When the influx of young Central American migrants to the border erupted as a crisis this summer, President Obama correctly called it a humanitarian emergency. He promised that the administration’s response would combine compassion with respect for the law.
But the treatment of hundreds of these migrants in a makeshift detention center in Artesia, N.M., is appalling evidence that this promise was empty, according to a federal court lawsuit filed by a coalition of civil-rights organizations.
The immigrant detention center was supposed to be a safe haven for mothers and young children as their cases go through court. Though the detainees, as unauthorized immigrants, have no legal right to lawyers, advocates and immigration lawyers have made strenuous efforts to provide representation. The migrants have fled countries racked by gang and drug violence, and many have credible claims to asylum.
The lawsuit claims that the administration has rigged the system so that vulnerable women and children who plead for asylum can’t get it. It says the immigrant detention center in Artesia is a middle-of-nowhere prison in the desert, 200 miles from the nearest big city, that short-circuits legal access and due process for the sake of swift and sure deportations. Its main purpose, the suit says, is to send a stern warning to would-be immigrants in Central America — to reinforce what Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said when the crisis was at its peak: “We will send you back.”
The lawsuit spells out reasons for alarm. In Artesia, detainees are cut off from the outside world and subjected to a “highly truncated process” that denies them crucial information and help.
Mothers are required to explain the reasons they fear persecution — that is, describe abuses such as death threats and sexual assaults — in front of their young children. Children are not screened individually to see whether they have their own claims to asylum.
For weeks after the center was opened, there were no protocols that even allowed lawyers inside. That raised fears that people may have been deported without representation at all.
Written and video reports by lawyers who have visited the center are grim. The solutions are obvious: President Obama needs to suspend all deportations until he can create a system that meets the basic standard of giving a fair hearing to every detainee who expresses a fear of persecution. He should allow the nearly 300 women and children who already have been deported to return and have their cases re-examined.
The urgency of “deterrence” messaging and damping a political crisis can’t supersede the Constitution and the requirements of asylum law.
— New York Times