Faith in Action and Family Detention in Artesia Part 1

Jul 29, 2014
Jeanne M. Atkinson

Last week, I visited the family detention center in Artesia, New Mexico, and saw first hand how our country is responding to the issue of women and children seeking refuge at our border.  I also had the opportunity to see in action how the Catholic Church is responding to these same women and children.  The following blog is the first of two in a series of featured posts on the extraordinarily difficult situation faced by migrants and the receiving community at the Artesia family detention center.

Before driving the 3 hours to Artesia, New Mexico, I visited Project Oak Tree, a shelter run by the Diocese of Las Cruces. The name, Project Oak Tree, comes from Genesis Chapter 18, in which Abraham, "bowing to the ground," welcomes three travelers and offers them food, water to wash their feet, and rest under a tree.  Similarly, the one staff member and one hundred volunteers at Project Oak Tree provide showers, meals, clothing, toiletries, travel assistance, and a place to sleep for the women and children who have been allowed to live with family or friends in the United States while awaiting their removal (deportation) proceedings.  The volunteers have not been called into action in more than a week, however, because the numbers of arrivals have dropped and because the U.S. government is detaining most of the families that arrive at our border.  Many of those detainees are being sent to Artesia.

The juxtaposition between the two responses is stark.  At Artesia, where the facility is still under construction, women and children are being housed in sterile mobile units on rocky, desert terrain on the grounds of a Customs and Border Protection training site.  And they are marked for quick deportation; instead of in-person proceedings with a possibility of having representation, they will receive, if anything, a televised moment with an immigration judge thousands of miles away in Virginia.  Although largely well-meaning, the officials at the Artesia detention facility are unable to create an appropriate environment for children and one where the due process rights of the women and children are met.

I came away from the trip convinced that we, as a society, need to use alternatives to detention for families, models of which are already in use and should satisfy the government's need to ensure the families show up for their removal proceedings (at a significantly lower cost).  I also came away proud that the Church is in the forefront of offering these programs, as well as many other types of support, service, and welcome, just as Abraham and Sarah did so many years ago.

Jeanne M. Atkinson is the Executive Director of CLINIC.