Mothers and Children Fleeing Violence Need a Fair Chance

Imagine this: Several months ago, a young mother realized that if she didn't leave home, she would be raped, murdered, or both. She had two young children – an infant and a toddler – and few resources. She knew she couldn't count on the police to protect her. With no other choice, she decided to risk a voyage of more than 2,000 miles north, much of the trip on foot through difficult and dangerous terrain, in the hope that she would find refuge from her persecutors.

Instead, when she reached El Paso, Texas, she and her children were apprehended by U.S. Border Patrol, who promptly sent the family to a makeshift detention facility in remote Artesia, New Mexico. There, this mother and her children joined hundreds of other women and children from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, many fleeing gang violence, brutal sexual abuse, and a life of perpetual fear and insecurity.

Artesia, it turns out, is the detention equivalent of a black hole. It is a three- or four-hour drive from the closest major metropolitan areas where immigration attorneys might be found.

Equally disturbing are reports that these families – some of the most vulnerable women and children in the world – have been denied information about their fundamental rights under U.S. law, in particular their right to consult a lawyer or to seek asylum or other relief from deportation on account of their real fears of persecution if they are returned to their home countries.

Immigration officers staffing Artesia routinely interfere with the ability of these families to contact a lawyer. Phone calls – even calls to lawyers – are permitted only once per day and are routinely cut off by immigration officers after just three or five minutes. Many lawyers have been denied access to clients or told by the authorities that they are not allowed to speak up in hearings to defend their clients' rights. When one detained mother attempted to find an attorney by asking an official at Artesia if she could get one, he told her that an attorney was not necessary. Another detained mother was told by an ICE officer that an attorney would only facilitate her deportation.

The procedures these mothers have received to evaluate their potential asylum claims have been fundamentally flawed. Because many mothers have been required to bring their children to their asylum interviews, they have been forced to choose between recounting gruesome acts of violence in front of their children, or staying silent and forgoing the chance to explain the basis for their fear of returning home.

As a result of these and other egregious rights violations, the percentage of families detained in Artesia who are given the chance to apply for asylum is far below the national average – even though these families' stories are some of the worst possibly imaginable.

The Obama administration – which has repeatedly stated it intends to send these families back – is violating federal immigration law, the constitutional right to due process, and our obligations under international law to protect vulnerable refugees.

On Friday, a broad coalition of immigrants' rights organizations and immigration practitioners filed suit to challenge what is happening at Artesia. We seek to ensure that each individual has a real chance to apply for asylum or other forms of immigration relief and to establish once and for all that the government cannot rush deportations at the expense of our Constitution, our obligations under international law, and our nation's finest values.

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