This week, the nation’s largest association of immigration attorneys and professors sent a powerful letter to Congress and the President urging them to immediately close the family detention facility in Artesia, New Mexico, where the U.S. currently detains women and children fleeing violence and persecution in Central America. The letter, signed by attorneys who have spent significant time in Artesia and who serve in leadership positions with the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA), are urging Congress to “reverse its deportation and detention strategy” and “to oppose the inhumane practices that are taking place at Artesia and any funding requests for the detention of families.”
One of the signatories on the letter, Laura Licther, has been a vocal critic of the conditions in Artesia and the practice of putting mothers and children “in jail.” Another attorney on the letter, Stephen Manning, has spent extensive time in Artesia and chronicles attorneys’ experiences in a series of videos.
The AILA letter states:
Based on hundreds of interviews with these detained families that our expert lawyers have conducted, AILA has concluded that Artesia is a due process failure and a humanitarian disaster that cannot be fixed and must be closed immediately. Attorneys with long histories of representing clients at remote detention facilities have described Artesia as not just the worst situation they have ever encountered, but something far worse than anything they could have imagined.
The letter also cites specific examples of concerns with the asylum process in Artesia, including:
many legitimate asylum claims will never have a chance to be heard. Artesia detainees are subjected to “expedited removal” – the fastest removal procedure at our government’s disposal, with little chance to raise an asylum claim. The detention and rapid deportation strategy being executed at Artesia is even more draconian. The rate at which Artesia asylum officers find that detainees have a “credible fear” of persecution or torture – the first step in mounting an asylum claim in expedited removal – is much lower than the national average.
The speed with which officers are making credible fear decisions is also absurdly fast: 6.4 days on average.
Finally, the letter describes the humanitarian nightmare this detention center has become:
AILA member volunteers see the effects that detention is having on these families. They describe children who are dehydrated, listless, cold and losing weight. Mothers also report degrading treatment by some of the guards – including being called “piggies” at mealtimes. One woman suffering from diarrhea had no choice but to defecate on herself in front of her son because the guard ignored her pleas to be allowed to go to the bathroom.
It’s become increasingly clear that the family detention center in Artesia, New Mexico, is a black mark on our history and tradition as a nation that provides fair and humane treatment to those in need of our protection.Congress and the White House must take seriously the concerns raised by lawyers who have spent hours inside the jail talking with the women and children there. Given that the government is planning to drastically expand family detention, now is the time to take an honest look at how we are processing and treating families in Artesia and what is the impact of detention on mothers and young children fleeing violence.
Each year on September 17, the United States observes Constitution Day and Citizenship Day, a combined event that commemorates the anniversary of the signing of the constitution in 1787 and recognizes all those who are or have become U.S. citizens. This week, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is celebrating Constitution Day and Citizenship Day by welcoming more than 27,000 new citizens in more than 160 naturalization ceremonies around the country. It’s a day for Americans to reflect upon the importance of the rights and responsibilities of citizenship, to explore ways to remove barriers for those who are eligible, but still haven’t taken the leap, and examine the broader benefits of ensuring access to citizenship.
A report released today, Citizenship: A Wise Investment for Cities, estimates that immigrants’ earnings would increase 8 to 11 percent nationally after naturalization, creating beneficial ripple effects in the wider economy. In fact, the report notes that naturalizing only half of eligible Americans would lead to multibillion-dollar gains in the largest cities: 6.1 to 10.1 percent in New York, 9.6 to 11.4 percent in Chicago, and 11.1 to 14.6 percent in Los Angeles. Furthermore, the increase in earnings of immigrants who otherwise would not have naturalized would likely mean additional economic activity, up to $4.8 billion over ten years to the local economy in New York City, up to $3.3 billion in Los Angeles, and up to $1.8 billion in Chicago. These increases would also generate additional local and state tax revenues. “Helping immigrants to naturalize is an investment that pays off. For the relatively low cost of promoting naturalization,” the report notes, “the result is stronger communities with members who have made a permanent commitment to stay and who are able to participate more fully in our democracy.”
“American mayors are realizing that they can and should act now to encourage naturalization and immigrant integration,” said Manuel Pastor of USC. “This study makes the benefits for regional economies crystal clear, not only by boosting immigrants’ earnings, but for its larger positive ripple effects.” Indeed, the report’s release coincides with the launch of Cities for Citizenship, a national initiative chaired by the Mayors of New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles.
In addition to cities’ investing in and encouraging citizenship, support from the local community to welcome new immigrants who want to establish roots is also important. As such, groups across the country are stepping up to fill that role and are cultivating an environment of welcome in their cities. This week, over 100 organizations across the country—more than double the number from last year—are hosting over 160 events in 27 states. The third annual National Welcoming Week, September 13 to 21, is a week of nationwide events, led by Welcoming America, designed to “honor immigrant contributions and build bridges among diverse local residents.”
Hopefully these nationwide movements won’t be lost on leaders in Washington. “Whether leaders in Washington recognize it or not, the Era of Welcoming has already begun,” said Welcoming America Executive Director David Lubell. “What we are seeing across the country is a groundswell of communities recognizing that creating an environment where everyone can contribute—no matter what they look like or where they were born—is the foundation of American competitiveness and economic vitality.”
Partnerships among local government and community organizations—such as those represented among National Welcoming Week activities—along with mayors encouraging citizenship and a welcoming climate in their cities, can all serve as ways to break down barriers for immigrants in ways that benefit everyone.
The deplorable conditions in U.S. Border Patrol—an agency within U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP)—detention facilities have been widely documented in numerous media accounts and NGO reports and challenged in federal lawsuits. Immigrant children and other immigrants detained in these facilities—often called “hieleras” or “iceboxes” because of their cold temperatures—consistently describe extremely crowded holding cells where they are forced to sleep on concrete floors, have no access to showers or basic hygiene items like soap, are provided inadequate food and have no opportunity to contact family members or lawyers. Earlier this year, the ACLU Border Litigation Project and other groups filed a complaint with DHS on behalf of 116 children detained in hieleras. The complaint alleges physical and verbal abuse, sexual assault, failure to provide medical treatment, mistreatment of infants and pregnant or nursing mothers, shackling, inhumane detention conditions and other due process concerns.
In response, the DHS Office of Inspector General (OIG) issued two memos to the DHS Secretary dated July 30 and August 28 after conducting unannounced site visits to Border Patrol and other detention facilities. The OIG found that, with only a few exceptions, the Border Patrol was largely compliant with “law, regulations, and policies” impacting immigrant children. Considering the extensive documentation of abusive conditions in hieleras—which include the testimonials of those held in these facilities—it is difficult to take the OIG reports seriously.
For example, though the OIG found temperatures in facilities housing children “inconsistent,” it concluded that the vast majority of facilities were deemed “compliant” with temperature policies simply because the thermostat was working or adjustable. The OIG also found that children in Border Patrol facilities in Texas, California and Arizona had access to sanitary toilets and sinks, adequate food and drinking water and access to telephones. Yet multiple reports including from those detained contradict these findings. In fact, as recently as July 29, 2014, Congress deemed the issue of conditions in hieleras serious enough to convene a hearing where children provided emotional testimony about their detention. As just one example, 12-year old Mayeli Hernandez described the four days she spent in a Border Patrol facility in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, sleeping on a freezing cold floor with only a thin nylon blanket. She recounted being unable to sleep and shivering the entire time, and that she watched her little sisters’ lips turned blue.
One of the most striking shortcomings of the OIG findings is the absence of any substantial commentary on particular conditions. For example, the OIG found that children were held, in many cases, for 72 hours or longer, but failed to address the necessary consequence of a stay spanning three or more days – that children must sleep on the floor or a bench, unless special accommodations are made, as Border Patrol facilities do not have beds. The report also glosses over the fact that, despite the presence of working thermostats, the facilities are cold—unacceptably cold. The August memo states that the temperature in the facilities ranged from 50 to 76 degrees Fahrenheit. There simply is no excuse for holding children in a cell that is kept at 50 or even 60 or 65 degrees. The memo states rather generously that the facilities provided disposable or cloth blankets, but does not bother to explore whether one disposable blanket would actually keep a person warm for multiple days in a room at 50 degrees or what possible reason DHS has for maintaining a facility at that temperature in the first place.
While the OIG found little to criticize about the hieleras, CBP Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske found the problematic conditions documented in the ACLU complaint “absolutely spot-on,” noting that “sleeping on a concrete floor is not anything any of us wanted to see.” The OIG admits that the investigations of the complaints are not complete and that it continues to monitor the remaining 100 allegations being investigated by other DHS offices. It is now the responsibility of offices such as the DHS Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties to investigate and explain the problematic conditions in the hieleras. The time has come for CBP to heed the recommendations of groups like the Women’s Refugee Commission and Americans for Immigrant Justice that call for humane conditions and due process protections for all immigrants detained near our border.
Shifts in where immigrants are settling once they arrive in the U.S. have encouraged local governments across the country to cultivate creative opportunities to better meet challenges and promote newcomer integration into the life of a city. Continuing its new series, Cities and Regions: Reaping Migration’s Local Dividends, the Migration Policy Institute released a new report this week that focuses on how cities are setting up new programs to meet their local integration needs. The report, Immigrant Civic Integration and Service Access Initiatives: City-Sized Solutions for City-Sized Needsby Margie McHugh, describes integration initiatives in several cities: New York City; Seattle; San Francisco; Littleton, Colorado; and Cupertino, California. These particular initiatives are drawn from past applicants for the E Pluribus Unum Prizes, a program of MPI’s National Center on Immigrant Integration Policy, that funds initiatives that are “exceptionally successful in assisting immigrants and their children adapt, thrive, and contribute to the United States or bring immigrants and the native born together to build stronger, more cohesive communities.”
City governments, the report observes, have frontline impacts on daily life in their communities because of the essential, everyday services they are responsible for providing. Due to the challenges of working toward equity, opportunity, and inclusion to help immigrants access services, cities’ efforts at civic integration have far-reaching effects. “Finding and implementing solutions to these challenges is no easy task,” the report notes, “due to the breadth of actors and stakeholders involved, and the need for sustained and coordinated action to achieve and maintain results.” But the cities the report describes are examples of the growing number of places around the U.S. engaged in immigrant integration plans. For instance:
From traditional immigrant gateways with longer histories of receiving diverse immigrant populations to new immigrant destinations and suburban municipalities, the places and initiatives the report describes demonstrate that cities of all shapes and sizes are developing creative efforts locally that engage with wide-ranging challenges to help immigrants integrate into their communities. While the approaches of cities may differ, the report notes several common themes and lessons for local municipal governments: fully leverage existing resources, act in coordination with others, build in the ability to adapt, and provide leadership at the city level. Clearly, the creative and proactive approaches seen in cities such as those described above—working together in partnership with individuals and organizations throughout their neighborhoods and communities on exploring ways to be more innovative and inclusive—is a far cry from a Congress mired in stagnation and gridlock and a White House that continues delaying action on immigration to a later date.