After touring a New Mexico detention facility housing Central American refugees, immigrant advocates and lawyers have charged the Obama Administration with violating due process rights.
In a July 24 telephonic press conference hosted by the National Immigration Law Center, representatives of an advocates’ group that were allowed to conduct a short visit July 22 of the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLTEC) in Artesia, New Mexico, where hundreds of Central American women and children are being held, detailed a laundry list of grievances.
In comments to reporters, advocates said women and children were held in crowded conditions; not adequately informed of their due process rights or given timely access to legal counsel, as per U.S. refugee law; hustled through deportation proceedings; and forced to read complex forms in English. Additionally, serious concerns were raised about the physical and emotional health of children and their mothers.
Marielena Hincapie, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center assessed the overall conditions in Artesia as “horrific.”
“Given the egregious due process violations, the administration must cease any deportations from Artesia until we can guarantee that each individual’s due process rights are being safeguarded,” Hincapie demanded.
She urged the Obama administration to enact a moratorium on deportations while seeking alternatives to detention. The immigrant rights activist said visiting Artesia required a court order to allow advocates access to the mothers and their children.
Backed by a Los Angeles federal court, representatives of 22 organizations from New Mexico and other states, including lawyers and legal workers, held two separate meetings with detainees. Members of the legal team interviewed more than two dozen detained women, many of whom said U.S. officials told them that they would be immediately deported, according to Hincapie.
Royce Bernstein Murray, policy director for the National Immigrant Justice Center, said the women held in Artesia were “profoundly confused” about their situations. Only two cubicles were set up for attorney consultations while the “law library” consisted of two computers connected to Lexus Nexus, Bernstein Murray said.
For communication with the outside world, two dozen Blackberry phones were on hand, with users limited to two-minute calls. However, women detainees complained the devices were being used as discipline tools to control misbehaving children.
Michelle Brane, migrant rights and justice director of the Women’s Refugee Commission said the advocates heard complaints of children not eating or losing weight, and detected depression, trauma and desperation in both women and children. In response to a reporter’s question, Bernstein Murray said mental health issues were being attended by two psychiatrists via Skype. Conditions in Artesia were “clearly not up to” international and national legal standards governing refugees, Brane asserted.
Cecilia Wang, director of the American Civil Liberties Union Immigrant Rights Project spoke about the implications of the Orantes-Hernandez case, a decades’ old legal case which specifically protects Salvadoran refugees from rapid deportation. Wang said representatives of the advocacy organizations talked with 26 mothers from El Salvador who reported widespread kidnappings, killings and intimidations in their homeland.
One mother told the visitors how her eight-year-old son was being pressured into a gang, and another family reported moving from one village to escape a gang only to encounter a new one in a different village. In such a context, the detention and deportation rhetoric emanating from Washington is “illegal and immoral as well,” Wang said.
Michelle Brane said she was initially heartened by President Obama’s declarations of the refugee situation as a humanitarian crisis, but didn’t consider subsequent administration actions as matching up with the stated intentions.
On July 22, Department of Homeland Secretary Jeh Johnson, who earlier visited Artesia, reiterated Washington’s stance that any person caught entering the U.S. illegally would be sent back.
As President Obama prepares for his July 25 meeting with Central American leaders, a big question is whether the U.S. Congress will take action on the Central American refugee situation before it leaves Washington for a one-month recess next month.
Speaking on Albuquerque radio station KUNM on July 24, New Mexico Democratic Senator Martin Heinrich said local communities were incurring some costs from the crisis, making it imperative that President Obama’s supplemental funding request to address the situation be approved. Heinrich supported the view that most of the Central American children who’ve recently crossed into the United States are refugees. “It’s really violence and instability that is at the root of this crisis,” he contended. “If someone is eligible for asylum they should not be deported.”
For the ACLU’s Cecilia Wang, the new Central American refugee crisis is playing out as a sad chapter in U.S. history. When looking back at 2014, “We as a country will have a lot to be ashamed of,” Wang said.