Returning to the Effort

First, thank you to everyone who read and commented on this blog while Amber and I were in Artesia. We truly appreciate your support.

In my last blog post in November, I wrote that I planned to return to help end family detention in Texas in Spring of 2015. I am happy to say that my flight has been booked and I am officially scheduled to volunteer at the new detention center in Dilley, TX from May 3-9. I am excited to once again contribute to the fight against family detention. Like in Artesia, I hope to blog while in Dilley to shed light on what is happening at this new center, and the experiences of the women and children being held there.

But… I need your help! I am seeking donations to cover travel expenses including flight, room and board. To read more about Dilley or to donate, please visit http://www.gofundme.com/q63angg. Please also share this with anyone who may be interested in donating. Thank you!!!

Laura

Returning home

On Saturday, November 22, Amber and I started the long journey home to Portland, ME. Feeling completely exhausted and emotionally drained, it took all that we had just to go from car, to plane, to bus without missing any connections or losing half of our belongings. Fortunately, we did have a few moments to reflect on what we had witnessed over the past week. One of our favorite topics of conversation was how we were going to tell people about all of this when we returned to Maine.

When people ask you how a trip was, a normal response is, “it was good!” or “it was great!” Neither of those responses were going to be appropriate in this case. “I learned a lot?” Too self serving. “Exhausting, draining, one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done?” Too negative. In the end, we decided on something along the lines of “it was the most rewarding and challenging experience I have ever had.” On Monday morning, I ended up telling people “read our blog.”

Because it’s not just the challenge of finding the right words to sum up the experience without giving a false impression that was causing my hesitation; it’s the intense emotions that start to surface whenever I talk about, or think about, Artesia. It’s hard to control the rising anger and frustration that I feel for the people that are causing all of this suffering, along with the deep sadness that I feel whenever I think about a certain child’s face, or his mother’s tears.

On Wednesday, November 26, Amber and I were interviewed by a reporter with the Bangor Daily News who wanted to do a follow up story on our experience. She asked us what our broad takeaways were from going to Artesia. We both agreed that the immediate goal was to end family detention. But beyond that, one of our takeaways is the need to raise awareness not just about what is happening to these women and their children in Artesia, but to raise awareness regarding who these women are. They are not criminals, nor are they “economic migrants”; they are women with tragic stories, who are doing everything they can to protect the lives of their children. We hope we have been able to provide at least a small snapshot into some of lives of the women that are being held at the Artesia Center through this blog.

With time, it gets easier to tell people about Artesia, and I can tell that my emotions are already beginning to fade. However, that doesn’t mean that I am done with Artesia; even if Artesia closes, Amber and I are both hoping to volunteer at the new center in Texas in the spring (although wouldn’t it be great if there was no family detention by that point?!).

Amber’s Post November 21, 2014

I had written this blog post 2 days ago, but with the craziness of Artesia and 24 hours of traveling, I’m just publishing it now:

Yesterday was both inspiring and incredibly draining. I spent the day sitting through psych evaluations interpreting for a pro-bono psychiatrist, who was evaluating women and their children whose health, both mental and physical, has begun to deteriorate as a result of prolonged detention. The report generated by the psychiatrist would be used by the pro-bono lawyers and law students to petition for the women and children to finally be released after 4-5 long months living in prison conditions.

The women have all had positive credible fear determinations (indicating a reasonable potential claim for Asylum), but because the women arrived at the detention center’s beginning, they received bonds astronomically higher than the women who came later. The judges at the center’s inception were ill-prepared to grasp the driving forces of the migration of the women who were appearing before them and politically-motivated in their decisions. Lawyers on the ground report that these judges and government attorneys would literally read off a script as they either negated or set high bonds for release. As it became understood that these women and children were not coming to the US solely for the purpose of gaining employment or contributing to terrorist activity like the government and media has suggested, but rather to flee for their lives, it was clear that some changes must be made.

One of those changes was moving the court hearings from headquarters judges in Arlington, VA to US Immigration judges based in Denver, Colorado. Women whose hearings are being conducted with the Denver judges are currently receiving bonds from $1,500-5,000 as opposed to the $20-30,000 they received at the start and which women simply were unable to pay. Many women and children currently at the detention center are still there because they are unable to pay the unreasonably high bonds-they watch as other women and children arrive and then are released on lower bonds weeks later. Many of these women and children, who had the unfortunate luck of appearing before the Arlington judges, are slipping into deep depression and illness as the days go by in detention.

Over the course of 2 days, I sat through 7 psychiatric evaluations for some of these individuals. Gang violence, police corruption, and domestic violence were ongoing themes that have uprooted these women to leave everything they have ever known. These women have had to take a leap of faith and do whatever they can to save their children’s lives. While all of the stories were tragic, there was one woman in particular that struck me with her courage, strength, and deep sadness after a life of abuse and violence. The woman, who looked like she was close to my age but who I later learned was only 19, traveled with her young daughter from El Salvador. I don’t feel right disclosing the particulars of her hard life on the internet, but I can say that she has endured constant physical, emotional, and sexual abuse throughout the entirety of her life. It was finally when she began receiving death threats by gang members that she knew she had no choice but to get out. “My choice was to stay and watch my daughter die or to leave.”

The woman, who was able to make it through most of her story without tears, broke down when we began to talk about her life since detention. The ongoing PTSD she has from past instances of abuse has amplified since being detained. Her daughter, who is only 5 years old has lost 6 lbs in detention (as a side note, every single child I came into contact with at the center was ill, and their mothers complained that they would not eat). The mother reported that her child who was always happy, social, and agreeable, has become aggressive over the months in detention. She does not even like to be around other kids anymore. The mother states that she is never able to get any sleep because her daughter is restless at night, alternating between crying and screaming with terror.

By the end of the interview, I was in tears sobbing with the mother. She said that she had never told anyone the specifics of her past abuse and the horror she lives with every day. She said that there is no one in the world that loves her and has taken care of her or made her feel like she matters. She said that she knew if she had stayed in her country, her and her daughter either surely would have been killed, or her daughter would have lived through the same terror she had. This is a mother who is fighting to protect her daughter-she is not a terrorist and she is not here to take advantage of the system, as much as the media and political opinion would like to paint a picture to the contrary. She is the person I will think of when I am looking for strength and she is the reason why family detention needs to end now. In the week that I’ve spent at the Artesia Detention Center, in the chaos, stress, and uncertainty that takes place there, there is one thing that is clear: mothers and their children do not belong in jail.

Small Updates

A few amazing things happened in the past couple of days, one of which is quite devastating. Here are some brief updates:

  1. Last night, due to the amazing work of two of the volunteer attorneys here in Artesia, one of the women being held at the facility and her son were successfully id’ed as US citizens. Proving citizenship can be very challenging. In this woman’s case, she had to prove that she had been in the US continuously for one year since her birth. After calling the mom, dad, uncles, aunts, etc., none of the family members could remember how long the woman had lived in the US. Finally, the attorneys ended up finding a distant cousin who was able to confirm that they had attended the mother’s first birthday party in California. After obtaining this information, the lawyers felt that they had enough evidence to rush to DHS and demand that the woman and child be released. Of course, DHS resisted at first, asking to wait until Monday when they could bring this to the attention of their counsel. However, after being informed exactly how bad a civil liability case for unlawful detention of a US citizen would look on the news, they realized that they had no choice, and released the woman and her child at around 10 PM last night. This woman and her child, both US citizens, had been in this facility for 17 days, and had spent 6 days in the hielera, (icebox) an extremely cold holding cell without windows and barely any food and water that Customs and Border Protection uses to hold people who they pick up close to the border. That is a total of 23 days that DHS did not realize that they were detaining US citizen, even though they are required to ensure that they do not do so. This morning, the woman and her child were off, free to live in the United States.
  2. As many of you may have heard, The Artesia Center is closing. By the end of the year, all of the women and children will be moved to Dilley in Texas. DHS had announced that they would not start moving people until mid-December. Team Artesia came up with a plan- to do as many bond hearings before that point as possible. Then, DHS announced less than one day prior that they were going to suddenly move 12 people to Karnes, TX. 12 of our clients, who we had prepared bond motions for and set hearing dates, were going to be swept away on a bus and driven through the desert to a facility hundreds of miles away. The attorneys were not going to let that happen, either. The words habeus corpus petition floated around the room, (an action to stop DHS from moving the women and children), phone calls were made, and conversations were had. For today, DHS did not go through with the move. But we are still unsure of tomorrow, and are working to be prepared to stop any move that happens before the scheduled date.
  3. Last night, 90 people comprised of the local community, members of the ACLU, volunteer lawyers, and others organized a candle light vigil to protest family detention. https://www.artesianews.com/989914/candlelight-vigil-held-near-detention-center.html.

Laura’s Post: November 20, 2014

On Saturday, 11/15, ICE offered approximately 30 women with children under the age of 3 years old bonds of $3,000 or less. They informed the individuals of the bond orally, instructed them to notify their family members, and told them to have their family members pay on Monday morning and they could finally be released. Some of these women who were promised release have been detained in the facility for months. On Monday morning, 2 women were lucky enough to have family members pay their bonds first thing. These two women were able to leave Artesia. Sometime around mid-morning on Monday however, ICE Headquarters changed their minds.  Due to a “blanket change in policy,” they sent orders for ICE officers to revoke every single bond that had been offered over the weekend. These 28-odd women whose bonds were revoked are still in Artesia, with no record of ever being offered a bond.

Instead, these women will have to have a hearing in front of a judge to determine their bond against an adversarial ICE attorney. I had a bond hearing for one of these women today. When I met with her in the morning and told her the purpose of the hearing today, she was confused. As she rocked her child in her arms, she kept insisting “but ICE already offered me a bond of $3,000. My family keeps trying to pay it, but it’s not showing up yet, so they can’t.” I had to inform her that this offer had been withdrawn, without being able to provide any explanation as to why. The only condolence I was able to offer was that the woman had a strong argument justifying her release (strong family ties in the US, a positive credible fear determination, no criminal history, etc.), and we would hope for the judge to set a bond of $3,000 or less.

The Judge that presided over this hearing is absolutely nothing like the Judge that we had seen yesterday. First of all, he likes to conduct his own direct examination before allowing the attorneys to ask questions. This includes asking question after question regarding how the woman and her children had been transported to the United States, whether or not they had paid a coyote, and whether or not they travelled with other individuals. This is of course all relevant to determine if this woman is a “national security threat” (according to ICE and this particular Judge). ICE attorneys assert that even women who have no criminal history and who are leaving their countries of origin not to seek employment but to flee from extreme domestic violence and sexual abuse, pose a national security threat. I felt no choice but to object to the Judge and “state our position on the record” that this information was not relevant to a bond, but received only a condescending smile. The Judge had no problem continuing with this line of questioning.

The real tragedy of the hearing, however, was not the attitude of the Judge, although that was a disappointment-it was the ICE attorney’s treatment of the woman sitting next to me, holding her child in her arms, terrified, and not fully understanding what was happening (the only part of immigration proceedings that are translated to English are questions directed towards the respondent- everything else said by the judges and attorneys remains a mystery to the person in the hearing). This particular woman had left one of her children behind in El Salvador. She only had so much money, and the coyote told her that she could only bring one child. She felt not choice but to leave her four year old daughter in the care of her parents, and bring her two year old son. Earlier that morning, I could feel the shame, guilt, and sadness that consumed her whenever she mentioned her daughter.

The ICE attorney utilized this mother’s pain and tragedy as a way to undermine her credibility, asylum claim, and law-abiding nature all at once. After pointing out multiple times that the woman had left her daughter behind, the ICE attorney asked “do you plan to bring your daughter to the United States?” The woman responded, “my plan is to gain legal status, and then bring my daughter here” (a perfect response). “But what if you can’t get papers? Will you go back to El Salvador?” “No, I can’t go back to El Salvador-I’ll be killed if I return” “But not even to be with your own daughter who you left behind?” “Well, if I had to I guess I would, but if there was any other option then I would bring her here.” “What is any other option?” “If I had papers.” “But what if you didn’t have papers? You wouldn’t bring her here anyways, you would just leave her behind in Honduras? Don’t you love her?” The woman sitting next to me began to sob and completely fell apart, reliving the shame and guilt she obviously felt for leaving her little girl behind and exclaimed, “how could I not bring her here? How could I just leave her there in El Salvador, I couldn’t, I would have to bring her here, I would do anything for her, I would have to.”

Objecting to this line of questioning is futile. At the end, the judge stated in his decision that this was a “national security matter” because the woman had stayed in a house with 15 other people for one night in Mexico, making this part of the “mass migration directly leading to the national security threat.” He also stated that he found she was “willing to ignore US immigration laws, as she stated she would bring her daughter here even if she didn’t get status.” He gave her a $5,000 bond. Her family had barely been able to scrape together $3,000. She doesn’t know when she and her son will be able to get out.

This is just one example of the frustrations that the women in Artesia face on a daily basis. There is no transparency in the decisions that ICE makes- questions are not answered, and explanations do not exist. Furthermore, this Judge has no problem playing along with their agenda. The entire process is infuriating. It made me feel completely helpless, and as if our efforts were arbitrary- the Judge was going to do what he wanted to do, no matter what. I know that without our advocacy, this woman probably would have had an even higher bond, and I’m sure we did help with her legal case. But in a way, I felt that the more important role that I was playing during that hearing was something different. This woman had someone to sit next to her, to fight for her when the questions were getting too intense; she had someone to touch her arm when she started to cry; she had someone to explain, as well as they could, what the hell had just happened.

Days one and two

Today marks our second full day in Artesia, NM. Although so many blog-worthy events have transpired over the last 48 hours, there literally has not been a free minute in the day to devote to anything other than caseload. Yesterday, we started our day with a brief tour of the facility-a former federal law enforcement training center converted to a makeshift detention facility currently housing around 500 mothers and their children surrounded by a large barbed-wire fence with guards posted at every entrance. When we arrived, we were escorted to the “legal trailer”-the trailer where all women and children go when they have an appointment with one of the volunteer attorneys. Opening the door to the trailer we were immediately taken aback.

Dozens of women and their small children, most of which appeared to be under the age of 8 years old, occupied the one small room where lawyers have the opportunity to meet with their clients. The trailer was loud and chaotic- some children played with toys and colored with crayons while others gathered around to watch the movie, “Curious George” in Spanish. Mothers waited patiently in silence for the chance to speak with a legal volunteer. As we walked in, heads turned and the serious faces of the women warmed to bright smiles as we greeted one another. Some children appeared to be in very poor health; a few minutes after entering, one woman even held her son, who appeared to be around six years old, over a trash can so that he could throw up.

Before Laura and I could get the full tour of the facility we were called to court to take notes for the attorneys. The court is located in another trailer at the detention center where women and children present their claims in front of a large television screen broadcasted from US Immigration judges in Denver, Colorado. The first part of the day in court was mostly observation, where we saw attorneys scramble to catch both themselves and their clients up to speed on what will be expected during the hearing. The process is incredibly stressful, as the attorneys do not receive the docket for the next day until late in the evening the night before.

Imagine being handed a docket for the following morning of 10-15 cases that you have never seen before, and being told that you are the attorney for each one. After receiving the list of clients that they will be presenting in court the next day, attorneys then spend from 8pm until sometimes 3am preparing for the next day’s court proceedings. The women and their children file in one-by-one for their hearings-the children often sitting on their mother’s laps or playing at her feet while she nervously answers opposing counsel’s aggressive cross-examination via video conference. We both had an incredible amount of respect for the attorneys who quickly had to adapt to changing circumstances and try their best to keep the facts straight on the 50 clients that meet with them each day.

After court observation, Laura headed back to the pro-bono’s project headquarters-the name and location of which must remain secret due to death threats the pro-bono project has received. She assisted an attorney with bond motions and filings, and documented the day’s court proceedings in writing for future reference. Amber spent the day in the “legal trailer” of the detention center, where she assisted individual clients with I-589’s and preparing other various matters. We both noticed that more than half of the children we interacted with and observed were ill. Their coughs could be heard throughout the legal trailer and many of the women complained that their children had not eaten in several days and in some cases, weeks. One child that a fellow attorney interacted with has been on an IV in the detention center for 2 weeks, unable to eat and too lethargic to move.

At the end of the day, after debriefing and sharing our first day experiences, the coordinators decided that one day of observation was enough, and assigned us our own cases for the next morning. Suddenly, we were the attorneys from the night before, scrambling to learn about cases that we had never seen before, using processes that we were unfamiliar with. As we quickly discovered, the stakes are incredibly high, and any small mistake could prolong an individual’s detention significantly, or even send them back to their home country where they have been raped, tortured and abused.

Laura was assigned a few master calendar hearings and a bond hearing. After spending hours of prepping the bond hearing, including preparing the client in the morning only minutes before the hearing, it was discovered that the ICE attorneys had never received our bond motion. Because of this, her hearing was continued until Monday. This woman and her children will have to spend at least an extra week in Artesia because of a simple technical error. After Laura explained to her what had happened and apologized profusely for last week’s errors, the woman simply smiled, said she understood, and said thank you.

Amber was assigned a few master calendar hearings and a bond hearing as well. During her bond hearing, the ICE attorney objected relentlessly to the granting of the bond. As is ICE’s protocol here in Artesia, the ICE attorney cited cases trying to show that this mother and her children were national security risks. The allegation that this young mother and her child, fleeing from conditions of severe violence in their home country, where the mother had been repeatedly raped and beaten, pose a national security risk to the United States was unfathomable . It is incredible how the ICE attorneys can make this argument with a straight face. Fortunately, the judges generally do not take this argument seriously (knock on wood), and Amber was able to secure a $5,000 bond for the family that would allow for their release potentially as soon as a few days time.

Working in Artesia is stressful, overwhelming, and at times, even demoralizing. Everyone needs help, and we end up taking on for one day what most people would complete in a week. The work days thus far have begun at 6am and continue until 2am, working straight through without as much as a 30 minute break. There is no time to even process the tragic stories that we are constantly being confronted with. At the end of the day, though, we’re always comforted with knowing that we are working towards a common goal – ending family detention. Right now, that is happening here in Artesia one family at a time.

*Note: many of you may have heard today that The Artesia Center will be closing by the end of the year, and individuals who remain will be moved to a facility in Texas. We are still unsure of all of the implications of this change, but it has only made Team Artesia more motivated to get these families out as soon as possible!