I have recently returned from volunteering my legal services during the last full week of operation of the misleadingly-named Artesia Family Residential Center, which is actually a makeshift detention facility for migrant women and children from Central America, located in a remote area of southeastern New Mexico. 

Among the many injustices I witnessed, two particularly inhumane aspects of the federal government’s policy with respect to these families stood out. One is the Obama administration’s opposition to releasing these helpless women and children on bond, on the ground that they pose a threat to our national security. The second is what appears to be a blanket government policy to refuse to grant humanitarian parole to those families that are not legally eligible for release on bond. 

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The government is basing its position on a 2003 administrative decision (Matter of D-J-), issued by then-Attorney General John Ashcroft, which denied bond to a boatload of Haitians on national security grounds. In the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and in light of a declaration from the State Department that third-country nationals (including Palestinians and Pakistanis) were allegedly using Haiti as a staging point for attempted entry into the United States, the Attorney General concluded that releasing Mr. D-J- (and other “similarly situated undocumented seagoing migrants”) during the “national emergency” created by the September 11 terrorist attacks would “give rise to adverse consequences for national security” and would “encourage further surges in illegal immigration [from Haiti] by sea.” 

That the government is relying on D-J- to maintain that these women and children pose a national security risk would be laughable if the consequences weren’t so tragic. In a nutshell, the government is maintaining that the very fact of these families’ arrival in the United States, as part of a recent “surge” of immigration from Central America, is a national security issue—not because they pose a flight risk or a danger to the community, but simply because the government wants to send a message in order to deter further migration from Central America. As the ACLU put in a class action lawsuit filed on December 16, “depriv[ing] families with bona fide asylum claims of their liberty in order to send a message to others” is not appropriate. 

In cases where the families used a guide or “coyote” to come to the United States, the government is asserting that the national security threat also derives from the migrants’ active participation in organized human smuggling networks.  Tell this to the nursing mother from Guatemala who fled from the husband who was beating her relentlessly, and who testified that she and her baby were held hostage in a warehouse in Reynosa, Mexico, until her relatives paid the coyote more money. She seems more like a victim to me.  Tell this to the uneducated Honduran woman I represented in a bond hearing just last week who, when asked by the DHS trial attorney why she paid a coyote instead of traveling to the United States with her young children without assistance, said simply, “I didn’t know the way.”  All she knows is that, in order to save her daughter from the gang members who sought to own her and make her their collective “girlfriend,” she and her daughter had no choice but to abandon their home and run for their lives—and that the United States is supposed to be a refuge for those seeking safety from torture and persecution. 

A number of the women and children being detained are not eligible for bond, even if they were found by an Asylum Officer to have a credible fear of persecution, because they are so-called “arriving aliens” who, rather than entering the United States without inspection, presented themselves at a port of entry and asked for asylum. Arriving aliens are not subject to mandatory detention, but the Department of Homeland Security has been detaining them anyway. 

Keep in mind that these mothers tried to do the right thing. They turned themselves in at an official port of entry and affirmatively requested asylum, putting their trust and their lives in the hands of the U.S. government. 

Most tragic is the plight of those women who speak neither English nor Spanish, but an indigenous language such as Mam, Tekitek or K’iche’. There were a number of such women in Artesia, and they may very well have cognizable claims to asylum.  But because the Asylum Officer who sought to interview them was not able to find an interpreter, the officer was not able to determine whether or not they have a credible fear of persecution. Accordingly, they are being detained without the possibility of release on bond, but DHS is also refusing to parole them out on humanitarian grounds. 

One Mam-speaking client I met said over and over in her broken Spanish, “Solo quiero terminar,” by which I think she was trying to say, “I just want this to end.” 

The policy of locking up families seeking asylum is just wrong. I am convinced that this period will later be remembered—along with the Chinese Exclusion Act, the detention of Japanese-Americans during World War II, and the registration of Muslim men after 9/11, among many other misguided policies—as a dark period in our nation’s immigration history. When will we learn?

Shannon is Of Counsel at Fragomen, Del Rey, Bernsen & Loewy, LLP and an adjunct professor of Immigration Law at Cardozo Law School in New York. She provided pro bono legal services at the immigrant detention center in Artesia, New Mexico under the auspices of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.