We drove from Denver to Artesia yesterday, a small town in central New Mexico, about three hours from anywhere.  It’s about a nine hour drive down from the last high passes of southern Colorado, through the low scrub of northern New Mexico into the high barren desert.  For hundreds of miles, the horizon was punctuated by nothing but long, low mesas, and thunderheads and storm squalls in the distance.

It’s a stark, beautiful landscape, which got drier and more barren the closer we got to our destination. Until recently, Artesia was probably best known as home of the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC).  In June, Artesia became home to over 600 Central American women and children, housed in portable units on the FLETC campus.  It’s supposed to be a place to house migrants in a “residential” setting while their cases are reviewed for potential claims.  In reality, the facility feels more like an internment camp designed to be a deportation mill.

First, when you create a detention center in the middle of nowhere, it’s obvious that you’re going to run in to problems.  Staffing, housing, visitation protocols, etc… are immediate concerns and only increase the daily misery.  People are sick–the mothers we meet all tell us their children either refuse to eat or have constant diarrhea.  They don’t have proper clothing against the air conditioning and are constantly cold.  Detainees visit us, covered with small hand towels to keep themselves warm.  We have donations stacked 8 feet high nearby, but ICE won’t let us bring in blankets and other donations.

Add on trying to rush women and children through a process that’s stacked against them – a problem of the government’s own making.  Volunteer pro bono attorneys can’t get names before initial case reviews take place.  More often than not, these women—with their children in tow—walk into one of the most complicated areas of immigration law unprepared, unrepresented, unadvised and have to plead for their lives.

Morale at the detention facility is low, tempers are short—it seems like no one wants to be here—not the “residents,” nor the ICE guards or the USCIS asylum officers.   AILA attorneys are screening, volunteering direct representation and working nearly around the clock to handle the volume and the speed of the cases.  Nearly a half dozen asylum officers are working extended shifts.  Some are good, some are not.  The best of them are courteous and clearly are trying to find out if there is a legal claim.  The worst are short tempered, impatient, biased and rude.

There is no on site Legal Orientation Program (LOP) provider.  Only after several weeks of outcry was funding obtained to allow an El Paso non-profit, DRMS, to come to the facility twice a week, but only to do Know Your Rights presentations, not direct representation.  DRMS can only do presentations two days a week:  if you miss the Thursday/Friday sessions and you didn’t get lucky enough to be screened by a volunteer lawyer, you walk into a legal minefield, defenseless.

Many of the reviewed cases have been found to have a “credible fear” of return, but ICE is refusing to release these bona fide refugees.  Now the government is arguing that their continued detention is necessary to make sure they are not national security threats and to deter other (bona fide) asylum seekers from asking for the protections we are obligated to provide under our own immigration laws.  Not only that, but they are arguing that these refugees are a flight risk, despite asylum seekers having a 93% appearance rate, according to Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS).  Unbelievable.

Written by Laura Lichter, AILA Past President