Making an Example Out of the Most Vulnerable

Child from Honduras

This post is the second in a series that will delve into the plight of the Central American children and families fleeing violence in Central America. The series will examine the historical context of the crisis, challenges that refugees face, international human rights obligations, and costs of a response.

I spent the week of July 28th at the Artesia “family detention” center, a four-hour drive from both Albuquerque and El Paso. I was part of a group of roughly ten volunteers (attorneys, translators, and administrative staff) trying to stop warp-speed deportations and to see that the “residents”— mothers with their children — received some modicum of due process. This was the first week there was a full-time volunteer attorney presence on-site during the month since the center opened.

The conditions there are abhorrent. The center houses over 600 people, from over 200 families.  ALL of the children are sick, with coughs at minimum. They are dehydrated and listless. Children are not eating, and there is little to no access to medication or to medical care. Mothers are afraid to ask for what little help exists because they fear being targeted for even faster deportation.

Mothers and children alike are all cold. There are no jackets or blankets. The “residents” (as ICE refers to them) wrap towels around their shoulders for at least some comfort, and mothers cover their infants with multiple washcloths in an effort to keep them warm. There is no school for the children, and no area to play. ICE requires children to be with their mothers at all times, even to the point of women breast feeding their babies while appearing before immigration judges.

The physical conditions, absence of basic fairness, and failure to release families from custody are so bad that some mothers are giving up, asking to be deported.

Deportation officers, rather than detention officers, staff the center. Deportation officers are trained to get people out of the U.S.; they are not trained to house and care for them. The officers have been pulled from around the country for “details” of varying lengths (typically from 45 to 90 days). They don’t want to be there, and unfortunately we heard that several vent their frustrations by verbally abusing the families

Every ICE detention facility is supposed to provide access to legal materials. At Artesia, the “law library” is housed in a FEMA trailer that holds two computers, one printer, a copier that was out of ink, and NO books.

Based upon our interviews, our volunteer group estimates that about 80 percent of the mothers and families in the center have valid claims for asylum. The majority of claims are based on domestic violence or gang issues. So, nearly all of the people in the center have credible fear of death or injury if they return to their home countries. But, the mothers and children in Artesia are being railroaded, and an unfortunate number of them have already been deported without the opportunity to even consult with an attorney. From the top down, the process seems to have been set under three simple operating principles: “Detain. Deny. Deport.”

Last week, both an asylum officer and an immigration judge ruled against a mother who had been beaten so severely that she miscarried. Before project volunteers could reach her, she was sent back to her home country, and to heightened danger. In many instances, the government is actively ignoring clear domestic violence claims.

Nationwide, 70 percent of people seeking asylum make it through the initial step of the asylum process, known as the credible fear interview. In Artesia, that percentage plummets to 37 percent. This is not an accident; it is a deliberate policy decision to deter future asylum seekers.

Our team prioritized preparing women for their credible fear interviews with asylum officers, representing them at credible fear reviews before immigration judges (who are “beamed in” from Arlington, VA), and requesting bond. As of today’s date, we are not aware of anyone actually being released on bond, though one attorney reported that an immigration judge set bond for one of his clients at $25,000.00. Representing the government’s position on bond, ICE is filing a boilerplate 131-page exhibit at all hearings, claiming that the mothers at Artesia are a “security risk” and therefore should remain in custody. Even families who have relatives and loved ones in the U.S. who are willing to house and provide for them remain jailed. And of course, ICE’s policy memos on placing people on parole after they have a positive credible fear determination are being completely disregarded.

About 200 women have requested a consultation with a pro bono attorney. The volunteers are struggling to keep up with nearly endless demand and best utilize limited resources. In some cases where there was an obvious error by the asylum office, volunteers succeeded at getting a new credible fear interview. Meanwhile, although the regulations require that detainees receive a free legal services list, none of the three organizations on the Artesia list provides direct representation. Only one — out of El Paso, a four-hour drive away — is available to come on site and do “Know Your Rights” presentations.

After the immigration judges deny (or set unreasonably high) bond, these mothers are given three to four weeks to prepare for individual hearings. They are expected to complete the 10-page asylum form (which is only in English, and many of them have little to no education or speak English) at the “law library” to present their case. Interview summaries written by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) are being used to impeach the women’s credibility if the document does not explain that they stated a fear of returning to their home country. Many of the mothers told us that they did state a fear of returning, yet CBP officials refused to believe them. Or, CBP first asked whether they intended to work in the U.S. Once the mothers responds with “yes,” CBP concludes that the person’s primary concern is economic and, therefore, she has no fear of returning to her home country.

In sum, the on-the-ground reality feels as though the worst of all of the border legislation that was proposed and failed at the end of July actually passed. Mothers and children are being herded through the system en masse, with absolutely no genuine regard for due process.

Why bother to change the law when our government can accomplish the same goals by limiting people’s access to attorneys and to release from custody until these mothers decide to give up? Why bother to change the law when mothers with their children can be rushed to a final hearing  — in front of a judge who is over 2,000 miles away  — on an application written in a language they don’t understand?

It shocks the conscience that we are making an example out of the world’s most vulnerable people after they arrive at our doorstep. These mothers need to know that at least some people in the U.S. are standing up for them.

By: Immigration attorney Kim Hunter, of Kim Hunter & Associates, P.L.L.C. Kim is a long-time volunteer with The Advocates for Human Rights. She received the organization’s Volunteer of the Year Award in 2008 for her work representing people seeking asylum. She is a member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association and the National Immigration Project, and is a frequent presenter on immigration panels at continuing legal education seminars.

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