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During five "life-changing" days in Dilley, Texas, 10 BYU law students listened to women and children who had fled their homelands after being raped, threatened and abused, watching loved ones perish.

The "externship" was a volunteer opportunity to render legal aid at the South Texas Family Residential Center, a holding place with 2,400 beds for women and children caught crossing the border illegally and hoping to find asylum in the U.S.

"The only thing that made me different from these women was that I somehow was born inside the United States," said Courtney Young, a second-year law student at LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University.

Since 2014, mothers like these have been separated from their husbands and adult sons at the border and detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The Trump administration recently announced it is considering separating even the younger children from mothers in an effort to deter illegal immigration.

The idea won't stop people from coming illegally, Young said, calling it "cruel." It would "take away the only secure thing these children have."

Young was "shocked," she said, as detainees told her "the same story over and over" about murder, rape and extortion by gangs.

A single mother told another BYU student, Grey Lund, about an anonymous phone call that threatened her 9-year-old daughter.

"They said, 'Woman, we know who you are, we know where you live, we know your daughter. If you don't pay us by the end of the week, we're going to kill your daughter,' " Lund said. To show the threats were serious, the man on the phone named the time her daughter had left for school that day, when the woman had left for work and when each had returned home.

Local police cannot protect communities from these threats, said BYU law professor Carolina Nuñez, because the gangs either have infiltrated the government or threatened the officers.

Other women have suffered sexual and domestic abuse. Nuñez spoke with one who was hesitant to disclose why she had come to the U.S. but finally explained that her husband had repeatedly molested their daughter.

"We couldn't get away from him," she told Nuñez.

High-stakes test • Department of Homeland Security agents interview the immigrants to determine the credibility of any threats they may face. If they pass, they are released to finish their asylum applications elsewhere in the U.S. If they fail, they appear before an immigration judge, who could deport them.

ICE spokeswoman Nina Pruneda explained that "ICE makes custody determinations on a case-by-case basis considering all the merits and factors of each case while adhering to current agency priorities, guidelines and legal mandates."

Of the immigrants detained at this center (the largest of its kind), 95 percent to 98 percent end up passing their interviews with legal assistance and are released into the U.S., usually with ankle monitors, said Elena Alderman, a spokeswoman with CARA, a coalition of nonprofit groups that provides pro bono legal aid and organizes volunteers like those from BYU. At detention centers where access to legal aid is more restrictive and judges rule more harshly, Alderman said, rates may be close to 40 percent or lower.

To gain asylum, immigrants must convince officials they fear for their lives in their former country due to race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership of a particular social group that is persecuted by the government or by a group the government "can't or won't control," said BYU adjunct professor Lindsay Petersen, an immigration attorney.

Communication can be challenging during the interviews, Young said, due to language barriers and because interpreters and asylum officers often interrupt the storytelling.

A Haitian woman — who fled with her 2-year-old to Brazil, then Panama and walked the rest of the way to the U.S. border — told Young she had received death threats in her home country.

She failed the interview.

Young believed she would have been deported, but the law students helped her prepare to go before a judge, who ruled in her favor.

"We often think of immigrants as having planned coming to the United States for a long time," Nuñez said, "... but these women and children are running away from horrific circumstances."

Many flee within 24 hours of making the decision, Nuñez said, leaving behind homes, elderly parents and other loved ones they can't afford to bring.

Lund spoke to one woman who watched her husband die at the hands of a gang on their front porch just two weeks before her arrival.

Another woman, whose family owned a business in El Salvador, endured death threats, but had enough money to bring only two of her three children to the U.S., said Eli Pratt, a third-year BYU law student. Faced with this "Sophie's choice," she left one child behind with her husband. She had yet to hear from them.

Mothers usually arrive with at least one child — sometimes two or three, said CARA spokeswoman Belle Woods.

"Most women won't come just to save themselves," Pratt said. "Most women do it to save their children."

'Christian duty' • The Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has made it "clear that helping refugees is a priority," Nuñez said.

"These are the refugees that are closest to us. They are in dire need, and we have tools to help them," she said. "I think this is exactly what a university sponsored by the LDS Church should be doing, and I'm really proud of my students for doing it."

Previous experience as Mormon missionaries seemed to put the BYU students more at ease in the high-stress and sensitive environment, Petersen said, as they fulfilled their "Christian duty" to serve others.

Pratt's time in Texas reminded him that there are more ways to help than traditional church service. The interaction with the immigrants boosted his sense of gratitude for the life and privileges he enjoys, he said, while making him more self-aware.

One woman found out members of the group were Spanish-speaking returned LDS missionaries and told them, "Soy Mormona," — "I'm a Mormon" in Spanish.

"To think about someone in your ward or someone that you know going through an experience like this," Pratt said, "is different than it just being a group of all these distant people."

Staffers at the center — which ICE contracts to a private company called CoreCivic — appeared sympathetic to the newcomers, Pratt said. But in recent weeks, Alderman said, volunteers have seen a "range of challenges" and crackdowns from ICE as political tensions rise and federal directives push for more space between detainees and counsel.

Pruneda said ICE is "committed to facilitating access to legal service providers to the utmost extent possible," noting that the government provides space for those interactions.

She wrote in an email that these family centers are "an effective and humane alternative for maintaining family unity as families go through immigration processing or await return to their home countries." Residents are housed in "an open environment, which includes medical care, mental health care, play rooms, social workers, educational services, and access to legal counsel."

Lund went on the trip "expecting to find a good justification for the detention center to exist," but said he "couldn't find one."

Most people would argue that the centers are "unnecessary," "expensive and inefficient," he added, and that money could be spent "in better ways without further traumatizing women and children."

The cost is calculated as $343 a day per person, according to the American Immigration Lawyers Association (one of the four groups in CARA), and detainees spend an average of 10 to 25 days at the center.

Lund said he understands the need to protect the border and doesn't know exactly what the solution is, but he hopes the U.S. "steps up" to give support to those who deserve it.

"Overall, these are the kind of people that we want in our country," Lund said, "people who work hard for their family and sacrifice to give their kids a better future."

Twitter: @mnoblenews