shutterstock_247077634Family detention.  Artesia.  Karnes / Dilley.  A year ago these were mere words. Sadly, that’s no longer the case. All of us volunteers have seen the families incarcerated at these facilities and we refuse to give up on them as our government seems to want us to do.

I wanted to share some of that experience with you. Over the next several blog posts, I’ll take you to Artesia and then Karnes, and offer a glimpse inside. You may regret what you learn, feeling helpless and guilty, but if even one of you becomes a champion for these kids and moms because of these posts, then it’s more than worth it. Read on, please, read on.


I arrived in Artesia on Labor Day 2014, a business immigration attorney from Boston, not really knowing what to expect at a detention facility.  The scenery during the four-hour drive from Albuquerque was unlike the Massachusetts Turnpike or anything in New England for that matter.  High desert, some scattering of dairy farms, a few small towns.  And open space, lots of open, barren space.

Upon arriving in Artesia I went to the local church where the volunteers gathered each evening for Big Table meetings, a forum to assess the day’s progress and discuss case strategies and how to manage the next day’s assignments.  It was immediately clear that Big Table meetings are multitasking events, that in Artesia every waking minute counts.  There was too much at stake for our clients for it to be otherwise.  It was a long day:  at the airport in Boston by 5:30 a.m. local time;  Big Table ended around midnight (MDT);  back to the hotel to review assignments for the next day, and in bed at 2:00 a.m., almost a 24-hour day.  Yet that first day turned out to be the least hectic, least demanding day of my two weeks in Artesia.  Up again at 5:30 a.m. to get ready for the short drive to makeshift detention facility at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) and to meet our clients for the first time.

I knew that the FLETC environment would be unlike the firm where I’ve worked for many years, so I was prepared for something different.  But not for this.  Not the scared young mothers trying to be brave for the sake of their small children;  not the razor wire;  not the regimented atmosphere established by Immigration and Customs Enforcement that permits the AILA Pro Bono volunteers to bring laptops and wrapped bars (but little else) into the work trailer imponderably known as the Law Library.  And, most of all, I was not prepared for the children:  lethargic, undersized for their ages, many of them obviously sick, unable to eat the food, the sparkle of childhood missing from their eyes.  Anywhere we went – that is, the women and their children as well as we volunteers – we needed an ICE escort (except to the bathroom).  But for the absence of orange jumpsuits, this was an orange jumpsuit environment.  The government can call this family detention.  Call it what you will, this was looking an awful lot like a detention camp, a jail, a prison.  Which is exactly what it was.

We volunteers arrived at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Artesia by 7:00 a.m.  Not a very welcoming environment (e.g., daily visitor badges, escort required;  no eating here;  no cell phones there;  volunteers must tape over the camera lens on their laptops;  no, you can’t offer a cough drop to a detained woman who’s hacking away during her attorney interview;  no, you can’t be moving the chairs around inside the law library trailer so that the detainees can have a seat while they wait to speak with an attorney.)  This reminded me of the time in law school when my Immigration Law professor once remarked that sometimes immigration officers exhibit a parking lot attendant mentality – “no, you can’t park in that spot, you must park where I tell you.”  That mentality was in full bloom at Artesia.

The pace was frantic and our every move was monitored by ICE from the opening bell at 7:00 a.m. until we were escorted back to our cars before leaving the FLETC property around 6:00 p.m.  Then off to Big Table by 6:30 or 7:00 p.m., which often lasted until midnight.  Finally, back to the hotel to update the database and prepare for tomorrow’s cases until … whenever.

While life in Artesia was uninviting for the volunteers, it was an absolute nightmare for the women and children who were detained there.  Many of those women were literally running for their lives when they left their homes in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.  Unrelenting familial violence, gang violence, lives measured in terms of unspeakable terror;  days, months, years spent in mortal fear of more beatings, extortion, and sexual assault, both threatened and actual.  How do these poor women begin to tell their stories to a string of complete strangers:  Border patrol agents, asylum officers, ICE officers, immigration judges – even the revolving door of volunteers who are trying to help these women?  Forced to bring her children with her to every interview and every court appearance, how does a woman explain, “they raped me in broad daylight” with her nine-year old daughter sitting next to her, the younger child crawling on and off mom’s lap throughout the interview?  And how can she begin to comprehend that if she can’t get this awful truth on the table it will greatly diminish her chances of winning her case?  That if she doesn’t reveal this most horrific abuse against her womanhood, a factfinder may determine that her story isn’t credible, and that this will sound the death knell for her claim?  The stories continued all day long, every day, each as horrific as the others.  Women passed weeks and months in detention.  Meanwhile, their children reached landmark events such as birthdays, Halloween and Thanksgiving – events that would otherwise be happy times in a childhood, but for the fact that these children were detained for months on end.  Childhoods hijacked right before our eyes – and for what?  Threats to national security?  Please!

One of the saddest memories of my time in Artesia came on a chilly, rainy Sunday morning.  One of the volunteers told the rest of us who were there in the Law Library trailer that she was interviewing an El Salvadoran woman whose little girl’s 7th birthday was that day.  My colleague fashioned a makeshift birthday card from the cover of a coloring book, which each of the volunteers signed and presented to this little girl.  We sang Las Mañanitas (I didn’t know the words) and Happy Birthday to her, and her huge brown eyes began to sparkle.  Half way through this impromptu celebration, her mom began to weep, her shoulders heaving, her heart obviously breaking.  And the birthday girl turned to comfort her mother.  We volunteers quickly excused ourselves and headed for our cramped work area behind the floor-to-ceiling panel and we all had a good cry, out of sight from our clients and the ever-present ICE guards.

The camaraderie shared by the volunteers was unlike anything I’d ever experienced.  I met lawyers, young and not quite so young, who weren’t the least bit afraid to fight their hearts out for these families.  One of the lessons of Artesia – indeed one of the characteristics of AILA’s pro bono project in that place – is that no issue was too daunting, no challenge too difficult to take up.  ICE or the Immigration Judge strikes a blow, you hit back and you hit back hard.  You leave nothing on the battlefield.  And every day was a battle.

Two weeks in Artesia leaves a person totally spent:  physically, psychologically and emotionally.  Ordinarily a big pro-Obama guy, I left that place wondering what it is that the Administration doesn’t get about the hell that is family detention.  I was at once relieved to leave Artesia yet filled with a sense that I wasn’t able to do nearly enough to make a difference in terms of helping these families.  Having been warned in advance that the Artesia experience might be transformative, I now had some idea of what that actually means.  Once back in Boston it was weeks before I could talk about Artesia without becoming emotional and for the nightmares to ease.  But before long, Artesia’s tug began to resurface.

Where would I go next? More tomorrow.

Written by Frank Johnson, AILA Member and Volunteer

Please click these links to read Part 2Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5 of Frank’s blog post.


If you are an AILA member who wants to volunteer at a family detention center, please go to the CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project page or feel free to contact Maheen Taqui at – we could really use your help.

To watch videos of the volunteers sharing their experiences, go to this playlist on AILA National’s YouTube page. To see all the blog posts about this issue select Family Detention as the category on the right side of this page.