Lawyers Say Detention Center Designed To Quash Legitimate Asylum Claims

CREDIT: Sharita Gruberg

As lawmakers push for measures to expedite the deportation proceedings of migrants crossing the southern U.S. border, immigration advocates are instead scrambling to give detainees a fair judicial process before their next steps are determined. And in a place like the Artesia detention facility (200 miles away from the nearest large city) in New Mexico, lawyers are balking at the maltreatment and inconsistency of due process. Three civil rights groups recently filed a lawsuit in Federal District Court charging that Central American mothers and children will go back to their countries to “face certain harm, without any meaningful opportunity to be heard.” The lawsuit alleged that Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials “created Artesia to limit successful asylum claims,” noting that the detention center was the embodiment of what would happen if an expedited removal policy — like the one that some politicians support — was put in place.

The affidavits from lawyers who had first-hand experience with Artesia detainees highlight the issues faced in the detention facility, such as intransigent officials who refused to let lawyers tell detainees that they have a right to be represented; attorneys meeting distressed detainees who reportedly said that guards would force them to be “detained for a long time” if they tried to apply for asylum; and finding out that detainees never received the opportunity to get legal representation.

Nineteen pro-bono immigration lawyers wrote affidavits alleging that the legal process was largely ignored at Artesia on separate occasions, with many claiming similar problems like lack of privacy with their clients or not having access to their clients. For instance, Sarah Perez, an immigration lawyer from Nevada, reported in her affidavit that ICE agents said that her client could not be “found,” and that she had “never observed a comparable lack of access to phones or inability to communicate with family members or lawyers outside the detention center. In the other ICE detention facilities, although the system is not perfect, I have always been able to communicate with my clients in a timely fashion. In Artesia, the inability to communicate with clients, along asylum officers’ refusal to acknowledge entries of appearance, made it extremely difficult for lawyers to provide effective representation.” One female detainee, she found, did not understand the questions that the asylum officer asked her. Another female detainee reportedly said that an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agent referred to her as an “animal,” saying, “look at the animals eat.”

Kimberley Hunter, a lawyer from Minnesota, wrote in her affidavit that it “was extremely difficult to have frank and confidential conversations with my clients” because client meetings were held in room with a portable room divider that didn’t even reach the ceiling, which made private conversations impossible. What’s more, clients had to bring their children, some between the ages of two and 14, and talk about their circumstances (like getting raped) in front of their children. One particularly jarring instance happened when an ICE agent told Hunter, “I want you to know that all of these people are going to be deported” and also “Our job is to get them deported and there’s maybe one in 1,000 entitled to stay in the United States, and the rest are going to go.”

Shelley Wittevrongel, a lawyer from Colorado, was reprimanded by ICE agents who accused her of soliciting clients and prevented her from taking the names and alien registration numbers of detainees who wanted representation. She reported that ICE officials intentionally “delayed calling detainees for consultations” and that the threat of deportation was “palpable” since ICE officers came into the dorms in the “early morning hours between 1:00 am and 3:00 am and ordered specific women and children out of bed and onto buses for deportation.”

The affidavits from the three lawyers are just some examples of the grim legal challenges that detainees face, but those are far from the only problems that they face. The Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general report found problems like unsanitary conditions, not enough food, and rooms that were unbearably cold. By early August, 280 women and children were deported out of Artesia, mostly to El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. And recently, a 11-year-old U.S. citizen was found detained for a month in Artesia. His lawyer told the Los Angeles Times, “I don’t think they asked him the right questions. He should never have been there.”