Inside A Converted New Mexico Detention Center, ‘Swift Process’ May Mean Asylum Claims Overlooked


ARTESIA, NM — On the morning of July 22, a plane of Guatemalan migrants was en route to deport its passengers back to their home country, when Guatemalan consulate officials intervened. These officials concluded that a third of the women and children on the plane exhibited fear of return, and could not be deported without having their asylum claims assessed. While the rest were flown back to Guatemala, these women and children were spared — just barely — and returned to an Artesia, New Mexico detention facility for migrant families.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement representatives shared this story with attorneys and immigration advocates during a recent visit to a makeshift Artesia detention facility. They cited the story as an example of how well their screening process is working. But lawyers in the room took it as one of several pieces of evidence that something was seriously wrong. Had it not been for the rare intervention of officials from the very country these migrants were being deported back to, their claims would have been overlooked. As unprecedented numbers of women and children are coming into the US, many to escape violence in Central America, U.S. officials are touting 3 planes of deportees returned to Central America as “proof that indeed we will send people back.” But a visit to one newly converted detention facility in Artesia, New Mexico, suggests this emphasis on swift deportations may mean many legitimate claims of fear are never being heard.

Migrants who express fear of returning to their home country are not supposed to be sent back without first being screened to determine whether their fear credible. In Artesia, the pace and volume of detentions and utter lack of legal infrastructure means these claims may never be communicated.

Judicial Integrity At Risk

Part of a Federal Law Enforcement Training Center that was converted to a family detention center last month has already processed an estimated 800 women and children. Some 60 to 65 percent have expressed fear of being returned to their home countries and must be interviewed by an asylum officer to determine whether their fear is credible, under the Immigration and Nationality Act. But at Artesia, these interviews are conducted at the dizzying pace of 20 interviews every day, 7 days a week. This rapid pace, combined with the lack of access to legal services, worries attorneys like New Mexico Immigrant Law Center’s (NMILC) Legal Director, Megan Jordi, who noted, “If the government is going to expedite this whole process and wants to ensure due process, they need to provide counsel. The integrity of our entire justice system is being challenged here.” A group from El Paso, Texas, Diocesan Migrant & Refugee Services is beginning to conduct presentations to inform detainees of their legal rights, but likely not often enough to keep up with the rapid pace of credible fear interviews, deportations, and new arrivals at Artesia.

Interviews conducted with women at Artesia revealed that information about their rights and the deportation process is not being understood. Although Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is working on a sheet of pro bono attorneys in New Mexico, they currently provide only information of a few attorneys in El Paso, Texas. Women were unclear about how to contact lawyers and did not know that free legal services were available. Another said an official told her if she signed a paper, she’d get a hearing with a judge even faster. With no land line at the facility, the detainee handbook states that women should have access to flip phones held by guards three times a day, but those interviewed said they are only allowed one 3–5 minute call each day and that if the children misbehaved, everyone lost access to phones.

Lawyers make all the difference for migrants, particularly unaccompanied minors. Children with a lawyer are significantly more likely to show up for their immigration hearing, and more than four times as likely to succeed in their asylum claim.

No Support For Immigrants’ Lawyers

Despite the logistical difficulties of serving the women detained at Artesia, a handful of attorneys have tried to meet the legal needs of as many as they can. In addition to NMILC, Colorado attorney Shelley Wittevrongel drove 9 hours to Artesia from Boulder, Colorado, after a request went out over a Colorado attorney listserv from an attorney looking for someone to represent a client’s wife detained at Artesia. Wittevrongel said she came because she “felt really compelled by the excessively expedited process that’s taking place” and by the area’s isolation, which she said makes it “impossible for the pro bono community to step forward.” Jordi echoed this sentiment saying, “unfortunately the federal government chose to put a detention center in one of the most impoverished states in the United States that has no non-profits helping detained immigrants facing deportation. Not one.”

While Wittevrongel is willing to represent women in the facility, she’s finding it surprisingly difficult to do so. When she asked to talk to the court administrator, she was told they don’t have one. She said before she could get a question in, a man who confirmed he was in charge for the day said, ‘I’m telling you that our job is to get these people out of here. Everybody here is going to be deported. There may be one person in a thousand that is eligible for a benefit in the US. The rest will be deported.”

After submitting a form signed by her client stating that she was the client’s legal representative at 5 p.m. one day, she later found out that her client was deported at 1 a.m. the following morning. She also has never seen a paper notifying a client of a hearing or credible fear interview. Without knowing when interviews will be, it’s difficult to triage cases. One client was even given a credible fear interview while Wittevrongel was in the law library waiting to represent the client — even though client told the asylum officer that she had a lawyer waiting in the law library. The officer called Wittevrongel’s office number, back in Boulder, and then proceeded with the credible fear interview without her present.

In addition to a lack of communication with counsel, the facility does not provide sufficient privacy to speak to clients. In one incident, she was interviewing a client behind a partial partition provided for clients to meet with attorneys, and a guard came around the partition mid-interview to ask her a question. Another concern is that children are kept with their mothers, even during credible fear interviews when mothers are recounting incidents of physical and sexual violence. In one case, ICE decided a 13-year-old boy shouldn’t be in the room to hear his mother give the details of the domestic violence she faced, so they assigned 3 guards to watch him in another room while his mother was being interviewed.

While ICE works to improve conditions at Artesia and organizations scramble to bring legal services to a state without existing infrastructure to provide pro bono immigration assistance to people in detention, women and children are rapidly being processed for deportation without fully understanding why they are there in the first place, much less the complexities of immigration law. According to chair of the American Bar Association’s Commission on Immigration, Christina Fiflis, “Despite the government caught off guard, they couldn’t have picked a worse place than Artesia. This highlights the absolute need for appointed counsel in immigration proceedings, and certainly for children in immigration proceedings.” As the tour group left one of the housing pods, a child being held yelled out “ayuda,” or help, after the visitors, an urgent call for desperately needed assistance.