ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal
ARTESIA – Deportations are slated to begin next week from the temporary immigrant detention center in Artesia as part of the Obama administration’s plan to send a “message” to Central Americans coming illegally over the Southwest border.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson toured the center Friday and said the waves of migrants – many of them mothers and children fleeing violence and poverty in their home countries – should know “our border is not open to illegal migration.”
“Our message to those who are coming here illegally, to those who are contemplating coming here illegally into South Texas, is, ‘we will send you back,’ ” he said, describing the process at Artesia as “expedited removal” and the detention center as “proof” the U.S. government will deport migrants.
Two weeks ago, immigration authorities converted part of the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Artesia, where Border Patrol agents receive instruction, to hold as many as 700 women and children from Central America. Unaccompanied minors are not being held at the facility.
Modules built to house agents during a surge in border enforcement about a decade ago have been outfitted with bunk beds – eight to a room – and playrooms have been filled with donated toys.
More than 400 people were being held there Friday and Johnson said more migrants were expected to arrive later in the evening. The facility is one of only two detention centers in the U.S. set up to hold immigrant families.
Tens of thousands of Central Americans have been streaming over the border with Mexico, particularly in South Texas, the closest crossing point from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, where most of the immigrants are coming from and where poverty is rife and brutal criminal gangs operate with impunity.
More than 180,000 have arrived at all points along the Southwest border in the past nine months alone, including some 52,000 unaccompanied minors, and federal authorities have struggled to handle the influx.
The Obama administration has tried to counter any impression of leniency by announcing plans for new detention centers and emphasizing rapid deportations.
Immigrant advocates say they are concerned that families held at the remote, upstart New Mexico detention center are not getting access to the legal assistance provided to migrants at more formal detention facilities. They worry those migrants who may have valid asylum claims may not get a fair shake in a fast-track system.
“The problem is Obama is trying to fast-track this process, which is one of the biggest travesties,” Albuquerque immigration attorney Olsi Vrapi said. “They are going to create a huge deportation mill. You set up a detention center in the middle of nowhere, and it’s hard to even get there, let alone conduct any meaningful work.”
Border agents are supposed to screen migrants when they are apprehended to see if they express fear about returning to their home country, and if they do, they are entitled to interview with an asylum officer. Should the asylum officer determine that migrants show “credible fear” of returning, they may then present their case before an immigration judge. It’s a complex process that attorneys say requires professional legal counsel.
“As unfair as our immigration system is with a lawyer by your side,” Vrapi said, “imagine an abused woman from El Salvador with two kids by her side. How is she going to go through this process?”
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials said migrants are shown a “know your rights” video and are provided a list of legal aid organizations. They may make phone calls and have an opportunity to be interviewed by an asylum officer, who will determine if they have a credible fear of returning home and are eligible to present their case to an immigration judge.
“The legal community, particularly New Mexico immigration lawyers, are concerned that folks aren’t given any type of orientation before these interviews,” said Lauren Armstrong, immigration staff attorney with Catholic Charities Legal Services of Las Cruces. “There are private attorneys and NGOs that want to provide services.”
Vrapi and Armstrong said New Mexico attorneys are working to organize a pro bono network that could provide services to families detained at Artesia. But at a facility “that popped up overnight” far from the urban centers of Albuquerque and El Paso, that will take time, Armstrong said.
While some of the migrants could be eligible for asylum, proving such cases before an immigration judge has been difficult in cases where gang violence is a factor. Grounds for asylum include persecution due to race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a social group.
Denial rates in asylum cases vary widely by region and by judge, according to a six-year study by Syracuse University that shows judges denying asylum in as few as 16 percent to as many as 98 percent of cases.
United Nations officials began pushing this week for the U.S. government to treat Central American migrants as refugees of armed conflict, although they would be among the first migrants to be so labeled for fleeing violence committed by criminal gangs rather than violence from a typical shooting war or violent ethnic conflict.
On Friday, ICE provided a tour of unoccupied areas of the Artesian detention center to local and national media. ICE has denied media access to any of the detained migrants at Artesia.