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Volunteer spotlight – Wisconsin lawyers help out in Artesia

By Rita Lord

VolunteersIn early 2014, amid a crush of thousands of Central American families caught crossing the border illegally, the federal government expanded the family detention system it had downsized just a few years ago. That set the stage for a remarkable effort to recruit volunteer lawyers from across the United States to travel to remote detention centers and provide legal representation to immigrant adults and children. In 2009, the federal government stopped detaining women and children at a facility near Austin, Texas, following allegations of stark conditions and sexual abuse, and announced that no new family detention centers would be built. Since 2009, women and children seeking asylum had generally not been detained while their asylum cases were pending. In response to the new wave of immigrants, new family detention centers were opened at several locations, including on the site of a law enforcement training center in Artesia, New Mexico, 238 miles southeast of Albuquerque. The Artesia center housed hundreds of women and children who had been detained by immigration authorities.

When immigrants arrive at a detention center, they are interviewed to determine whether they have a “credible fear” of being sent back home. If no credible fear is found, they may be deported, unless that finding is reviewed and overturned. If credible fear is found, a bond hearing is held.  Hearings in Artesia were conducted in an on-site courtroom/trailer, where an immigration  judge appeared via video conference. At the hearing, bond is set; but detainees are released on bond only if they have someone in the U.S. to stay with, and that person must provide proof of a fixed address and proof of income. The money to pay the bond usually comes from relatives or friends of the detainees.

Once the bond has been paid, the woman and her children are permitted to leave the detention center to live with a relative or friend in the United States. An asylum hearing is scheduled in the jurisdiction where the woman and her children reside. If she appears at the asylum hearing, the bond is returned. But the first step for the people detained in Artesia was convincing an immigration judge that they had a credible fear of harm if they were to be sent home.

In July 2014, representatives of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) visited Artesia and reported observing severe due process violations at the facility. AILA called upon the federal government to suspend all deportations from Artesia until fundamental improvements could be made, and AILA quickly established a pro bono program to assist the detainees. An email went out asking AILA members to volunteer one week of pro bono service in Artesia. A number of Wisconsin attorneys answered the call, including the five interviewed for this article:

  • Kristina Rasmussen worked as in-house counsel for the University of Wisconsin for 10 years, and currently devotes her time to pro bono immigration work for Jewish Social Services. She also volunteers at the UW Law School Immigration Clinic. Rasmussen spent 22 days in Artesia and wrote a blog during her time there.
  • Robin Dalton is an attorney with RISE Law Center in Madison. RISE raised donations to cover some of the travel expenses for Robin and four other staff members going to Artesia, but the four used accumulated vacation time for the week they spent there.
  • Ramona Natera, who works for the Catholic Multicultural Center in Madison, spent a week in Artesia. She took a web seminar on the topic of immigration, which included a discussion of the detention centers. When friends told her about AILA’s pro bono project in Artesia, she volunteered to go.
  • Jennifer Nissen, an associate attorney at Hochstatter McCarthy Rivas & Runde S.C. in Milwaukee, has done immigration work for 10 years. She volunteered to work pro bono in Artesia and spent a week there. Nissen has plans to volunteer again this winter at the family detention center in San Antonio, Texas.
  • Jessie Schreier is a staff attorney at Hochstatter McCarthy Rivas & Runde S.C. in Milwaukee. She learned of the pro bono project through AILA’s email and volunteered to help. In October 2014, she spent a week working at the Artesia Family Detention Center.

Upon arriving in Artesia, the attorneys found an overwhelming amount of work to be done and challenging working conditions.

“Our office was a windowless FEMA trailer divided into small cubicles. There was no privacy and everyone could hear what everyone else was saying. Our building had intermittent air conditioning, but when the AC wasn’t working, we were not allowed to prop the doors open to get some air  There was no secure place to keep our stuff, so at night we had to take all of our files, computers and supplies with us.” Robin Dalton

“The days (and I mean seven days a week) began at 6:45 a.m. We had a four-foot wide ‘alley’ along one wall with long narrow tables against the other wall, set apart by room dividers. We would finish around 5:00, sometimes as late as 7:00, grab something to eat, and go to our daily Big Table Meeting, the only time we were all together to talk about the day’s issues. When the meeting ended, typically around 10:00 p.m., each attorney had several motions to prepare before calling it a day, resulting in another hour or two or three of work.” Kris Rasmussen

“My very first day, I found myself in court representing detainees at bond hearings. We worked long days, got little sleep and spent countless hours in cramped quarters meeting with families, many of whom were sick.” Ramona Natera

“I was there during Thanksgiving week, and it was very hectic because they had just announced the closing of the Artesia Family Detention Center, so our emphasis was on bonding out as many of them as possible before the center was closed and they were moved to another facility. There were only four lawyers there that week. Two of us interviewed clients and the other two were in court all day. On the first day I was there, we interviewed 70 clients.” Robin Dalton

The detention center was operated with strict rules and restrictions that would be familiar to any attorney who has visited a client in prison.

“Although it’s called a detention center, it’s in effect a prison. Detainees are not allowed to receive gifts of clothing or personal items. Everyone [including the attorneys working there] had to be accompanied by an official wherever they went.” Jennifer Nissen

“It was a small town, hastily modified to house 600 women and children. From the road, it looked like rows of metal, windowless buildings set upon a gravel bed. We were not allowed to see anything but our own metal building. The officers (‘We are not guards; we are officers.’) who interacted with us and kept the women traveling between our ‘hut’ and their ‘home hut’ made a real effort to keep the children occupied with movies and pages torn from coloring books with one or two crayons at a time. Some of the officers actually enjoyed the children – chatted with them, tried to teach them English – and the children craved that attention. However, we heard stories of disrespectful treatment, too.” Kris Rasmussen

“We were not allowed to reach out to the women at the center; they had to come to us. So word of our presence was spread by word-of-mouth. Women who had appointments with attorneys would tell new arrivals of our availability, and the new arrivals would request an appointment on a scrap of paper (papelitos). Those with appointments would bring the papelitos to us when they came for their appointment. In that way, we were able to set up appointments for new arrivals and others who wanted our services.” Kris Rasmussen

Most of the women were fleeing from domestic violence, sexual assault and gang violence. They often came to the United States because they have relatives here.

“One woman was about 25 years older than most of the women there, and had her teenage twin sons with her. Her calm and wise demeanor was so impressive. She had survived a kidnapping by a gang, an attempt to earn a ransom, and upon her escape was told by the police to flee for her own safety. She and her sons made the entire trip on their own. Another woman escaped a horribly abusive relationship with her second husband. This man abused her mercilessly and exploited her teenage daughter.” Kris Rasmussen

“I attended the credible fear interview of a 19-year-girl with an 18-month-old son. She was from Honduras. She and her son had lived with her brother. Her brother was murdered by a gang. After his death, the gang members came after her to pay money they said the brother owed them. They came to her house and her job to threaten her.” Jessie Schreier

“There were many compelling stories. What was really troubling was that the majority of the domestic violence was witnessed by the children. Horrific incidents of domestic violence that were bad enough for the woman but, when done in front of her children, just made it worse. Now the woman had to deal with her trauma and that of her children.” Ramona Natera

There were also stories of the hardships experienced by the mothers and children while detained at Artesia.

“Seeing children incarcerated was hard. It bothers me that mothers who are trying to save their own lives and the lives of their children are being incarcerated.” Robin Dalton

“I saw sick children who were not receiving medical care; children with serious illnesses or children who weren’t eating and were losing weight. The mothers would say to us, ‘What can I do? If I go back home, I will be killed. But if I stay here, my child will die.’” Robin Dalton

“Medical care was a joke. I saw one 4-year-old who couldn’t eat, slept all the time, and had severe diarrhea, but his medical report said he was fine. The report showed no weight loss at all, although it was clear by looking at him that he was losing weight. These mothers and children were able to see a doctor, but they weren’t getting medical care.” Jennifer Nissen

“I learned that when a child ‘ages out’ — turns 17, I believe — the mother and child are separated and sent to different detention centers, as they are no longer eligible for family detention together. I could not have tolerated a separation of this sort from my son when he was that age, not knowing the conditions of his environment or how his case would be handled.” Kris Rasmussen

“There were many indigenous languages spoken, and they could not understand us. I speak Spanish, but sometimes I was representing someone who didn’t speak English or Spanish, and there were no interpreters who could understand them. These women had no real access to the courts or to other services because they could not be understood.” Robin Dalton

“The ‘courtroom’ was a trailer where my client and I sat and watched a small video screen. The judge, the U.S. attorney, and the interpreter were in Denver and could see us on a large screen there. The interpreter’s role was to ask questions of the detainee and interpret her answers for the judge, not to interpret the proceedings for the detainee. My statements, the U.S. attorney’s statements, and the judge’s comments and decision were not interpreted for her. At the end of the hearing, they would sign off and I would have to explain to my client everything that had been said and what the outcome was.” Jessie Schreier

The attorneys interviewed were deeply moved by the resilience of the women and children they met at the detention center and by the dedication of the people who were working to help them.

“A few of our clients actually said they were content (for the moment) to call the detention facility home because, despite the awful food, viruses running rampant, lack of school, and restrictions on their movement, they had escaped (for the time being) that from which they were running. While they wanted to be released on bond, make new homes with their loved ones in the U.S. and pursue their asylum claims from outside the facility, they were sincerely grateful for the temporary home in which they were living. Imagine — grateful to be detained there.” Kris Rasmussen

“It was amazing how much got done in such a short time. AILA did a great job training and organizing attorneys to spend time there. It was inspiring to see how many people wanted to help.” Robin Dalton

“What really impressed me was that other attorneys took the time to guide and mentor me as I prepared for court hearings. I had never done this type of court proceeding before, and even though these attorneys were so busy and were up late every night preparing for the next day, they answered all my questions.” Jessie Schreier

“Some of the attorneys took work with them when they left Artesia and put in many more hours back home. There were attorneys who couldn’t come to Artesia but helped by working from their homes – writing motions, contacting families to obtain needed documents, etc. I was profoundly affected by the great need for assistance, but I was filled with hope by the people who came together, working nonstop, with passion and enthusiasm, to help those in need.” Kris Rasmussen

“I would do it again in a heartbeat. It was a great program, and it was incredible to be part of it. It is so important for attorneys to get involved in these important programs to help those who wouldn’t otherwise have access to the justice system.” Ramona Natera

The Artesia Family Detention Center was closed December 15, 2014, and detainees still held there were transferred to a detention facility in Karnes, Texas. AILA remains involved in providing representation to detainees at family detention facilities.

UPDATE: You can read more about the Artesia family detention center in this New York Times Magazine article.