Why are we detaining these women and their children?

El Paso, Texas — This summer nearly 2,500 women and children from Central America were sent by Customs and Border Protection to El Paso, Texas, for processing and release to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The faith community created five temporary shelters to assist the refugees fleeing violence in their home countries of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. (See earlier stories on GSR.)

Now refugees are being routed to Artesia, N.M., and so our shelters have closed. We suspected the worst when we heard that ICE was preparing a facility there to house 600 to 700 family members in deportation proceedings. Lawyers from the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) pro bono program confirmed our suspicions at a press conference on Friday, Aug. 15, describing the current conditions at the facility.

Pamela Muñoz, attorney and board chair for Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center in El Paso even went so far as to compare it to the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay – in terms of lack of access to legal counsel and violation of due process.

The makeshift family detention center was established in early July to manage the large influx of women with children arriving in south Texas seeking asylum from desperate conditions in Central America. Before, the immigrants were released to family members pending their deportation hearings. Pressure from Congress and the general public to stop that practice resulted in the creation of this facility at a Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Artesia and another more recently in Karnes City, Texas. Initial reports from private attorneys who arrived in Artesia to provide pro-bono legal assistance to the families led to AILA involvement, explained Julie Braker of the organization’s pro-bono program.

“A deportation machine has been set up,” she said, in the isolated community located 225 miles from El Paso and 200 miles from Albuquerque.

The women and children are in expedited removal proceedings and have no right to appear before an immigration judge or to be released on bond unless they can establish “credible fear” of returning to their home country. This is determined by an interview with an asylum officer and must be offered to anyone who expresses that fear to a Border Patrol or ICE agent.

Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services of El Paso is providing “Know Your Rights” presentations twice a week at the New Mexico facility, but many of the detainees do not receive the information prior to their initial determination interview, which occurs within two to three days of their arrival. Asylum officers are performing in the range of 20 interviews per day. In standard immigrant detention facilities in El Paso, officers provide only two per day.

Lawyers from AILA say that the accelerated pace of these interviews at the Artesia facility, and the fact that they are often held while the children are with their mothers, is resulting in a high number of denials, despite the fact that the level of fear that these women express is “alarming.”

Many women whose cases were reviewed by the volunteer attorneys explained that they were reluctant to disclose experiences of domestic violence and sexual trauma to the interviewer because their children were present. Of concern to the AILA attorneys is the almost complete absence of female ICE agents on staff at the facility. Additionally, without adequate preparation for the interview, many immigrants said they were not able to produce documents that could have supported their claims, such as police reports from their home country. The percentage of those passing credible fear interviews at the Artesia facility in July 2014 – 37.8 percent – is significantly less than the general pass rate for the month (62 percent), according to Laura Lunn, AILA associate attorney. 

Once credible fear has been established, the petitioner appears before an immigration judge by teleconference. Usually a two-week extension is granted to prepare an application for asylum. This is one of the greatest obstacles for the refugees because of the shortage of legal representation available to help with that preparation. AILA is maintaining at least four attorneys on site, and occasionally the number increases as high as 14. The Catholic Legal Immigration Network (CLINIC) is working in association with AILA and one or two private attorneys are also usually present to provide pro-bono assistance. Another obstacle to adequate representation is the need for all documents from outside the country, such as police reports, to be translated into English. The final asylum hearing is usually two weeks after the application for asylum is filed.

Numbers of those arriving and departing the facility in Artesia were not available, and the panel of lawyers said that only ICE has those statistics. They did say, however, that the facility is always full to capacity and plans are underway to make room for an additional 150 detainees.

Attorney Julie Braker of AILA expressed her extreme frustration with the administration of the camp. Working long days at the facility, she has experienced continual struggles: limited space for conducting private interviews, limited resources such as a minimally equipped law library and the lack of child care during attorney-client conferences and judicial proceedings. Mothers and children are also under severe mental distress.

“This is the worst detention facility I have ever seen!” she said. “What is the purpose of detaining these women and children?”

Of the 2,500 refugees who came through our temporary shelters this summer, virtually all of them had family members somewhere in the U.S. who were willing and able to receive them. None of them remained in El Paso, and most made connections with family within 48 hours of release from ICE. AILA lawyers report that individuals seeking asylum have a 93 percent to 97 percent rate of attendance at deportation hearings. This would seem a much more cost-effective solution for housing the refugee families as they await their day in court. It certainly would provide them better access to legal representation than what is available in such a remote location. It would be a more humane solution as well.

At the close of the press conference, the lawyers called for increased public pressure to change the policy of detaining refugee families. They encouraged local advocacy efforts to keep the spotlight on violations of due process at Artesia and on the need for more attorneys, accredited representatives and bilingual translators to help prove claims of credible fear.

Being able to welcome the mothers and children seeking refuge in our temporary shelters was a blessing for our border community. We discovered that we could gather resources and create systems to meet immediate needs with efficiency and compassion. What’s next? We resume our advocacy efforts with renewed passion on behalf of the real people who are now caught in the tangles of our immigration system.

[Sr. Janet Gildea is a Sister of Charity of Cincinnati. A retired family physician, she now serves with her sisters at Proyecto Santo Niño, a day program for children with special needs in Anapra, Mexico, as well as ministering with young adults in the Diocese of El Paso, Texas.]

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