A few weeks ago I made a long journey to Artesia, New Mexico. Artesia is located halfway between Albuquerque and El Paso. It was an important visit to one of the new immigration detention centers where Central American mothers and their children are being detained.
The detention center sits on hot, barren land in a corner of a large installation where U.S. government personnel are trained in the use of firearms. All of the agents working there have been instructed to refer to this place as “the Family Services Center” and those who are detained as “residents” — but there is nothing about it that feels safe, family-friendly, or oriented to providing services.
The day we visited, there were 483 women and children held there in four dormitory buildings. The night before, 32 had left on a late night flight from Roswell. There are many things I found deeply disturbing during my visit:
- Mothers said their children were losing weight because of stress and not having familiar food; the response of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials was that mothers should make their children eat.
- More than 10 weeks after the facility had opened, classrooms were still being readied so that the children could receive education.
- Almost all of the government agents staffing the facility, including those assigned to the dormitories, are men; they rotate on assignment to the facility — never staying more than six weeks — and have no specialized training to work with women and children and not all speak Spanish.
- There was little for the mothers and children to do; few toys and books; no outdoor space to play, although a soccer field is reportedly under construction; and many have no visitors.
- Many mothers and children each have only two sets of clothes — the clothes they arrived in after a long and dangerous journey of more than 1,000 miles and one other set issued to them by the facility.
While all of these issues are troubling, and women and children should not be detained under such conditions, the conditions are not the point. It is our belief that they should not be detained. Period.
Incarcerating families is wrong and unnecessary.
The women and children I met, by virtue of their detention and the way the U.S. government is handling their cases, have little access to justice — and there are incredible impediments to even having the chance to tell the story of the violence they fled, their fear of return, their desperation, and to plead for protection in the United States of America.
The treatment of families I witnessed is not fair or just, and certainly does not reflect the values of the America I love.
We had about 45 minutes to sit and talk with some women as they were waiting for bond hearings over tele-video connections with the immigration judge. I spoke with two women, awkwardly at first, but before long there was much to be said. They spoke of their fear and depression. They spoke a little about the horrific circumstances in their home country of Honduras that left them with no choice but to flee for their lives and the lives of their children. They spoke of their treatment at the detention facility and how badly they wanted to be released to live with relatives in the United States while they waited for their day in immigration court. And they spoke of their children and hopes for their future. There was also much that wasn’t said, but was evident in tears and downturned eyes.
The most hopeful part of that long and difficult day was a conversation LIRS hosted in a local Methodist Church, to which we had invited area pastors and lay people. It was an opportunity for our delegation to reflect on what we had seen and experienced, and to hear from people in the community that hosts this facility. It was a time to talk about what could be done, and a time to pray. Several people had driven nearly two hours to come and meet us. They said, “No one gets inside that place. And no one knows what is happening to the families who are there.”
There are some practical next steps that can be taken in Artesia — and compassionate and faithful people seemed more than ready to begin visiting the families who are there, to provide books, to help support the attorneys who are representing families, and to be a sign of God’s love in a harsh and isolated place.
LIRS is blessed with amazing supporters all across this country — people who give generously, who lift up their voice and speak with elected officials, and who take hands on action to demonstrate a love of neighbor.
Please continue to join and support us in this work:
- Learn about the detention of families in our newly released report, “Locking Up Family Values, Again.“
- Consider participating in visitation ministry at one of the 240 detention centers where immigrants are held all across America.
- Tell your elected officials you don’t believe it is right to lock up immigrant families.
- Explore other actions you can take, including gifts you can give to unaccompanied children and families through our Christmas Gift Catalog.
- Remember the mothers and children being held in Artesia in your prayers.
As we approach Christmas, I remember another family that had journeyed far, whose child was heralded by angels yet also under a threat of death. His parents, like those I met in Artesia, made a difficult and heartbreaking choice to flee to another land — seeking refuge.
Blessings in your Christmas journey.
Linda Hartke, President and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service