The three weeks are a kaleidoscope of shifting images: visual, auditory, sensory, and emotional. From 90 degree heat to heavy, cold, rain and flash flooding. It hadn’t occurred to me to bring sweaters to the New Mexico desert. Apparently it hadn’t occurred to the U.S. government either, as many of the mothers and their children ‘detained’ in this hastily thrown together prison had only plastic sandals as footwear through the several-inches-deep puddles. And more than one woman was forced to duct tape her sandals together when they cracked nearly completely across, told that the commissary “didn’t have their size shoe.” Blankets were worn in lieu of jackets and children continued wearing shorts in wet, 65 degree weather because the government didn’t have long pants or jackets. All the while, just up the road, the local Chamber of Commerce was turning away donations of clothes and toys and toiletries, because the U.S. government would not allow them to be distributed to the detainees, and the Chamber no longer had space to store the items.
We still have not gotten a satisfactory answer to the question of why the donations could not be distributed. But apparently, like everything about this rapidly constructed change in national detention policy, it has something to do with our “national security.”
I’ve lost count of the women to whom I tried to explain: “you and your children are in prison here because you happened to be part of a large number of vulnerable women and children fleeing Central America this year. . . and there were so many of you, that you terrified the United States, and putting you all in prison is their response.”
As an immigration attorney, an important part of my role is to interpret a foreign, terrifying, bureaucratic nightmare of contradictory forces full of traps for the unwary in a way that educates and hopefully empowers the client with whom I am speaking. Sometimes this interpretation is easier than others, but as current U.S. immigration policy is not typified by logic or reason, explanation is inevitably challenging, and interpretation in a way that educates and empowers often requires a crash course in current U.S. politics. Explaining how young women, with their infants and children, running for their lives from violence and threats against which they had no other protection, threatened the national security of the most powerful nation on the planet was particularly Kafkaesque.
Fortunately, there was rarely time for that level of interpretation. Most days we arrived at the facility before 7:00 a.m., we were rarely through with hearings and interviews before 6:00 p.m., and our daily staff meeting/case conference which began at 7:00 p.m. lasted until we were done. . . almost never before 10:00 p.m. It was a major concession on the government’s part when they agreed to stop holding interviews on week-ends. That meant that the project attorneys could now spend Saturdays and Sundays focused entirely on working directly with clients, and we could skip the staff meeting/case conference in favor of a night off one evening a week.
The faces, names, and stories run together. I was fortunate, because I was able to volunteer for nearly three full weeks, working consistently with a handful of clients woven through countless others with whom I only met once. Given that we are paying for this work out of our own pockets, with some expenses reimbursed by donations, and given that most of the attorneys are volunteering at the cost of their own employment, vacation time, or private practices, few of us are able to stay more than a week or two at a time. Most of us take at least one, if not two or more, cases home with us. And most of us who volunteer come home committed to returning, if at all possible.
The experience is intense, and embeds in us the faces and the stories, and moments of human connection. Singing Las Mañanitas and Happy Birthday to a beaming seven year old, her mother’s eyes echoing the tears in all of ours–the songs, a couple of hair bands and a page of stickers we hastily signed with our dreams and wishes for her were the only gifts we were allowed by the government to offer. (And even the stickers were proscribed shortly thereafter, as they allegedly became both litter and objects of conflict). It is impossible, although I tried a few times, to express my deep admiration for the strength and force of character of all these women. Most have endured one or more violent attacks–rape, kidnapping, extortion, sexual and physical assaults, all ending in social ostracization and isolation. Most of them only made the difficult choice to flee when their children became the targets of the violence with which they themselves had learned to exist.
On the scale of social vulnerability, women with young children are among the most vulnerable. In societies being torn apart by gang violence, where violence against women is both widely accepted and rarely punished, young mothers with no male protectors become easy pickings. No one becomes a refugee by choice, and mothers do not flee with their children unless they have no other alternatives. And yet our nation’s response to these refugees is to label them a national security threat and imprison them.
An important normative principle underlying international relations is that of the proportional response. At the same time, the inability to measure proportionality from any perspective other than its own sense of (in)security is an inherent weakness of the powerful—whether nation, party, corporation, group, or individual. Power almost inevitably over-reacts to perceived threat, sowing the seeds of its own eventual destruction. Women and children fleeing violence are refugees, not a national security threat. Imprisoning them is a deeply counter-productive response.
Over the three weeks, on my commute to and from Artesia, the only music I could stand to listen to was Ariel Ramirez’s Misa Criolla. Ten Piedad de Nosotros will always remind me of the women I met. The humility of piedad in the face of their courage would be a far more appropriate national response.
One final iconic image from my last evening in Artesia: blowing in the wind against the grey clouded sky, a large, faded, very tattered, American flag.
Written by Marti L. Jones, AILA Member and Artesia Volunteer
If you are an AILA member who wants to volunteer at Artesia or elsewhere, please see our Pro Bono page or feel free to contact Maheen Taqui at email@example.com–we have volunteers scheduled through mid-October but are looking for more as the work continues and we could really use your help.
If you aren’t able to come help in person, consider donating at http://www.aila.org/helpthevolunteers. And thank you!
To watch videos of the volunteers sharing their experiences, go to this playlist on AILA National’s YouTube page.