The Artesia Family Residential Center was thrown together in late June 2014 in the dark of night and in the middle of the New Mexico desert. Before the pro bono attorneys knew who or what was there, the first plane had already flown South, returning refugees who were streamlined through a farce of a legal process, and summarily denied relief.
Once the pro bono lawyers began to arrive at Artesia and fight back on behalf of the women and children, they registered and gave client numbers to the detained families in a shared database – key to an organized flow of legal representation. When I was in Artesia in August 2014, I met Anna*, Client #0087 for calendar year 2014.
Anna was raised in a small hamlet in Guatemala without electricity, roads, schools or running water. She was orphaned at age ten, and endured untold physical abuse at the hands of her maternal uncle. She never went to school, and spoke only a dialect known as Acateco, a language spoken by maybe 50,000 people in the world. At sixteen, as she was taking her uncle lunch as he worked the fields, she was raped by a stranger. Once her uncle became aware of her rape and subsequent pregnancy, he welcomed the rapist to live in their shared home to legitimize their relationship, as he felt the unwanted pregnancy brought shame to the household. Anna’s grandmother protected Anna as much as a grandmother could, and when she came across the rapist trying to strangle Anna, the grandmother kicked the rapist out.
When Anna was 22, her grandmother died and her uncle stole the land inheritance intended for her and threw her out of the house. Anna gathered her young daughter and headed to the slightly bigger town of San Miguel, a five hour walk away. There, Anna was threatened by a jealous woman who erroneously believed Anna was trying to steal the woman’s 50-year-old husband. The woman offered $200 to have Anna killed, a credible threat in the lawless areas of Guatemala. Anna had nothing left. Having suffered so much in her young life, and with no one left alive to protect her, Anna knew her suffering would only increase. She called a paternal uncle who lived in Ft. Myers, Florida, and with her young daughter, headed north to what she believed was the protection of the United States.
Anna was encountered crossing the U.S. border, and due to a seemingly random government process, rather than be released to her relative, she was held in family detention, first in Artesia, New Mexico, and then Karnes City, Texas, with her then five-year-old daughter, Victoria*. The enforcement arm of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) decided that Anna and her daughter were part of a group of mothers and children that they would make an example of, in an effort to teach a lesson to unwitting multitudes.
Anna’s legal process became even more convoluted as there were no available interpreters in her native rare dialect. Her first interview was conducted in Spanish rather than her native language and resulted in a negative determination. She then waited for a court date in her native dialect that never came, and then, weeks later, passed a successful re-interview actually conducted in her dialect. After fighting for the chance to be given a bond amount, and then the struggle to come up with the required $5,000 (which Anna’s paternal uncle scraped together), Anna and Victoria were released on December 22, 2014. They had been detained for 165 days — almost five and a half months. Once released, they made a long bus ride to Ft. Myers, Florida. Once in Florida, they settled into life in the United States, waited for their next court hearings, and started to push away the nightmares that still chased them.
On Friday, February 20, 2016, Anna had her final hearing before an immigration judge in Miami, Florida. There was some atypical confusion. Anna’s application for asylum that was prepared by my office was not in the government attorney’s file, nor the judge’s file. That confusion made some sense though since at the time we prepared the application, Anna was detained in New Mexico, represented by my office in Ohio, and the case was heard by an initial judge in Colorado. Luckily, the Florida judge accepted the application and the hearing proceeded.
Anna testified for over an hour about her life in Guatemala, her experiences, and why she feared returning. At the conclusion of her testimony, the judge asked only three questions of the government attorney. The last question was whether this merited a grant of humanitarian asylum. Humanitarian asylum is protection offered to those individuals who have suffered severe past persecution or face a possibility of other serious harm if removed, even if they do not have a fear of future harm. In response to this question, the government attorney indicated she wasn’t sure Anna’s suffering legally met the heightened standard of severe past persecution. The judge paused, and listed the horrors suffered by Anna, asking “wasn’t this severe past persecution?” The government attorney took a long pause, audibly hemmed and hawed, and offered no opposition. Just like that, Anna’s legal battle was over.
After the judge’s order was signed, papers were shuffled and files put away, Anna asked if she could express herself to the judge. The interpreter assisted as Anna thanked the judge, and told him that she would pray for him. She also said that he had been put on her path to help her, and she was thankful for that. The judge, in turn, thanked Anna for her kind words, and wished her a better life than the one she had in Guatemala.
I don’t know what the future holds for Anna and Victoria. Anna has learned how to write her name, in a childlike script that looks like sticks and bubbles drawn on a page. Victoria spends her spare time coloring, as any six-year-old should do. Before their final hearing, Victoria gave me a framed picture; it was her kindergarten Christmas project, inscribed with words of thanks on the reverse. It is a treasure.
Since the initial days of Artesia, the fight to end family detention has changed. That client database now numbers thousands of women who have been assisted. The desperate group of pro bono attorneys that, in some circumstances, just showed up in Artesia because they heard of the need, morphed just under a year ago into the CARA Project, a partnership comprised of AILA, CLINIC, RAICES and the American Immigration Council. Regular teams (always looking for volunteers) rotate into the family detention center and are guided by semi-permanent teams on the ground. I have returned to volunteer twice at the family detention center in Dilley, Texas. It is so very far from what it was.
I haven’t written about Artesia much, mostly because it was such a difficult environment to experience, no less to document. But Anna’s story deserves to be told for so many reasons. For Anna’s perseverance in not giving up and fighting, not only in Guatemala, but on her trip here, and in detention, she paved the way for women who followed her. But Anna is not the only story to be told. The success of Anna’s case is not due to a single volunteer, but thanks to the ever-rotating group of volunteers that made the conscious decision to give up their lives – personal and professional – and traumatize themselves for a period of time on the ground, all supporting the fight to end family detention. These volunteers cried with Anna after court hearings were cancelled for lack of appropriate interpreters, delayed asylum interviews, and middle of the night transfers to a new detention center. When we end family detention once and for all, it will be in no small measure because of the volunteers, who alongside the dedicated CARA Project staff, continue to come in and fight for change.
Anna and her daughter are now a part of my soul’s fabric. And it pains me to recognize that among the hundreds of Central American children and women detained today in family detention, another Anna is certainly fighting for survival. The CARA Project is always looking for volunteers willing to join in the fight to end family detention. The only way to completely end family detention is to continue what we are doing: showing up, on the ground, and immersing ourselves in the fight. This fight is more than just one person’s fight, just as this victory is more than one family’s victory.
Written by Jenna Peyton, CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project Volunteer
*Names changed for privacy.
How can you help?
If you are an AILA member, law student, paralegal, or translator, who wants to volunteer at a family detention center, please go to the CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project page – we could really use your help.
If you would like to donate funds please see the American Immigration Council’s page dedicated to the fundraising effort.
To watch videos of the volunteers 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.