Shelley Wittevrongel and Laura Lichter on Artesia

Shelley Wittevrongel and Laura Lichter on Artesia

"SHELLEY WITTEVRONGEL: My name is Shelley Wittevrongel. I’m a private immigration attorney from Boulder, Colorado. And I usually have a voice. The placement of this facility made it virtually impossible for these people, these women and children, to be represented. And that was absolutely compelling to me. And because I was able to clear two weeks off my schedule, I came down.

RENÉE FELTZ: Shelley was among the first lawyers to come to Artesia when it opened in July. Twelve days after she arrived, I found her working late into the night with a handful of other lawyers from around the country. They had set up an emergency office inside the Artesia’s Chamber of Commerce.

LAURA LICHTER: This is our war room. You know, just like the government had to start up a detention center out of nowhere, we’ve really had to start up kind of a legal services access provider out of nowhere. So, this is it. If you’re going to have a bunch of volunteer attorneys come into town, you’ve got to have someplace for them to sit, you’ve got to have wi-fi, you’ve got to have a printer, you’ve got to have a place to post notices. And we talked about the challenges that have happened during the day, and we, you know, strategize how to basically do some good old-fashioned guerrilla lawyering.

RENÉE FELTZ: Laura Lichter has been practicing immigration law for 20 years, and she’s the past president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

LAURA LICHTER: This is Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. These countries are in crisis. These are people running away from countries that do not have effective governments, where it is extremely dangerous. They’re people fleeing family violence, sexual violence, predatory gangs. We’ve seen it all. These are viable claims. Everybody that is being processed through these centers, everyone that is asking the United States government to consider their claim of credible fear are people that have actually followed the law. They’ve done exactly what they’re supposed to do. They’ve essentially come to our border, knocked on the door and said, "Hear my case." And the system that is in place is so stacked against them.

RENÉE FELTZ: The problem begins when the migrants are first detained at the border and asked if they’re afraid to return home. Again, Megan Jordi.

MEGAN JORDI: They were asked whether they were afraid, right when they were apprehended, right when they were faced with an adversarial process, taken to what they call la hielera, which is "the icebox," which—it’s a holding facility in Texas before people are moved to detention centers. And keep in mind that these are folks who are fleeing governments, they’re fleeing people who look like those who are apprehending them in that moment, people in uniform.

RENÉE FELTZ: Several lawyers I spoke with said ICE officers were within earshot of where they met with their clients in Artesia. Others emphasized how the lack of privacy made it hard for detainees to fully describe the danger they may be trying to escape. Again, attorney Shelley Wittevrongel.

SHELLEY WITTEVRONGEL: The rules are that the children cannot be separated from their mothers. And that creates obvious complications. If a woman’s claim involves sexual violence, that’s a hard thing to talk about in front of your children. Most claims of people that I’ve talked to are people being really afraid of being killed. And to express that fear in front of your children, when they may end up having to go back to that situation, has huge consequences.

RENÉE FELTZ: One long-term study has found child migrants who have a lawyer are allowed to stay in about half of their cases. In contrast, nine out of 10 kids without an attorney are deported. Most of those held in Artesia have no lawyer to help with their asylum claims. For those who are able to connect with an attorney and win a hearing, the meeting is held over a 20-inch video screen with a judge in Arlington, Virginia. Then, if their fear is considered credible, the mother and child are kept in detention, held without bond while their cases are resolved. Again, Laura Lichter.

LAURA LICHTER: If the government insists on sticking with expedited removal, there is no such thing as a fair trial. This is no way to treat people. This is something that we should be ashamed of." - Democracy Now!, Aug. 15, 2014.