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Artesia, New Mexico: Locking up Children from Cold War to War on Immigrants

A new immigrant detention center for children and families is in a place where children once went to school amid a bleak nuclear landscape.

Abo Elementary School and Fallout Shelter, located at 1802 West Centre Avenue in Artesia, New Mexico. (Photo: AllenS)

The small dusty town of Artesia in southeastern New Mexico is an unlikely place to make national headlines, but it’s doing so again. This time around Artesia is drawing attention for incarcerating 600 mothers and their children seeking asylum from the drug war violence in Central America. They are being held inside a detention facility in the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, on the grounds of the former Artesia Christian College.

“We will send you back,” Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson warned when he visited the facility in July. Indeed, deportation without due process seems to be the operating principle. Last week the National Immigration Law Center, the ACLU, the American Immigration Council and the National Lawyers Guild brought a lawsuit before the federal district court in Washington DC charging officials of “egregious” due process violations at the facility, including lack of access to lawyers and rushed video-teleconference hearings.

Unbeknownst to many, Artesia has a history of locking up children. In the early 1960s it gained some notoriety for building the now deserted Abo elementary school, the first, and probably only, American school built entirely underground to serve the dual use of school and fallout shelter. Designed to withstand a 20 megaton blast 10 miles away, the reinforced concrete slab roof doubled as the playground. Several years ago I visited the Abo school. You can’t go inside, so I stood on top. All there is to see are a national historical register plaque and a statue of an eagle with one wing missing.

There is more than meets the eye, however. Abo is not just a Cold War historic landmark, or another laughable piece of nuclear camp, it’s a tomb prepared for the living dead. A January 1963 Saturday Evening Post article, “Nuclear Age School: New Mexico students pursue knowledge underground,” begins with this vignette:

“Betsy Anne Hart, a fourth-grader in Artesia, New Mexico, learned something new at school the other day. ‘Mother,’ she burst out when she got home, ‘did you know there is a room for dead people at our school?’ Having a morgue on the premises is just one of the things that makes Betsy Anne’s school unusual. For Abo Public Elementary School, named for a nearby oil formation, is the only school in the nation that lies entirely underground – and that doubles as a fully equipped fallout shelter.”

While students appreciated the air conditioning and teachers found students to be “less rambunctious” without windows to distract them, other aspects of the school elicited negative responses. As a bomb shelter, the school only contained enough space and provisions for 2,160 people. Once that limit was reached, the 1,800-pound steel doors would be bolted shut. The other 10,000 or so people in Abo would be out of luck.

This fact did not escape the notice of Abo’s students. Sixth-grader Martha Terpening told the Post reporter, “What I’m afraid of is that my mother is a teacher and she would be safe, but my daddy works at the post office, and he wouldn’t have any place to go.” Studying down under also fostered other nuclear fears. “You think a lot about the danger while you’re here,” a boy confided. “Sometimes I have the feeling that fallout is coming now – that it is out there now – and then I go out and it isn’t.”

That Artesia was selected as the location for the school has to do with Cold War nuclear geography. The Trinity Site, where the first atomic bomb was exploded in 1945, lies 100 miles to the west on the huge White Sands Missile Range. Closer by, just up Highway 285 toward Roswell, Atlas nuclear missile silos dotted the landscape, placed there by the Strategic Air Command in the early 1960s. The region was an epicenter of the Cold War, a potential enemy target. In Artesia, the terrorized community agreed to the school; in Roswell, many residents displaced their nuclear fears onto the threat of UFOs and space aliens.

The most toxic legacy of the Cold War, however, lies 30 miles south of Artesia at the Carlsbad Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), one of the world’s few underground dumps for the permanent disposal of transuranic radioactive waste, including plutonium, from the research and production of nuclear weapons. Arriving by truck from more than 12 government bomb production and research facilities, the waste is stored 2,000 feet down in a salt rock formation. Since plutonium alone takes over 24,000 years to lose half of its radioactivity, one of WIPP’s challenges is how to communicate the site’s dangers to future generations who may not speak the same languages we use today. The present generation also has serious cause for concern. In February this year the plant experienced a significant radioactive leak.

It is perhaps not surprising that Homeland Security set up its current immigrant detention center in the middle of this bleak nuclear landscape. During the Cold War, the government claimed to be protecting Artesia’s children from the enemy, while Homeland Security tells us the immigrant children they are rushing to deport today are the enemy we need protection from. In both cases, the real danger to children is the national security state. That is the lesson Artesia has to teach us.

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