The Obama administration has opened two new family detention centers to hold hundreds of women and children from Central America who fled to the United States reportedly to escape violence in their home countries. While most of the 63,000 unaccompanied minors detained at the border since January have now been placed with family members as their cases are processed, those caught with their mothers are being held without bond. A 600-bed detention center run by GEO Group in Karnes City, Texas, opened at the beginning of August and is reportedly already full. Democracy Now! producer Renée Feltz visits a second detention center in Artesia, New Mexico, to report on the poor conditions and lack of due process for migrants, and the lawyers mobilizing to assist them. “Children were not eating. Children were getting very sick,” says attorney Megan Jordi. “Every child I saw looked incredibly emaciated and had a hollow look in their eyes.”
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And finally, today, the Obama administration is fast-tracking the deportation of more than 63,000 women and children from Central America who fled to the United States to escape violence in their home countries. Most of the unaccompanied minors detained at the border since January have now been placed with family members as their cases are processed.
AMY GOODMAN: But many children who were caught with their mothers are being treated differently. They’re being sent to new family detention centers that have more than 1,200 beds and cribs. Democracy Now! producer Renée Feltz visited one of them and filed this report.
RENÉE FELTZ: President Obama’s repatriation policy is in full effect in this small town of Artesia, New Mexico, home to a detention center with cribs that holds more than 600 Central American women and children.
MEGAN JORDI: Artesia is in the middle of the desert, a detention center sprung up in a place that’s hundreds of miles from any major city.
RENÉE FELTZ: Megan Jordi is legal director of the New Mexico Immigration Law Center. She and other advocates were given a tour of the trailer-like buildings, where migrants are held in a vacant area of a training camp for Border Patrol agents. I asked for a tour, but ICE said no one was available. This is how Jordi describes what she saw inside.
MEGAN JORDI: What I saw shocked me. We showed up, and there are their trailers. They’re temporary structures. We saw women and children roaming freely in one area, around what they call the “pods,” where they live. The pods have bedrooms with bunk beds, about eight people to one room. So I went back to the Artesia detention facility the day after the tour, and it was interesting because in that moment, the show was over. Children were not eating. Children were getting very sick. Every child I saw looked incredibly emaciated, had kind of a hollow look in their eyes. One mother had her very sick baby on her lap, and her baby was coughing so much that he began to choke. And she said he hasn’t eaten in six days. He’s lost weight. He’s lost five pounds. And for a toddler, that’s a lot of weight. The toddler looked like he was dying in front of me.
RENÉE FELTZ: After speaking with Jordi in Albuquerque, I drove four hours south to Artesia, through vast desert plains covered in scrub brush. Much of the time I was out of cellphone range. When I finally got to the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Artesia, I was told I could only film across the street, where there’s no sidewalk but plenty of fire ants. The detention area was behind a high fence covered in vinyl and hard to see. It neighbors a quiet field, and at one point I thought I could hear children speaking in Spanish. Eventually, I drove to a church a few minutes away from the detention center, where children played outside and local members of a statewide group, Somos Un Pueblo, were holding their first meeting about the more than 600 detainees now in their community.
FRANCISCO PATONI: My name is Francisco Patoni. I see myself in these children, actually. My mother came to the United States first, and then she sent for us, and then we had to travel with one of those coyotes, as they call them. And eventually, we got together with my mother. And after that, I’ve been serving the public for 35 years—correctional officer, classification caseworker, counselor and teacher right now. I teach Spanish at a local high school. I’ve been serving the United States for 35 years, but it all started like these people that they have in there. My purpose here tonight is to stand up for these children, to show my face in favor of these children. Let’s treat these children right.
RENÉE FELTZ: As the meeting wore on and the sun went down, I finally got a call from a lawyer who had just finished her 12-hour day of meeting with detainees.
SHELLEY WITTEVRONGEL: My name is Shelley Wittevrongel. I’m a private immigration attorney from Boulder, Colorado. And I usually have a voice. The placement of this facility made it virtually impossible for these people, these women and children, to be represented. And that was absolutely compelling to me. And because I was able to clear two weeks off my schedule, I came down.
RENÉE FELTZ: Shelley was among the first lawyers to come to Artesia when it opened in July. Twelve days after she arrived, I found her working late into the night with a handful of other lawyers from around the country. They had set up an emergency office inside the Artesia’s Chamber of Commerce.
LAURA LICHTER: This is our war room. You know, just like the government had to start up a detention center out of nowhere, we’ve really had to start up kind of a legal services access provider out of nowhere. So, this is it. If you’re going to have a bunch of volunteer attorneys come into town, you’ve got to have someplace for them to sit, you’ve got to have wi-fi, you’ve got to have a printer, you’ve got to have a place to post notices. And we talked about the challenges that have happened during the day, and we, you know, strategize how to basically do some good old-fashioned guerrilla lawyering.
RENÉE FELTZ: Laura Lichter has been practicing immigration law for 20 years, and she’s the past president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
LAURA LICHTER: This is Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. These countries are in crisis. These are people running away from countries that do not have effective governments, where it is extremely dangerous. They’re people fleeing family violence, sexual violence, predatory gangs. We’ve seen it all. These are viable claims. Everybody that is being processed through these centers, everyone that is asking the United States government to consider their claim of credible fear are people that have actually followed the law. They’ve done exactly what they’re supposed to do. They’ve essentially come to our border, knocked on the door and said, “Hear my case.” And the system that is in place is so stacked against them.
RENÉE FELTZ: The problem begins when the migrants are first detained at the border and asked if they’re afraid to return home. Again, Megan Jordi.
MEGAN JORDI: They were asked whether they were afraid, right when they were apprehended, right when they were faced with an adversarial process, taken to what they call la hielera, which is “the icebox,” which—it’s a holding facility in Texas before people are moved to detention centers. And keep in mind that these are folks who are fleeing governments, they’re fleeing people who look like those who are apprehending them in that moment, people in uniform.
RENÉE FELTZ: Several lawyers I spoke with said ICE officers were within earshot of where they met with their clients in Artesia. Others emphasized how the lack of privacy made it hard for detainees to fully describe the danger they may be trying to escape. Again, attorney Shelley Wittevrongel.
SHELLEY WITTEVRONGEL: The rules are that the children cannot be separated from their mothers. And that creates obvious complications. If a woman’s claim involves sexual violence, that’s a hard thing to talk about in front of your children. Most claims of people that I’ve talked to are people being really afraid of being killed. And to express that fear in front of your children, when they may end up having to go back to that situation, has huge consequences.
RENÉE FELTZ: One long-term study has found child migrants who have a lawyer are allowed to stay in about half of their cases. In contrast, nine out of 10 kids without an attorney are deported. Most of those held in Artesia have no lawyer to help with their asylum claims. For those who are able to connect with an attorney and win a hearing, the meeting is held over a 20-inch video screen with a judge in Arlington, Virginia. Then, if their fear is considered credible, the mother and child are kept in detention, held without bond while their cases are resolved. Again, Laura Lichter.
LAURA LICHTER: If the government insists on sticking with expedited removal, there is no such thing as a fair trial. This is no way to treat people. This is something that we should be ashamed of.
RENÉE FELTZ: For Democracy Now!, I’m Renée Feltz in Artesia, New Mexico.
AMY GOODMAN: And thanks so much to Renée, who shot and reported that story. Earlier this month, a second detention center for women and children opened in Karnes City, Texas. This one is run by the private prison company GEO Group and has another 600 beds. It’s reportedly already full. We’ll link to more information at democracynow.org.