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A Trip to the Artesia Detention Facility

With reports circulating that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) plans to open a massive 2,400-bed facility in Dilley, TX to house families who have fled across the southwest border in recent months, federal family detention practices are increasingly coming under fire. After litigation and numerous horror stories emerged from a different facility in Texas, the Obama Administration curtailed most family detention in 2009. The federal government’s return to family detention is highly problematic, leaving officials to struggle to familiarize themselves with the unique and troubling features of housing young mothers, teenagers and small children together.

In July, at the height of the crisis surrounding families and unaccompanied children at the border, I had the opportunity to visit ICE’s recently-opened detention facility in Artesia, N.M. with a group of advocates. The facility houses several hundred of the thousands of mothers and children fleeing deteriorating conditions in Central America.

The first thing you notice at Artesia is the strain on young mothers’ faces as they dealt with caring for their children under the watch of guards behind metal fences. Their kids seemed cheerful, playing tetherball or tag in the yard of the facility, but our group learned that many detained children had lost weight adjusting to the facility’s food and dealt with significant mental health issues. Many of these women fled dangerous gangs or domestic violence, and possess legitimate immigration claims they deserve to be able to make as part of a fair and neutral process. Sadly for these women and children, such a process is not occurring.

Current policy shortcomings at Artesia are a result of detention policy being made on the fly in Washington, D.C. to address this crisis, leaving officials on the ground in New Mexico and elsewhere in an impossible situation. One staff member told a member of our group, “We know what needs to be done. We just can’t run fast enough!” Since the facility was essentially set up overnight to process, detain, and (in most cases) manage the removal of hundreds of undocumented women and children, crucial logistical and due process protections are often being overlooked or ignored.

Staffing at Artesia is largely made up of individuals on temporary detail, leading to significant turnover at the facility. Those assigned to the facility for longer periods of time were sent at a moment’s notice to a remote corner of New Mexico, often from thousands of miles away. On our visit, it was clear that staff members were trying the best they could – with many expressing genuine concern for the well-being of detainees and a willingness to address concerns raised by the advocates. But these staff members face an untenable situation – returning to unfamiliar and largely abandoned family detention practices with little advance planning or foresight.

In response to the conditions at Artesia, a coalition of civil rights and immigration advocacy groups filed suit in federal court last month challenging detention practices at the facility. The lawsuit caps several weeks of troubling news out of Artesia, including detainees being pulled off planes bound for deportation after expressing credible fears of violence to their home consulates, the revelation that an eleven-year-old U.S. citizen child was mistakenly detained with his mother, and an outbreak of chicken pox among detainees and staff.

The federal court complaint raises several troubling due process concerns at Artesia, notably several policies in place at Artesia that discourage advocates and legal service providers from aiding detainees. Although ICE has taken steps to improve access to legal services, the lawsuit highlights the following examples demonstrating how Artesia detainees continue to struggle to locate and obtain legal assistance:

  • The facility is several hours away from any major urban centers;
  • detainees have received inadequate notice that pro bono legal services are available;
  • detainees have had limited access to phones, and, in some cases, have been prevented from speaking more than a few minutes to family or lawyers; and
  • ICE delayed in setting up procedures to admit attorneys to visit with clients at the facility (leading to reports that detainees were left to navigate credible fear interviews and video hearings by themselves as attorneys waited to be processed for entry).

Other significant due process issues raised by the lawsuit include an unworkable and unreasonable requirement that children must be present with their mothers at all times, including during credible fear interviews. Although some distractions for children have been put into place – including games, coloring books and headphones – the practice of requiring children to be present is highly problematic. Mothers recounting brutal gang threats and instances of domestic violence to asylum officers are less likely to fully relay these traumatic and graphic occurrences with their children present. At the same time, keeping children in the room for these interviews risks traumatizing these kids.

The advocates’ lawsuit raises significant issues that hopefully will lead to necessary productive changes at Artesia – either through ICE acting proactively or via court order. Having visited Artesia, and seeing firsthand how difficult it has been to get it up and running in such a short time period, I am optimistic that the lawsuit could serve as an action-forcing event to address the ongoing due process shortcomings at the facility. If nothing else, these problems (and the accompanying litigation) serve as a reminder of the perils of family detention and the challenges of addressing a humanitarian crisis through enforcement “get-tough” measures.

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