Issues End Mass Criminalization Economic and Social Justice Inside the Remote, Secretive Detention Center for Migrant Families
Thursday, 21 August 2014 01:13

Inside the Remote, Secretive Detention Center for Migrant Families

Written by  Dara Lind | Vox
A mother and child in the Border Patrol processing center in McAllen, TX. A mother and child in the Border Patrol processing center in McAllen, TX. (John Moore/Getty)
Hundreds of migrant families who have entered the US from Central America are being held in detention while they wait to be processed. Over 600 people are being held in the main facility, in Artesia, NM. The government is working to deport these families as quickly as possible, in the hopes of sending a message that will deter more families from coming. That's raised concerns about whether they're getting due process in their immigration cases, or whether families whose lives might be in danger are being deported.

The government restricts access to families in detention — including barring lawyers from visiting detention centers. But the National Immigration Law Center, a legal advocacy group, has a legal trump card: a standing order from the 1980s, from an injunction in a case called Orantes-Hernandez v. Smith. The standing order allows them to serve as class-action lawyers for all Salvadorans in detention who might be eligible for asylum. Now, they're using it to make the government let them in to interview families, and make sure that immigrants with legitimate cases for asylum are being heard.

Yesterday, a delegation from the National Immigration Law Center visited the detention facility in Artesia, NM, which is only a month old but already houses more than 600 mothers and children. Karen Tumlin, Managing Attorney for NILC, spoke to me about what they saw.

On the conditions in the detention center

"It's extremely isolated and remote. It's on the grounds of the Border Patrol training academy. It's very large, sprawling. There are these weird, I suppose, mock-border training fields that surround the facility. It's primarily temporary buildings — I mean, they're not flimsy-temporary buildings, but they're temporary, detached buildings in a cluster that have been set up.

"The women and kids sleep in these temporary buildings that are kind of rectangular dorm-room style. There are bunk beds in the rooms. We were told there were TVs in the rooms but I didn't see them. That doesn't mean they aren't there, but when I went into the rooms to speak to the women I didn't see them.

"When we were there it was incredibly hot, really too hot to be outside."

On seeing young children in detention

"One takeaway, probably the most overwhelming, is just what it feels like to be in an incredibly isolated detention facility — which is nothing but a detention facility — for women and kids, including infants. What the guttural impact is when you walk into the cafeteria at this detention center and you're greeted with a line of high chairs and infant seats. What that feels like to realize that there are hundreds of families with small children being locked up.

"At one point, when we were meeting with our clients, a lot of folks were waiting. And I looked up and all I could see across the sea of faces were very small children: toddlers and infants and bottles."

On why these families left their home countries

"We spoke to a mom who left El Salvador because her seven-year-old daughter had been kidnapped by the gangs after [the mother] was unable to pay what's called the renta, which is like the tax or extortion money that the gang requires local individuals to pay. You know, 'pay or there will be consequences,' often of a violent nature.

"So they kidnapped her daughter so that she knew they were serious, and then once her daughter was returned, they sent death threats. They said, ‘If you don't leave the country, we'll kill you. You and your daughter. Because we know where you live, and you haven't paid the renta.'

"So she left. And that's why she came to the United States. Because she was under a specific death threat for herself and her young child. Because her young child had already been kidnapped by the gang, and she had absolutely no means to pay the money that they were asking for to make it stop. And no protection from the authorities, either."

On families being told to give up and go home

"Many of the women reported to us what I would describe as ‘a culture of no.' They were being told by government officials, ‘No one who's here, who gets to Artesia, gets to stay. This is the place where we hold folks for deportation.' Or, ‘no one with those kind of claims' — meaning, you know, fear and threats from the gangs — gets to stay in this country.'

"The truth is, of course, all of those claims, including claims based on threats of violence from gangs, must be evaluated individually. And some of those claims do, of course, merit the right for individuals to stay in the United States. So that's really concerning to us, that a lot of the women reported that, essentially, what had been telegraphed to them was the idea that what you should really do is give up. Because your chance of success is slim, at best, to zero."

On why it's even harder for lawyers to visit unaccompanied children being held by the government

"We had to go to court and seek a court order to speak to the children at [the processing center in Nogales, Arizona] specifically. As of [July 14] the government submitted into court records that there were 330 Salvadoran children being held at the Nogales facility, [and] 956 overall [in the Nogales facility]. That's a lot of kids.

"The court ordered [on July 17th] that we had a right to talk to our class clients there. [But on the afternoon of Friday, July 18], we started reading press accounts that the Border Patrol itself was saying that the facility had been closed. The very next day. And as of Friday afternoon, there were 23 children left in the facility. Twenty-three, down from 956. Obviously we were seriously concerned about the timing of that, coming on the heels of a court order."

Link to the original article from Vox.

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