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New Mexico immigration detention center filled with sadness, defeat

In early July, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement set up one of several makeshift detention centers in remote Artesia, N.M., to "manage the large influx of women with children arriving in south Texas seeking asylum from desperate conditions in Central America."

Since then, the facility has drawn heated controversy, with charges of general mistreatment and a systematic denial of asylum rights to detainees housed there, many of whom are fleeing extreme violence in their homelands.  

In late July, lawyers from the American Immigration Lawyers Association put out an open call for volunteers to provide pro bono legal counsel to detainees in Artesia. Angela Ferguson, an immigration lawyer based in Kansas City, Mo., with 27 years of experience, took them up on the offer. NCR spoke with Ferguson, who was in Artesia from Aug. 10-16, to learn more about what she saw there.

NCR: How did you become involved with the situation in Artesia?

Ferguson: The national office of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) in Washington D.C., realized that there was a problem down in Artesia, and they wanted to do something about it. So they sent some of their past presidents down and put out an immediate call for volunteers. I think I was down there the third week they were in operation. It was chaos then, but it was even more chaotic in the first couple weeks. AILA got access to the detainees and got a system in place.

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[The situation] is changing each week. Now, it should change even more because of the lawsuit that was filed against the government for what it's doing to these women.

Who filed the lawsuit?

The ACLU, the American Immigration Council [an arm of AILA], and the National Lawyers Guild.

What does it address?

Well, the conditions that the women are in, the lack of due process, the lack of access to attorneys, and the failure of our government to follow the law.

Let's back up a bit to help readers understand the overall situation. People, women and children, mainly from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, are leaving their homelands -- often fleeing extreme violence -- and they're showing up at the border. How does is all play out?

Almost all of the women that we encountered -- not all of them, but most of them -- had paid someone to help them with passage through Guatemala or Mexico up to the border, typically through bus rides. Most of the women were apprehended in the Rio Grande Valley. There were rafts available for them to get onto and get across the river. Coyotes, or someone, provided [the rafts]. They describe a walk from the bank up a small mountain -- and almost every single woman we [met with] had children, babies up to teenagers -- and then Border Patrol is at the top.

Just waiting there for them?

Pretty much. Or the women waited there for Border Patrol to show up.

So they know what to expect?

I think so. And they're reporting to Border Patrol that they're afraid to go back home, but Border Patrol is oftentimes writing in their initial reports that the woman came to work. That's it.

Why Artesia?

I truly do not know. They call it a Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, [a place] where Border Patrol agents, judges, prosecutors are sent to get trained when they're taking a position with Immigration. [The Artesia center] was easily expandable, so they put in trailers -- FEMA-type trailers -- and tents. They have detailed guards from all over, from different detention facilities and different U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement offices. There were officers from Kansas City that were down there.

What's Artesia like?

It's flat and ugly ... in the middle of nowhere. It's 30 minutes from Roswell, N.M. ... not much to do.

What was your experience like working at the detention center?

You'd present your identification and be transported into the facility by van. And the transportation wasn't always great or reliable. You may wait 10 minutes, you may wait an hour and 10 minutes for the van to come and get you. That's time that you need to be spending with your clients.

There was a two-room trailer, one-half of which was given over to the lawyers. The other half was given over to a waiting room. They'd bring in the prisoners and then we would call them out as we could see them. The law library was just one big empty room with tables. And, you know, you're sitting at these tables -- there may be a foot or two of space between each table -- and it's one lawyer and the mom and her kids, and they're talking about their case right next to someone else who's looking over and listening. No confidentiality at all.

Where were the detainees kept?

Just down the road a little ways. They had to be loaded up into a van and driven to their dorms. I think that there were four separate dorms. And each room housed four families.

Each room?

Each room had four families.

Did you see the rooms?

We did not get to see the rooms. We could only peek in the windows.

And what did you see?

Just the edges of bunk beds. The children were required to sleep on the top bunks and the mothers on the lower bunks, I guess so they would be aware if the kids were getting out of bed or trying to leave the room at night or something.

How many detainees were at Artesia when you were there?

Around 650.

Tell me more about the guards.

They're everywhere.

What are they like?

[As with] any detention facility, there were some who were friendly and humane to the detainees and took their power very seriously, and some who treated them awfully. We heard stories of detainees being called "pigs" -- "come to the feeding trough for your dinner" -- and "dogs." All different kinds of horrible names.

In Spanish or English?

In Spanish.

Do all the guards speak Spanish?

Yes, that's a requirement for them.

What kinds of emotions are on display inside Artesia?

A lot of sadness and defeat. Every single family that I sat down with, one of them was sick. They kept the rooms freezing cold. The head guard in our area said that cold temperatures helped kill germs. And so you would see the children and the mothers with their towels, with their washcloths, around their shoulders -- anything that they could find to get warmth. And a guard would come in later and just take away all their towels.

You saw that?

Oh, yeah. I mean, we were freezing there. And they're sick, they're coughing.

How are detainees processed?

Well, if the person expresses a fear of returning to their home country, an asylum office will set up an interview with them to talk to about their "credible fear" to determine if they have a credible fear of being sent back. If they pass that interview, they're scheduled to meet with an immigration judge, and they have their very first deportation hearing. The judge would instruct them: "You passed your fear interview and now we're going to give you opportunity to apply for asylum. Here's the asylum application. Come back in two weeks and present it to me, and if you do that then we'll set a trial for your asylum."

OK, so that's how it's supposed to work in theory. What's the reality?

Well, they may have an interview with the asylum office, but the asylum officer doesn't get to the crux of the case. They don't ask the questions that matter. [For example,] they may not get the person to talk about the gang rapes that happened because they're being interviewed by a stranger without a lawyer, and their children are sitting right there with them, and the mothers don't want to talk about that in front of their kids.

Are the mother's children always present?

They're not allowed to be separate, [even though] the claim for asylum can be based on domestic violence.

What happens if credible fear is not established?

If the officer finds a negative credible fear, then the detainee gets sent to the immigration judge and gets a review. ... And if the detainee is still is not represented, the judge just goes through the same questions that the asylum officer asked -- it is all typed up -- and the same thing is repeated.

A typical thing that we saw is that the mothers actually fled their countries because they were in fear for their child's safety, because the child had been threatened to be kidnapped or a gang was stalking the child. ... But the officers oftentimes only talked to the mother and didn't interview the teenage boy or girl.

When the free lawyers arrived, word spread through the detention facility that we were available. When we interviewed the people, we said, "They didn't ask you that? They didn't talk to your child? They didn't give you privacy to talk about the rapes?" We were able to get the asylum officers to reinterview many people. ... Many decisions were reversed and detainees got a second chance and got positive credibility findings.

A story over at Global Sisters Report states that where immigration officers usually perform two to three interviews a day, in Artesia they're doing upwards of 20.

Oh, gosh, yes. I think the head asylum officer told us that since July 1, they had made 570 decisions with only five officers. That's pretty incredible.

Is what's happening in Artesia legal?

No. I think that our government has an obligation under international human rights treaties and under our immigration law to provide them with due process, to provide them with the opportunity to apply for protection, and we're not doing that.

Is it immoral? We can talk about legality, but more generally what's happening in Artesia just seems wrong.

It is. We are sending people back to be slaughtered when they have a credible fear. Many of them have brought their documents to show what they're afraid of if they go back. And in many [ways], some of the instability in those countries [like Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador] our government helped to create. We're not extending protection to people who are asking for safety and security for their lives, for their children. I think that's pretty immoral.

[Vinnie Rotondaro is NCR national correspondent. His email is vrotondaro@ncronline.org.]

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