More than two-thirds of the Central American mothers and children held at a temporary immigrant detention center in Artesia – closed last week – ultimately were released, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
During its nearly six months of operation, more than 1,200 immigrants were detained at the southeastern New Mexico facility where Border Patrol agents receive training.
Some 874 immigrants had been released before its closure Thursday, while 370 were deported, said Leticia Zamarripa, an ICE spokeswoman. The 15 or so remaining were transferred to a new family detention center in Karnes, Texas.
The rate of immigrants released from Artesia – 69 percent – comes after the Obama administration’s vow to “send a message” that those who cross the border illegally will be sent back. It’s a vow Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson articulated in Artesia this past summer and repeated last week at the inauguration of one of two new family detention centers in Texas.
Most of the immigrants released from Artesia are now waiting for a chance to argue their case in court and many are seeking asylum. “To me, that’s an indication that, from the administration’s point of view, (detention) was about sending a message, and not about due process and not about … whether they are eligible for asylum,” said Vicki Gaubeca, director of the ACLU’s Regional Center for Border Rights in Las Cruces.
Central American migrants poured over the border this year, fleeing violence and poverty and, in some cases, hoping to take advantage of potential opportunities to reunite with family already here.
The number of “family units” apprehended at the south Texas border in fiscal 2014 swelled to more than 52,000 from just more than 7,000 the prior year – a 600 percent increase – according to Customs and Border Protection. The number of people arriving from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador began to taper in the fall.
Critics of family detention say the majority of detained mothers and children from Central America have viable asylum claims and say the statistics from Artesia demonstrate that. Asylum has been granted in 13 of the 14 cases that have gone to trial; the one denial is being appealed.
To pursue asylum, immigrants have to show “credible fear” in an official interview – a fear that if they return to their home countries they may face persecution, a fear credible enough to likely pass muster with an immigration judge.
The approval rate for credible fear claims at Artesia was initially low, around 38 percent. That was before a massive volunteer effort that brought some 335 immigration attorneys to Artesia to represent the detained women and children pro bono, according to Stephen Manning, a Portland, Ore., immigration attorney who helped coordinate the effort in Artesia that began in late July.
The approval rate for credible fear claims jumped to 70 percent and climbed as high as 100 percent some weeks, Manning said. There were an average of 14 pro bono attorneys working in Artesia any given week, he said.
ICE closed its 700-bed temporary detention center in Artesia after opening two permanent family detention centers in Texas. One, in Dilley, Texas, will have capacity to hold up to 2,400 immigrant women and children, while a Karnes, Texas, detention center is approved to hold 1,200 women and children.
“Some 90 percent of these women had cases and they are winning them in court – how could you say there are no claims?” said Olsi Vrapi, an Albuquerque immigration lawyer who represented four women and their children detained at Artesia. “Instead of learning that lesson, and saying maybe we were wrong, we instead build a 2,400-bed (Dilley, Texas) facility, privately run, to jail even more women and children. It’s very discouraging.”