Poor Legal Services, Overcrowding Cited at Immigrant Family Detention Center

by Becca Sanchez

Advocates permitted to tour a detention center housing immigrants from Central America last week decried the legal rights afforded to inmates and said the facility was not large enough to humanely handle the population.

“It is not an overstatement to say that what we saw and heard inside the Artesia detention facility was horrific,” said Marielena Hincapié, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, on a conference call with media this week.

Hincapié was one of 22 advocates and lawyers allowed to visit the Artesia, N.M.-based facility, which houses children and their mothers. The visit was arranged following a court order of the nationwide Orantes injunction that protects the due process rights of detained individuals from El Salvador.

The group reported obstruction to due process, including a lack of legal resources and confusion among migrants about their personal rights. In addition, mothers and children appeared to be in extreme emotional distress, adding to the chaos inside the facility.

Advocates on a media call drew comparisons between the new center and the 2006 Hutto federal detention center, which was shut down following a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union.

“This time, our due process concerns are even more serious” than with Hutto, said Michelle Brané, director of migrants rights and justice at the Women’s Refugee Commission.

The most apparent issue was the detainees’ lack of legal counsel. Upon arrival, detainees are given the contact information to three legal service providers. However, these numbers are overwhelmed and often providers cannot be reached.

Access to counsel is severely limited. Phones are restricted to two dozen Blackberry phones all possessed by federal officers. Officially, detainees are supposed to have unlimited phone time, but advocates note that they can use them for only two minutes per call.

Among the other findings of the visiting team:

  • No privacy for phone calls, and many women are hesitant to call for fear of having to pay for legal services.
  • There are only two cubicles for attorney consultations in a large room where other people linger due to the overcrowded conditions.
  • Oftentimes, when detainees are able to meet with legal counsel, it is after they have been interviewed to plead their case to remain in the U.S. Upon arrival, many were told they would be deported, not allowing for a fair hearing of their case.
  • Even after many women had explicitly expressed fear of returning to their home countries, they were told they would be deported and were not even referred to a credible fear hearing until they had been scheduled for deportation and were already in the process of the final exit screenings. A credible fear hearing is necessary to establish persecution or fear of persecution, after which an applicant proceeds to a removal hearing and can apply for asylum or other protections.

“The [Obama] administration has made it very clear that their objective is to deter and deport both families and children as quickly as possible,” Brané said.

“Detention as a deterrent is not only illegal under international law but it also just doesn’t work.”

Since the center opened on June 27, about 800 women and children have been processed. Twelve to fourteen have been released on humanitarian considerations with a medical consultation, mostly due to pregnancies. It is unclear how many have been deported and how many remain in the U.S.

According to Royce Bernstein Murray, director of policy for the National Immigrant Justice Center, these deportations occurred while the process wasn’t up and running, with no fair due process happening.

Brané said that children in the center have been losing weight, which could be dangerous for their age, and that mental distress is prevalent in the detention center.

“Protection is the answer here, not interdiction or deterrence,” she said. “We stand for rule of law and due process and we can provide [these] without compromising our borders.”

Becca Sanchez is an intern with Fostering Media Connections and a student of journalism at Northwestern University.

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