Artesia On Our Minds — An Immigration Attorney’s Diary of a Detention Camp

photo-60Immigration attorney Helen Lawrence, who has helped ACJP families beat deportation cases, recently went to the Artesia immigration detention facility in New Mexico that houses women and children to provide pro-bono legal services.  Read about her powerful reflections on her experiences.

This past week I went with a 10-attorney contingent from the Bay Area to provide pro-bono legal services for a week in an immigration detention center in Artesia, New Mexico that holds between 400-500 ​women and children who were detained in the border refugee crisis this summer. Our primary purpose was to represent women and children in bond and asylum cases in this remote facility. We are all still unpacking the experience.

Our arrival ​day felt full of prescient moments. During our 4am ride to the airport, when our Senegalese Uber driver learned where we were headed and what we were headed to do, he played Redemption Song for us, hopefully setting the tone for this trip.​ ​On the four and a half hour drive from Albuquerque to Artesia under the big New Mexican skies, we encountered rainstorms and tumbleweeds.

Upon arrival we met with the pro bono project crew on the ground in Artesia- one attorney and two paralegals- in a community church, whose location remains confidential for safety. The small team on the ground is doing impressive work with minimal resources. They have remote teams across the United States gathering supporting documents for cases, writing bond motions, and doing translations, among other things. There are no legal services in Artesia, NM.  The three-person team in Artesia assembled from around the country to provide on-the-ground continuity to this evolving situation.  Apart from these three individuals (again ​only one of whom is an attorney), the only legal representation these women and children have is the small teams of immigration attorneys who take turns to fly in each week ​from all over the country ​to provide leapfrog continuity of pro bono legal representation here.

​The 400-500 women and children are currently being held at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC).  The average age of the children appears to be 3-4 years old.  The court, judges and government attorneys are all in Denver, Colorado, so we appeared via video conference television (VTC) with the individuals we represented, while everything else occurs in Denver, Colorado.

My very first observation of the detention center in Artesia was that it reminded me of stories I have heard from Japanese Americans who were children in internment camps. The detention center is entirely comprised of trailers. The detainees are housed in trailers. The courts are trailers.

U.S. asylum law, which comes from the UN Refugee Convention and was codified into law by Congress, requires that if these women and children express a fear of return to their home country that they are given an interview with an asylum officer. If they pass the interview, then they get to see a judge to adjudicate their asylum case and are eligible for bond.  If they don’t pass their asylum interview, they have the right to ask an immigration judge to review the denial and possibly overturn it, so they can present their asylum case before the immigration judge.  In Artesia, ideally, once they pass their asylum interview or get a judge to reverse the denial of their asylum interview, we get them out on bond and their court case gets transferred to the court nearest to where they go to live. Once/if they get out of detention, their court case slows down significantly usually.  This is advantageous to these families as it gives them time to gather the evidence to support their case, find a lawyer, process the fear they have in order to better communicate it, etc.  We learned that before the pro bono project began in Artesia, the majority of the women were not passing their asylum interviews.  With the arrival of lawyers from the pro bono project, that percentage has flipped here in Artesia, with the vast majority of women passing their interviews.

“The Weight That These Women Carry is Profound.”  
On average our days in Artesia ran from 5:30am to 1:30am, logging in around 4 hours of sleep a day.  We entered the facility in the cool dawn hours and left at dusk. In between those hours, when we would step out of the attorney trailer or the court trailer to move between trailers, the bright sun and the bland backdrop of the white trailers that comprise the detention center and the neutral Southwest landscape were blinding.  After leaving the detention center, we went to the church to meet together to troubleshoot cases, receive updates, and doll out the next day’s cases and workload.  After the group meeting, we would begin preparing our cases for the next day.

Our team filled a variety of roles. At the detention center, some of us would meet with women and kids in the attorney trailer to prepare their cases. The list of these consultations was on average around 60.  Others would be in court representing the women in their bond and asylum hearings in two court dockets that averaged around 15 cases a court.  Still others would stay behind at the community church to prepare innumerable filings.

The women we saw were mostly from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. They were all fleeing either gang or domestic violence or both.  They shared stories of kidnapping, rape, abuse, extortion and threats.  The weight that these women carry is profound.  Most of the women came to the attorney trailer for consultations with their children. They often have to recount these horrific stories of rape, domestic violence, abuse, and other threats with in earshot of their children.  We would do our best to remove the children during these moments, but even separating mom from child(ren) was cruel in itself.  As a distraction, ICE would put on a children’s video and tear out pages of coloring books and give the children crayons that they have to return when they leave the legal trailer.

Most of the children had coughs, some had sores on their faces, one kid had a growth on his face.  There have been chicken pox outbreaks here, leading to quarantines. Many of the children who are old enough to be weaned from bottles have regressed to bottles. Some moms reported their children were sleeping for distressingly long hours.  I read medical records of a 5 year old reporting to the clinic here that expressed that his level of pain was between 7 to 8 on a scale of 10.

We heard that some of the little boys have started to pretend they are ICE agents, mimicking them at count (when the guards count the detainees to confirm that everyone is still there).

Another Disturbing Observation Is How Quiet the Kids Are In Artesia. All day we are surrounded by them either in our consultation area in the detention center or in court.  They all seem so sedated and low energy.  I spent two days working with one mother and her 16 month old. The child’s face was always tear-stained and yet he never made a peep or fussed.

photo-59Federal law requires that the children in detention are provided schooling. Although the detention center has been open since July, school started one week ago for three hours a day and then was suspended indefinitely.
In order for the women and children to meet with us, the pro bono project would submit a list to ICE the day before of the people with whom we would like to meet.  Even though the pro bono will serve every inmate, the project does not get a list of the newly arrived women and kids. They are dependent on the longer-term residents to bring them to our attention.  They do these through scraps of paper-papelitos. The women who are already clients of the pro bono project and are called in for a meeting bring these scraps of paper with the name of a new woman, sometimes her housing unit and a question written on it to the attorneys in the legal trailer.  Apparently, they used to hide these in their bra straps and underwear because they were not supposed to be passing us notes.  It’s moving to see the quantity of these papelitos and the way in which existing clients help out new arrivals.

It was odd surrounded by family units comprised of mothers and young kids.  FLETC doesn’t house men or unaccompanied children, so by nature of being in this place, the people here are in these units of mom and kid. Walking around the detention center, it’s one of those observations that only slowly grows on you- where are the men? Incidentally, all the guards we saw were men.

“Because All The Inmates Here Are Women With Children, In Every Hearing There Are Children Present.”
In court, the attorneys for the government, who again are in Denver in their normal offices, are disturbingly zealous about their arguments. They make sickening arguments that these women and children represent a risk to U.S. national security.  Again, these are women and children with no criminal history.  In opposition to their release on bonds, they argue that “detention is especially crucial in instances of mass migration,” and that these women and children are part of an “active migration network” that jeopardizes our national security.   They argue that by releasing these women and children on bond we are encouraging and enabling the dangerous passage to the United States, human smuggling and transnational criminal organizations. As I began to understand their argument more, they are not arguing that these women and children are danger to the community, but that mass migration is a national security threat because it diverts precious security resources away from real national security threats. It’s a circular argument since if the government followed normal protocol, these women and kids would be released on their own recognizance, ankle bracelets, or minimum bonds of $1500 and not detained. It seems to me that the decision by our government to detain these family units in the most resource-intensive manner, given the incredibly high costs required to detain people, is the true diversion of government resources from actual national security issues, not the arrival of these refugees itself.

Prior to the Denver judges, these Artesia cases were being heard in Arlington, VA.  In response to the government argument, initially the judges in Virginia were setting bonds around $20,000 to $30,000.   Immigration bonds must be paid in cash, generally speaking, and there are very few bail bondsmen willing assist with immigration bonds.  For perspective, the highest bond I have ever had in any of my prior cases was $10,000, for a former MS-13 gang member with a criminal history.  With the new Denver judges, the bonds are being set at much more reasonable quantities, $1,500 to $12,000, which is a huge improvement, though incredibly arbitrary for the women who had bond hearing previously and are stuck with a $20,000 bond they cannot pay.

As things improve here – with the arrival of lawyers from the pro bono project, with different judges in Denver than in Arlington, and as the pro bono project improves- this is a secondary injustice that is palpable Artesia – the unfairness to women and children who had their cases decided before any lawyers arrived and/or before the judges had been changed.  Many of them are approaching their 4-month mark of detention.  These are some of the longest residents/detainees in at FLETC and they have to watch as new arrivals get favorable decisions more quickly and with greater ease and bond out before them.  Women and kids with these bad, earlier decisions are often in a lengthy legal labyrinth involving appeals, requests to reconsider, and filings to federal court.  When we met with these women, they are very demoralized and frustrated, some are angry.  I think they see the pro bono project as somehow responsible or at least a cog in the machine of this terrible process.  Some of these women have organized and wrote a letter to the pro bono project voicing their frustration.  Their mobilization is moving and we empathize with the unfairness, and yet at the same time lawyers here are working around the clock to equitably represent everyone.

Even with the two Denver judges, there is a huge discrepancy between the bonds being given out in one courtroom to the next. At the same time, in front of a more difficult judge, our role as advocates is that much more important than with a more sympathetic judge where it is less clear the difference we make.  Even in front of the same judge, however, our team of attorneys was very hard-pressed to identify what set of facts or what argument persuaded the judge to grant a $1,500 versus a $4,000 bond.

In court, the only people in the trailer are the lawyers (typically two of us) and an ICE officer. The women are brought in two at a time for their hearings.  Court occurs via video conference on a television the size of my desktop commuter. We sit at a small card table with the woman and her kid(s) in front of this small television. Some attorneys who have been here previously and left took pro bono cases with them and appeared telephonically in a few of their hearings. I was extremely impressed with the quality of lawyering from these attorneys who took these souvenir Artesia cases home with them.  They presented exceedingly compelling and articulate arguments that served as crib notes for the two of us on the ground in the court trailer as we familiarized ourselves with cases in 5-10 minutes before the women and kids’ hearings.  Some of these pro bono attorneys agreed to represent their clients or had lined up pro bono counsel for them wherever they are going through the rest of their immigration proceedings. One had lined up a pro bono surgeon to operate on her client’s daughter’s clubfoot.

Because all the inmates here are women with children, in every hearing there are children present.  In that way, it’s not unlike the family and children’s “rocket dockets” that are occurring for non-detained individuals in San Francisco and across the country – children sitting backwards in chairs, running around the table, sleeping or crying during the hearing. When the judge was swearing in one woman for her bond hearing, her 5-year-old son, mimicking his mom, raised his right hand with a paper airplane in it, swearing to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. One 4-year-old fell asleep and then fell off his chair during the middle of his case.  Another kid during his court case emptied a solo cup of crayons and start talking into it, mimicking, it seemed, the muffled sounds of judge and government attorney coming through the video conference television.  The older children sit still, seemingly understanding the seriousness of what’s at stake in these hearings.

We represented women who spoke the indigenous languages of Q’anjobal, Popti, and Mam. An indigenous Q’anjobal-speaking woman from an isolated part of Guatemala couldn’t stop giggling, revealing her shiny silver capped teeth, when she saw someone speaking her language to her through a TV.  We witnessed relay-interpreting for a few hearings, when there is no translator who speaks the indigenous language and English. A Mam-interpreter translates to Spanish, then the Spanish interpreter translates to English.

photo-58“Artesia — A Town Where Oil Is The Big Industry and Religion Is Important.”
Beyond the beyond Kafka-esque legal process some of these women find themselves in, the actual detention center is one of smoke and mirrors.  Each day new buildings would pop up.  School happened for one week and then was suspended indefinitely.  The biblioteca(library) for the women and children has no books.   During our stay, a parking lot was created that we were told cost $500,000!  Also during our stay they brought in an attorney bathroom trailer (which was a mixed blessing because while it was new and clean, at the same time, with the prior arrangement, the bathroom was one of our only unmonitored interactions with the women and children).

Artesia is a town of 11,000 where oil is the big industry and religion is important. We were told to not talk about the work we were doing with people from the town.  Visually, one can’t help but notice how the town does not look all that much different from the detention center- lots of trailer homes and very washed out, sad buildings. In our delirium of lack of sleep where tragedy slides quickly into hilarity, we joked that as women were finally released from the detention into the town of Artesia that they would ask where the second exit is to the detention center.  Guards who often have military service backgrounds confided in us that they are embarrassed when they transport released women and children through Artesia.  They said they would prefer a detail in a war-torn country than to here.

Looking back on the long, open, empty drive from Albuquerque to Artesia, I can’t help but think how there is plenty of room in this country for these women and children and how much more the United States could do to absorb these women and children.

The railroading of human rights in Artesia was unbelievable. At one of our meetings, an attorney in our group brought up a rebuttal to the government’s national security argument- that the obliteration of rights going down in Artesia is the real national security risk as it compromises and endangers the United States abroad when we expect actors in other countries to abide by basic precepts of human rights.

While I am still trying to digest what I witnessed in Artesia, I have to say that this was the most incredible experience I have had as an attorney. I am both inspired by all the lawyers and others involved in the pro bono project and extremely concerned for the permanent team in Artesia.  I am not alone in saying that I am going to do everything I can to come back and help.

And finally, wonderful news:

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