Even now, over seven months since my first tour of duty in Artesia, I still get chills just thinking about it. I am not sure I have really taken the time to process everything I experienced. I am not sure I want to. Last Wednesday morning I got a text message from Christina Brown. She copied and pasted a link to the New York Times magazine article, “The Shame of America’s Family Detention Camps” in the text message. I clicked on it and then checked out for the next ten minutes.
As I scrolled through the article on my phone, I started to have flashbacks of how the project began. I thought about the unwavering support from AILA attorneys across the map. I thought about the faces of the women and children that were trapped in the hell hole of Artesia – the thrown together detention camp on the grounds of the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Artesia, NM. I thought about the late nights with other comrades on the ground who also felt a sense of duty to fight for these women and children. We were determined to give these human beings a voice. We had to fight.
The article is a glimpse of the second phase of the project. As we celebrated the end of hell in Artesia, women and children were being shipped off to Texas. The pain and desperation in their faces still linger. They are still trapped. Under the propaganda of national security, our government continues to keep these women and children on their knees and silenced. Writing this is even difficult because it is hard to think about how there appears to be no end in sight. We fought, we won – but did we, really?
In thinking about the fight, my mind wanders back to an afternoon in late July. I was in Laura Lichter’s office during a staff meeting. We were both just utterly disgusted about what was going on in Artesia. She looked at me and said, “Wanna go to Artesia?” I asked her if I needed to pitch a tent. I then looked at my calendar and freaked out about what I had to do at the office. I remember that moment and just laugh at myself for thinking that making a few client calls was more important. Nonetheless, schedule changes were made, and Laura picked me up at my apartment. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I just thought, the hell with it, there’s some messed up stuff going on and we need to do something. The nine hour drive consisted of listening to Laura gather information about what was happening on the ground as a small group of attorneys set up shop in the Artesia Chamber of Commerce. And yes, I admit it, I did have to play some Indigo Girls just to keep me grounded on the drive. True Story.
We arrived at the Chamber of Commerce with an SUV filled with office supplies, soccer balls, toys, bottled water, coloring books, and Kurzbans. I walked into the room and became instantly overwhelmed. It was a war room covered with posters of information on the wall and folks typing away on their laptops as if there was no tomorrow. I stared at the stacks of G-28s on the table and thought,
“Here we go.”
I sat on a couch and tried to soak it all in. I remember looking over and seeing Christina Brown. I knew her from Denver, but we did not spend much time together there. I looked around the table and saw more familiar faces from Colorado. We introduced ourselves. At that moment, I felt a sense of camaraderie that I cannot describe in words. We helped each other help these mothers and their children. We made a plan. We figured if the government was going to deprive these women of their voice and their right to counsel, we were going to make noise for them. We would fight. We stayed up until early the next morning making green leaflets. Laura called it, “guerrilla lawyering.” We planned on going to the facility and handing out essentially what was a “know your rights” leaflet that had a box for the women to check off if they wanted to talk to an attorney. We were transported in a caged van from the entrance of the facility to a trailer they called a “law library.” We made our way into the “law library” and started handing them out in the back room where the women and children were allowed. We had no idea how much impact that little green leaflet would end up having, it opened the door. It ended the silence.
I remember going into the back room and speaking to the women. It was a short lived moment before the ICE officers kicked me out, but at least I was able to instruct the women and children to fill out the sheets and raise their hand if they have yet to see a lawyer. Nearly the whole room raised their hand. I had no idea how we were going to be able to talk to all these women. Nonetheless, we had to try. For the next few days we returned to the facility and talked to as many women as we could. We attended credible fear interviews (CFIs). We filed motions to continue, motions to reconsider, and made sure every woman we saw knew she had a right to counsel. Rumor has it, a nun was leafleting throughout the facility – Shelley W. is a trooper.
The heartbreaking part of it all is that as we fought, there were some battles we simply could not win. We could not cure the sick children. We could not provide adequate health care. We could not eradicate the trauma these women and children were experiencing. We could not change the fact that children were in jail. We could not make the headquarters judges set rational bond amounts. We knew we could not make it all better. There was never going to be a moment where Artesia could be all about unicorns and rainbows. It was going to be a nightmare, but at least we were going to make sure these women knew we had their backs.
I ended up staying an extra day. Christina Brown and I were the only attorneys at the facility that day. Women were there with leaflets. They got our message. One woman said she needed a lawyer. I told her I would speak to her as soon as I could. She waited. Her son looked scared but mustered a smile. At the end of the day, I finally got around to talking to her. She told me her son had not eaten in almost a week. He coughed throughout our conversation. I gave her my protein bar. She broke a piece off and gave it to her son, “Gracias” he mumbled as he pushed a wad of the protein bar to one side of his mouth. The woman passed me a couple of sheets of paper. She did not know what the papers meant, but she asked me if she was going to be sent home. I read over the papers and saw that she had a positive CFI. I told her she was found credible and now would have a chance to present her case. She wept. She began telling me her story. She wept as she spoke of her son’s father and how he would rape her and beat her. She said she left to save her son. I looked up and saw that her son was being reprimanded by an ICE officer. He came back and asked his mother if the officer was going to shoot him. I could not begin to comprehend the amount of trauma and fear that plagued the people held at Artesia. I left Artesia that same day, as Christina Brown committed to staying. We passed on a bulk of the cases to her to continue to carry the torch. I remember being so relieved she was staying and would keep up the fight for us and for the women and children.
I returned to Artesia several times over the next few months. The woman I met on the last day of my first tour of duty was granted asylum on October 23, 2014. I represented her, and we won. I drove her from New Mexico to Denver where she boarded a plane to NYC and is now living with her sister in Brooklyn. Every time I went back to Artesia I was impacted by how much progress was made. I remember watching Stephen Manning on YouTube and navigating through the databases maintained by the individual input of hundreds of volunteer lawyers over tens of thousands of hours. It was a whole new world. Cue Aladdin.
I met so many incredible advocates. We became a family. Once you have been in Artesia, you cannot forget it. I have kept in touch with folks throughout the months. I, like many others, volunteered remotely to help until I could get back down to Artesia in person.
I spent Thanksgiving with my Artesia family – it was my last trip to Artesia. I met with an indigenous woman who I had seen on a video screen in Denver. As Dree Collopy spent hours eliciting testimony from her, something did not seem right. The Mam interpreter communicated words different from those the woman had communicated to Dree in Spanish during the many hours they had spent together in person and on the phone preparing her sworn statement. Somehow, the interpreter had managed to state that the gang threw the woman’s husband off a cliff, when really, the gang had thrown rocks at her husband. But Dree does not speak Mam. I do not speak Mam. Time ran out and the individual hearing was continued. Sitting in the courtroom in Denver, we were left wondering what had happened. We had to figure out what happened before the next hearing.
I went to Artesia and met with the woman in person. She had been in the facility since the kick-off of guerilla lawyering. She smiled and her son came up and greeted me. I spoke to her in Spanish and asked her about the responses she made during the course of her hearing that did not seem accurate to Dree. She repeated what she said in Spanish. I asked her how she would say it in Mam. The difference between the word cliff and rock when said in Mam was just two letters. Even though Dree had prepared her to speak up if there were difficulties with the translation, the client said she was afraid to interrupt. She knew she could, but she was too nervous and scared. Five months in detention had silenced her voice. I could not believe it. This woman had become so accustomed to being misunderstood that she had lost hope that a judge would ever understand her. She wanted to try again in Mam at her next hearing. She vowed to speak up if she did not understand. Over the next few days, Dree and I worked with her to find and embrace her voice again. At the next hearing, she spoke up. The Mam interpreter was excused midway through the hearing. Determined to make sure her truth was heard, she declared that she would proceed in Spanish, her second language that had improved throughout her months of being trapped in Artesia and unable to communicate. During cross-examination in Spanish, she explained that the word “cliff” was wrong and was due to inaccurate translation by the Mam interpreter. This frustrated the government’s trial attorney. When the woman’s testimony was finally being accurately communicated, the trial attorney moved for a finding of diminished credibility. This is how the government treats indigenous clients. Rather than ensuring that interpretations are accurate in the pursuit of justice, they try to penalize the client for speaking up. The woman had used her voice and somehow that was just unacceptable to DHS. She was fighting for her life and that was not acceptable either. She wanted to be heard. It was her right. Dree fought hard against any finding of diminished credibility, and ultimately, got her client a de novo hearing. After the de novo hearing, the indigenous woman was granted asylum. She had overcome so many obstacles and was finally heard. Her story was told. She used her voice and fought. She won.
The work that drives this project is amazing. We have empowered women and children and have pushed back. We have cried. We have been in the trenches.
Christina Brown is still in the trenches. I have witnessed her struggles and have witnessed the look on the faces of the women and children from Artesia that see her and see hope. She is an incredibly strong human being and continues to give women strength to continue to fight their cases. With the closing of Artesia, we cannot just throw in the towel. The article describes the disgrace and lack of humanity that rested at the core of Artesia. The core of Artesia is now in Texas. The NY Times article was like the lighthouse on the coast of Maine emitting light to some of the most treacherous obstacles. Dilley and Karnes will continue to be obstacles to due process and humanity. The article is bittersweet. It sheds a light on the folks still on the ground, but also reminds us that family detention continues to thrive. Vanessa and Christina’s tour of duty is near an end. Who will carry the torch?
Written by Elanie Cintron, AILA Member and Artesia Volunteer
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 firstname.lastname@example.org–we are looking for more as the work wraps up 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 read the report by Stephen Manning detailing the Artesia project, see https://innovationlawlab.org/the-artesia-report.
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.