Groups cite ‘horrific’ conditions at immigrant detention center

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A coalition of immigrant rights’ advocates is appealing to the Obama administration to halt deportations from a Southwest detention center where they say migrant children and their families are enduring “horrific” conditions. 

Officials from groups including the National Immigrant Justice Center and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) were granted access to a facility in Artesia, N.M., designated to house some of the thousands of immigrants flooding illegally into the United States. 

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What they saw there was “horrific,” said Marielena Hincapié, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center. 
“Mothers and children are crowded into a facility that was not designed for this purpose,” she said. 

The groups, who are pressing alternatives to detention for the tens of thousands of unaccompanied children and families pouring across the southern border, say the immigrants at the New Mexico facility are being denied due process rights. 

The detainees have limited access to legal counsel and are sometimes informed of immigration hearings mere hours ahead of time, with no advisement of their rights or how to prepare. 

Exacerbating those problems is severely limited access to phones, which the advocates said is sometimes restricted further as a punishment for failing to follow other rules. 

The groups, who said they were allowed to speak with some adults at the center, said they were prohibited from talking to any of the children, whom they described as in visible despair.

The government estimates that more than 52,000 immigrants have crossed the southern border illegally this year, with advocates saying that as many as three quarters are fleeing violence in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

While many are unaccompanied youths, kept in separate facilities, many families are being housed together in group detention. The rights groups said that, by law, asylum seekers are supposed to be housed in the least restrictive manner possible.

In that way, they argue, the Obama administration is violating the law, particularly when it comes to the children.

“The government is under legal obligation to detain children only as a last resort,” said Cecillia Wang, director of the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project.

The advocates told reporters that only a handful of detainees were released for humanitarian reasons, those being due to pregnancy.

They argued for less restrictive arrangements, including allowing immigrants to stay with relatives in the United States while their cases are adjudicated.

The Obama administration has said that would be the case, citing laws requiring agencies to do what is best for the children.

But at the same time, top officials, including Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, have said the wave of immigrants would be "a priority for removal" from the country.

The migrants are not eligible for the administration’s deferred action program that allows some younger immigrants to avoid deportation, or the pathway to citizenship provision in immigration legislation pending in Congress, the Obama administration has said.

The groups bashed the administration, and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle for what they view as a hard-line stance.

Wang cited “bipartisan rhetoric in Washington, D.C., to detain and deport as quickly as possible.“

“It’s illegal, and immoral as well,” she said.

The groups are also calling on Congress to approve the president's request for $3.7 billion in emergency funding to address the crisis.