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!