I 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 firstname.lastname@example.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.