Last week, I was in a volunteer attorney group at the immigration detention center in Artesia, New Mexico, assisting women and children who recently fled Central America. It was the most difficult week I've ever had as an immigration attorney, but also the most fulfilling. While the experience could fill any number of pages, my memories of the children there will remain with me the longest.
For those not following the situation closely, hundreds of women and children who have recently come to the United States from Central America fleeing violence have been placed in a family detention facility in Artesia, NM. Artesia is isolated- it is more than two hours to even a mid-sized city- and previously had no immigration attorneys in the area. In Artesia, the women and children confront the U.S. immigration system while detained- usually applying for asylum, and/or seeking a bond to pursue their case free from custody.
In immigration court, non-citizens have a right to counsel- but only at their own expense. While some detainees have family members able to hire an attorney for them, many do not. Not only can such representation be expensive, Artesia's location makes it very difficult for an attorney to work with a client there.
That's where a large group of volunteer immigration attorneys comes in. Legal representation is provided by volunteers overseen by three paid employees, including one attorney. A tremendous amount of work is done remotely, but all in-person immigration work- from meeting with clients, to doing intakes, to covering court hearings, is handled by a group of volunteers who travel to Artesia, usually for a week at a time.
I was fortunate enough to be part of a group of ten people from the American Immigration Lawyers Association Northern California Chapter who volunteered in Artesia the week of October 13th. We were all Spanish-speaking attorneys, and our group provided all of the volunteers that week except for two other attorneys and three law students.
During our time in Artesia, we easily saw over 100 clients, and represented scores of people in immigration court hearings. We handled bonds, initial intakes, and various stages of the asylum process.
I came thinking I was well-prepared for my time in Artesia. I'm an experienced attorney, and had read in advance how the conditions were poor. I have also worked with many clients facing harrowing and desperate situations- I've had clients attempt suicide, witness the murder of family members, and recount horrific beatings and torture.
With all of this however, I was still haunted- and likely always will be- by the kids in the facility. In many ways the children, who ranged from infants to teenagers, seemed to have often lost the spark and vitality which makes them special. As the father of two very active boys, I was shocked to be in a room with 8-10 kids who accompanied their mothers to appointments with volunteer attorneys, and yet have the place be relatively quiet. There were no loud noises, no climbing, no running- nothing but quiet coloring, watching movies, and sleeping in mothers' arms.
This described the "average" situation. There were also children who were even worse off and facing serious health problems. Many had lost tremendous amounts of weight, some slept most of the time, and others were developing mental health issues.
I was also saddened to realize the horrors many of the children have already seen. One mother had no concern recounting terrible incidents of domestic violence in front of her daughter- because she had witnessed them firsthand. Often the family was fleeing because the child had been threatened with rape, dismemberment, or murder.
Detainees or residents?
On a basic level, detaining children who are not facing criminal charges is deplorable. Perhaps recognizing this, the government, however, has crafted a convenient solution- labelling those in Artesia "residents", not "detainees".
The "resident" designation is laughable and insulting. Artesia "residents" are certainly not at home- they are not allowed to leave the facility unless they are granted a bond by an immigration judge, and even their movements within the facility are closely controlled. The facility is controlled by guards. This is likely another reason the children are not free to be like regular kids- if they do fall out of line, discipline will come from a law enforcement official.
Moreover, ICE calling those in Artesia "residents" is even more ridiculous when the same agency is trying to deport them. Much has been made of announcements by Obama and other government officials that those who are apprehended at the border should expect to be swiftly removed, an effort which they have taken very seriously. While our group was able to win some key victories, it is apparent that the government is making a concerted effort to not only process these cases quickly, but deny legal remedies which should be available to them.
Finally, the government has sought to justify the detention of women and children by deeming them all national security risks. The reasoning for this is convoluted, but safe to say it does not justify the conclusion that a mother and a sick infant child endanger the U.S.
In other words- while ICE may call the children in Artesia "residents", they treat them like detainees, are trying to deny them bond and remove from the country, and have called them threats to national security. While I have had many strong disagreements with our government's immigration policy in the past, I found their treatment of children in Artesia the most outrageous.
Hope- or at least fulfillment
As horrible as the situation in Artesia is, there were glimmers of hope which made the trip not only worthwhile, but incredibly rewarding. First, prior volunteers have set up a very good case management system, and there are volunteers who help remotely from all over the country. As a result, our group in Artesia was able to help a tremendous number of people. (That, and working up to 17 hours a day.) We easily assisted over 100 people and attended scores of court hearings. We helped several people get released on bond, and assisted in many applications for asylum.
Through these efforts, some people's lives were truly impacted for the better. Some mothers with very sick children were able to win the right to be released on bond from an immigration judge and over the arguments of ICE. Others had crucial steps taken toward applying for asylum, and one detainee represented remotely by another pro bono attorney was granted asylum. I truly believe everyone who had success greatly benefitted by the assistance of their attorneys.
I was also heartened by the efforts of the attorneys involved in the Artesia effort. In addition to our group, many other volunteers came before- and will hopefully return- to help. Also, there are many dedicated volunteers helping out remotely. The efforts of others in Artesia made me proud to be an immigration attorney.
To be clear, the effect of the attorneys had its limits. There were still horrible injustices in Artesia despite the best efforts of attorneys, and women and children continue to suffer there. I also doubt the problem is going away. ICE is constructing a large family detention center in Texas, and while there are reportedly fewer people coming from Central America than in prior months, conditions there do not seem to be improving and will likely continue to cause people to flee. I have little hope that ICE will change their treatment of family detainees or their position they are national security risks.
Still, given that a group of attorneys can truly impact so many lives for the better, I am very grateful to have been part of the Artesia contingent, and I hope to stay involved.
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