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Inside the remote, secretive detention center for migrant families

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Hundreds of migrant families who have entered the US from Central America are being held in detention while they wait to be processed. Over 600 people are being held in the main facility, in Artesia, NM. The government is working to deport these families as quickly as possible, in the hopes of sending a message that will deter more families from coming. That's raised concerns about whether they're getting due process in their immigration cases, or whether families whose lives might be in danger are being deported.

The government restricts access to families in detention — including barring lawyers from visiting detention centers. But the National Immigration Law Center, a legal advocacy group, has a legal trump card: a standing order from the 1980s, from an injunction in a case called Orantes-Hernandez v. Smith. The standing order allows them to serve as class-action lawyers for all Salvadorans in detention who might be eligible for asylum. Now, they're using it to make the government let them in to interview families, and make sure that immigrants with legitimate cases for asylum are being heard.

Yesterday, a delegation from the National Immigration Law Center visited the detention facility in Artesia, NM, which is only a month old but already houses more than 600 mothers and children. Karen Tumlin, Managing Attorney for NILC, spoke to me about what they saw.

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A mother and child in the Border Patrol processing center in McAllen, TX. John Moore/Getty

On the conditions in the detention center

"It's extremely isolated and remote. It's on the grounds of the Border Patrol training academy. It's very large, sprawling. There are these weird, I suppose, mock-border training fields that surround the facility. It's primarily temporary buildings — I mean, they're not flimsy-temporary buildings, but they're temporary, detached buildings in a cluster that have been set up.

"The women and kids sleep in these temporary buildings that are kind of rectangular dorm-room style. There are bunk beds in the rooms. We were told there were TVs in the rooms but I didn't see them. That doesn't mean they aren't there, but when I went into the rooms to speak to the women I didn't see them.

"When we were there it was incredibly hot, really too hot to be outside."

On seeing young children in detention

"One takeaway, probably the most overwhelming, is just what it feels like to be in an incredibly isolated detention facility — which is nothing but a detention facility — for women and kids, including infants. What the guttural impact is when you walk into the cafeteria at this detention center and you're greeted with a line of high chairs and infant seats. What that feels like to realize that there are hundreds of families with small children being locked up.

"At one point, when we were meeting with our clients, a lot of folks were waiting. And I looked up and all I could see across the sea of faces were very small children: toddlers and infants and bottles."

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A Central American migrant family riding "La Bestia," the train through Mexico toward the US. Elizabeth Ruiz/AFP

On why these families left their home countries

"We spoke to a mom who left El Salvador because her seven-year-old daughter had been kidnapped by the gangs after [the mother] was unable to pay what's called the renta, which is like the tax or extortion money that the gang requires local individuals to pay. You know, 'pay or there will be consequences,' often of a violent nature.

"So they kidnapped her daughter so that she knew they were serious, and then once her daughter was returned, they sent death threats. They said, ‘If you don't leave the country, we'll kill you. You and your daughter. Because we know where you live, and you haven't paid the renta.'

"So she left. And that's why she came to the United States. Because she was under a specific death threat for herself and her young child. Because her young child had already been kidnapped by the gang, and she had absolutely no means to pay the money that they were asking for to make it stop. And no protection from the authorities, either."

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Families leaving the plane after being deported to Guatemala on July 22, 2014. Johan Ordonez/AFP

On families being told to give up and go home

"Many of the women reported to us what I would describe as ‘a culture of no.' They were being told by government officials, ‘No one who's here, who gets to Artesia, gets to stay. This is the place where we hold folks for deportation.' Or, ‘no one with those kind of claims' — meaning, you know, fear and threats from the gangs — gets to stay in this country.'

"The truth is, of course, all of those claims, including claims based on threats of violence from gangs, must be evaluated individually. And some of those claims do, of course, merit the right for individuals to stay in the United States. So that's really concerning to us, that a lot of the women reported that, essentially, what had been telegraphed to them was the idea that what you should really do is give up. Because your chance of success is slim, at best, to zero."

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Children in the processing center in Nogales, Arizona. Ross D. Franklin/Pool (Getty)

On why it's even harder for lawyers to visit unaccompanied children being held by the government

"We had to go to court and seek a court order to speak to the children at [the processing center in Nogales, Arizona] specifically. As of [July 14] the government submitted into court records that there were 330 Salvadoran children being held at the Nogales facility, [and] 956 overall [in the Nogales facility]. That's a lot of kids.

"The court ordered [on July 17th] that we had a right to talk to our class clients there. [But on the afternoon of Friday, July 18], we started reading press accounts that the Border Patrol itself was saying that the facility had been closed. The very next day. And as of Friday afternoon, there were 23 children left in the facility. Twenty-three, down from 956. Obviously we were seriously concerned about the timing of that, coming on the heels of a court order."

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Dara Lind: How were you able to get into the facility?

Karen Tumlin: For about a month we've been asking the government, because of our status as class counsel in the Orantes injunction, to visit specific facilities. The government did voluntarily agree that we had a right to go talk to our adult class members at the Artesia facility. They've limited that to 25 individuals, and a certain amount of time, etc. And yesterday was our test to do what we had worked out with the government.

We had particular interest in wanting to go to the new family detention facility in Artesia. Because, first, family detention is something that we essentially had done away with the United States Hutto — after there was a lot of scrutiny about the conditions in which children, really young children, were being detained with their parents in the Hutto facility in Texas. And also because we were very concerned that it was a facility that was essentially set up to run children and their moms through expedited removal.

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The complex in Artesia, NM, where new buildings have been added to detain migrant families. Via fletc.gov

Dara Lind: What's the facility like? How are the conditions that families and children are being kept in?

Karen Tumlin: The detention center is in Artesia, New Mexico. We had a challenging time figuring out how to get there. It's over three hours from El Paso. It's over three hours from Albuquerque. It's extremely isolated and remote. It's on the grounds of the Border Patrol training academy. It's very large, sprawling. There are these weird, I suppose, mock-border training fields that surround the facility. It's primarily temporary buildings — they're not flimsy-temporary buildings, but they're temporary, detached buildings in a cluster that have been set up.

The women and kids sleep in these temporary buildings that are kind of rectangular dorm-room style. There are bunk beds in the rooms. We were told there were TVs in the rooms, but I didn't see them. That doesn't mean they aren't there, but when I went into the rooms to speak to the women I didn't see them.

It's hot! When we were there it was incredibly hot, really too hot to be outside. They do have plans to put in a soccer field — right now there's this rock, gravel kind of soccer field with two nets. Of course no one was out there during the day when we were there, because it was approaching 100 degrees. That's what the facilities are like.

One takeaway, probably the most overwhelming, is just what it feels like to be in an incredibly isolated detention facility for women and kids, including infants. What the guttural impact is when you walk into the cafeteria at this detention center, and you're greeted with a line of high chairs and infant seats. What that feels like to realize that there are hundreds of families with small children being locked up.

At one point, when we were meeting with our clients, a lot of folks were waiting. And I looked up and all I could see across the sea of faces were very small children: toddlers and infants and bottles. And just what that means, and the questions that that raises about the kind of detention regime we want to be running, and we need to be running — about what kind of risk is posed that we need to be locking these individuals up as they try to bring forward their asylum claim.

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A Central American migrant family riding "La Bestia," the train through Mexico toward the US. Elizabeth Ruiz/AFP

Dara Lind: How many people are being held at Artesia and for how long? What's the nationality of the families there?

Karen Tumlin: Right now, their current maximum capacity is 646, and [when we visited on July 22nd] they had about 620. The facility opened on June 27th.

Dara Lind: Yeah, and as of about July 11th, when US Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson visited, they had about 400. So that's very rapid.

Karen Tumlin: It's very rapid. They're totally at max. One of the reasons they're not at 640-whatever is that they felt like they needed some of that space for other things. They're definitely at capacity. There's a lot of people there.

The nationality breakdown, they said, is very close to one-third/one-third/one-third Guatemalan/Honduran/Salvadoran.

They didn't give us statistics on when people entered. I do know that a lot of folks that we were speaking to — and I don't think this is a surprise — had been there approaching a month. I think that after the facility opened, they were able to reach max capacity quickly. And folks have been there and are going through processing.

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Relatives of the victims of a bus attack by Salvadoran gangs, which killed 6 people. Jose Cabezas/AFP

Dara Lind: Can you talk about your interviews with the families, and what you heard about why they'd come to the US?

Karen Tumlin: We met with detained Salvadoran moms and their kids the overwhelming majority of whom talked to us in detail about the reasons that they were fearful to return to El Salvador, fearful for their lives and for the lives of their children. That they had left because the situation was so bad that they feared they or their children would be killed if they returned to, or remained in, in El Salvador.

For example, we spoke to a mom who left El Salvador because her 7-year-old daughter had been kidnapped by the gangs after [the mother] was unable to pay what's called the renta, which is like the tax or extortion money that the gang requires local individuals to pay. You know, ‘pay or there will be consequences' — often of a violent nature.

So they kidnapped her daughter so that she knew they were serious, and then once her daughter was returned, they sent death threats. They said, ‘If you don't leave the country, we'll kill you. You and your daughter. Because we know where you live, and you haven't paid the rent."

So she left. And that's why she came to the United States. Because she was under a specific death threat for herself and her young child. Because her young child had already been kidnapped by the gang, and she had absolutely no means to pay the money that they were asking to make it stop. And no protection from the authorities, either.

At the most basic level, the first impact of that is just one of deep sympathy for these really brave parents who took this long journey in order to protect their kids, to flee violence and persecution.

But the second major thing that we encountered is that the system is running too fast. It is not, right now, doing what it needs to do to ensure that these women and kids are given adequate due process, that we carefully evaluate their claims and ensure that we're not sending anyone, no one, back to be persecuted. We have serious concerns about that. Those are the kind of stories that we heard yesterday, and those are the kind of stories that make us seriously concerned that the system needs to slow down and make sure that no one is being deported who has a story like that and is returning to that kind of violence.

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A family being loaded into a Border Patrol van to be taken to detention. John Moore/Getty

Dara Lind: What is the legal process that exists right now for families at Artesia?

Karen Tumlin: The women kept there are going through expedited removal proceedings. They are interviewed fairly quickly after they arrive at the facility, by an asylum officer with [United States Citizen and Immigration Services]. And that individual is charged with making a determination whether the person has what's called ‘credible fear,' which essentially means that there's enough information to declare that an individual might have a prima facie case for asylum, that they may be found to be persecuted if they returned to their country.

What the process allows is that, if you were given an adverse credible fear-finding —meaning the asylum officer says ‘Nope! I don't think you have a credible fear of returning,' then you have a right to an immigration judge review of that determination. Now, the way that that's happening in Artesia is all by video teleconference. They showed us the little room where it happens, and a very small TV screen upon which the judge from Virginia is beamed in.

The women have a right to be represented by counsel, both in that initial interview and in the video review with a judge. Given the remoteness of the location, and the difficulty of reaching it, as well as just the isolation factor, most of these women are not represented.

A couple of private attorneys have been able to get in to represent their individual clients. So there's kind of like a handful.

A group in El Paso that's called DRMS, Diocesan Refugee Migrant Services, is being contracted to provide group legal rights presentations at this facility. So that will be a very big and very important improvement. They did their first one on Friday, July 18. And they had about 200 people attend. And obviously folks were incredibly interested and desperate to talk to us, because they wanted to talk to someone about their legal rights.

We were concerned before, but upon talking with Salvadoran class members, we have very serious concerns that individuals who do have credible fear of returning to El Salvador because they would face violence and potentially even death upon their return are not being found to have that credible fear. And that's really our foremost concern.

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A family returns to El Salvador after deportation. Juan Carlos/AFP/Getty

Dara Lind: What are the mothers you spoke to hearing from the officials who run the facility about how the process is going to work, and about their chances of staying in the country?

Karen Tumlin: One of the things that we're going to look back at very carefully is many of the women reported to us what I would describe as ‘a culture of no.' They were being told by government officials, ‘No one who's here, who gets to Artesia, gets to stay. This is the place where we hold folks for deportation.' Or no one with those kind of claims — meaning fear and threats from the gangs — gets to stay in this country.

The truth is, of course, all of those claims, including claims based on threats of violence from gangs, must be evaluated individually. And some of those claims do, of course, merit the right for individuals to stay in the United States. So that's really concerning to us, that a lot of the women reported that, essentially, what had been telegraphed to them was the idea that what you should really do is give up. Because your chance of success is slim, at best, to zero.

What we think needs to be happening is, we need individualized, careful, appropriate-under-the-law determinations of the legal claims of these women and children. That's what our law requires, and that's what basic humanity requires in this situation.

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Children in the processing center in Nogales, Arizona. Ross D. Franklin/Pool (Getty)

Dara Lind: NILC has also been engaged in a court battle to get in to see unaccompanied children as well. Can you talk about that?

Karen Tumlin: We've had a much harder time getting access to speak to unaccompanied kids from El Salvador, who are also our class clients. For that, we had to go to court and seek a court order to speak to the children at [the processing center in Nogales, Arizona] specifically.

So, we had filed that court order, which the government opposed, and as of [July 14] the government submitted into court records that there were 330 Salvadoran children being held at the Nogales facility, [and] 956 overall [in the Nogales facility]. That's a lot of kids.

The court ordered that we had a right to talk to our class clients there, and that the government was to make that happen no later than July 30. So we were really pleased with that court order that came out [on July 17] and were starting to try to work with the government to set up a visit in the next few days.

[But on the afternoon of Friday, July 18], we started reading press accounts that the Border Patrol itself was saying that the facility had been closed. The very next day. And as of Friday afternoon, there were 23 children left in the facility. Twenty-three, down from 956. Obviously we were seriously concerned about the timing of that, coming on the heels of a court order.

We hope to work with the government, to locate where those children have been sent, and to still interview them.

Dara Lind: What are the next steps for you guys in defending the rights of your clients?

Karen Tumlin: First, we're going to go back through all of our interviews. We'll be interacting with the government authorities on the case, specifically the cases of the women we spoke to, where we have concerns about how the process has treated them. We'll bring those to the attention of the government and see what they can do to make sure that things are working appropriately for those specific individuals.

We're also working with the government to set up a series of visits to the other large facilities for those unaccompanied children, and the new family detention center that's opening in Karnes, near San Antonio.

Those are our next steps:  follow up with the government specifically — obviously in private — with regards to the specific women we spoke to yesterday, and then moving forward we'll be looking at doing the same kind of detailed interviewing of our class clients at other facilities.

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