There was no way for me to explain my time at Artesia in one blog post. Instead, I offer a look at one of the days I spent there in posts today, continuing over the next three days as well. I hope readers get a feel for what it is like, as a volunteer and a human being, to see these women and children, to get the chance to help them, and to know that we are really making a difference. I also want to congratulate the spectacular Artesia volunteers – last week they brought the asylum merits cases won up to 7 out of 7!
So the day begins:
4:50 am. The alarm goes off. I need several snooze button sessions to finally get up.
I prepared my clothing the night before to save a couple of minutes. I need to be out of the hotel by 6:15 am if I am to make it on time to the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC), also known as the Artesia Family Detention Center.
6:00 am. I am out the door with my bag and laptop. In my bag are several oat and honey bars and two bottles of water. I was instructed to bring some and will discover later why this is important.
I am wearing a suit and tie to instill confidence in the detained mothers and kids I will be seeing throughout the day. I stop by the hotel breakfast bar. The buffet offers eggs, bacon, and toast with some apples and bananas on the side. I need to hurry. I taste the eggs and decide to skip them since powdered eggs just do not fit the bill. I grab two apples and a banana for the road.
I start my rental car. I notice most of the big trucks from last night are already gone. They belong to all the roughnecks I saw the night before. Oil workers. After all, Artesia, NM is an oil town and it smells like it too. I look out of place in my attorney uniform. I turn left onto Main Street and go down several blocks. There is no real traffic; it is too early. Everything is closed. That turns out to be a common theme in this town.
I turn right on 26th Street and follow it down several miles. I pass the town’s Walmart store. I will discover later, that this is where some released detainees will be brought for modest clothing sprees. I make a right on Richey Road and it takes me straight to the Detention Center.
6:45 am. As I pull into the parking lot, I notice a van already waiting for the volunteers. I need to hurry. Before I can get in the van, I have to go into the security building for a picture and security badge. This is a daily routine.
I enter the van and see most of the morning’s volunteers carefully arranged inside. Several crates with files also share the confined space. I manage to fit in a small spot. The van is filled to capacity. Yet, four other volunteers are still making their way to the vehicle.
7:00 am sharp. The driver makes the final call. If you miss it, you may have to wait until 10:00 am to make the next trip. The van takes off. Several feet ahead we stop at the guard station. The security guard wants to see all of our badges. He opens the door and several of the file crates almost fall out. We are a tightly packed van of attorney sardines. He is satisfied and lets us through.
We travel 500 feet at 10 mph. The speed is regulation. I notice a sports field with a running track. We finally reach our destination. We enter what looks like a small city block filled with light brown trailers along both sides of the street. I count at least 4-5 on each side. As we enter the gated village, I see there are other trailers to the side. I also observe countless Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officers walking around or sitting on chairs. It is clear; they are the authority in this place. We cannot wander around. We have to be escorted at all times.
We unload our crates, grab our bags and are escorted to the attorney trailer. As we enter the mobile office, we notice construction next to the trailers. We are informed this is where the bungalows for the schools will be located. We are asked to sign in by the duty guard. We finally reach our space. It is the far end of the building. We have a column of small tables and chairs facing a wall. A tall divider separates the attorney workspace from the area where the mothers and children will be meeting with the attorneys. All of the attorneys scramble for a table, chair, and an outlet. For the next several days, every morning will feature this non-choreographed attorney dance a la musical chairs.
7:15 am. Once we set up our laptops, the mothers and children start filtering into the trailer. The previous night, our lead attorney and administrative assistant prepared the list of the mothers we will be seeing. Each mother is already assigned to a particular attorney. We are ready to go.
The onsite assistant starts calling out names. When you hear your assigned client, you are on. Some attorneys start prepping their clients for bond hearings that will take place at 8:00 am. Others start prepping clients for credible fear interviews or negative credible fear determinations that will also follow. Others will do intakes.
Each mother has a child or children of varying ages. They are primarily between 3-7 years old. The guards put on movies for them to view while the attorneys interview the mothers. You don’t appreciate hits like Rio, Aladdin, or Bible Stories, until you hear them 10 times a day in Spanish. Throughout the day, I begin to admire the art of movie voice-over translations, and catch myself daydreaming about a possible future career move.
I am assigned a credible fear interview. I am fluent in Spanish so I establish rapport quickly with the young mother. I explain what she will encounter during the interview. The mother tells me she is afraid to go back because of the violence. I explain the nature of asylum and the enumerated grounds as set out by the statutes. I dig deeper and she shares with me that the MS 13 gang members demanded she hand over her teenage daughter for their use. They have threatened her repeatedly. The gang has vowed to kidnap both her teenage daughter, and her younger daughter as well. She continues to tell them “No.” As an added pressure, the gangs demand the mother pay them a “rent” or “renta” from the earnings of her small store or they will proceed with the kidnapping and kill her as well. The asylum officer comes over and asks if we are ready. I respond by asking for 2 more minutes. She agrees with some hesitation. I need time to make sure the mother can fully tell her story.
The credible fear interview takes place in a separate trailer. We are escorted through a maze of pathways and encounter other escorts taking mothers and their kids to various trailers in the village. I see a husky officer escorting at least 5 mothers with their children lingering behind. In my mind, I get an image of Halloween, when mothers take their kids trick or treating. I have been that husky escort taking my kids around the different streets. I quickly shut down the image realizing this is not Halloween and we are not on the friendly streets of a real town.
The credible fear interview lasts about 1 hour. I am satisfied the mother has told her story. But I am a bit troubled by a couple of the questions. The asylum officer asked, “Have you ever been harmed or persecuted based on belonging to a particular social group where you have characteristics that you cannot change, like being gay or having HIV?” The mother’s response was “No, I am not gay and I do not have HIV.” I am allowed to ask follow-up questions at the end of the interview. I state to the mother that being a woman or her gender is also a characteristic she cannot change, and ask her if she has ever been persecuted because of this. She quickly responds, “That is exactly why the gangs are doing this to me and my daughters, because we are women and they can attack us without having to worry about being arrested by the authorities.” Boom.
The officer states that according to the interview notes, the Border Patrol Officer wrote down that she had not expressed a fear of persecution. This was the third time in as many days that I heard this particular statement. I inquired with the other volunteer attorneys who confirmed they also heard the same statement over and over again. According to the Border Patrol notes, apparently no one was expressing a fear of persecution upon return to in their country. It seems a bit hard to believe given what so many of these women have experienced and the scars they often carry. The CIS officer informed us a decision would be made within 3 days. Several days later, I discovered the mother with the young daughters passed her credible fear interview and could move on to a bond hearing before an Immigration Judge.
To be continued…
Written by Victor Nieblas Pradis, Southern California Chapter AILA Member Volunteer and AILA President-Elect
If you are an AILA member who wants to volunteer at a family detention center, please go to http://www.aila.org/beavolunteer or feel free to contact Maheen Taqui at firstname.lastname@example.org–we are looking for more as the work continues and we could really use your help.
If you aren’t able to come help in person, consider donating at http://www.aila.org/helpthevolunteers. And thank you!
To watch videos of the volunteers at Artesia and elsewhere sharing their experiences, go to this playlist on AILA National’s YouTube page. To see all the blog posts about this issue select Family Detention as the category on the right side of this page.