Observations from Inside an Immigrant Family Detention Facility

During the refugee crisis at the Southern border, the press has focused on the unaccompanied children, but hundreds of mothers with young children have also been apprehended. The U.S. government is detaining over 600 of them in facility in Artesia, New Mexico.

I recently went there to provide representation to the families detained there. I assumed that I was prepared for what I would see. I was wrong.

As an immigration attorney, I often speak with asylum seekers, including survivors of torture and people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). And I am familiar with the detention setting because I work with asylum seekers and immigrants detained in two facilities in New Jersey. Family detention was not new to me, either, because I worked with women and children held in the T. Don Hutto family detention facility in 2008. None of my experiences prepared me for what I found at Artesia.

The women and children who fled horrific circumstances in Central America in search of safety and freedom now find themselves locked up in the United States. They are detained in the middle of the New Mexico desert, where they are far from relatives and legal counsel. Mothers complained of inadequate medical treatment for their children and poor food quality.  The legal process at Artesia is significantly flawed: if these procedures continue unchecked, the United States will not provide protection to many who desperately need it—and who have a right to it under the law. Women and children have already been deported, sent back into the very danger that forced them to flee.

Interviewing Process Raises Red Flags

I met with families, including victims of domestic violence, who did not pass a credible fear screening even though their cases met the legal standard for asylum. This is crucial because asylum seekers apprehended at the border must go through the credible fear process before they can apply for asylum. Asylum officers either misapplied the standard or conducted an unsatisfactory interview. Perhaps they did not probe for enough detail or interrupted the asylum seeker, or they did not offer childcare, with the result that many mothers neglected to mention instances of abuse, rape, or death threats in an effort to avoid further traumatizing their children. Officers also inappropriately asked asylum seekers legal questions, such as whether they were harmed on account of their “particular social group,” something that even immigration courts have difficulty defining.

Attorneys Banned from Speaking

When asylum seekers asked for judicial review (conducted via video-tele conference) of negative credible fear determinations, they faced similar problems, such as not being given the opportunity to take their children out of the room. In Artesia, asylum seekers’ attorneys—for those fortunate enough to have them—were not permitted to speak in the court reviews. In one case, the immigration judge threatened to evict me from the courtroom if I said “one more word.” In another, I was told I could not speak and then berated for passing notes to my client when trying to bring to her attention that there had been errors with the interpretation.

When detained asylum seekers pass the credible fear process, they are placed in removal proceedings and can apply for asylum. They also become eligible for bond so that they can be released to continue their cases outside of detention. The bond process should be an individualized assessment of a person’s security risk and likelihood of appearing before the immigration court, if released. In Artesia, ICE is refusing to set bond across the board. When the detained families ask immigration judges for a review of ICE’s decision, they are denied bond or are issued prohibitively high bonds (up to $30,000) even though they presented no security risk and any appearance risks could be addressed through alternatives to detention.

Mother Told to Wait 30 Years for Medication for her Child

I spoke with many mothers who told me about their child’s weight loss, anxiety, and depression. Two told me what happened when they went to the clinic to seek medical care for their children. One was told to return in thirty years for diarrhea medication for her child. The mother thought she misheard, so she asked the interpreter to ask the doctor again, but he confirmed she should come back in thirty years. The other mother went to the doctor because of her daughter’s weight loss. The doctor responded by threatening to intubate and force-feed the girl.

The U.S. government should not detain mothers and children seeking refuge. There should be an effective release policy in Artesia, one that takes advantage of alternatives-to-detention, which are cost-effective and less restrictive. And the U.S. government needs to take seriously its responsibility to provide to safe haven to endangered refugees. By doing so, the United States would live up to its human rights commitments—and its ideals.

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Published on September 3, 2014

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