The Ongoing Fight Against Migrant Family Detentions

Opened last June, the U.S. government’s family detention center for Central American migrants in New Mexico generated major controversy. Located at the Federal Law Enforcement Training facility in the small town of Artesia, the lock-up, euphemistically called a “family residential center” by the Obama administration, drew protests and vigils by supporters of the children and women detained at the site.

Immigrant rights activists applauded the announced closing of the Artesia center in December, but they warn of Washington’s plans to open an even larger family detention center in Dilley, Texas, where some of the former Artesia detainees could be headed.

Marcela Diaz, executive director of Somos un Pueblo Unido, a New Mexico-based immigrant and labor rights organization active in leading the protests against Artesia, is among the critics of a policy that closes one center only to open another.

“Jailing children is not okay,” Diaz said. “I can’t imagine it’s going to be better in Texas for the healthy development of these children.”

Thomas S. Winkowski, acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), said the Dilley center, whose management will be outsourced to the private Corrections Corporation of America, will have an initial capacity of 480 residents but will eventually have capability to holding 2,400 people–the equivalent of a large U.S. high school.

In a statement, ICE reported that it stopped accepting new intakes in Artesia on November 7.

Virtually all of the Artesia detainees hailed from the Northern Triangle of Central America–Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. The vast majority declared they were seeking refuge from the rampant violence that affects their countries.

According to Diaz and other immigrant advocates, the detention of Central American children and mothers not only jeopardizes the safety of the detainees in the short-term, but threatens long-term psychological and social harm.

Opponents of the Artesia center pointed to an initial lack of legal assistance to detainees seeking political asylum, the early spate of rushed deportations back to Central America, the prevalence of non-confidential conditions for legal interactions between lawyers and clients, the isolation of detainees from relatives, and the lack of educational services for children.

Consequently, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), National Lawyers Guild and other advocacy organizations filed two lawsuits against the Obama administration related to Artesia, challenging fast-track deportations in the first instance and demanding the public release of information pertaining to the processing of migrants in the second one.

An ACLU class-action lawsuit against the Obama Administration in US District Court in Washington was formally filed on December 16. The suit challenges the White House’s family detention policies and contends that the administration’s “blanket no-release policy” violates federal immigration law and regulations that prohibit “blanket detention” of asylum seekers for the purpose of scaring away others from seeking refuge, in addition to the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

“The government should not be using these mothers and their children as pawns,” said Judy Rabinovitz, deputy director of the ACLU’s Immigrants Rights Project. “They have already been through devastating experiences, and imprisoning them for weeks or months while they await their asylum hearings is unnecessary and traumatizing.”

To visit the detainees last July, legal and social advocates were forced to obtain an order from a Los Angeles federal court.

In a recent statement, ICE maintained that its “residential centers” for adults with children were an “effective and humane alternative” in keeping families united while they are either waiting to return to their home countries or for legal decisions in immigration courts.

“ICE ensures that these residential centers operate in an open environment, which includes medical care, play rooms, social workers, educational services, and access to legal counsel,” the federal agency said.

Vicki Gaubeca, director of the ACLU of New Mexico’s Regional Center for Border Rights, countered that ICE’S claims miss the larger point.

“The reality is this: It doesn’t matter how you fix conditions. These children and women should not be put in a jail-like setting,” Gaubeca said. “Almost 90 percent have family members in the US. Why can’t they be with them? From our perspective, it doesn’t make sense to lock up women and children when they are fleeing violence from home.”

Gaubeca noted the absence of due process in the treatment of Central American migrants in Artesia, which critics likened to a deportation mill as hundreds of detainees were boarded on planes and whisked back to violence-torn countries.

In the bigger scheme of things, the rapid deportations of Central Americans from the U.S. last summer represented but the final whistle stop in what has become a transnational deportation mill.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees that found 70 percent of Central American children who had been detained by Mexican immigration authorities and later interviewed for the study said they had not been given information about claiming refugee status, while 80 percent of the children indicated that they did not know of the existence of a special Mexican immigration office dedicated to meeting the needs of children.

According to Cimacnoticias in Mexico City, Mexico deported 22,000 migrant minors from the Northern Triangle between 2008 and 2013.

In the United States, the lack of due process dramatized in Artesia is by no means an isolated episode. For example, a new report from the ACLU finds that immigrants are routinely deported without first seeing an immigration judge or given the opportunity to make a legal case for staying in the U.S.

“Under the current system, thousands of people are subject to the whim and mercy of immigration officers who are acting as prosecutor, judge and deporter,” said Sarah Menta, ACLU researcher and author of the report. “These officers are not equipped with the legal knowledge and expertise to decide who has rights or valid claims to enter and live in the United States.”

According to the ACLU report, 83 percent of 438,421 deportations in 2013 involved no hearing or review by a judge. “Prior to 1996, the vast majority of people facing deportations from this country had immigration court hearings. Now most do not, opening the way for errors or outright abuse,” the ACLU said in a statement.

The expansion of “expedited removal” is an issue that has caught the attention of the United Nations. In its report last month, the United Nations Committee on Torture stated its concerns about the growing number of deportations that do not recognize the specific situations of asylum seekers “and other persons in need of international protection.”

Although the Artesia detention center will soon be history, both Diaz and Gaubeca said their organizations will continue opposing family detention policies wherever they crop up, along with allies such as Detention Watch Network, Southwest Border Communities Coalition and other organizations.

Gaubeca lauded the response of civil society in New Mexico and Texas to the arrival of Central America migrants earlier this year, praising the “hundreds of volunteers” who rallied to the cause of the Artesia detainees or helped support temporary shelters for children who were not locked up and

An outpouring of solidarity from the legal community likewise benefited migrants who otherwise might have been put on a plane and quickly sent back south of the border.

“I think they got access to lawyers because the American Immigration Lawyers Association did an amazing job of getting volunteer lawyers, but without them they would have had nothing,” Gaubeca said.

In the words of ACLU researcher Sarah Menta, respect for due process in the handling of migrant claims is not only a matter of life and death, but strikes at the fundamental notion of justice.

“If fairness and justice matter, our government has to allow people with claims and rights to be in the U.S. a real opportunity to defend these rights,” Mehta wrote. “Our government has separated families and deported people to their death when we failed to give them the basic opportunity to be heard and to defend themselves…”

Kent Paterson writes for Frontera NorteSur and the Americas Program.

Kent Paterson is a freelance journalist who covers the southwestern United States, the border region and Mexico. He is a regular contributor to CounterPunch and the Americas Program.