A torrent of refugees continues to cross the international border into New Mexico and other Southwestern states. Women and children relate brutal gang violence and extreme poverty in their Central America neighborhoods. They say they’ll be killed if they return home. Yet the US government is detaining them by the thousands and sending them back across the border in droves.
With removal orders being processed at a detention center outside of Artesia in southeastern New Mexico, nearly 400 women and children behind bars face long odds of winning asylum status. Language barriers, high bonds and limited legal representation make it difficult for the detainees to prepare meaningful cases to win the right to remain in the United States.
Now, national immigrant rights groups, including the National Immigration Law Center and the American Civil Liberties Union, have filed a complaint in Washington DC claiming the feds are deporting those who should be allowed to stay.
Santa Fe immigration attorney Allegra Love, who works for local nonprofit Adelante, spent last week in Artesia to lend a hand:
SFR: How shameful is it for the government to be jailing these women and children? Love: It's absolutely disgusting. These refugees are not criminals, and they're getting $25,000 bonds simply for having the audacity to ask for asylum after fleeing almost certain deaths in their home country. From any human perspective, it's insane and inhumane.
Have you been able to persuade the administrative judges to lower your clients' bonds? The judges are 1,800 miles away in Virginia. We sit at a folding table in front of a television with cameras pointed at us. Talk about a great way to pretend like a person doesn't exist. These women deserve more than me sitting at a folding table. They deserve to have quality representation. The women in Artesia should not be treated differently than every other refugee who has ever asked for bond.
Is there any hope of any of them being granted asylum? Everybody here is in removal proceedings. If these women were released on their own recognizance or given reasonably low bonds, they would have two years or longer to prepare meaningful asylum cases. That's impossible [incarcerated] in the remote New Mexico desert, where they're only given one month to prepare. Most don't even understand what they're facing because their access to legal counsel has been spotty at best.
What do you need to prove to get them asylum? You essentially have to show that they're part of one of five recognized groups that is facing persecution in their home country. It's really complicated to make that argument when they're fleeing gang violence.
What about last week's Board of Immigration ruling that determined that battered women are eligible for asylum? It's going to be huge. So many of these women here are fleeing their countries because they have encountered horrific domestic abuse. Now they'll count as a social group. That decision was 15 years in the making.
Are you also helping all the unaccompanied minors who have been detained? They're in totally different hands. They're moved to the Office of Refugee Resettlement and the Department of Health. Those kids have special legal protections that put them into a different category than these women and their children. President George Bush signed the [Trafficking] Victims Protection [Reauthorization] Act in 2008 that gives those minors special legal protections that makes sure that stuff like this doesn't happen to them. You can't do expedited removal with the unaccompanied minors from Central America. I feel like the government is taking advantage of all the media attention on the unaccompanied children to quietly abuse and shuffle these women and children through the system.
Don't they have constitutional rights once they've crossed the border? Immigration is not a crime. It's a civil offense. If an undocumented immigrant gets a DWI, they have all the same criminal protections that US citizens have. But people detained for immigration violations have zero constitutional protections. They don't have a right to an attorney, a speedy trial and most importantly, here they don't even have the right to even understand the charges against them. None of that.
Have you heard some heartbreaking stories? I was with a woman from Guatemala who only speaks Q'anjobalan, a Mayan dialect. Her son who barely speaks English tried to help. After we set up a three-way translation, the young boy left the room and she immediately began to cry. She hadn't been able to tell anyone the men who had raped her also threatened to hurt her kids. It took her six weeks to get that message to the government, and they're still trying to remove her back to the place where she was hurt.
There was a chickenpox outbreak earlier this summer. What's your general assessment of the confinement conditions for these migrant families? I've met women who told me their children have lost more than 20 percent of their body weight since arriving at this detention center. The kids look terribly weak and sad. They're sick, and they're not getting proper medical care. Most the women have experienced some trauma, and there is zero mental health care counseling being provided to these refugees who fled Central America because they're in extreme danger. Many of the people here need specialized trauma treatment.
Do some of the government agents appear to be upset with the expedited proceedings to repatriate families back to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador? Some seem to be, but others are straight racists. I've heard some of them say horrible things to the migrants. The guard in charge of monitoring the law library won't even let the kids have crayons. I heard him say the women don't take care of their children and that they just come to the United States to get drunk and run over people. These are the people in charge of delicate people who have been traumatized. Not all the guards act that way. They're doing their job keeping order in this detention facility. It's not an individual problem, it's the fact that this facility exists for this purpose at all.
Are you seeing those kinds of abuse yourself? We're not allowed to see anything like that. They do media tours, but they're all really controlled. One media tour last month was completely staged. No, the guards act like angels in front of us because we're attorneys. We've been relegated to one small trailer. They're watching us like hawks. We're monitored by ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] even in the bathroom. We have to get official transportation to and from the trailer.
So what do you tell anti-immigrant racists who don't seem to care? These people are fleeing brutal violence. They're not evading immigration. They've turned themselves in because they're in desperate need of help. Now they're being treated like animals in a concentration camp-like setting. It turns my stomach. If these sad stories don't move you, then I'm not sure it's worth talking about the politics and the policy behind it. I feel sorry for the first person who tells me, "You know they are criminals," when I get home.
Have you heard from any of the federal delegation? I gave Sen. Heinrich's field people a piece of my mind when they came to visit the other day. I screamed at them, "How can this be happening here?" They are all really nice people, and I know they're horrified at what they're seeing, but I've lost my ability to be polite about this situation.
What can people who live in Santa Fe do to help? They can donate money to the legal fund we've created online (adelantesantafe.org). It will help us get more attorneys here to help more women get out on bond. They don't have Wi-Fi here for us to use, so we got a data hot spot so we can write legal motions. If we get enough donations, we'll give attorneys stipends to come down and help and take some of the hardships away from the attorneys who are working 18-hour days.
With the government seemingly stacking the cards against these migrants, aren't you really just fighting a losing battle? No! There is progress being made, and these people who fear for their lives have a right to stay here. At times it feels overwhelming, but that's not a reason not to try.