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First planeload of immigrants leaves Artesia

Federal immigration authorities on Monday deported the first group of Honduran immigrants from an Artesia detention center since the temporary facility was opened last month.

The nearly 40 adults and children were the first to be repatriated of the approximately 400 people detained at the facility converted from an unused area of a Border Patrol training center.

A charter plane departed Roswell airport in the morning carrying the Hondurans, according to airport manager Jennifer Brady. The immigrants were transferred directly from buses to the plane on the tarmac and did not enter the terminal, she said.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement opened the temporary detention center in Artesia last month to process a few hundred of the tens of thousands of Central American immigrants coming to the U.S. illegally in recent months, many of them children and families fleeing violence in their home countries.

The Artesia detention center is one of two run by the federal government to hold immigrant women and children and was opened to partly alleviate crowded conditions at Border Patrol stations, whose cells were designed to briefly detain immigrant men apprehended at the border before deportation – not the influx of women and children. The other family detention center is in Pennsylvania.

Many more immigrant women and children are being released in the U.S. by ICE while they await immigration hearings that could take years to happen. ICE has been relying on nonprofit and religious organizations in Las Cruces, El Paso and other border communities to care for immigrants who have often spent days in custody and are in need of food, shelter and help finding relatives in the U.S.

The deported Honduran families landed Monday in the city of San Pedro Sula to a welcome that included politicians, aid workers and the country’s first lady, according to the Los Angeles Times. It was the first in a series of expected arrivals of deported families since the Artesia facility opened and the influx of immigrants from Central America has become daily front-page news.

Two Texas lawmakers on Monday proposed a bill to hasten the deportation process for Central American immigrant youths, who under current law cannot be immediately removed the way Mexican immigrant youths are quickly turned back over the border, according to The Associated Press.

The rules governing immigrant youths from “contiguous” countries – Canada and Mexico – differ from those covering youths arriving from “noncontiguous” countries such as Honduras or El Salvador.

That means the more than 57,000 unaccompanied minors from Central America apprehended at the Southwestern border since October – more than double last year’s number – are transferred to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, part of the Department of Health and Human Services. They are given an opportunity to see an immigration judge and are often released into the custody of a parent or guardian living in the U.S. while they wait. A determination could be made based on a number of factors, such as whether the youth has a credible fear of persecution upon return.

The Artesia detention center is holding only families, not unaccompanied minors.

A proposal by the Obama administration seeks $3.7 billion in funding to address the “humanitarian crisis” at the border and includes money to bolster the overloaded immigration court system. However, the administration has also supported plans to “expedite” deportations to send a “message” to immigrants who would come to the U.S. illegally.

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, speaking in Artesia last week, called the detention center and planned deportations “proof” that the administration’s message is: “We will send you back.”

Immigrant advocates have criticized the detention of families and oppose efforts to accelerate the deportation process, which could force immigrants with valid asylum claims back into what they say are dangerous situations in their home countries – where criminal gangs have grown increasingly powerful in recent years.

“Many of the Central American arrivals were fleeing persecution and will have asylum claims,” said Beth Werlin, deputy director of the legal arm of the Washington, D.C.-based American Immigration Council. “The fact that they are talking about speeding up (deportations) raises red flags for us. The reality is that an asylum claim cannot be adjudicated overnight.”

Nearly 82,000 immigrants, mostly from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, have been deported since October, according to the Department of Homeland Security. That’s fewer than half the roughly 203,000 Central American immigrants apprehended at the Southwestern border in the same period.

Regarding the first deportations from Artesia, Homeland Security spokeswoman Marsha Catron said, “This is just the initial wave. We expect additional adults with children will be returned to Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador soon, based on the results of removal proceedings or expedited removal.”