As unaccompanied children from Central America have arrived at the southern border in recent months, the press has extensively documented their plight. Much less discussed are the young children apprehended with their mothers.
The U.S. government recently began detaining many of them – more than 600 people at any given time – in a new facility in Artesia.
Last week I visited the center, previously a training facility for Border Patrol officers. What I saw revealed a deeply flawed approach, one that unjustly – and unnecessarily – prevents women and children from getting the protection they need and the fair process American ideals demand.
The U.S. government has already deported some mothers and children without giving them a meaningful chance to consult lawyers. On the morning of my visit, a plane returned families to Guatemala, and two planes had previously shipped women and their children back to Honduras.
Those who remain endure a facility hastily thrown together and unprepared for children and their mothers. Children and babies are everywhere. Their mothers are visibly distressed and confused. Some children are subdued; others are so traumatized they’re not eating. There are very few recreational or educational activities.
The legal process is Kafkaesque. The administration announced plans to detain families and deport them quickly to deter others from fleeing to the United States. Not only is such a use of detention inconsistent with U.S. human rights commitments: it’s ineffective.
Under both domestic and international law, the United States must protect people fleeing persecution, torture and trafficking. But the process for identifying people who should be referred for protection screening interviews – rather than summarily returned – has always been flawed, as the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom extensively documented in a 2005 report.
The problems don’t end for those referred for protection interviews. There’s no staff to oversee children, nor are the interview rooms designed to allow private conversations.
Those who pass preliminary screenings are put into removal proceedings. Though they can apply for asylum or other forms of protection, multiple studies have found that people without lawyers are much less likely to successfully navigate the immigration courts. And here in Artesia, legal representation is hard to come by.
The Obama administration chose to locate the facility in the desert far away from urban centers – four hours from Albuquerque and three-and-a-half from El Paso – where nonprofit legal organizations are located.
The first legal orientation presentation occurred just over a week ago. Several hundred showed up for one of these sessions, but it was limited to 40 minutes.
The few detainees who have secured lawyers still face barriers. Phone use is limited to a few minutes. The attorney-client visitation area, which should protect confidentiality, consists of two desks in an open area where families and immigration officers are often present. And hearings take place via tele-video conferencing, a process fraught with difficulties.
The United States should not put children and families in immigration detention – especially not for extended periods. The government can assure compliance by using alternatives to detention.
Recent statistics from one alternatives program used by the government show that immigrants appeared for their final hearings 97.4 percent of the time and complied with final orders 85 percent of the time.
There are also strong community-based models, like those run by Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services and the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops. Alternatives also save taxpayers’ money: Detention costs an average of $160 a day per person, while alternatives cost between 17 cents and $17.
The administration should immediately suspend deportations from Artesia until it provides these families access to counsel and should stop using detention for families.
The United States should provide a fair and humane process with timely removal hearings, legal representation and alternatives to detention.
In other words, the administration should respect our country’s ideals.
Human Rights First offers pro bono legal representation to asylum seekers.