PORTLAND, Maine — Two University of Maine Law School students who spent a week in Artesia, New Mexico, volunteering at an immigration detention center thought they were prepared to deal with the stories they’d hear from the women and children held there.
Laura Shaw, 24, of Gorham and Amber Attalla, 25, of Amherst, New Hampshire, had worked in the law school’s Refugee and Human Rights Clinic, a hands-on program in which student attorneys represent people seeking asylum or other protections under federal immigration law in Maine. At the clinic, they had listened as women from Africa told them how they had fled domestic violence, war, famine and disease in order to save themselves and their children.
What the women were not prepared for, they said in a joint telephone interview Wednesday, was the impact months of incarceration had on the women and children who had fled from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. The law students also said they were stunned at how the attorneys for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security portrayed their clients — women and children fleeing domestic and gang violence — as terrorists.
“The most shocking thing was seeing toddlers and babies in jail,” Attalla said. “These women and children had already been living with an extreme amount of trauma. Being detained is just more trauma and it’s impacting their health and well-being.”
Nearly every child the women saw was sick with flu-like symptoms, Shaw said. Mothers reported that their children had lost weight and were having nightmares.
“At the clinic, we deal with affirmative cases and, for the most part, the government is not seeking to remove our clients,” she said. “They are seeking asylum. They live in the community. In Artesia, the government is trying to keep people from being free and [is] seeking to deport them.”
More than 66,000 parents traveling with their children crossed the southwest U.S. border in the 11 months ending Aug. 31 — up from 12,908 over the same period the previous year, Reuters reported in September.
About 700 women and children were picked up in south Texas by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol officers in late spring and early summer. They were then turned over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and ended up at the Artesia detention center, according to the Carlsbad [New Mexico] Current-Argus. Originally held in facilities in Texas, the detainees — women and children under the age of 17 who had no criminal records — were moved to the Artesia center in July.
The facility is located at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, which primarily trains federal officers and special agents from the Department of Homeland Security, the Border Patrol, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Transportation Security Administration, the Current-Argus reported. The facility includes air-conditioned, military-style community barracks, with two sets of bunk beds to a room with dressers, and a large dining hall, according to information posted on the website for the Department of Homeland Security.
Phillip Burch, the mayor of Artesia, told a local television station on Nov. 18 that in the previous six weeks 448 Central American mothers and children had been released from the detention center and 28 were deported.
“I think we can cease calling it a detention center,” Burch said. During the first week of November, 77 people were released and six were deported, the mayor said, citing figures that he said he receives each week from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials running the center. Last week, 80 people were released into the interior of the U.S., and five more were deported.
From the outside, the facility looks like a small college campus made up of brick buildings, but attorneys who represent the detainees do not meet with their clients inside the facility, according to Shaw and Attalla. Two trailers, similar to portable classrooms, have been set up on the grounds. One is where Shaw and Attalla met with clients. The other was set up as a makeshift courtroom, the students said.
Shaw and Attalla, who left Maine Nov. 16 and returned Sunday, Nov. 23, were the first legal representatives from Maine to travel to the Southwest in the wake of a humanitarian crisis along the U.S.-Mexico border, according to the law school. The fact that both women minored in Spanish as undergraduates and were fluent in the language allowed them to act as legal counsel to the detainees under the supervision of practicing attorneys.
“I can’t imagine being there and not being able to speak Spanish,” Atalla said. “There’s no way you can do this work without speaking the language because it is so important to hear the clients’ stories.”
Their job was to prepare the women for bond hearings, then, represent them before immigration judges who sat in Denver, along with the government lawyers, and appeared in Artesia by video conference. They each saw between five and 10 clients every day.
Once a cash bail was set, which ranged from $4,000 to $12,000, and paid, a woman and her children could be released, the students said. Most went to live with a relative until a hearing can be held to determine if she qualifies for asylum. If she does, she may stay in the U.S., obtain a work permit and a job and, eventually, apply for citizenship. If not, she and her children face deportation and a return to the conditions they fled.
“There were two typical stories we heard over and over again,” Shaw said. “The women were victims of some form of domestic violence from a family member that police didn’t do anything about. Or, they were victims of gang-related violence.”
In a lot of cases, the two would overlap, according to Attalla.
“I had a client who had been married for 10 years and suffered extreme, almost daily, domestic violence, but she was afraid to leave him,” she said. “Recently, he became involved with gangs. Weapons began appearing in the house and she was worried about more violence.
“Just before she decided to leave, gang members followed her 13-year-old daughter home from school and tried to rape her. The father, instead of being upset with the gang members, chased the girl down the street with a machete. That was the last straw for the mother. They left in the middle of the night. The feeling was, we have to go now or be killed.”
For both law school students, the most difficult part of working in Artesia wasn’t the 18-hour days or the unpredictability of the court schedule or the changing policies of ICE. It was what Attalla and Shaw described as the “insensitivity” of the system to what their clients had endured.
“A lot of these women have undergone severe trauma and they have to relive that, with their children sitting in their laps, when they tell it to the judge and the government’s attorney,” Attalla said. “I was representing this woman in her bond hearing and the government’s attorney was really badgering her about the way she came here.
“During this questioning, it comes out — something she had never told anyone — that on the journey made from El Salvador, she was raped by two men in Mexico. Instead of giving her a minute to collect her thoughts, the government attorney claimed she was a national security threat and was completely insensitive to what this woman has gone through.”
Shaw said that hearings are conducted in English, except for questions to the detainees. That is very confusing for clients who can’t follow what’s happening because they don’t speak English. In most proceedings in U.S. District Courts and in state courts in Maine, everything said in open court is translated for a defendant who does not speak English.
While the students were at the center, it was discovered that a detainee and her child were American citizens and they were released. The woman and her child were held 17 days before attorneys were able to prove her citizenship, Shaw said.
Attalla and Shaw agreed that the women they represented were not economic immigrants.
“They’re not coming here to be with family, to get a better job, to get a better life,” Attalla said. “They’re here because if they go back, they will be killed.”
Both students said they are concerned about the government’s plans to close the facility in Artesia and move the remaining detainees to a facility in Texas by the end of the year. The move would mean a change in jurisdiction, a change in judges and probably delayed hearing for many women.
Shaw and Attalla both said they planned to return to wherever they are needed next semester to again represent the detainees.
“ I definitely want to continue working in the immigration field,” Shaw, who will graduate in May, said. “I knew I wanted to continue before going to Artesia, but this affirmed the idea for me.”
Attalla, who is on track to graduate in May 2016, said she is “still trying to process everything we saw there.”
“It was shocking and mind blowing to have a facility like this in the United States,” she said. “There’s no way to imagine what it’s like until you’re there. I think no matter what side of the political spectrum people are on, once they see these conditions, they’ll have a little bit of compassion for what’s happening.”
The students documented their experiences on a blog, http://amberandlaurainartesia.wordpress.com.