Letter from New Mexico

Suitable for Families

Suitable for Families

 

[Editor’s Note: Kit Johnson is a primary contributor to the ImmigrationProf Blog. At the beginning of this month, she spent a week assisting immigrant families awaiting deportation hearings at the Artesia detention facility in remote southeast New Mexico. Open only since June, it is already closing down, and families are being transferred to a massive and barren dirt enclave in Dilley, Texas, by month’s end. The center was sued by immigration and civil rights groups who called it a deportation mill that routinely violated detainees’ constitutional rights. One of those detainees, an eleven-year-old boy, turned out to be an American citizen. Professor Johnson has kindly consented to share this look at what these families leave behind.]

 

LIVE FROM ARTESIA

 

Day One

I arrived in town just before sunset. The radio was playing The Eagles’ Hotel California – I kid you not.

I spent the evening getting a very intense orientation from the wonderful on-the-ground (OTG) team here in Artesia. I was particularly pleased to hear the soothing and familiar voice of immigration professor Stephen Manning – welcoming us to the OTG team in an innovation lab video, naturally, with psych-up background music.

I have two bond hearings and two continuances to prep for tonight and tomorrow morning. And I expect to meet with additional clients about their bond cases. The American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) is trying to secure bond for as many of the Artesia detainees as possible – all of whom are hoping to avoid transfer to Karnes. [Editor’s Note: Karnes County Civil Detention Center in Texas is the site of alleged sexual assault by guards of immigrant mothers, sometimes in front of their children.]

 

Day Two, Morning

Today was my first visit to FLETC – the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center that is the Artesia detention facility.

I arrived at 7:00 a.m. to meet with three clients about what would happen in court that morning. Of course, nothing that we prepared for actually happened. All three cases were continued to later in the week.

I’d heard stories about the surreality of immigration court in Artesia. It was, indeed, surreal. The clients and attorneys sat in front of a large video screen where they interfaced with an extremely pixilated immigration judge (IJ) in Denver.

The clients’ kids and other families waited in the background – trying, sometimes in vain, to remain quiet.

While the cases today were all bond hearings or continuances of the same, and so less sensitive than merits hearings, it still felt wrong to have the kids in the room.

One adorable young boy, about 3, kept running up to his mom and trying to catch her attention during her bond hearing. I ended up sneaking him off to a corner to try to keep him amused with the few entertainments in the room. He scribbled on a paper airplane and flew said airplane around the “courtroom.” He also played with a small dixie cup and a little yellow plastic figurine that looked like a game piece from Candyland.

Another boy, about 5, was disturbing in his quiet. He sat perfectly still, silently watching the somewhat rambunctious 3 year old’s antics.

 

Day Two, Afternoon

There is a client consultation trailer at the Artesia detention facility. It is split into different zones.

Along one edge of the trailer there is a narrow “lawyers-only” corridor. It runs the length of the trailer and is perhaps 5 feet wide.

There’s a table near the entrance to the lawyer’s corridor where U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents sit. These are the guys who bring clients to the trailer. They also escort lawyers to and from their cars and to the restrooms. (We are dangerous folk who cannot walk around unaccompanied.) These guys are by and large incredibly friendly – to us, the women, and especially the kids.

The trailer also has five modular “offices” for meeting with clients. Each has sliding semi-opaque doors and walls that don’t reach to the ceiling. It therefore has neither the appearance of privacy nor actual privacy.

The rest of the trailer is essentially a waiting area. There are eight tables each with four chairs. There’s a brightly colored oval right in front of a TV that is always playing a children’s movie – sometimes in Spanish, sometimes in English. (I can now tell you the entire plot of Ice Age: The Meltdown. Be jealous.)

I spent the afternoon in the trailer meeting with clients. I saw six different women and, for the most part, spoke with them about their upcoming bond hearings. Some were stoic. Some were weepy. Some were sick. All were tired of being in detention. All prayed to God that their bond hearings would be granted.

I can’t sign off without noting what was, for me, the biggest surprise of the afternoon. I walked into the ladies’ bathroom and found a volunteer barber cutting kids’ hair. The boys all seemed to be sporting identical buzz cuts. But a little girl, maybe 7 or 8, was getting a careful trim of her very long locks. She looked so happy to be sitting in that chair, having her hair so carefully combed and trimmed.

 

Day Three, Morning

This morning’s docket was much busier than yesterday. In addition to hearing continuances, Denver Immigration Judge Donn Livingston held five substantive bond hearings. All resulted in grants – but at vastly differing sums from $7500 to $2000. He seemed particularly concerned about: (1) whether the respondents used a coyote to gain entry to the U.S., how much they paid said coyote, and how many people joined them on the journey; as well as (2) whether the respondents had strong family ties in the US.

For the second day in a row there was a rambunctious six-year old boy present who wanted to bother his mom while she was being questioned by the judge. I managed to entice him away by appropriating some paper and making cootie-catchers for him. And paper airplanes. But this kid straight up schooled me on the proper way to fold an airplane. My sons will be thrilled when I come home with new knowledge.

The absolute highlight of my day was seeing the huge smiles on the faces of one mother and son who got bond today. The son was about 2 and when I told him he was guapo y adorable, he just nodded with a big grin on his face. He also gave me two very big hugs, the sweetie!

 

Day Four, “Everyone Cries in Artesia”

I’d heard that everyone cries in Artesia. At some point, I was told, everyone hits a wall and breaks down.

I don’t know that I really believed that until today.

This morning I was covering IJ Livingston’s docket with the lovely Julie Braker (more on her in another post). Julie was holding a bond hearing for an indigenous-speaking client. This client had a son, a little over two years old, who started acting up and demanding his mother’s attention. So I picked him up and rocked him in the back of the courtroom. But then, this boy decided that wasn’t what he really wanted. He started to really fuss and cry for his mom. So I left the courtroom with him in my arms.

I spent the duration of the hearing (20 minutes? 30? 45?) outside with an inconsolable toddler. I say toddler, but this kid was so small. He was about the size of a 10 month old.

And all this kid wanted was mom – to nurse, I think. I tried singing to him, rocking, bouncing, distracting him with trucks and planes, all of my mom tricks. Nothing worked. Well, the plane thing worked for the 10 seconds he could see the plane in the sky. But then it was back to crying for mama.

I was outside with an ICE agent. This fellow valiantly tried to help as well. He played soothing baby music on his phone. He performed magic tricks with a quarter. He blew bubbles with his gum. He even tried to get me a pacifier but wasn’t allowed to requisition one from the warehouse. We were given an empty bottle but, 30 seconds after finally getting this, mom returned.

At which point I had to literally run back to court to cover a bond hearing.

I don’t know why this child’s anguish has affected me as much as it has. I think it’s that he genuinely thought he might never see his mom again. And the horror of not being able to get him a pacifier just killed me. And then I think about his mom, who while trying to testify on behalf of her bond application, to get herself and her sons out of detention – she had to listen to her son’s wailing.

It’s a few hours later and I’m still shaky and overwhelmed.

 

Day Five – Laughter Amid Tears

Today wasn’t a tear-free day. I prepped one woman for her bond hearing tomorrow and just welled up with tears reading her credible fear determination (of persecution or torture if deported to the home country). This woman has suffered the most horrendous acts of domestic violence. I had to stop and try to compose myself. And, of course, my near-tears caused her near-tears. It was tough.
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But I want to tell you not about the tears, but the laughter. Because today, I laughed.

First, I want to tell you about a kid who I’ll call Arturo. Arturo is three or four years old. He came to his mom’s bond hearing this morning. And since I was covering the docket by myself, there was no one I could pass him off to when he started to get a little antsy with the proceedings. I just kept my eyes on the video camera, tore off a few pages from my notebook, and handed him a pen so he could color. But here’s the thing. At some point the IJ was looking a few things up on his computer and everyone was silent. Arturo climbed into his mom’s lap for what looked like a snuggle. Instead, he used the vantage point of her lap to lean over, right over the microphone, and whisper “Hola.” It was the damndest thing. I couldn’t laugh out loud in the middle of court, but I had a hard time keeping a straight face when I told him not to do that again.

And now a tale about a kid whom I’ll call Isabel. Isabel is not yet three. She is a teensy tiny little thing. And she showed up to her mom’s bond prep with me this afternoon wearing this bright teal sweatshirt with a raccoon on it that inexplicably said “Hug Me.” Miss Isabel was so well behaved that I was able to have a great strategy session with her mom. At one point, I got excited, slapped my hand on the table and pointed at the mom to say something along the lines of “That’s it!” Before I knew it, Isabel did the exact same thing. She slapped her hand to the table and pointed right at me. I laughed with explosive, gigantic cackles.

It’s amazing that kids can continue to bring such spontaneity and joy here amidst the chaos, uncertainty, monotony (please, God, no more Frozen on the TV tomorrow), and fear.

 

Day Six – The Last Hearings

Today I had my final hearings in front of IJ Livingston.

While in court I, yet again, needed to help a fellow AILA pro bono attorney (this time the wonderful Megan Jordi – more on her later) with a disruptive toddler. I had the unenviable task of actually peeling a 2 year old off his mother and forcibly removing him from court.

I spent the next (20? 30? 45?) minutes with another inconsolable toddler. I again tried to distract him with construction equipment, planes, anything. This time, I had not just one but three other ICE agents trying to help me calm this child down. One brought a sucker. Another brought a toy. Another (clearly a supervisor) asked if I needed milk or juice or anything else that he might be able to provide. But nothing really calmed him down. I bought a few precious moments by pointing to things (a bulldozer) and asking him to tell me what the word in Spanish is to describe it. But, again, all he wanted was mama.

The upside of handling an inconsolable toddler is that you’re allowed to walk wherever you feel like it to calm the kid down. So I was able to see the other parts of our complex that I might not otherwise see. I was able to discern that we were in a small segment of the FLETC campus that was blocked off by chain link fencing with interwoven wood slats. It is about 3 trailers by 2 trailers. So it was just a small part of the bigger facility – one kept locked away and isolated.

One of the places I got to see was a dayroom. Like the attorney trailer, this room had a brightly colored rug. It also had a couch in front of a TV that appeared to have some sort of gaming system attached. There weren’t tables and chairs like in the consult room. Instead, the rest of the room is more or less open. There’s a table where the ICE officers sit (b/c nothing says “Hey, relax in the dayroom” like constant supervision). There was one of those foot-powered plastic trucks for toddlers to sit in and drive. And there was a pack-n-play occupied by an infant.

Eventually mom finished her testimony and I was able to reunite her with her son – at which point I headed back into my own bond hearings.

I had three bond hearings today. All the women bonded out. One at $2000, one at $5000, and another at $2500.

The $5000 bond was set in a case that I knew would be difficult. The client had paid a coyote a substantial sum of money and she wasn’t going to be staying with close relatives in the U.S. – two of IJ Livingston’s big concerns. But she had a rock solid asylum case based on DV with a horrendous and documented/documentable history. Unfortunately, the client’s case just didn’t present in court as well as it had in prep. I had prepared the client that I was going to talk about her substantive claims and even arranged for Megan to take her young son out of the courtroom during her testimony. But the IJ shut down any questioning along these lines. So I was pretty disappointed in the outcome, although I hold out hope that she’ll be able to bond out at that high amount in any event.

The $2500 bond was set in my last case of the day – indeed, my last case in Artesia. Just before the IJ announced the bond in Spanish to my client, her 7-year-old son started to cry. I think he thought they had been denied or that something bad had happened. While his mom was comforting him, the judge told her (through the translator) that her bond had been granted. She just broke down crying and told her son over and over “We’re leaving! We’re leaving!” At this point, I completely lost control. I started to cry. On the record. In front of the IJ. I just cried. I grabbed some tissues and tried to compose myself, but I wasn’t very composed. I eked out a motion to withdraw representation and then hugged and hugged this family.

It was the end of a very long week. And to end on such a high note (for IJ Livingston $2500 is a very low bond) with the joy and relief that family felt – it was overwhelming.

I met with more clients in the afternoon. I followed up with women who’d been granted bond. I prepared others for hearings. But, for me, the true “end” of my time in Artesia was that $2500 grant. And the absolute joy and relief it brought to that family. That is something I will never, ever, forget.

About Kit Johnson, Associate Professor of Law at the University of Oklahoma College of Law

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