hausa, Quiché, and Mixteco. Before coming to the United States, Sara’s clients had been persecuted for hanging political posters, practicing religions not officially authorized by their home states, and participating in protest. They had been beaten, imprisoned, kidnapped, tortured, and raped. They had witnessed murders and genocides. And some had been separated from their children at the border.

Sara explains that her role is twofold—first to educate migrants about their rights and then to assist them in preparing paperwork for their asylum applications, including compiling information about the conditions in their home countries and clearly detailing the kinds of persecution they’ve faced. “We’re linguistic, legal, and cultural interpreters,” she says. “We’re educators.” Asylum applications are a dozen or more pages long—and they must be completed in English.

Working with each individual typically involves five separate visits to the detention center. Because the Migrant Center is largely a one-woman operation, Sara hires interns and partners with other entities to expand her reach. “We’re trying to amplify our efforts by working with community groups, private attorneys, or whoever we can,” she says.

“There’s this narrative out there that asylum-seekers are ‘fraudsters,’” Sara says. The misconception is that people are using the asylum process to gain entry into the United States for jobs and to make money, not to avoid persecution. But Sara says that at least 90% of asylum-seekers she’s talked to have credible, harrowing stories, and are genuinely afraid of going back home. She determines the veracity of these accounts by conducting detailed interviews, using techniques employed by government prosecutors, before deciding to take someone on as a client.

Through her work with the Migrant Center, Sara has learned about clan dynamics, witchcraft, political oppression, religious persecution, and the effects of trauma on memory by listening to her clients’ stories and by researching the conditions in their home countries. She’s learned how to help refugees talk about their past when memory is fickle, people are scared, and language barriers are difficult to navigate. “You have to listen really well,” she says. “You have to be nonjudgmental.” And she’s developed a nuanced understanding of the law to know what questions to ask her clients so that judges will understand their situations.

Aside from assisting individual migrants, Sara is committed to helping reform the asylum system. She regularly contributes opinion articles to The Hill, which covers politics in and around Washington, D.C. And she recently participated in the American Immigration Lawyers Association National Day of Action, during which, along with some 500 other immigration attorneys from across the country, she met with members of Congress to raise awareness about the challenges faced by refugees in detention. She’s ambitious and creative in her approach, engaging law students, organizing public film screenings and discussions, and leveraging social media to amplify the voices of detained refugees and increase understanding of the reality on the ground.

The Migrant Center is a shoestring-budget kind of operation, a labor of love. “We’re living donation to donation. It’s a day-by-day thing,” Sara says. Last year, more than 200 individual donors contributed to the organization, and it has received small grants from private funders, including a local Rotary club, a Quaker church, and a community interfaith organization. That funding has allowed Sara to help an estimated 350 clients since starting the organization. It’s not nearly enough, but it means everything to the individuals who finally get their stories heard.

“It’s so very hard to be locked up and feel that no one cares for you,” Sara says. “People feel really abandoned and desperate.”

At the South Texas Detention Complex, afternoon passes into evening as Sara meets with potential clients. The sun drops to the western horizon, its light sliding up the gray exterior walls of the complex until it is gone. When she is listening to migrants’ stories, Sara is in the moment, not thinking about the minutes ticking by. “You can lose several hours really easily,” she says.

Visiting hours end at 9 p.m., which, with prep and driving time, makes for a 10- to 12-hour day. Only about a third of the migrants detained in Pearsall have found legal representation, so she stays to help as many people as she can. She packs up her files and heads back through three sets of doors and out the main entrance. The huge Texas sky is dark by the time she gets in her car and turns back onto the interstate to make her way home.

“There’s an intense amount of pressure,” Sara says about her work. “I think a lot of people leave this profession because it can be very traumatizing.” From years of listening to stories from her clients’ lives, she’s experienced symptoms of secondary PTSD.

“I’d like to say I go to yoga,” Sara says about how she decompresses. More often, she tends her vegetable garden, where she grows tomatoes, peppers, beets, radishes, and greens, which gets her out of her head. “My house has become my sanctuary,” she says.

But it’s not all dismal. There are success stories, like the time when an Ethiopian man who had been arrested and tortured by the Ethiopian government was granted asylum after a four-year legal battle. Being able to help him was “an inexpressible feeling,” Sara says. Those are the moments that keep her going.

Former clients who gained asylum have contacted her to announce their marriage or the birth of a first child. Some report that they’ve become permanent residents or gained full citizenship. Some give back by doing interpretive work for new cases. And they express their appreciation of her help. “After this meeting,” an asylum-seeker from Sudan told Sara, “I feel that I will be able to sleep tonight.” “Thank you so much for your kindness,” an asylum-seeker from Guinea wrote to Sara. “May God richly bless you.”

It’s around 11 p.m. when Sara pulls up to her house in San Antonio, where tall pecan and oak trees rise up from her yard toward the dark sky. She unwinds with a book or some television, her clients’ stories eventually fading into the background and giving her space to sleep. In a few days, she’ll be back at the detention center, meeting with more migrants, helping bring a sense of justice to their lives.


By Miranda Weiss
Photos by Sy Bean
Published July 31, 2019