Fighting for the Due Process Rights of Women and Children Refugees at the Family Detention Center in Artesia, New Mexico

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Under the United Nations Refugee Convention and U.S. Immigration law, an individual in the United States who expresses a fear of harm or torture upon their return to their home country is afforded the opportunity to apply for asylum protection. In order to qualify for asylum in the United States, a person must demonstrate that he or she has a well-founded fear of persecution (severe harm) because of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group and that the government in their home country is unwilling or unable to protect them.

Over the past several years, the murder rate in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala has skyrocketed, with the gangs targeting families for severe harm, sexual violence and death if they do not cooperate.  The danger is well-documented, including the October 15, 2014 Human Rights Watch Report, You Don’t Have Rights Here (http://www.hrw.org/reports/2014/10/16/you-don-t-have-rights-here-0).  As a result, fearing for their lives, many women and children have fled their home countries for countries where they believe they will be safe; countries like Costa Rica, Panama, Belize, Nicaragua and the United States (http://unhcrwashington.org/children).

On June 27, 2014, in response to the increase in individuals from Central America seeking refuge at the southern border of the United States, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) opened a “Family Residential Center” at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Artesia, New Mexico. It is here (and at a similar facility in Karnes, Texas) that our government is detaining Central American women and children who have recently arrived at the southern border seeking the protection of our country from harm.

To provide some geographical reference, Artesia, New Mexico is located 40 miles south of Roswell, New Mexico, 200 miles from El Paso, Texas, and 240 miles from Albuquerque, New Mexico.  The nearest U.S. Immigration Court is in El Paso, Texas.  

These women and their children, detained in a remote facility hundreds of miles from any legal services providers, with essentially no contact with the outside world, were then pushed through the deportation process with unprecedented speed.  The prevalence of stories of intimidation and misrepresentations by ICE officers with the intention of coercing women into signing agreements for deportation is alarming.

Although U.S. Immigration Law, Regulations and DHS Policy Memoranda all indicate that women and children should not be detained, the DHS has adopted a no bond and no release policy for these families.

Quickly, DHS began deporting these women and children.  In early July, a few lawyers from the Colorado Chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) learned of the detention facility and essentially demanded access to their clients.  Through these clients, they learned the “Alien Numbers” of other women detained in the facility and alerted other AILA attorneys.  Under the leadership of our managing partner, David Kolko and others, AILA attorneys from Colorado and around the United States responded, traveling to Artesia to demand due process for these women and children and prevent the unlawful deportation of these families back to the countries from which they fled.

Since July 2014, AILA has developed the Artesia Pro Bono Project; each week several volunteer attorneys from around the country travel to Artesia, New Mexico at their own expense and volunteer their time to provide free legal representation to these women and children in an effort to protect the legal rights of these refugees.  These women appear before Immigration Judges via video-conference.  The women sit in a room in what is essentially a large shipping container, staring at an Immigration Judge who is hundreds of miles away on a computer screen and request release on bond in order to secure legal representation to prepare their asylum cases.

In October of 2014, I had the privilege of volunteering at the Detention Center in Artesia.  What I witnessed there was nothing short of heartbreaking.  

There are more than 400 families detained in Artesia. Many of the women and children have been detained for months.  The majority of these families have fled horrific violence and threats against their lives.  The trauma they experienced in their home countries is further exacerbated by the stress of being jailed with their children.  Almost every single child is sick. Almost every child has lost a significant amount of weight. The women are depressed.  Many have serious health issues – unexplained seizures, heart problems, severe migraines and unexplained facial paralysis abound.  The medical facilities in the Detention Center are not sufficient to provide the care that they need.  Despite a recent press-release announcing that children detained in Artesia will receive educational services, the children are not provided with any schooling.

In an effort to ascertain whether or not these families would qualify for asylum, many women are forced to recount horrific stories of threats, beatings, and rape in front of their children.

While I was very proud and honored to have been part of helping these families this week – advocating for release on bond for some individuals, assisting with applications for asylum for others – I was profoundly disturbed by the situation as a whole and ashamed of our government.  The protracted internment of innocent women and children, seeking protection from harm in their home countries, is not only shameful; it is contrary to both domestic and international law and policy.  And, it must end.

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Kolko & Associates is a full service immigration and naturalization law firm providing professional legal services to individuals and businesses throughout Colorado, the Rocky Mountain West, the United States, and the World. Our professional staff speaks English, Spanish, Korean, German, and Slovak, and we can arrange for translators in any other language.