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At New Detention Facility It’s ‘Hurry Up and Deport’ Central Americans

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The Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Artesia that houses the temporary detention facility
Courtesy of Artesia Chamber of Commerce
The Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Artesia that houses the temporary detention facility

An immigration attorney, working with Central American asylum seekers, in a newly opened detention facility says it’s becoming clear that the U.S. government is doing whatever it can to deport families as quickly as possible and only going through the motions when it comes to the asylum seekers.

Immigration attorney Shelley Wittevrongel, a former nun, was one of the first to volunteer to help Central American women and children pro bono at a newly opened detention facility in Artesia, New Mexico. The isolated detention center is located at a U.S. Border Patrol training facility about 200 miles from the Mexican border. It currently houses about 400 Central American women and children, according to media reports.

In Artesia, Wittevrongel has 10 clients and a list of 20 other women who have asked for legal representation. From the beginning, Wittevrongel says she has struggled to represent her clients in an isolated facility with no access to photocopiers, scanners or a place to file documents. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials who have been deployed from across the country to staff the detention facility have been courteous and helpful to attorneys but they’ve made it known that their goal is to deport the families as quickly as possible. “The officer in charge told me, ‘I want you to know that all of these people are going to be deported,’” says Wittevrongel. “He said, ‘Our job is to get them deported and there’s maybe one in 1,000 entitled to stay in the United States, and the rest are going to go,’” she says.

Wittevrongel was startled by the admission. “I told him, ‘I appreciate you giving me such a clear statement about it because the whole place feels that way.’”

All 10 of Wittvrongel’s clients had signed a form while in Border Patrol custody, agreeing to expedited removal, a fast-track process to deportation. “They are kept two or three days in custody at the border and processed under difficult, cramped conditions,” she says. “A client told me she was held for several hours in a room with several other women and children. They called her in at 3:00 a.m. and told her to sign the papers. She told me she was so tired and confused she had no idea what she was signing.”

Once someone has agreed to expedited removal it’s extremely difficult to avoid deportation, says Dan Kowalski, an Austin-based immigration attorney. “Statistically it’s hard to overturn,” he says.

Another step in the process that has been cut short, Wittevrongel says, is the credible fear interview, in which an U.S. asylum officer determines whether the immigrant has a “well-founded fear of persecution.” The interview is one of the most important steps in the asylum process. If a person doesn’t pass a credible fear interview he or she will not be able to present their asylum case before a judge. There is a chance for appeal but it’s rarely granted. Many of the women are fleeing extreme violence and persecution and have been traumatized in their home countries and on the journey to the United States. The law requires that the fear of persecution be “on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.”

But the type of violence afflicting Central America and Mexico doesn’t often fit neatly within these categories. Honduras, currently the lead country in the number of refugees arriving, has the highest murder rate in the world. But the violence is caused by a nexus of organized crime, street gangs and corrupt politicians. It takes time for Central Americans to relate their stories of persecution and explain the links between government and crime in their communities. “You’re interviewing traumatized people,” Wittevrongel says. “Typically, these type of credible fear interviews take several hours.”

Women are also forced to meet with the asylum officers accompanied by their children. This makes it difficult for them to focus on the interview and difficult to emphasize to the asylum officer the danger in their home countries. “They’re trying to protect their children,” Wittevrongel says. “They don’t want to say in front of them that they might be killed if they’re sent back, and it’s already likely they’re going to be deported.”

Some of her clients are deported before she can even meet with them for the first time, she says. “Yesterday I asked to see a client but she had already been sent back.” Another client told her that last week 80 women and children were woken up at 1:00 a.m., placed on a bus to the airport and flown back to Central America on a chartered plane. One woman, however, was allowed to stay at the last moment in the United States. She hadn’t passed her credible fear finding, but a judge disagreed with the asylum officer’s ruling and allowed her to continue her asylum case. “One out of 80,” Wittevrongel says. “That gives you an idea of the odds of staying.”

The 72-year-old immigration attorney says she left her home in Boulder, Colorado, to volunteer in Artesia so that the families can have “full access to what the law provides.” The families deserve a chance before they are sent back to the violence and persecution that forced them to flee their home countries. But unfortunately, the process at Artesia seems more like window dressing than what the law requires. “It’s more hurry up and deport than giving them their full due process,” she says.

Melissa del Bosque joined The Texas Observer staff in 2008. She specializes in reporting on immigration and the U.S.-Mexico border. Her work has been published in national and international publications including TIME magazine and the Mexico City-based Nexos magazine. Melissa is a 2014-15 Lannan Fellow at The Investigative Fund.

  • Take The Cannoli

    The objection here is to the law. The author and her fellow travelers would like to see the law changed to allow for these people to stay although they don’t qualify under the standards currently in force. The honest thing to do would be to lobby to change the law and allow economic refugees, and refugees from failed states and crime havens, but there is no way these standards will be changed — nor should they be. So, instead we get these disingenuous arguments that hint and suggest that “the system” isn’t working as it is designed, that focuses on a few cases and unsubstantiated anecdotes, and avoids the real argument of amnesty advocates and others — because they know it is a losing argument.

    There is no compelling reason why the United States should offer haven to anyone able to ride to our border versus, for example, those that face the same conditions in Asia, Africa or elsewhere and only lack a land route to our shore. The United States has no “moral” duty to provide a better existence free from crime and poverty to the citizens of other countries. None. Certainly, any duty of that nature is trumped by our government’s duty to its current citizens which, by failing to enforce the current laws, it would be breaching.

    I think you misread the mood of the citizens of this nation when you proffer this manufactured “crisis” with the face of children and women when the reality of these crimes — and they are crimes — is that fully one third of those detained have criminal records. For those charged w/ re-entry (multiple offenders) their criminal history is much worse with well over half of them having prior felonies. While ICE doesn’t release stats on detainees found with weapons, those sentenced for re-entry have weapon enhancements about fifteen percent of the time. Yet in the liberal media all we see are sad-eyed children instead of MS-13 members reciting Tony Montana’s speech about the Communists — or more accurately the economic refugee that makes up the vast majority of this population.

    You don’t want to have that debate.

    People like to scoff at the Governor when he heads to the border and calls out the national guard. But the zealots on the other side are no better when they paint a complex picture as nothing more than innocent children in need when the reality is much more complex.

    • stoplyin7722

      Stop spreading misinformation

      • Take The Cannoli

        Like I said. You don’t want to have a debate that includes the facts, because the facts show that the current propaganda about little children being hunted by death squads is not the reality of the illegal immigration problem at our border. When you want to talk facts, come back.

      • redeemed7

        If you are going to accuse someone of “spreading misinformation”, then explain what the misinformation is that is being spread. Your accusation is empty of reason; thus, it cannot and should not be given attention or respect.

  • UB2DEGREES

    I so love reading that we are deporting them as soon as possible, hopefully it will stop more from coming! At least the U.S Taxpayer will not have to feed, house and educate them for long ! Deport them Now