Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal
ARTESIA – Artesia is a town divided.
This oil and gas boomtown in southeast New Mexico is populated by people who still smile and say hello to strangers. “Yes Ma’am,” “no sir” and “please” and “thank-you” are part of the street vernacular, and local businesses hold block parties in the middle of the downtown business sector.
But on the issue of immigration, they politely agree to disagree.
The issue has been at the center of a heated town discussion ever since it was learned that the sprawling Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, or FLETC, in Artesia, will house women and women with children from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala who have been flooding across the border from Mexico.
A town hall meeting Tuesday night was attended by 400 people, most of whom spoke against using FLETC as a detention center for immigrants, according to local news reports. Their concerns ranged from the detainees passing disease into the community, to the government holding them for protracted periods of time on the taxpayer’s dollar, to the possibility that they would eventually be released and take jobs and resources from locals – concerns that immigration officials said were unfounded.
On Thursday, people were still discussing the issue.
“I don’t know if it’s a good idea, but somebody has to help them, I guess,” says Jackie Billips, manager of the Artesia Hospital Auxiliary Thrift Shop.
There’s no guessing about it, says thrift shop customer Tina Seifer. “I’m pleased that Artesia has opened its heart to people who truly need help. These are women and children who walked a thousand miles to get here. They’re not here for jobs, they’re escaping oppression, cruelty and bad leadership in their home countries. They know what it says on the Statue of Liberty, and here they are.”
Terra Greer sits on the edge of a large stone planter on Main Street watching her 2-year-old daughter play with the foliage. An American history teacher of eighth-graders, she says she has “mixed emotions” regarding the immigrants.
“On the one hand, we have a huge responsibility to be humane and show love, compassion and respect. On the other hand, I teach kids who are just as poor and the only meal of the day they get is at school,” she says. “As a society, we need to pay better attention to the poverty and despair in our own backyards.”
Aromatic barbecue smoke wafts through the air from grills cooking Fourth of July fare for a downtown block party. Peyton Yates, an executive with Yates Petroleum and Santo Petroleum, says the question must be considered with compassion, but there’s another issue that needs to be discussed: “The mess that our government created by its failure to draw borders, properly protect those borders, and then let people know that those borders and boundaries are protected.”
Katie Parker, an environmental manager for Yates Petroleum attending the block party, noted how vicious and angry the immigration issue got in California in recent days, where protesters blocked buses of detainees from Texas and turned them back.
“I don’t fear that will happen here,” she says. “People here are concerned but not violent or angry.” Those who oppose FLETC being used to detain immigrants do so “out of concern for the community rather than a hatred of immigrants,” she says.
New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall, who on Thursday toured the FLETC campus with a host of other government officials, said that if the immigrants were being kept for months at a time, then it would likely be more expensive, but that’s not the case.
“This is a temporary site, and people will be coming and going. They are trying to process those who don’t meet the asylum criteria and move them back to their home country,” he says, “For the most part, people here are going to be headed back.”
A senior Immigration and Customs Enforcement representative at FLETC said that as of Thursday there were 192 immigrants staying at the campus, which can accommodate up to 672, “though I don’t foresee ever having that many here at one time.”
The only immigrant residents here are female heads of households with children under 17. The mothers and children can have no criminal history or previous deportations or they are diverted to other detention facilities. All are given medical screenings before being brought to FLETC and an on-site medical staff deals with any medical issues that are presented.
They are not allowed to leave the FLETC campus and their expected stay is only a matter of days, though that could be extended for the very few who meet the criteria and seek asylum, the ICE official said.
Consequently, concerns about the immigrants being released into the community, where they take jobs and resources from locals, spread disease or sell drugs is pretty far removed from reality.
There is also a common belief among some that placing the immigrants in the detention centers encourages others from their country to make the pilgrimage north.
That is precisely why the detainees at FLETC are being processed so quickly and sent back, he said.
“These people spend all their money to pay ‘coyotes,’ often who work for cartels, to bring them these great distances and at great risk to their safety and health. If they get sent back immediately, then that’s the message that gets sent.”