The Impact of Artesia: One Volunteer’s Story
I was recently afforded the opportunity to go out to Artesia, New Mexico to assist the team of immigration attorneys that are providing free legal services to the over 500 detained women and children from Central America. I would be remiss if I were to say that I was not profoundly affected by my experience at the Artesia, New Mexico detention center. Artesia is a small, oil town with about 12,000 residents and is about 8 square miles in the northwestern part of the state, pretty much in the middle of nowhere. Interestingly, Artesia is home to the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) where training is provided to the United States Border Patrol, B.I.A. Police and the U.S. Air Marshalls. And this is where the detention center which houses the women and children who have fled their homes in Central America due abject poverty, and increased violence are being held. Many of the women are victims of spousal abuse and sexual assaults and most of children have suffered unimaginable abuse and neglect. Domestic violence has risen at an unimaginable rate, and one word resounds loud and clear, and it is fear.
In an effort to provide sufficient due process to the detainees who are calling the Artesia Detention Center home, a team of attorneys from places like El Paso, Denver, Miami, Portland, and Washington, D.C. have assembled to provide free legal services so that as many cases as possible are heard by an immigration judge (IJ). Before these attorneys arrived, many of these asylum seekers were be deported back to their home countries, back into harm’s way. Over the past month many of the detainees have bonded out and are now with family or family friends who are working to help these individuals turn their lives around.
During my time in Artesia, I attended a Legal Orientation Program (LOP) meeting. The objective of this meeting was to provide information regarding the immigration options available to these women and children. Our group had to be escorted into the facility by an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) member. The children, the few that I came in contact with, I will never forget. Their beautiful smiles, their attempts to entertain themselves or younger siblings were simply heartwarming. While there were no visible signs of toys, books, or activities for them, although I do understand that these things are available, they seemed perfectly happy chasing each other around. The median age of children here is six, so you can imagine the energy levels that those poor mothers are trying to keep under control in this desolate place they must call home.
Many challenges have arisen since the arrival of these women and children in Artesia. Many of the children are ill, some more than others. While there is an on-site medical facility, many of the children need to be seen by an off-site physician. Unfortunately, services are often refused at the local doctor’s offices and hospitals. When a child fortunate enough to be seen, the women are reporting that the post-visit instructions are often confiscated upon return to the detention center, leaving the mother without proof of her child’s illness and more importantly without the steps to help her child get better.
Another issue that the Artesia team has faced is that the detainees are reporting being denied both telephone rights and visitation rights. Many of these detainees have family that have traveled great distances to see and support them, families that want to have them released so that they can help them begin to heal the scars of abuse and neglect that have sent them to the United States seeking asylum. Thankfully, since my return to my office, I have heard that a calling card program has been put into place and measures are being taken for visitation rights.
Lastly, there is often a language barrier when a consultation takes place or when a case is being heard by an immigration judge. There are a number of women whose native language is not Spanish. Attorneys are most often encountering Mam, a language spoken in Guatemala. Other indigenous languages are K’che’ (or Quiché) spoken both in Mexico and Guatemala, Nauhtl, an Aztec language, spoken primarily in Mexico, also in El Salvador and Guatemala, and Ch’orti’, a Mayan language, spoken in both Guatemala and Honduras. More interpreters are now either volunteering their services during interviews and hearings or are being appointed by the Federal Government during hearings. Breaking this language barrier is allowing for the cases to be heard in a more timely matter and is resulting in detainees bonding out and leaving the detention center, a victory for the Artesia team each and every time.
This team of attorneys from Colorado, Texas, Florida, Oregon, and Washington, D.C., to name but a few places, have done an amazing job of representing these detained people. The emotional toll it has taken is visible each and every day after seeing clients and arguing cases, often 12-15 hours a day. It wasn’t uncommon to have an attorney break down in tears recapping a case they were preparing. Every victory, no matter how small, has been and continues to be encouraging. To date, several astronomically high bonds have been reduced to a more affordable rate; phone cards have been distributed to some of the detainees so that phone calls may be placed; more interpreters are being provided; several cases have been transferred to Denver, Colorado where they are being heard by judges who are considered politically independent of the immigration crisis; many detainees are beginning to be released to relatives here in the United States; most importantly, the presence of the Artesia team has slowed down the rate of deportation. Their empathy, dedication, conviction and compassion are immeasurable. This experience is forever etched in my mind, and if I were asked to do it again, my answer would be a resounding yes.