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.