Archive for the ‘Immigration, General’ Category.

Artesia Betrays America: Part III

Artesia1I have no way of adequately expressing the dismay, and loss and anger and hurt and woundedness that this week made me feel.  Finally I figured out the word.  It is betrayal.  I felt betrayed.  Deeply betrayed by something that I have dedicated my life to.  Another lawyer who was there in the first weeks after Artesia opened, Christina Fiflis, a member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association and the Chair of the American Bar Association’s Immigration Committee calls it the Artesia Effect, and describes it as trauma.  She is right; it is trauma.  I feel like that place took something from me that I will never get back.

As a lawyer, I have dedicated my life to this system of justice that despite all its flaws, is usually pretty darn good.  It is something that I have always been very proud of, the fact that if you are in our country you get the benefit of our due process, even if we may not like it.

I feel betrayed and traumatized by this place, by its very existence, by its petty daily arrows meant to demoralize already wounded women and children, by this Administration’s purposeful, systematic and callous disregard for our very laws, and for the colossal interagency mismanagement of some of the most vulnerable people on the planet: asylum seekers. I feel betrayed by the government lawyers who, with straight faces are arguing that children, 6 year olds, babies nursing from their mothers in court, should not get bonds because they are threats to national security. I feel betrayed by the immigration judges who are playing along with this farce of justice and agreeing with the government lawyers and denying the bonds, denying credible fear claims that should clearly be granted and generally not being an unbiased arbiter of the law but being rubber stamps of this Administration that for some reason has decided that mistreating women and children is the best way to “send a message” to any other Central American thinking of coming to the US that they better not come.

They are not “illegal.”  They are asylees.  There is no other way to seek asylum than what they are doing.  You cannot apply for asylum from outside of the country.  You must be physically present in the US to do that.  It is the very basic tenet of political asylum.  Your country has some situation going on that is out of control that is impacting you and causing you harm because of your race, religion, national origin, political opinion or because of your membership in a particular social group.  Your government is unable or unwilling to do anything to stop this harm.  You flee.  You arrive in the United States and you ask for asylum.  You don’t apply for a visa, you don’t wait in a line.  You run for your freaking life with your kids and the clothes on your back and leave everything you know.  You show up and you say please protect me from what is happening in my country because I am afraid to go back.  That is how you do it.  That’s it.  If a neighboring country is luckily enough to have a refugee camp set up by the UN or Red Cross you might be able to become designated as a refugee and apply while you are not in the US but you are still not in your own country.  You have fled.  I am simplifying it a little but the point is, they are not “illegal,” they are asylum seekers.  The fact that all of them may not, in the end have winnable asylum claims, does not mean they are any less asylum seekers, or any more illegal.

We are a country built on asylum seeking.  We are built by immigrants.  Built by people seeking refuge from other systems of governments that sought to oppress their rights and liberties.  We are supposed to stand as a beacon of freedom and hope.  We have a freaking statue that proclaims it.  “Give me your tired, your poor your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”  We are supposed to be the place you can go and seek shelter when your country has gone to hell because that is what this country was built on, built for, built by: people seeking a chance to not be oppressed, people seeking an opportunity to shine.  Artesia betrays everything that it means to me to be an American; all of our history; all of our struggles, all of our rhetoric and shiny ideals.  It says some restrictions apply.  It says those ideals only apply to certain people.  It says we are hypocrites who bend the rules in our own country when it is inconvenient to enforce them.  It shames me that this place exists.  It hurts my heart.  It belittles and devalues everything that I thought was great about this country.  Shame on this country for treating these women and children seeking refuge like this.

Recently we’ve had victories in Artesia.  After months of heartbreaking work, of dedicated volunteers closing their own practices, leaving their families and driving to the middle of nowhere New Mexico and spending their own money to stay in over-priced hotels, we proved President Obama wrong and showed the world what we all knew already.  These women and children are not economic refugees.  They are not coming here to just to work and escape a poor country they are true refugees with real asylum claims.  The first two cases that went to trial were granted asylum by immigration judges.  The first one was a hard fought victory by Christina Brown from Colorado and the second by Stephen Manning from Oregon.  Both attorneys have shown extraordinary dedication to this project being in Artesia for weeks at a time away from their families and practices with no compensation because this is how much this place affects you.  It eats at you and it rips your heart from your body.  These will be the first of many victories.  These women and their children are real and so is their fear.  Their stories are real and their need for asylum is real.  We cannot ignore our laws and skirt the process that we have created for vulnerable people all over the world to seek shelter within our borders.  It is what our country was founded on and for.  Artesia betrays us all.

Written by Angela Williams, 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–the end of September and early October are short on volunteers and we could really use your help.

If you aren’t able to come help in person, consider donating at And thank you!

To watch videos of the volunteers sharing their experiences, go to this playlist on AILA National’s YouTube page.

Artesia Betrays America: Part II

Artesia1People didn’t seem to matter in Artesia, not their comfort, not their privacy, not the simple human dignity we all take for granted.

There was deep and profound soul shattering heartbreak, watching these vulnerable women and children who have come to this country seeking asylum being systematically crushed and broken.

Every child in this place was sick.  Every. Single.  One.  Coughs, flus, runny noses, watery eyes, losing weight, not sleeping, vomiting, diarrhea, not eating.  Ever single woman without exception when asked if they had seen a doctor said that the nurse they had seen gave them Tylenol and told them to drink water no matter what was wrong with the patient.

One of my clients, who had been denied credible fear as a victim of domestic violence, something that should have been granted at the interview, and was denied credible fear again in front of the immigration judge, spent an afternoon telling me about the horrific abuse she suffered at the hands of her ex husband during their marriage and then after their divorce.  This was a hard enough story to hear.  She then told me that she was about ready to give up and go back even though she thought he would probably kill her for taking their son to the US because she had been treated so badly and was feeling so hopeless there in Artesia.

Here is the story of her first week in Artesia:  they arrived and her son, who is 6 had a cut on his arm that looked infected.  She and the son were told they had to be put into isolation so the son could be given antibiotics for 24 hours so he wouldn’t be contagious.  They put her into a room with her son alone.  They were not allowed out to eat or to let the kid play or exercise.  There were no toys or TV in this room.  After about 18 hours the doctor finally came to give him medicine, thus starting the 24 hours countdown.  One of the guards tried to cheer her up saying the 24 hours were almost over.  She told them the doctor had just come and begged them to at least put them in a room with some toys or a TV.  They did move her and her son to a room with a TV.  But inexplicably the 24 hours turned into 5 days.   They weren’t told why.  They weren’t let out except to be escorted to the bathroom.

At day 4 the mom got sick herself and was vomiting and having diarrhea.    She called the guard to ask to take her to the bathroom.  They told her she would have to wait.  She said she couldn’t, that she was sick.  No one came to get her and she ended up defecating in her pants.  She was telling me this in a room full of people, because there is no such thing as confidentiality at Artesia, the attorney room has no way to meet privately with your clients. She was crying, I was crying.  She said it was the most humiliating experience in her life, more humiliating than being beaten by her husband.  When the guards came to get her they laughed at her.  She had to walk across the compound covered in her own feces to the bathroom to take a shower.  Then she had to walk back in a towel because she didn’t have any extra clothes.   She was humiliated.  Her son was terrified.  She said she wanted to give up even if it meant going home and being beaten or being killed.  She was being treated like an animal and a criminal.  Her son had lost 7 or 8 pounds in 3 weeks.  And this is just one of the stories that I heard of women and their children being treated like sub-humans.  My federal criminal clients are treated far better

Look for my final thoughts in a post tomorrow.

Written by Angela Williams, 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–the end of September and early October are short on volunteers and we could really use your help.

If you aren’t able to come help in person, consider donating at And thank you!

Artesia Betrays America: Part I

Artesia1In June and July, the humanitarian crisis on the border lit up the news and it was all I could think about.  The headlines were full of unaccompanied minors, politicians and protesters; the front pages had pictures of children sleeping in warehouses that were too cold.  My practice started seeing an increase in minors who had been released to family in the area.  Their stories were harrowing: tales of coyotes and smugglers, of running through desserts, hiding from narcos, seeing children fall from moving trains. Those were the stuff of nightmares, and I started having them, thinking about the children every night when I went home.

I kept comparing the children fleeing to my nieces and nephews; I cannot imagine the conditions in their countries that would make the Guatemalan version of my sister decide that sending kids on a multi country trek to distant relatives in the United States is safer than allowing them to continue to live where they were.  No one can.  The more I thought about it the more I felt I had to do something.  I heard about a group of lawyers from Kansas City going to Artesia, New Mexico to help at one of the “family detention centers.”  I expected to go there and have a heartbreaking week, but I wasn’t truly prepared. What I experienced was worse than heartbreaking.  Going to Artesia was both the best and the worst thing I have ever done and it reminded me why I became a lawyer.

First, I was wrong about so many things.  Artesia has no unaccompanied minors; all of the children who are there are with their mothers, which I thought might make it better.  It doesn’t. Second, while I expected some level of poor treatment, I expected that a basic level of due process would be observed.  It is not.  Finally, while I expected to find some amount of institutional roadblocks and resistance to the lawyers there working on behalf of the women and against their right to seek asylum in general, I expected that it would be more along the line of snarky attitudes and semi-racist commentary.  In reality what is happening in Artesia is nothing less than a purposeful and systematic effort to deny these women and their children meaningful access, and in many cases access at all, to not just our asylum process but a very basic and simple level of due process.

This is the first of three blog posts about my time there, what I learned, and the outrage I felt there and still feel today. I know now that we must do everything we can to end the detention of families.

I struggled all week while I was there to put a word to what I was feeling.  There was the feeling of being emotionally assaulted by the horrible stories of these women.  The abuse they suffered in their countries, the terror they suffered at the hands of the gangs, their domestic partners, their husbands, their fathers, their fathers-in-law.  The abuse suffered by their children at the hands of family members, gang members, other children at school.  As a lawyer in a particularly emotional area of law, (I only practice family based immigration focusing on removal defense, waivers, and humanitarian cases like U visas for crime victims, or political asylum, and criminal defense) I have heard my share of horrible stories.  But I don’t usually have to hear them every day, much less 7 or 8 of them in one day, in horrible conditions where the client tells me the horrible reason she had to flee her country, then the horrible story of her journey to the US, then the horrible treatment she endured in the 5 detention centers she was at prior to Artesia, and finally the horrible treatment she has suffered since arriving.

There was the feeling of helplessness.  Every day was some fresh hell.  Some new petty bullshit that was meant to do nothing more than hinder the women’s access to the attorneys and break their spirits.  Women told us they were called dogs and pigs by the agents as they were given food.  One day the agent in charge decided no one could sit on the floor and no one could sleep in the chairs in the room where the women were waiting to meet with the attorneys.  Not even the children.  There was nothing for the children to do other than watch a TV that had a continuous loop of one of 6 DVD’s in English.  No toys, no coloring books, no paper or crayons to draw, no books, no magazines.  We brought coloring books and crayons.  The guard took them and told us they were contraband.  We brought magazines of cars and motorcycles.  The guards took them and said they were contraband.  We brought markers and gave them our copy paper to draw on.  The guards took them and said they were contraband.  The moms had to discuss their very traumatic stories, in rooms that offered no chance of confidentiality in front of their kids, because the kids had to be in the same room as the mother and there was nothing else to do in the room except watch DVDs in English.  That is not to say that every agent was mean and hateful, some were, in fact very kind and did much to try to make the women and kids try not to feel so sad.  Most were simply ambivalent and saw watching them as part of their job and nothing more.  But there were a few that seemed to take pleasure in harassing the women and children and trying to break their spirits.

There was extreme frustration.  The asylum officers would come in and call a client for an interview we had been told was later in the day.  The attorney that had prepped the client was in another hearing so someone unfamiliar had to go.  The guard would call a client for a hearing in front of the immigration judge, who was in Virginia and appearing by video the size of a laptop, 2 hours early because the time was told to us in Eastern time rather than mountain time.  We would meet with clients who would hand us small pieces of paper written by other women who had been asking for weeks to see us and who had never been allowed by the guards and who had to resort to writing a note, giving it to another woman who had an appointment and would slip it to us.  The notes would say their names and identifying “Alien” number and ask if we could request to see them because the guards wouldn’t let the woman come in herself.

We read many credible fear interviews that were denied that should not have been, where the interviewer just failed to follow the law and chose to ignore it.  We read interviews where the interviewer clearly did not care to ask anything but cursory questions, over and over.  We met with women that were forced to give their interview in Spanish when their native language was an indigenous dialect and were denied credible fear.   We read interviews that were denied and then spoke to the woman only to find out that she was afraid to discuss the details of her abuse, sexual assault, rape, stalking, extortion, threats, etc in front of her minor child who was present in the room at the time of the interview.  We talked to women whose families had hired private lawyers but who had not been able to speak to these lawyers because there was little to no access to phones.  Women were given one phone call a day that usually lasted 3-5 minutes.  They could sometimes earn additional phone calls if they cleaned the bathroom.  If they called someone and that person did not answer they did not get to call anyone else.  They were often not allowed to use the phones during business hours.  Their attorneys would ask them to fax documents to them and agents told the women that they could not fax without money in their accounts, but families were not allowed to put money into any account.

What else did I see? More to come tomorrow.

Written by Angela Williams, AILA Member and Artesia Volunteer

How We Got Here

shutterstock_140132866Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) – who has served in the U.S. House of Representatives since 1987, became the Chairman of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Claims in 1994.  Mr. Smith’s district includes most of the wealthier sections of San Antonio and Austin, as well as some of the Texas Hill Country.

After the GOP ascension to the majority in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1994, Rep. Smith focused on immigration reform legislation in both the 104th and 105th Congresses.   Rep. Smith’s ideas came to fruition in 1996 through the enactment of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRAIRA).

IIRAIRA was based on two main premises:

1.  To make life so difficult for undocumented workers that they’d leave, and then face the 3 or 10 year bars, or the worst: be permanently barred from returning;

2.  Label low-level misdemeanors “aggregated felonies”under the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) and subject those convicted of these minor crimes to mandatory detentions, so they’d be deported expeditiously.

The results of IIRAIRA however have been nothing less than disastrous.  We now have more undocumented migrants who cannot leave or they’d be subject to significant and often times impossible bars to reenter the U.S.  The lives of their U.S. born children and family members are often stuck in stagnation not knowing where they all will end up.  That is if they are lucky enough not to have to pay thousands of dollars of their hard earned money for legal fees they incur trying to keep their families together in one country.

In 1994, U.S. government records showed between 4.6 and 5.4 million undocumented persons living in the U.S.  As of 2012, the Pew Research Center estimates that this number has reached 11.7 million.  In 1994 immigration detention centers had about 6,280 beds.  Today, their Congressionally-mandated capacity is 33,400.

Rep. Lamar Smith, a fiscal conservative, was also wrong on the costs.  This overzealous enforcement is not free.  A March 2010 study by the Center for American Progress “calculates a price tag of $200 billion to deport over 10 million undocumented migrants in a 5 year span which is obviously impractical and would have hugely negative economic effects.  But while that’s a price tag, we actually pay an unnecessarily large bill every year on detention. For Fiscal Year 2014, the White House requested $1.84 billion for DHS Custody Operations – which translates into $5 million each day for detention.  What makes it worse is that so much of these tax dollars go to private prison conglomerates who simultaneously lobby the government for harsher immigration laws.  IIRAIRA has directly contributed to a booming prison-business industry at the expense of U.S. tax payers and the lives of migrant workers.

In any private business, which Rep. Smith praises profusely, such utter failure and mismanagement of company funds would result in an immediate termination of the responsible employee.  Not so in U.S. Congress.  While no longer having immediate control over immigration issues any longer, in the 113th Congress, Rep. Lamar Smith still chairs the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology which has jurisdiction over all energy research, development, and projects.

Written by Ally Bolour, Member, AILA Media Advocacy Committee

An Arduous Success in Artesia

Artesia1Friends – I share the good news that Lisa Weinberg successfully has obtained parole for one of our clients, a mother with a very sick toddler who had stopped walking and eating solid food since arriving in Artesia. As far as I know, this is the first order allowing release on parole of a family detained at Artesia.

The sad reality is that this is a child who should have been released from Artesia weeks ago, who had been hospitalized with pneumonia upon arriving, and who has never recovered from various illnesses in Artesia.  The mom and child plan to leave as soon as travel may be arranged.

This case is yet another example of why family detention should not be the government’s default setting in response to the regional humanitarian crisis. These families are fleeing persecution and violence but instead of offering safety, we make them jump through legal hurdles to get a sick kid out of jail.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that the mother and child are entirely free to go, they will be required to fulfill their obligation to appear for the immigration court proceedings that their case warrants, but at least they will be out of this unsanitary facility in the middle of a desert. They will be able to be cared for by family here in the U.S. and God willing, the child will get better.

Don’t take my word for the unsanitary conditions, read the Department of Homeland Security’s own Inspector General’s report of August 28, 2014.  Pages 2 – 3, note the presence of communicable disease, unsanitary conditions in the bathrooms, inadequate cleaning services, and unpalatable food – conditions that anyone who has spent time at the Artesia center can verify.

I urge my colleagues, and the public, to be aggressive in seeking release from detention for these women who are bona fide asylum seekers with viable claims of relief.

One very gratifying thing is that this victory is the outcome of perseverance and attention by a relay team of lawyers and other legal volunteers who worked sequentially and together to achieve the clients’ parole.  The mom was first represented by attorneys from Portland and Denver, then by NYC counsel, then Columbus, OH counsel, then Montana and El Paso, and finally by Lisa and her colleague Karen from Cambridge, MA.

This is the most “team” of team efforts I’ve ever been a part of, and I will continue to fight with all of you to provide these women and children the due process they deserve but that our government is trying its best to withhold from them. Our in-the-trenches model is truly a remarkable means for providing legal services to detained people in a remote location.

I am so proud to work with all of you.

Written by Deborah S. Smith, AILA Member and Artesia Volunteer

Judge Us by our Treatment of Child Refugees

41-zLDRiMRL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Over the Labor Day weekend, I read the personal memoir of a World War II child refugee.  A Long Way Home, by Bob Golan was published in 2005, although it was written from the contemporaneous notes of a 12 year boy whose family was driven from their home in Poland at the outbreak of World War II.  In the genre of Holocaust literature, we expect to read stories of cruelty, starvation, depravation and danger, and the extraordinary manner in which the survivors overcame the odds and lived to tell the story.  Mr. Golan’s account differs from the experience of concentration camps and ghettos. and instead, he tells the story of a child refugee as his family seeks safety but instead finds anti-Semitism and prejudice wherever they go.   Although the family escaped deportation to the concentration camps, they spent the war years as refugees learning to avoid and ultimately cope with extreme anti-Semitism, persecution and starvation in the Soviet Union.

The book is a compelling read, a story of courage, perseverance and the overwhelming will to live when faced with incredible deprivation, starvation, and disease.  The reader experiences anger and frustration caused by the anti-Semitism endemic not only from the Nazis, but from the Polish community and the USSR.  The reader learns  of the horror of the refugee camps in Ukraine during the early war years, a harrowing exile to Siberia, and the trek Mr. Golan ultimately took from Siberia to Tashkent, Tehran, and ultimately to Israel, where he arrived in 1943.  I don’t think my reaction of anger differs from most  readers because the horrible conditions were both unnecessary and the result of cruel and misguided prejudice and indifference.

But Mr. Golan’s story wasn’t just a story from the history of World War II.   I couldn’t help think of the reports I have been reading from colleagues in Artesia, New Mexico, and the stories of the women and children refugees from Central America, facing the same prejudice, deprivation, and the same barriers to resettlement and safety imposed by our own government.  Our government, the home of the free and the land of the brave, is acting on the worst prejudice of the population rather than our best instincts.   We are not talking about the anti-Semitism of Ukraine or Poland during World War II, the tyrannical policies of Stalin or the primitive isolation of Siberia.  In 2014, it is the United States government responding to refugees from Central American, mostly women and children, by incarcerating them in a remote location and deporting them without a hearing or serious consideration of the consequences.  We take only modest comfort that at least starvation is not part of the regimen in Artesia, but the crowded conditions, the isolation, and the inability of the children to attend school in an orderly, safe environment bears too much resemblance to the experience of Bob Golan as a 12 year old refugee in 1939.

Bob Golan’s hunger and fear was not relieved until he was identified by the Jewish Agency operating in Tehran in 1943, after which he was fed and clothed in safety for the first time in 4 years.   We are taught that the United States is a beacon of hope, that we have the resources, the compassion, and the means to provide safety and comfort for those who reach our shores as they flee from violence and fear.   I don’t understand how prejudice has permitted our government to define refugees as “illegal immigrants” in a misguided effort to deport them, and return them to violence and fear in the land they were forced to flee.  I am fearful that years from now, accounts of the way we are treating the refugees from Central America today will be compared to the treatment of Jewish refugees in 1939.   William Faulkner wrote that “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

But we really ought to be better than that past.

Written by Rob Cohen, Vice Chair, AILA’s USCIS Liaison Committee

Welcoming the Children to New York

photo 1On a hot, dusty summer day in the South Bronx, a small crowd gathered at a local church and community center, spilling into the street to escape the muggy air inside. By 8:30 AM, an hour and a half before our second Youth Assistance Fair of the summer was set to start, over a hundred recently arrived minors, mainly from Honduras, and their family members had already appeared. New York has received the second highest number of children from the surge at the border, with only Texas seeing more children being resettled within its boundaries. So far, we are over 4,000, all of whom have settled in NYC, the lower Hudson Valley, and Long Island. If predictions are accurate, we are on track to receive 8,000 or more total by the end of the year.

The Bronx event, the second in an ongoing series set to take place in and around New York City for at least the rest of the year, was conceived as a way to holistically address the needs of the unaccompanied children arriving here since the beginning of 2014.  In addition to a legal clinic, which offers free screenings to every child and family member who attend and who have not yet appeared in immigration court, attendees can meet with a variety of city, state, and non-profi t agencies and learn of the services available to them.

photo 2 The New York City Department of Education, the Administration for Children Services, the Human Resources Administration, and Healthy New York are some of the participating city agencies and are on hand to offer information on school enrollment, health insurance, public benefits families may qualify for. In addition, we have many community-based organizations and non-profits offer social services, including resources for victims of domestic violence, sexual abuse, and other, more typically child-appropriate issues.

At our first event, in downtown Manhattan in late July, information was handed out on a soccer league that welcomes unaccompanied minors every Saturday. At our Bronx event, Terra Firm, a medical-legal partnership at Montefiore Hospital geared towards unaccompanied minors, gave out information on where children could receive free mental health services. The initial event grew out of a planned DACA clinic, and was hastily transformed into the first Youth Assistance Fair in late July after the first set of released numbers revealed the impact of the surge on New York.

Future events have been designed to compliment the legal screenings set up in immigration court, where the five organizations who ha ve traditionally handled the juvenile dockets have worked to assure a presence in court at each priority docket – sometimes up to four dockets a day. Children screened in court do not receive a legal screening at the community events, although they are able to access all other information and services. Of the nearly 200 children who asked to speak to a lawyer in the Bronx, however, only one had already been screened in court. None of the children who sought legal services in Manhattan had been screened 3

Ultimately, nearly 350 people came to the Bronx event, and nearly 200 to the one in Manhattan.  Fairs are being scheduled in Brooklyn and Long Island in September, and plans are underway to return to the Bronx and schedule one in Queens and one in Westchester County in October. The strength of the community events, beyond the ability to bring a variety of services and information to compliment the legal screenings, is the sense of trust and comfort that is promoted by taking place in the community. Children played in the Bronx street, shut down for the day, while their parents dragged plastic chairs under the shade of the few trees.  A table with paper, crayons, and a few toys was set up for younger kids.  Church volunteers handed out sandwiches, watermelon slices, and cool water bottles to all who had come.

As the day’s activities wound down, they began making empanadas for everyone as well. And to volunteers, the experiences can be as meaningful as they are challenging. Far from the front lines at Artesia and the Southern Border, it is nonetheless rewarding to know that these children are not only armed with enough knowledge to speak up in court, but are also cared for in all other aspects of their lives.

Written by Camille Mackler, Co-Media Liaison, AILA New York City Chapter

What Does a Week in Artesia Look Like?

Artesia1AILA Member Megan Kludt headed down to Artesia to donate her time and knowledge, seeking to help the women and children jailed and facing an expedited deportation process. Here, in her own words, are a few snapshots from her days so far, for the full blog, see:


“I finally arrived in Artesia at 9pm today, after a couple of flights and a 4 hour drive through high plains and semi-desert. There is very little between Albuquerque and Artesia, aside from Roswell and some cows. Tomorrow morning at 6:45am, I’ll be meeting the other volunteer lawyers at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center that since June has been serving as a “family” detention facility for 600 Central American moms and their children…

I have been hearing horror stories from the lawyers OTG (on the ground) before me. I’ve been hearing about flagrant violations of human rights and mistreatment of the children (the average age of the children at this facility is 6.5)… about loss of dignity, about women having to recount stories of violent domestic abuse and rape in front of their children, about lack of food, clothing, medicine and respect for the inmates and crowding in close quarters…

Day 1

I had my first meeting of the day at about 7:15am with a young girl from El Salvador accompanied by her 7-year old daughter. She was very pretty and in El Salvador had had the misfortune of attracting the attentions of a prominent member of the M18 gang. When she refused his advances, he showed up at her house with 6 of his cronies to beat and gang rape her. As she still wasn’t persuaded, he arranged for 3 more such visits over the next 6 months and began to make threats on her life. She finally fled to the United States. She was caught on entry and appeared for several hearings, before finally accepting an order of voluntary departure from the judge and returning willingly to her country. The process had taken 4 years and she felt safer. She was gang-raped again within a week of arriving home, and again a month later. As if this wasn’t enough, her daughter was kidnapped for ransom two weeks later (a common occurrence for people coming home from any amount of time in the U.S.). She sold everything she had to pay the $5000, and bought back her daughter. They soon wanted more money and went after her teenage brother, landing him in the emergency room. With nothing left and everything to fear, all three of them fled again, and mother and daughter have been languishing in Artesia since June. An officer initially tried to deport her saying she had no fear of going home, but a judge overruled it. My goal will be to try to secure a bond for her so she can be released and apply for asylum outside of jail.

The next mother I met (at about 10) had a 2-year old and was fleeing a particularly brutal domestic violence situation in Honduras. Her bond hearing is scheduled for tomorrow, so this took up a great portion of my day. I still have yet to fax to the court my bond motion, exhibits and memoranda for this case and the hearing is at 8am. The judges appear by video from HQ in VA so I have no choice but to fax. I’ve now been told this particular judge will refuse all of my documents and set the bond hearing out to a later day, because she is refusing faxes. I’m told to “get it on the record anyway” but it’s a little disheartening. These detainees are trapped in the middle of nowhere and the judges are hearing their cases over a video, so faxing seems reasonable. There are no overnight courier services in Artesia. The child is two and sick with a persistent cough, she barely took her head off her mom’s shoulder throughout our interview. Her mother was in tears through most of the interview…

Day 2

I spent most of today meeting people to get to know their stories and prepare them for their hearings tomorrow, where we will make a request for the judge to set a bond to release them. Every woman has a child with her at these meetings, often between the age of 2 and 5. Some of them are sullen and cling to their mothers, others are bright-eyed and playful. A great many are sick, as there seems to be some kind of virus going around with the kids here…

Two representatives from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) toured the facility today…The prolonged detention policies in the United States have caught their attention; per UNHCR, detention should be avoided where possible and where necessary limited to a week or two in all cases due to the incredibly harmful psychological effects of detention. It should also not be discriminatory and should not inhibit refugees seeking political asylum. Almost all the women in the facility came to the United States seeking protection from severe physical harm or death. And then there are all the small children. Many of these children have been detained now for over a month, and some as much as two. Most have lost a lot of weight since arriving…

Day 3

Today, the presiding judge had hearings scheduled for about 15 women and their children. I was representing five of them and was hoping for a full bond hearing on three of them…At the start of the day, the judge (appearing by televideo from D.C. area in the court trailer) re-arranged the order of her cases for the day which created chaos for the guards who were trying to coordinate the transfer of women and toddlers to the court section of the facility…

One of my clients had a bond hearing; the other two were delayed until Wednesday for lack of time. The client who had a bond hearing came from Honduras with her 17 year old son, her 9 year old daughter and her 3-year old daughter. She was threatened at gunpoint by a gangster in her home town and left the country with her 3 children, fleeing the gangster, the increasing violence in Honduras, and crushing poverty. When the judge announced a bond amount of $22,000 for her to be released from Artesia, she disintegrated. I was at a complete loss as I saw my client burst into tears and collapse into the arms of her son. I sat with her in the next room afterwards as she wept, unable to look at me…

Day 5

…It’s impossible not to be moved by children. You smile at them instinctively. You want to protect them. But these children have been in jail for two months. Many of them don’t eat. They don’t like the food. They have diarrhea. Most of them have lost weight, some as much as 20% of their body weight. And above all else, these are bored little kids. They are now allowed crayons and coloring books in our waiting room, so they color for hours on end. There are few other toys…

One of my clients today asked me to arrange for her deportation. She was breastfeeding and said that her son will not consume anything at the facility and is sustained entirely on breast milk. He is constantly sick. She had her bond hearing and the Judge set a $20,000 bond for her and another $20,000 for the 1 1/2 year old. I’m concerned that returning to living in fear of her life in Honduras is preferable to her life in ICE custody. She cannot stay in Honduras; she is a refugee, but she will find another country to flee to next time.

…I’ve decided to extend my stay.

Day 6

This morning, I did bond preparation with the first client I met in Artesia (last week). Her bond hearing is Wednesday…I had to leave in the middle of the interview to get a hug from one of my colleagues.  I cannot imagine any worse suffering than what she has been through. If the bond on Wednesday is set high, I will truly lose all hope.

She gave me the government’s submission in opposition to her request for bond. The government is submitting identical 100+ page briefs in every bond case in Artesia. They argue that releasing the women and children detained in Artesia on a low bond would create a security risk for the United States because it would encourage further migration of central American women illegally across the border. In other words, we are detaining some Central American women and children as an example, to deter others from coming to the United States.

Days 7 & 8

We were scheduled for several bond hearings today. In the regular world, “bond hearings” in the immigration court last 10-30 minutes. In Artesia, they take almost 2 hours apiece. DHS has developed a theory that the Artesia children and their mothers pose a threat to national security if released on bond, because it will effectively encourage mass migration of more children and their mothers to the United States. We respond that these families are fleeing their lives in response to violence and persecution, rather than pursuant to a detailed understanding of the detention/bond process in the United States. Laura had some luck with her judge, earning a $5,000 bond for her family to get her out of Artesia. The hearing had to be stopped in middle so that our client could breastfeed…

Tomorrow, we will have our first “merits” hearing in Artesia. This means that the individual has not been able to post bond and is pursuing a request for asylum in the immigration court in Artesia at trial. Everyone will be watching tomorrow, including some news outlets. We have another hearing on Friday and on Monday.

…We are all still running on junk food, coffee and little sleep, but somehow it doesn’t seem to matter right now.”

Written by Megan Kludt, Artesia Volunteer

Let These Women Go

Artesia1There is a town in El Salvador where a woman named M-C- lived. In 2003, her husband beat her face until the purple welts glowed.  Your bloody face means you are mine, he said. He hit her for asking why he hit her. An open palm. A closed fist. On her arms. On her face. Beginning in 2004 and for the next ten years, he serially raped her. If you leave me, I will kill you, he said. And I will kill your father. To prove his point, he beat their daughter in front of her.

In this town in El Salvador, the people knew this woman was dying, but did not intervene. The police knew because she had the courage to call them. This is your life, they said. It is not our concern.  In 2011, 647 Salvadoran women were killed in femicide cases.

The U.S. Department of State reported the 2012 conviction rate for domestic or intrafamilial violence as 1.5% in El Salvador (3,367 cases and 51 convictions).

Leaving him risked death, but so did staying. In 2014, she came to the United States with her daughter to seek asylum. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) arrested her in June 2014 when she crossed the Southern Border.

Let us pause this story for a moment because, as you will see, there is no ending yet. After she was arrested, she was transported to the remote desert immigration detention center in Artesia, New Mexico. She is held in captivity with her child in Artesia, where the proper administration of justice has been so greatly expedited that due process no longer matters.

M-C- like many before her, came to the United States because we have laws that protect persons fleeing persecution. The Refugee Act of 1980 protects those who have been persecuted in the past or have a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, nationality, political opinion, religion or membership in a particular social group. This law is rooted in moral codes and customs as old as the Bible.

There is no doubt M-C- qualifies for asylum in the United States. This week, the Board of Immigration Appeals, our country’s highest immigration court, published a landmark decision confirming that women in abusive domestic relationships whose own country cannot or will not protect them are eligible for asylum if they make their individual case. The decision leaves no doubt that traumatized women pursuing these meritorious asylum claims need access to counsel so they can gather and present evidence. No one should be deported from Artesia without having legal representation.

But because M-C- is held at Artesia, this decision may not protect her. In Artesia, the rule of law has been suspended. A major federal lawsuit filed last week by a coalition of immigrant rights’ organizations challenges Artesia as a “deportation mill” designed to coerce women and children in danger of persecution into abandoning their rights.

Where do I come in? On August 3, 2014, I arrived in Artesia, New Mexico as a volunteer lawyer associated with the American Immigration Lawyers Association. I was one lawyer among a dozen from Oregon and elsewhere who had come to Artesia to defend women and children, like M-C-, who fled to save their lives. Since August 3, volunteer attorneys have screened or represented more than 400 women and children. We have conducted approximately 800 interviews of the women and children detained there, appeared in numerous court proceedings, and attended scores of credible fear interviews. By representing so many, we have amassed a large amount of data about Artesia.

The data shows that the White House designed Artesia to be an exception to the rule of law. Artesia is a White House experiment to engage in politically expedient deportations – a deportation machine.

What do I mean? Our law strikes a balance between the fundamental human right to liberty and the need for assurance that, if released to await a removal hearing, a noncitizen will not endanger the community and will show up to the hearing. It requires Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to decide on a case-by-case basis whether that particular noncitizen should be detained or released.

The Artesian reality is that for every woman and child screened in our program who was eligible for release, ICE denied release as a blanket policy—without conducting any individualized determination. The ICE policy is based on a political message sent through women like M-C-. In Secretary Jeh Johnson’s words, “We will send you back.”

To me, Secretary Johnson’s meaning is clear: We will send you back to your country because President Obama must be seen to be tough on immigration.

Two million deportations are enough to qualify President Obama as the “deporter-in-chief” but, apparently, it is not enough to qualify him as tough on immigration. For that, he must deport women and children from collapsing countries who are fleeing to save their lives.

The political decision to detain is apparent from ICE’s own evidence. In court filings, lawyers for ICE argue that these women and children are national security threats because they are not actually bona fide refugees. Two high-ranking immigration officials have signed declarations explaining that “active migration networks” must be stopped through a one-jail-fits-all policy of no release. Without looking at her individual case, DHS has jailed M-C- and her daughter to thwart a nebulous “active migration network.”

The officers base their conclusions on a single report issued by Vanderbilt University. But the report actually shows the opposite.  The data published in the report explain that these very women and children in Artesia are not part of an “active migration network.” The report says they migrated to the United States because they were afraid for their lives.

The data also suggests that the White House has politically tampered with the administrative quasi-judicial review process in Artesia. The judges assigned to Artesia to review the government’s blanket no-bond policy, come from the EOIR headquarters. You can see their names here. Three of these judges have higher than average asylum denial rates across all immigration judges in the United States.

The data we on the ground in Artesia have collected tells an even darker story. To obtain release from immigrant detention, a noncitizen must demonstrate that she is not flight risk or a danger to the community. An immigration judge can require a monetary bond to mitigate flight risk and insure court appearances. The nationwide average for appearance bonds is approximately $5,200. A recent BIA decision stated that $5,000 was appropriate for a woman in exactly M-C-‘s shoes. Yet three of the headquarters judges for Artesia have denied bond unilaterally or required bond amounts five to six times the national average (i.e., $30,000). This high bond policy, which is really a no bond policy for refugees fleeing violence, is all the more striking given that these women and children have no criminal records. In comparison, at a family detention center in Berks County, Pennsylvania, a woman who passes a credible fear interview is released on her own recognizance to await a hearing on the merits of her case.

Soon, M-C- and her daughter will appear before a judge thousands of miles away, speaking into a video camera connected to a video screen slightly larger than a laptop. The headquarters judge will sit in a courtroom that the public is not allowed to access. No dockets are posted like other courts. Everything is secret.

This real woman, M-C-, will sit on a small chair in a barren room inside a FEMA trailer set down in the middle of the desert with her daughter beside her. She will tell her story once again. The question is, will we listen?

Stephen W. Manning, Member of the AILA Board of Governors and Artesia Volunteer

Action on Immigration is Long Overdue

shutterstock_106049372Over the past week I spent some time considering the pros and cons of President Obama taking executive action on immigration. Is this really the right approach to handling our mounting immigration problem? Should we wait on Congress to finally get a bill passed? If we wait on Congress will our current batch of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients be at retirement age when that happens? I finally came to the conclusion that executive action is the appropriate step and it should not wait until after the November elections. A couple of interactions finally convinced me that unilateral action is the right move from the President:

Last Monday morning I received a call from a man who was frantically trying to stop the removal of his wife, Maria, by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). This is not an isolated occurrence, by the way. The call came in at around 11:00 a.m. and ICE already was in the process of executing the removal. They said she would be on her way to Mexico at 2 p.m. The removal was being expedited because the women had been previously deported by the border patrol without a judicial hearing over a decade ago. Therefore, she was subject to reinstatement of removal.

I rushed down to the ICE Enforcement and Removal Office in south Tucson. There I met her husband where he provided me with a small file folder filled with random documents. He explained to me that she suffered from seizures since the age of 3 years old and needs to consistently take an anti-seizure drug and receive medical care. He also explained that he himself suffers from numerous ailments including diabetes, hypertension and a chronic shoulder problem. Maria cares for him and he could not envision her being sent to Mexico with a high probability of not getting back to the United States. Maria has a U.S. citizen child, a child with DACA and she also is the primary caregiver to her 72-year-old mother.

ICE accepted the form but only gave Maria a temporary Order of Supervision requiring her to report again in 30 days while they review the request. Will they grant the stay of removal? It is difficult to say, but ICE denies a significant number of these requests.  Maria and her husband asked, “What else we can do?” What could I say? I responded with, “Pray that the President will announce something soon.” It is the same line I have told hundreds of people looking for options to fix their immigration dilemma: “Hopefully reforms will come soon.”

The next day I consulted with a surgeon from India. After several years of being on both J-1 and H-1B visas, he was hoping to become a permanent resident of the United States. I explained to him that there is currently a backlog for most highly skilled immigrants from India that could cause the process to take between 5-15 years. He was perplexed by the wait time and told me that he was already considering a move to either Canada or some other developed country that may appreciate his skills more.

For over a decade, I have been saying the system is broken. The U.S. government has failed on immigration, and in the meantime millions have been deported and families have been torn apart. Businesses have to wait each year for a random lottery to determine whether they will even be eligible to pay, on average, over $2,000 in filing fees just for the government to determine if they can hire a foreign worker with specialized skills. Businesses have been forced to outsource their labor or set up operations outside the United States due to this mounting problem as well as other immigration obstacles.  Aspiring immigrants are stuck waiting for several years and oftentimes decades to become permanent residents.

These are only a couple of examples of the damage our messed up immigration system has had on our economy and our community.  It is time for drastic changes to take place.  Maria, her husband and family need immediate relief.  The President taking action is long overdue. If Congress won’t do their job, I believe the President should do it for them. Go big Mr. President!

Written by Mo Goldman, Chair, AILA Media Advocacy Committee