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Faith in Action and Family Detention in Artesia Part 2

Jul 31, 2014
Jeanne M. Atkinson

My first post discussed one of many examples of the life-giving work that the Church is doing to support immigrant families who are not detained and contrasted the Catholic shelter to the detention center in Artesia, New Mexico. Family detention is, unfortunately, a growing reality.  My colleague Ashley Feasley, Immigration Policy Advisor at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and I were struck by how much legal support is needed for these most vulnerable of immigrant women and children who are detained in Artesia.  CLINIC stands ready to use its resources to provide assistance, in concert with national partners.

Detained immigrant families struggle to access justice in Artesia.  First, it’s remote location—with high costs in terms of travel time and expenses (it costs almost $200 per night to stay in a hotel in Artesia)--makes it more difficult and costly to represent a client in detention, a particular challenge for pro bono attorneys. It takes three hours or more by car from the closest cities to Artesia--El Paso, Texas, Las Cruces or Albuquerque, New Mexico. Attorneys then have to maneuver the check in procedures and wait for their client to be found.  In some instances, we heard stories of lawyers having to demand to be allowed access to their clients or of a lawyer sitting in one part of the facility, waiting to see her client, while the client was being given a credible fear interview, a first but vital step of the asylum process, in another part of the facility. 

Second, detained women are interviewed for credible fear in front of their children, potentially traumatizing the children further. During the tour we saw the small interview room with two large desks to allow two interviews at a time.  Children’s toys were scattered on the floor near the interview chairs where the children sat within ear-shot while their mothers told wrenching stories of violence, exploitation, and desperation. Seeing the office furniture and the Spanish-language coloring books in such close proximity was a glaring reminder of the lack of adequate policies in place to protect these children (whose average age when we visited the facility was 6 ½ years old) from hearing about such acts of violence and persecution perpetrated against their mothers.

Another problem with due process in the facility is that the asylum officers are not interviewing the vast majority of children for credible fear when there is reason to believe that many of these children are at risk if returned to their native countries and may have stronger cases than their mothers.  Additional issues include the speed with which the government intends to hold credible fear interviews (7 days/week) and court hearings and the fact that the hearings will be by video teleconference using a small (20”) monitor, which makes it extraordinarily difficult to evaluate credibility.

Immigrants have a significantly better chance of relief from removal if they are represented by counsel.  By visiting the site, Ashley and I made it clear that the Catholic Church is concerned for these vulnerable women and children. CLINIC is sending two staff, one for a week and one for a month or more, to Artesia to 1) support our local partners, Diocesan Migration and Refugee Services and the Immigration Legal Services Program of the Diocese of Las Cruces, 2) to work with national organizations and pro bono attorneys who have stepped up to provide legal assistance to the detained families and 3) to ensure that due process is a part of the process.  Without assistance many of these families are being/will be sent back to the very persecution that they are fleeing.

Jeanne M. Atkinson is the Executive Director of CLINIC