Artesia is a small city in southern New Mexico, with a population of around 10,500. Like many small, southwestern cities, its primary industries are oil and agriculture. It is hundreds of miles from any major city. By any normal measure, it should not be on the national radar at all, but in the last month “Artesia” has become one of the most common buzzwords in conversations among immigration attorneys.
This is because Artesia is the home of a recently-converted facility being used to house immigration detainees from the recent surge at the southern border. What sets Artesia apart from other detention facilities around the country is that it solely houses mothers and their children, and it is being used to set an example – that the Obama administration can be tough on illegal immigration.
The remote location, harsh conditions, and veneer of due process have led some to refer to the Artesia detention center as a “deportation machine.” According to a group of Oregon immigration lawyers who recently returned from a week of volunteer legal assistance at the facility with the AILA Artesia Pro Bono Project, that term is completely accurate.
The volunteer attorneys, some of whom were given travel stipends by the Oregon AILA Chapter, and all of whom took valuable time away from their practices and their families on extremely short notice, were both disturbed and heartened by the work they did in Artesia. The days were long and hard, the need for legal services unending, the conditions appalling, and the work frustrating. Getting permission for attorneys to take their cell phones into the facility was a major victory, as was getting a judge (presiding videophonically from Arlington, Virginia) to agree that an attorney can do more than sit quietly and take notes during their clients’ proceedings. Still, they all say they are glad they went, and they can’t wait to go back.
According to Laura Lunn, an attorney at Immigrant Law Group in Portland:
The attorneys who worked in Artesia saw the scars of the past harm inflicted on these women. We heard the stories of the violence they suffered and the death threats that await them if they are forced to return to their homes. We spoke to their children – kids who have faced direct threats of sex trafficking, organ trafficking, rape, murder, and physical mutilation. The impact that we had as attorneys was immediate. Our work kept women and their children from being wrongly deported without a full and fair evaluation of their legal claims. There were multiple occasions when women were waiting in line to board a plane home and the government officials granted them a reprieve due to a motion that the attorneys filed on their behalf. I cannot help but wonder what would have happened in Artesia if the AILA Artesia Pro Bono Project did not exist. I am thankful that we have the opportunity to help these forgotten individuals. I am grateful to be working on behalf of clients who are empowered by the knowledge they have gained about their legal claims through the assistance of the attorneys. And, I hope that the project continues to be supported until the Artesia detention facility is closed down entirely.
Describing the stories of trauma and desperation from the women and children who are detained in Artesia does not do them justice. However, very few are able to express their own stories freely in the United States because their voices are being silenced by their detention. The only way most of them are leaving the detention facility is on planes sending them back to their home countries. Therefore, the attorneys who spent time speaking with each of these unique individuals are in a position to share the stories we’ve learned and help spread a better understanding of who they are and why they are coming to the United States.