Artesia: A Day in the Tour of Duty, Part 1

Author: on 10/27/2014


Artesia1Note: Some details have been changed to ensure privacy of clients.

There was no way for me to explain my time at Artesia in one blog post. Instead, I offer a look at one of the days I spent there in posts today, continuing over the next three days as well. I hope readers get a feel for what it is like, as a volunteer and a human being, to see these women and children, to get the chance to help them, and to know that we are really making a difference. I also want to congratulate the spectacular Artesia volunteers – last week they brought the asylum merits cases won up to 7 out of 7!

So the day begins:

4:50 am. The alarm goes off. I need several snooze button sessions to finally get up.

I prepared my clothing the night before to save a couple of minutes.  I need to be out of the hotel by 6:15 am if I am to make it on time to the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC), also known as the Artesia Family Detention Center.

6:00 am. I am out the door with my bag and laptop. In my bag are several oat and honey bars and two bottles of water.  I was instructed to bring some and will discover later why this is important.

I am wearing a suit and tie to instill confidence in the detained mothers and kids I will be seeing throughout the day.  I stop by the hotel breakfast bar.  The buffet offers eggs, bacon, and toast with some apples and bananas on the side.  I need to hurry.  I taste the eggs and decide to skip them since powdered eggs just do not fit the bill.  I grab two apples and a banana for the road.

I start my rental car.  I notice most of the big trucks from last night are already gone.  They belong to all the roughnecks I saw the night before. Oil workers.  After all, Artesia, NM is an oil town and it smells like it too.  I look out of place in my attorney uniform.  I turn left onto Main Street and go down several blocks.  There is no real traffic; it is too early.  Everything is closed. That turns out to be a common theme in this town.

I turn right on 26th Street and follow it down several miles. I pass the town’s Walmart store.  I will discover later, that this is where some released detainees will be brought for modest clothing sprees.  I make a right on Richey Road and it takes me straight to the Detention Center.

6:45 am.  As I pull into the parking lot, I notice a van already waiting for the volunteers. I need to hurry.  Before I can get in the van, I have to go into the security building for a picture and security badge.  This is a daily routine. IMG_20141004_180345

I enter the van and see most of the morning’s volunteers carefully arranged inside.  Several crates with files also share the confined space.  I manage to fit in a small spot.  The van is filled to capacity. Yet, four other volunteers are still making their way to the vehicle.

7:00 am sharp.  The driver makes the final call. If you miss it, you may have to wait until 10:00 am to make the next trip.  The van takes off.  Several feet ahead we stop at the guard station. The security guard wants to see all of our badges.  He opens the door and several of the file crates almost fall out.  We are a tightly packed van of attorney sardines.  He is satisfied and lets us through.

We travel 500 feet at 10 mph.  The speed is regulation.  I notice a sports field with a running track.  We finally reach our destination. We enter what looks like a small city block filled with light brown trailers along both sides of the street.  I count at least 4-5 on each side. As we enter the gated village, I see there are other trailers to the side.  I also observe countless Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officers walking around or sitting on chairs.  It is clear; they are the authority in this place.  We cannot wander around. We have to be escorted at all times.

We unload our crates, grab our bags and are escorted to the attorney trailer.  As we enter the mobile office, we notice construction next to the trailers. We are informed this is where the bungalows for the schools will be located. We are asked to sign in by the duty guard.  We finally reach our space. It is the far end of the building. We have a column of small tables and chairs facing a wall.  A tall divider separates the attorney workspace from the area where the mothers and children will be meeting with the attorneys.  All of the attorneys scramble for a table, chair, and an outlet.  For the next several days, every morning will feature this non-choreographed attorney dance a la musical chairs.

7:15 am.  Once we set up our laptops, the mothers and children start filtering into the trailer.  The previous night, our lead attorney and administrative assistant prepared the list of the mothers we will be seeing.  Each mother is already assigned to a particular attorney.  We are ready to go.

The onsite assistant starts calling out names. When you hear your assigned client, you are on.  Some attorneys start prepping their clients for bond hearings that will take place at 8:00 am.  Others start prepping clients for credible fear interviews or negative credible fear determinations that will also follow. Others will do intakes.

Each mother has a child or children of varying ages. They are primarily between 3-7 years old.  The guards put on movies for them to view while the attorneys interview the mothers.  You don’t appreciate hits like Rio, Aladdin, or Bible Stories, until you hear them 10 times a day in Spanish.  Throughout the day, I begin to admire the art of movie voice-over translations, and catch myself daydreaming about a possible future career move.

I am assigned a credible fear interview.  I am fluent in Spanish so I establish rapport quickly with the young mother.  I explain what she will encounter during the interview.  The mother tells me she is afraid to go back because of the violence. I explain the nature of asylum and  the enumerated grounds as set out by the statutes.  I dig deeper and she shares with me that the MS 13 gang members demanded she hand over her teenage daughter for their use.  They have threatened her repeatedly.  The gang has vowed to kidnap both her teenage daughter, and her younger daughter as well. She continues to tell them “No.”  As an added pressure, the gangs demand the mother pay them a “rent” or “renta” from the earnings of her small store or they will proceed with the kidnapping and kill her as well. The asylum officer comes over and asks if we are ready.  I respond by asking for 2 more minutes.  She  agrees with some hesitation.  I need time to make sure the mother can fully tell her story.

The credible fear interview takes place in a separate trailer.  We are escorted through a maze of pathways and encounter other escorts taking mothers and their kids to various trailers in the village.  I see a husky officer escorting at least 5 mothers with their children lingering behind. In my mind, I get an image of Halloween, when mothers take their kids trick or treating.  I have been that husky escort taking my kids around the different streets.  I quickly shut down the image realizing this is not Halloween and we are not on the friendly streets of a real town.

The credible fear interview lasts about 1 hour.  I am satisfied the mother has told her story.  But I am a bit troubled by a couple of the questions.  The asylum officer asked, “Have you ever been harmed or persecuted based on belonging to a particular social group where you have characteristics that you cannot change, like being gay or having HIV?”  The mother’s response was “No, I am not gay and I do not have HIV.” I am allowed to ask follow-up questions at the end of the interview. I state to the mother that being a woman or her gender is also a characteristic she cannot change, and ask her if she has ever been persecuted because of this.  She quickly responds, “That is exactly why the gangs are doing this to me and my daughters, because we are women and they can attack us without having to worry about being arrested by the authorities.” Boom.

The officer states that according to the interview notes, the Border Patrol Officer wrote down that she had not expressed a fear of persecution. This was the third time in as many days that I heard this particular statement.  I inquired with the other volunteer attorneys who confirmed they also heard the same statement over and over again.  According to the Border Patrol notes, apparently no one was expressing a fear of persecution upon return to in their country. It seems a bit hard to believe given what so many of these women have experienced and the scars they often carry. The CIS officer informed us a decision would be made within 3 days.  Several days later, I discovered the mother with the young daughters passed her credible fear interview and could move on to a bond hearing before an Immigration Judge.

To be continued…

Written by Victor Nieblas Pradis, Southern California Chapter AILA Member Volunteer and AILA President-Elect

Read Part 2

Read Part 3

Read Part 4

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If you are an AILA member who wants to volunteer at a family detention center, please go to http://www.aila.org/beavolunteer or feel free to contact Maheen Taqui at mtaqui@aila.org–we 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 at Artesia and elsewhere sharing their experiences, go to this playlist on AILA National’s YouTube page. To see all the blog posts about this issue select Family Detention as the category on the right side of this page.


Championing the Vulnerable

Author: on 10/17/2014


shutterstock_170933780As an immigration lawyer from Vermont, I was thrilled to see the recent letter that Senate Judiciary Chairman Leahy (D-VT), one of my Senators, led the charge on. What does that letter to the Department of Homeland Security condemn? The heartless and inhumane expansion of family detention.

It is appalling to me that our government is ramping up jails for mothers and children who are fleeing violence – domestic or gang-based – and desperately seeking safety. These women and children are kept in facilities, far from anywhere with a large contingent of immigration lawyers who could help them make their legitimate case for asylum to an immigration judge.

Instead they are stuck in makeshift facilities like Artesia, NM, and Karnes, TX and soon Dilley, TX as well. Our stalwart members have volunteered in shifts, making their way to these outposts and advising these women, fighting for their rights to due process, and making a huge difference.

I’m so happy to see these ten Senators standing with these women and children. Instead of ramping up detention, we need to look at humane and effective alternatives to detention. These moms and their kids aren’t national security threats that need to be confined for our safety, they are victims and they need our help.

Here are some excerpts from the letter:

“This decision threatens to make permanent a practice of presumptive detention for families and marks a reversal of this administration’s family detention policy.  We fear that the result will be the ongoing detention of asylum-seeking women and children who have shown a credible fear of being returned to their home country and pose no flight risk or danger to the community. We are particularly concerned with the negative consequences of long-term detention on the physical and mental well-being of young children.”

“Mothers and their children who have fled violence in their home countries should not be treated like criminals. They have come seeking refuge from three of the most dangerous countries in the world, countries where women and girls face shocking rates of domestic and sexual violence and murder. Here in the United States, we have just celebrated the twentieth anniversary of the Violence Against Women Act, a law we hold out as an example of our commitment to take these crimes seriously and to protect all victims. The ongoing detention of women and children who have made credible claims that they have been victims of those very crimes is unacceptable.”

Read the full letter for yourself. I sure hope the Administration does. We need our government to bring its actions back in line with our country’s values and stop throwing moms and kids into jail for doing what any reasonable person would do: flee persecution.

Written by Leslie Holman, AILA President

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If you are an AILA member who wants to volunteer at a family detention center, please go to http://www.aila.org/beavolunteer or feel free to contact Maheen Taqui at mtaqui@aila.org–we 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 at Artesia and elsewhere sharing their experiences, go to this playlist on AILA National’s YouTube page. To see all the blog posts about this issue select Family Detention as the category on the right side of this page.

 

 

 


Welcoming Brilliance to Our Shores

Author: on 10/14/2014


Image of the Nobel Prize Medal. Source: http://www.nobelprize.org

Image of the Nobel Prize Medal. Source: http://www.nobelprize.org

Birds do it, bees do it, even educated PhDs do it…

In this case, I’m not referring to falling in love as in the popular song from the 1930s, but migrating.  There are many aspects to what drives people to leave their country of birth and make a new country home.  When people rail against immigrants, I have to assume they don’t understand the economic and cultural benefits that our country has gained from so many over the years. Do they think that you can determine at birth what someone will accomplish? High skilled immigration is vitally important but if one focuses solely on those we know have reached a certain pinnacle, we are leaving out many more that could achieve great things if given the opportunities that so many of our residents take for granted.

One of the pinnacles of intellectual success has been awarded over the last several weeks: the Nobel Prize. The Nobel Prize Committee just completed announcing the winners of its prestigious awards for chemists, physicists, doctors, economists, writers, and those interdisciplinarians whose work overlaps into one of the fields.

What fascinates me, as an immigration attorney with feet in both the U.S. and U.K. for my practice, is that so many are immigrants.  For the U.S. alone, the Institute for Immigrant Research at George Mason University in Virginia, notes that from 1901-2013, “30.7% of these U.S. awarded Nobel Prizes are garnered by persons who immigrated to the United States.” That percentage far exceeds the proportion of the U.S. population which is foreign-born, which in 2010 the U.S. Census Bureau estimated at 12.9%.  Again and again we see that immigrants contribute to a nation’s wealth and this is no exception.

Three of this year’s winners are particularly interesting examples.  Shuji Nakamura, originally from Japan was awarded for his work in Physics with the University of California, Santa Barbara (USCB).   As UCSB reports, Dr. Nakamura was born and educated in Japan, coming to the US as a visiting research associate; he has since made his career in the U.S. and his research has led to the development of a lamp that might help the estimated 1.5 billion people worldwide without access to a power grid.

John O’Keefe, a native New Yorker, who was this year awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine for his work with University College London, is quoted as saying immigration rules are “a very, very large obstacle” to hiring the best scientists.  While he was referring to the U.K. immigration rules, this statement could easily be projected to the U.S. where immigration laws drafted decades ago have not kept up with business, technology or the reality of the global economy.  And finally, another winner from the U.K., Malala Yousafzai, is also an immigrant.  Originally from Pakistan, Ms. Yousafzai is the youngest Nobel Laureate in history and is in the process of receiving honorary citizenship from Canada.

What these Nobel Laureates show us is that the best and the brightest are mobile and the U.S. must be able to compete for talent on a global stage.  The U.S. needs an immigration system that works at every level, high to low skill and everywhere in between, a system that takes into account the market needs and the importance of family reunification. We don’t have that now, and it is incredibly disappointing that Congress has yet to do its duty and pass good legislation that will make a real difference for all.  Who knows, should Congress act, they may find themselves recipients of the Nobel Prize for conferring  “the greatest benefit on mankind.” – common sense immigration reform.

Written by Anastasia Tonello, AILA Treasurer


Karnes is a Disgrace

Author: on 10/07/2014


photoLet me begin with this: We, as lawyers, have to be careful not to let our emotions cloud judgment. But I must say my trip to Karnes Detention Center this past weekend brought to the forefront of my consciousness a number of strong emotions which cannot be ignored.

I saw there the faces of detained mothers and their children. I heard their stories. It is simply disgraceful that our government is detaining them.

I have been an attorney now for over 15 years. I have represented men and women in detention. But detaining children and their mothers is wrong.  Everyone we saw (over 40 families) had no criminal background and all had some claim to credible or reasonable fear of persecution. It is a tragedy that the government would detain these mothers and children under the misguided assumption that they represent a threat to our “national security.”

I was at Karnes as part of a joint project with AILA, Akin Gump, Arnold and Porter, Tahirih, the University of Houston Law Center, and others. I saw many children with persistent cough, complaining of lack of medical treatment, lack of good food, and general conditions at the facility run by GEO Group.

While there, I was able to get an ICE official to review the medical case of a 3 year-old girl who had asthma. I was told by the mother that she could not convince the GEO staff to give her medication to treat her daughter’s condition. When she went to “Medical” to seek treatment she was told (and many mothers were told) to have the kids “drink water.” I bought the little girl some cookies and she smiled and she stood when I left the room. When I went to shake the mother’s hand, I almost missed the fact that the little girl stood too and extended her hand, waiting to shake my hand too. A sweet child, a desperate mother, and I felt I could help. I took her mother’s case and our clinic will represent them in immigration court.

To ICE’s credit the official I spoke with personally accompanied the woman and her sick child with asthma to “Medical” the next day so that he could intercede and make sure she got the medication she desperately needed. I applaud this ICE supervisor but he is one among many. ICE isn’t running these facilities, GEO is running these facilities. And GEO is a private company, seemingly out to make as much money as possible. We were told by detained mothers that the children sometimes get spoiled food beyond the date of expiration. It is simply not acceptable to mistreat these mothers and their children, to deny necessary medical assistance or give them spoiled food. It is not acceptable to detain them at all.

I call upon all AILA Attorneys (and in fact all attorneys) in Texas to travel to Karnes, Artesia and all these facilities, and see what is happening. Connect with Akin Gump, Tahirih, and/or AILA, get a list of detainees and check on them. Find out what their concerns are. Find out if they are getting medical attention. If they are not, contact ICE. File a G28 (representation form) and represent them at least with ICE to make sure they are getting their medication and their kids are getting nourishment. If you are able, then represent them in a bond or an individual hearing if they have possible relief. Most (although not all) had cases for asylum as either gang-based or domestic violence-based particular social group claims. They don’t deserve to be jailed.

I want to close with the story of a six year-old girl who sat in the play area in the corner of the room in which we were seeing people. My students and a supervising fellow were playing with her and talking to her, trying to cheer her up. I walked over and she looked very sad. She was trying to smile in response to questions but she was having a hard time of it. She was trying to interact, but I could see she was very unhappy. I learned from my students it was her birthday. We bought her a small bag of vanilla-creme cookies from the vending machine and that was her “present” for her birthday. She took it. Later I came back and saw it was unopened. We were told none of the children eat their cookies right away, as they are saving them to share with their mother.  How different from my kids, I thought. How sad.

I am angry and disheartened. Angry at an immigration system and an administration that purports to be for immigration reform and human rights while jailing these families. Disheartened because in these children’s faces I see my own children’s faces. This just isn’t what our country is all about. And I’m committed to doing what I can to help, and I hope you will too.

Written by Geoffrey A. Hoffman, Clinical Assoc. Professor, Director-UHLC Immigration Clinic, AILA Member and Karnes Volunteer

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If you are an AILA member who wants to volunteer at a family detention center, please go to http://www.aila.org/beavolunteer or feel free to contact Maheen Taqui at mtaqui@aila.org–we 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 at Artesia and elsewhere sharing their experiences, go to this playlist on AILA National’s YouTube page. To see all the blog posts about this issue select Family Detention as the category on the right side of this page.


A Look Into Karnes

Author: on 09/30/2014


shutterstock_149952794AILA member Ruby Powers volunteered at the Karnes detention facility recently; her experience inspired her to write an article which will be available in full soon on AILA’s volunteer resource page. Excerpts from the piece are below:

“I would like to echo the sentiments expressed by other attorneys who have been volunteering in Artesia, New Mexico. I am dismayed at the lack of access to information for the clients from the courts about their own cases and the large amount of deserving people in desperate need of representation being forced through the rigor of the US immigration system on their own, with their young children in tow, at a rapid and surprisingly expedited pace. Many of these immigrants speak predominantly Mamean or Quichean and yet have been conducting their credible fear interviews in Spanish. If the error is caught and challenged, this often turns into another round of credible fear interviews with the requisite wait time. Others prepare themselves as much as possible only to find out that their bond is too high to be paid, way above the national average of $5,200.

Before visiting Karnes I had already tried to convince myself that my firm wasn’t going to take any cases, we had already taken a UAC pro bono case in Houston, but only help as much as possible for the short period of time that we would be there. My law office is 3.5 hours away from the Center and I have a growing firm and two small children under 4 years old at home. However, once I realized how much these women needed adequate representation, I changed my mind and ended up taking a case of a woman and her two children fleeing from El Salvador where she was a victim of severe domestic violence and gang violence. I volunteered for the case even before I arrived at the Center…

All the detainees that we met with were victims of either domestic violence or gang-based violence. Many have entered prior to the September 2014 Matter of A-R-C-G, in which the Board of Immigration Appeals determined that married women in Guatemala who are unable to leave their relationship constitute a particular social group for asylum purposes.

The detainees seem to have a peaceful disposition, perhaps because they and their children are in a safe place with food and a roof over their heads. It really plays with your mind to see little babies and kids in the consultation rooms with the women in a detention facility, no matter what you name it.  You wonder if you should be allowed to talk about such horrible experiences in front of young impressionable minds. I know I wouldn’t want talk about these stories in front of my two young kids. Imagine that the moms have to have the young children with them when they do the CFIs…

I have a love-hate relationship with this experience. I love that I am helping people, through advocating for them and empowering them to be able to advocate for themselves as best as they can. I am doing what I went to law school for. At the same time knowing that this situation exists and that it is happening cannot easily be ignored. There are feelings of guilt that I should be there taking on more cases or that I should volunteer there more often. One thing that I can do whether in Houston or in Karnes City is spread the word to other immigration attorneys that there are many deserving women and children who need legal representation or simply be given advice on how to best argue their own case and I guarantee that you will not regret the time you spend helping these families.”

Written by Ruby L. Powers, AILA member and Karnes Volunteer

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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 mtaqui@aila.org–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. To see all the blog posts about this issue select Family Detention as the category on the right side of this page.


A Shameful Chapter in Our History

Author: on 09/25/2014


A picture of the current structure on the Dilley site taken last week.

A picture of the current structures on the Dilley site taken last week.

 

The family detention center known as the “T. Don Hutto Residential Center” opened in May 2006. Most of the families previously housed at this residential center, like those currently housed at the Artesia and Karnes Detention Centers, were families awaiting adjudication of their asylum claims. For the most part, the facility was a staging area for families waiting to be put through the deportation machinery the government has so efficiently developed to almost “guarantee” the expedited removal to their home countries. What is most appalling is that none of the families held at the former prison were charged with offenses other than illegal entry.

In 2007, the Women’s Refugee Commission released a report, Locking Up Family Values: The Detention of Immigrant Families, drawing heavily on research conducted at the T. Don Hutto Residential Center.  The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit against the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in March 2007 on behalf of 10 juvenile plaintiffs housed in the facility at the time, claiming that the standards by which they were housed was not in compliance with the government’s detention standards for this population. In August 2007, the ACLU settled the lawsuit, and on August 6, 2009, federal officials announced that T. Don Hutto would no longer house immigrant families. In September 2009, the last families left the facility and were moved to the much smaller Berks Family Residential Center in Pennsylvania.

The town of Dilley, Texas, population 3,989.

The town of Dilley, Texas, population 3,989.

One would hope we learn from our mistakes and from our history; nothing is farther from the truth.

Fact sheets and press releases from ICE tout the benefits of these facilities, including the T. Don Hutto Residential Center.

Recent reports from volunteer attorneys providing free legal representation to the women and children imprisoned at Artesia and Karnes prove otherwise. A prison for women and children cannot be made right. These  facilities are nothing but well-oiled deportation machinery run under the semblance of due process and rule of law. Women and children are considered prisoners and treated as such. They are intimidated with detention for extended periods of time: mothers are coerced to sign forms they do not understand or warned they will be taken to a higher security prison and their children removed to foster care. The misinformation or outright lies told to these women by facility and government staff mean that  the volunteer attorneys tirelessly working to free these women and children are the ones who respect the rule of law and make the broken and dysfunctional immigration system work within the confines of these prisons.

To add insult to injury, ICE has just announced it will open an additional facility in South Texas to house adults with children. The facility will be located in Dilley, Texas, a small unassuming oil town in the middle of nowhere. The center, ICE reports, is in response to the influx of adults traveling with children apprehended along the Southwest border. Expected to open in early November, the South Texas Family Residential Center will be the fourth facility the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is using to detain and expedite the removal of adults with children.

Another picture of the land where the new facility will be built.

Another picture of the land where the new facility will be built.

It is sickening to read that this concerted, well-thought-out, and purposeful imprisonment of innocent mothers and children seeking refuge from violence, bloodshed and murder is touted by ICE as a method that ensures “timely and effective removals that comply with our legal and international obligations, while deterring others from taking the dangerous journey and illegally crossing into the United States.”

Volunteer attorneys are successfully slowing down the deportation mill at Artesia; they are effectively preventing this monster from grinding out vulnerable mothers and children. So what does the government do? Find other remote locations where access to counsel is limited if not impossible, and build another deportation machine. How can we as a country say that women and children seeking refuge deserve imprisonment? Imprisonment will not deter mothers from saving the lives of their children by sending them North. Imprisonment will not prevent teenage girls raped by gangs from making that perilous journey before they are raped again. Imprisonment will not prevent women fleeing from the brutal and socially perpetuated domestic violence at the hands of their husbands. We should be ashamed of building more prisons for women and children. But, hey, prisons are profitable so there is no question that some will profit from this shameful chapter in our history.

Written by Annaluisa Padilla, AILA Second Vice President

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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 mtaqui@aila.org–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.


Artesia Kaleidoscope

Author: on 09/24/2014


Artesia1The 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

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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 mtaqui@aila.org–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.


Offering Hope and Comfort to Detained Moms and Kids

Author: on 09/18/2014


Artesia1Over the past year, the United States has seen a sharp increase in the number of women and young children fleeing violence in Central America.  In response, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) began opening new detention centers across the country to detain families, while their fates are decided by Immigration Officials and Judges.  Artesia, NM became the site of a new make-shift family detention center where hundreds of women and children are being detained until a determination is made on whether they can stay in the United States.

Most of the women and young children at the Artesia detention center have suffered unimaginable violence in their home countries and have risked their lives to come to the United States.  Now, they are stuck in Artesia waiting to find out if they will be allowed to stay in the United States.  The detention facility is located in southeast New Mexico, literally in the middle of nowhere.  The women spend their days and nights in trailers that have been adapted into living quarters.  The young children are sick and not adjusting well to American food.  There are no toys for the kids to play with and nothing for them to do during the day.  The legal process is grueling.  The women are forced to tell their stories of repeated abuse and violence over and over again to Border patrol agents, asylum officers, lawyers, and immigration judges.  They are accused of lying, called names, and teased by the guards in charge of them.  They are far away from the people who love them.  With courage and bravery, these women and children face each day not knowing what will happen next.

They are hidden from us, but they don’t have to go through this alone.  In an effort to bring humanity and dignity to each and every woman and child held at the Artesia detention center, York Law, in conjunction with your support and connections, would like to send letters of encouragement to all of the women and children detained in Artesia.

The purpose of this campaign is to bring hope, dignity, humanity, and light to the dark times that these women and children are experiencing in Artesia, NM.  However, we need your help.  Please share this request with your family and your community.  If anyone in your network would like to write and send an encouraging letter to a woman or child in Artesia, NM, please have them follow the guidelines below.  All letters can be mailed to the following address, where they will be forwarded to the Artesia detention center.

York Law, LLC

ATTN: Artesia

1763 Franklin Street

Denver, CO 80218

Guidelines for Letters Addressed to Women and Children in Artesia

**Please be aware that these letters will be read by a DHS Official prior to being forwarded to the individual**

□   Must be generally directed to a woman or child.  Please note that for privacy reasons, the women and children’s names will not be disclosed.   Each letter will be addressed to a woman or child prior to sending.

□   If possible, please write the letter in Spanish, or in a language that is native to Honduras, Guatemala, or El Salvador.  All letters written in English will be translated into Spanish prior to sending.

□   The letter must be encouraging

□   All letters will be screened for appropriateness prior to sending

Written by Lisa York, AILA Member and Artesia Volunteer

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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 mtaqui@aila.org–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 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.


Artesia Betrays America: Part III

Author: on 09/17/2014


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

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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 mtaqui@aila.org–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 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.


Artesia Betrays America: Part II

Author: on 09/16/2014


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

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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 mtaqui@aila.org–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 http://www.aila.org/helpthevolunteers. And thank you!