Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2014 | 2 a.m.
The national news media may have moved on to topics like the crisis in Ferguson, Mo., and fighting in the Middle East, but immigration attorneys and advocates say the fight is just beginning over how to handle the surge of immigrants coming to the southern border asking for asylum.
“The issue is not hot anymore, and I think a lot of people think it’s already been fixed,” said Astrid Silva, Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada immigration director, Monday night at a community meeting in downtown Las Vegas.
The meeting, held at Amistad Cristiana Church, focused on the current situation for unaccompanied children and family units immigrating mostly from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, and how the community can help.
In July, a group of attorneys and volunteers that included four people from Las Vegas traveled to a temporary shelter for family units in Artesia, N.M. The Las Vegas contingent returned sharing the concerns of lawyers, politicians and officials who have visited the facility.
Comparing fiscal year 2013 to fiscal year 2014, the number of unaccompanied children crossing the U.S. Southwestern border has doubled, according to Customs and Border Patrol. The number of family units crossing, on the other hand, increased 471 percent, from 11,001 to 62,856.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement only has one permanent facility for detaining immigrant family units, a 90-bed shelter in Pennsylvania. In response to the influx, the federal government opened the temporary shelter in Artesia and converted another in Karnes County, Texas to “detain and expedite the removal of adults with children,” according to an Obama administration release.
“Our message is clear. If you come to this country illegally, we will send you back -- consistent with our laws and values,” Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said in July at the Artesia shelter. “This facility demonstrates our commitment to building additional capacity to do this quickly, safely and humanely.”
It’s the “expedite” portion of the government’s plan that has many attorneys worried. Arlene Rivera and Sarah Perez, Las Vegas lawyers who visited the New Mexico shelter, said they have due process concerns for the roughly 600 people being detained at the facility.
Rivera said the Artesia facility is a “deportation mill in the middle of nowhere,” four hours from the nearest urban hub, making it difficult for the immigrants to get legal assistance.
Immigrants they interviewed at the facility are not getting accurate information about their rights to legal counsel, to make phone calls and to access other resources, Perez said. In some cases, they are intimidated into signing documents and not asking for assistance.
“A lot of people are saying the laws should be enforced, and that’s exactly what we are asking for,” Rivera said. “The law provides for protections that they are not getting. Everyone has a right to legal help.”
Volunteer attorneys have set up an office in a church near the Artesia facility, but the lawyers can only donate so much of their time. Even worse for them, travel between the town and the areas where the attorneys are based is burdensome. Recently, the office ran out of paper and could not print case documents.
Last week the American Civil Liberties Union sued the U.S. government on behalf of the women and children held at Artesia, claiming the Obama administration is “enacting a new strong-arm policy to ensure rapid deportations by holding these mothers and their children to a nearly insurmountable and erroneous standard to prove their asylum claims, and by placing countless hurdles in front of them."
Amistad Cristiana pastor Joel Menchaca, who has been coordinating local efforts to collect donations for the families and children, said the U.S. government shouldn't cut corners in dealing with immigrants who claim to have a legal right to asylum.
“What is happening is that cartels are encouraging families to go, and then they lend them the money for the coyote,” Menchaca said, using a common term for human smugglers in Mexico. “I got a call from a pastor in El Salvador the other day. He said a woman who was sent back from the U.S. with her daughter was told by the cartel upon her return she had to either pay the cartel back or give them her daughter, or they would both be killed.”
Meanwhile, a closet at Menchaca’s small church is packed floor to ceiling with boxes loaded with donations. Menchaca started coordinating efforts to gather toiletries, clothing and other basic items when the surge at the border first hit the news. More than 60,000 unaccompanied children have crossed the border in the 2014 fiscal year. Some have been deported, while others are scattered across the country in shelters, foster homes and with family members.
No one will take Menchaca’s donations, though.
“They always have some reason. They said they couldn’t have crayons because the kids would write on the walls. They couldn’t accept food because it might make them sick. They basically said they didn’t want the liability of accepting donations. It’s been very frustrating,” Menchaca said of working with the shelters.
Customs and Border Patrol has contact information on its web site for non-profit organizations that wish to donate goods. Silva said PLAN contacted CBP three weeks ago to set up donations, but has not heard back.
The group of two dozen people gathered at the Amistad Cristiana Monday evening said they must move forward despite the roadblocks. They planned to send reams of paper to the lawyers volunteering their time.
As for the donations, Menchaca has given up on the U.S. government.
“We are leaving this Friday to take the donations down to Mexico, where we’ve found shelters there that will take them,” he said.