There 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