Artesia1I spent last week at the Artesia “family detention” center, a 4-hour drive from both Albuquerque and El Paso.  We had a group of roughly ten volunteers (attorneys, translators, and administrative staff) trying to stop the rapid deportations and see that the women and their children get some modicum of due process.  This was the first week there has been a full time volunteer attorney presence on site during the month it has been open.

The first impression you get when you walk into the “law library” (a FEMA trailer with one computer for the ‘residents’ to use, one printer, one copier that was out of ink and NO books) is that all the children are sick, with coughs at minimum.  They are dehydrated and listless.  They are cold – there were two mornings where the temperature was around 60, and there were no jackets or blankets, so mothers and kids walked around with towels wrapped around their shoulders for warmth.  Nearly all of them have valid claims for asylum – the majority based on domestic violence or gang issues.  An unfortunate number were already deported without the opportunity to even consult with an attorney.  Some mothers are giving up and asking to be deported because their kids are so sick.

Our team prioritized preparing women for credible fear interviews, representing them at CF reviews before the IJs (who are on video from Arlington), and requesting bond.  As of today’s date, we are not aware of anyone actually being released on bond, though attorney Olsi Vrapi just sent an email to say that IJ Owens set a bond at $25,000(!).  ICE is filing a boilerplate 131-page exhibit that claims all these families are a security risk and thus should be continued in custody.  And of course, ICE’s policy memos on parole after positive CFIs are being completely disregarded.

Around 200 women (the entire capacity of the location is 600, including children) have requested a consultation with a pro bono attorney.  The project is unable to keep up with demand, and trying to figure out ways to best utilize limited resources.  In some cases where there has been an obvious error by the asylum office, we were successful in getting a new CFI.  None of the three organizations on the free legal services list provides direct representation, and only one, out of El Paso, is available to come on site and do Know Your Rights presentations.

After the IJs deny (or set unreasonably high) bond, the women are being given 3-4 weeks to prepare for individual hearings.  They are expected to prepare the form I-589 (which is only in English, and many of the women have no or very little education) on the one computer in the “law library” to present their case.  CBP interviews are being used to impeach the women’s credibility, though many report that they did state a fear of returning to their home country but CBP refused to believe them.  Or, CBP asks whether they intend to work in the U.S., and once they say yes, CBP claims no stated fear of return.

In sum, the reality on the ground feels like the worst of all the border legislation that was proposed and failed actually passed – people are being herded through the system en masse, with no genuine regard to due process whatsoever.  Why bother to change the law when Washington can accomplish the same goals by impeding people’s access to attorneys and to release from custody, as well as rush them to a final hearing where an application written in a language they don’t understand is their only lifeline?

Having said all that, I still think there is a moral imperative to making the trip and your work can make a difference.  These women need to know there are at least some people in the U.S. standing up for them.

Regarding  budget, my expenses were:  airfare $900 (b/c I flew on short notice to ABQ, a flight to Roswell w/a 2 week lead is $550); $400 to rent a car for 6 days, plus 6 nights in hotel at $170/night (LaQuinta in Artesia) was $1020.00.  So, if you fly to Roswell, you can do a week for around $2,000; plus food if you have time to eat.

Written by Kim Hunter, AILA member, Minnesota/Dakotas Chapter