In 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