In response to the record numbers of Central American women and children apprehended at the southern U.S. border this year, the Obama administration has rapidly increased its use of family detention for the first time in many years, leading critics to denounce both the conditions in which these families are being held and the legal processes to which they are subject. But a rotating cadre of volunteer lawyers is improving detainees’ access to justice and giving hope to the hundreds of desperate women they have served.
Since 2009, when federal litigation led the T. Don Hutto Family Detention Center in Taylor, Texas, to cease being used for family detention, there have been fewer than 100 beds in family detention facilities for immigrants in the United States. However, earlier this summer, the U.S. government converted part of a border patrol training facility in Artesia, New Mexico, into a family detention center with the capacity to hold around 600-700 women and children at a given time; while the center is billed as “temporary,” officials have said that it could remain open through next August. Shortly thereafter, an immigrant detention facility in Karnes, Texas, was repurposed to hold women and children as well. More recently, the administration has announced plans to open up a massive new facility in Dilley, Texas, that will house 2,400 beds for immigrant women and children. As the ACLU has noted, this will bring the total of family detention beds in the U.S. to nearly 4,000 in 2015—an astonishing 3,900 percent increase in less than one year. Administration officials have justified the increase, in part, as an attempt to deter others from entering the United States unlawfully.
Immigrant advocates have denounced the increased use of detention for women and children fleeing domestic and gang violence in Central America, alleging sexual abuse at Karnes and due process violations, particularly in Artesia, as the government tries to speedily deport detainees. Removal proceedings for the women detained in Artesia were initially held via teleconference with immigration judges from the Executive Office for Immigration Review’s (EOIR) headquarters in Arlington, Virginia. Attorneys decried the lack of available legal representation for the detainees, particularly given the fact that Artesia is located in the desert several hours away from the nearest cities of El Paso, TX, or Albuquerque, NM. While immigration judges routinely make decisions regarding bond amounts that detainees may pay in order to be released, the headquarters judges consistently set bonds exceedingly high, to advocates’ dismay. Teleconference hearings for the Artesia detainees were eventually transferred to immigration judges in Denver, who generally set more reasonable bond amounts, but advocates are still concerned about detainees’ access to counsel and ability to present their cases in court or obtain asylum protections for which they may very well be eligible. Several immigrants’ rights organizations have filed lawsuits challenging the expedited procedures resulting in rapid deportations from Artesia and seeking to compel the government to disclose the policies and procedures it is following in Artesia detainees’ cases. Additionally, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service and the Women’s Refugee Commission recently released a report, entitled Locking Up Family Values, Again, that argues that family immigration detention is inherently inhumane and should be discontinued immediately, with recommendations on where U.S. policy should go from here. And recently, Senate Democrats and members of Congress have condemned the detention of women and children and urged the administration to make greater use of less harmful, more cost-effective alternatives to detention instead.
Despite the logistical challenges involved in representing immigrants in complicated asylum claims while detained in remote locations, volunteer attorneys from throughout the country have stepped in to fill the void and offer their services to help these women and children, primarily through a pro bono project organized by the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA). Attorneys generally commit to spend at least one week in Artesia and attend nightly meetings to recap the day’s events and prepare for the following day’s assignments. Volunteers meet with the women and children detainees to listen to their reasons for coming to the United States and screen them for potential eligibility for relief from removal. Despite government attorneys’ attempts to argue that these women should not be released from detention because they pose a threat to national security, volunteer attorneys have been successful in arguing for release of some of the women on bond, or in securing lower bond amounts than previously ordered.
Over the past few months, attorneys have also begun representing clients in Artesia in merits hearings, usually arguing that they meet the requirements for obtaining asylum in the U.S. To date, attorneys volunteering through the AILA project have successfully won asylum for all nine of the nine women whose cases have been heard in full. The majority of the women testified to having experienced years of harrowing domestic violence or abuse at the hands of gang members. Asylum officers in Artesia had previously found that less than 40 percent of the women there had credible fears of persecution if they were forced to return to their home countries, but attorney volunteers estimated that, in fact, as many as 80 percent have valid asylum claims.
Many of the attorneys, including law students, who have traveled to Artesia have created written or video blogs to document and share their experiences in order to encourage others to volunteer and to share the reality of what these families are fleeing and the conditions under which they are being held. Despite the extremely long days and emotionally draining work, these attorneys have put their own practices on hold to counsel and represent hundreds of detained women in recent months, resulting not only in legal victories but an increased sense of hopefulness among the Artesia detainees. Their selfless efforts are essential to ensuring that immigrant families receive the due process to which they are entitled and have a meaningful chance to obtain the protection for which they are often eligible.
For more information on volunteering at Artesia or Karnes, or to make a tax-deductible donation to help cover volunteers’ travel costs, click here.