Virginia, US
It is well known by now that tens of thousands of unaccompanied children from Central America have arrived at our southwestern border in recent months — a total of 68,541 in FY 2014, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. This represents an increase of 77 percent over last year’s total of 38,759. 
 
Less well known is the fact that about an equal number of mothers with young children has also arrived, representing an increase of 412 percent over last year. Women and children who are apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border are taken into detention and held by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in detention facilities in New Mexico and Texas. These families’ applications for bond are typically either denied, or the bond is set so high that they cannot possibly pay. They are then subjected to expedited, bare-bones removal hearings with the goal of removing them from the United States as quickly as possible. 
 
The American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) has worked hard to bring in volunteer attorneys from around the country to provide pro bono legal counsel to families detained in the Artesia Family Residential Center in Artesia, New Mexico, and to represent them in credible fear interviews, bond hearings and removal proceedings. The facility is located in a remote area, far from any available legal or social services, and conditions for the volunteer attorneys are spartan — but nothing compared to the horrific conditions in which the families find themselves, often for weeks or months. According to the Detention Watch Network, there are a number of dangerous conditions that undermine the well-being of women and children being held there, including “the barriers to legal access, broken asylum process, interference with telephone communications, deficient medical and mental health care, lack of childcare and educational services, and the inadequate conditions for good health and wellness.” 
 
An Associate in Fragomen’s Chicago office, Rebecca van Uitert, recently returned from a week volunteering her services in the detention facility in Artesia. Below is her account of the experience. 
 
 Austin T. Fragomen and Careen Shannon
 

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I just returned from my week in Artesia, NM. I am so grateful to everyone who made it possible for me to volunteer with this project — it was truly life-changing. 
 
To provide a little background, I was inside the detention facility each day from approximately 7:00 a.m. until 7:00 p.m. The remainder of each evening (usually until 1:00 a.m. or 2:00 a.m.) was spent preparing and filing bond motions, conducting research, and reviewing and preparing files for the next day's meetings and hearings. I met with dozens of detained women and children to assess possible claims for relief, and to further develop the facts for their upcoming merits hearings or bond hearings. I represented these refugees at Reasonable Fear Interviews and Credible Fear Interviews before the Asylum Office. I also made appearances in Immigration Court to make pleadings in master calendar hearings, and to argue for release during bond hearings. 
 
Although I have lived in and travelled to numerous third world countries in connection with humanitarian projects, I have never been this up close and personal with human suffering. Day after day, client after client, these women and children shared horrific accounts of brutal violence and persecution. It's going to take a while to decompress from the vicarious trauma. 
 
While most of the week was heart-breaking, depressing, and frustrating, one experience stands out as a highlight. But first, a note about bond hearings in Artesia: for months now the Immigration Judges have effectively barred anyone from release on bond, by setting the bonds at impossibly high amounts ($20,000-$30,000). On Thursday I represented a young mother and her seven-year-old daughter in their bond hearing before Immigration Judge Trujillo, who appeared via webcam from Denver (for my first bond hearing, ever). This family has a very credible claim for asylum based on targeted violence in their home country. They have been held in Artesia for over three months, and during that time period the seven-year-old daughter has lost over 10 pounds. She was traumatized by the violence back home, and is now being re-traumatized on a daily basis by the punitive setting in which she's being held, resulting in severe emotional distress and inability to eat/keep down any food. She's lost so much weight that a doctor at the facility told the mother that if she didn't force her daughter to eat and gain some weight, they would be placing a PICC line (i.e., a peripherally inserted central catheter) in the girl for emergency nutrition. In desperation, the mother asked for bottles with milk to be provided instead. Mom now holds her seven-year-old daughter in her arms like a baby at meal times to feed her by the bottle. 
 
When appearing before Judge Trujillo, I started off by arguing that the family met all the requirements for bond articulated in Matter of Patel (not a danger to others, not a threat to national security and not a flight risk). However, as the hearing went on I felt compelled to share my concerns about the daughter's health, regardless of whether sympathetic or humanitarian factors would even be taken into account by the court. I basically argued that she was wasting away in detention and that if there was going to be any chance for her to recover, she needed to be let out immediately. I also argued that the statutory minimum bond amount of $1,500 is appropriate in such a case, given the continued harm suffered by the child. The judge agreed with my arguments and approved the bond, and set the bond amount at $1,500! This is the lowest bond obtained by anyone at Artesia to date, and really sets a precedent for future bond hearings. I have received dozens of congratulatory emails from lawyers I don't know across the country. Definitely one of my life's proudest moments. 
 
Looking forward, there is a desperate need for additional attorneys to continue to volunteer for this project. The most important qualifications are 1) Spanish fluency (or the ability to bring along an interpreter, such as a paralegal), and 2) passion for helping immigrants. To be clear, previous work with detainees or asylum is nice, but definitely not required. I have very little experience in a detention setting, but the AILA project coordinators provided guidance, training, and templates at each step of the way. For example, with respect to the bond hearing above, on Tuesday they had me draft bond motions using the "Artesia best practices" template, on Wednesday I observed other attorneys in bond hearings, and then on Thursday several attorneys with bond experience helped prep me for my hearing. Yes, I had to go out of my comfort zone and really push myself to take on new things, but the AILA project coordinators go above and beyond to help everyone be successful. 
 
While we all hope that Artesia will be shut down within the next few months, the Central American refugee crisis will not be over any time soon. AILA is already in the process of setting up parallel projects for the family detention facilities in Dilley, TX and Karnes, TX. 
 
I urge other attorneys to volunteer at one of these facilities. It will change your life, and it may very well save somebody else's.