shutterstock_263204690This wasn’t the blog post that I planned on writing. I had intended to simply share some information about the release of the ABA Commission on Immigration’s report on family detention, and will. But I was interrupted in my writing by the immediacy of what’s happening on the ground (OTG) at the family detention centers in Texas.

“I was with Ana when we told her and she cried and cried” read the e-mail from David Kolko.  David, Immediate Past AILA Colorado Chapter Chair was writing about Ana, who had been at Artesia the week I arrived, over one year ago. She was finally, finally, being released from the permanent facility she’d been shipped to when Artesia was closed. She and her child joined eight other detainees who were being released from custody after spending between seven and fourteen months imprisoned. Their cases remain pending with the BIA.

It has been more than one year since a planeload of 179 women and children, who had no chance to secure legal counsel, were deported in the middle of the night from Artesia, and only one week less than that since the first pro bono lawyers arrived in Artesia. The first night of my arrival, Shelley Wittevrongel and I were handed a pink-post-it note by two young female lawyers who had toured the facility as part of an ICE-NGO group earlier that day, with the names and A#s of several women who furtively pleaded with them for help.  We arrived at the facility early the next morning, as Shelley assured was necessary, familiar with the additional delay we would face before getting to the trailer where we would be delayed again before being able to meet with any of the women.

The cover of the hardcopy published ABA Report has a photo provided by David. The photo depicts the Dilley parking lot at daybreak, eerily illuminated by parking lot floodlights. It is hauntingly similar to what many of us who went to Artesia, New Mexico observed early mornings en route to the temporary facility.  It is also stunningly similar to a photo I took the second night I was at Artesia last summer, when Shelley and I called in to report on what we were seeing and doing. We called from outside the hotel, seated on a curbstone, under a tall light pole that glowed dusty-yellow, in a parking lot filled with Haliburton and Sanford Oil trucks; the asphalt was still emitting the heat of the day at 10 PM. Flooded by the enormous gravity and portent of what was happening at Artesia, we needed to strategize the impossible: how could the  two of us OTG and the rest of our Colorado support crew (David Kolko, Lisa York, Katie Glynn and David Simmons) hold off any more removals until additional support from AILA National could arrive? It was the “Artesia Effect” sinking in, a phenomenon which Angie Williams later wrote about in an AILA blog. The Artesia Effect is something that all of us, whether volunteering at Artesia, Karnes, or Dilley, came to know deeply and intimately.  It is an internal connection that we all share, that can be conveyed by a glance that becomes a gaze, held for a fraction of a second longer than usual, and is both uncomfortable and empathic as we share the knowledge we will never forget:  that Artesia, as with Dilley and Karnes, remotely located, is not American.

The ABA report emphasizes the complete lack of planning and preparedness of the U.S. government, which is wholly inconsistent with the mission of DHS, in responding to the increase in arrivals of Central American mothers and children during the summer of 2014. It highlights the government’s whipsaw response to the hopeful and innocent fleeing unrelenting violence and danger to reach our southwestern border in pursuit of the safety that our country promises and promotes as uniquely American. It clearly lays out the violation of the presumption of liberty foundational to the apparatus of due process which was designed with such commitment and care for the safety of us all. Underneath it all is the profound betrayal of not only those who look to our system of law for protection, but of the system itself and of we, the lawyers, who threw ourselves into an unprecedented pro bono response;  the only response possible to the government’s rapid and massive shift in policy on family apprehension and detention. And through it all is the egregiousness of the government’s failure to recognize the established legal framework, its failure to calibrate its response to a shift in circumstances, and its failure to adhere to any set of guiding principles.

There is crushing irony in the fact that on August 6, 2009, ICE announced that it would stop sending families to the T. Don Hutto Family Residential Facility, a 512 bed for-profit detention center run by the Corrections Corporation of America,  and that plans for three other family camps would be abandoned,. With this decision, it appeared thatthe Obama administration was differentiating itself from the Bush administration’s hardline enforcement and family detention policies. The federal court presiding over the lawsuit on conditions at Hutto stated, “it seems fundamentally wrong to house children and their non-criminal parents this way. We can do better.”  Who would have thought then that nearly eight years later, family detention would be back with a vengeance and that we would be “celebrating” the release of a mother and child, who while simply seeking protection and safety under our laws were instead subjected to nearly fourteen months of incarceration?

The ABA report is one tool that we can use to fight back against the scourge of family detention, to push against the inhumane treatment of children and mothers, and to lift up their stories to the media, to the Administration, and to the public. We need to use every resource at our disposal to #EndFamilyDetention. The ABA Commission on Immigration is particularly grateful to AILA for its delivery of OTG pro bono representation to the family detention camps and for its leadership in working to end family detention.

Written by Christina Fiflis, 2012-2015 Chair of the ABA Commission on Immigration, AILA Member, and Artesia Volunteer


If you are an AILA member, law student, paralegal, or translator, 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 this fall, particularly the week of October 11 and after.

If you would like to donate funds to help staff the project through the end of the year, we thank you in advance, and please see the American Immigration Council’s page dedicated to the fundraising effort.

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.