A Glenwood Springs attorney is on a mission to help make sure the steady stream of migrant women and children who have fled the violence of Central America seeking refuge in the United States know their rights to due process under the law.
When Jennifer Smith got word last month that volunteers were needed to provide legal assistance to those being detained in the small town of Artesia, N.M., she immediately got into her car and made the 10-hour drive.
The challenge, Smith said, is to reach as many of the detainees as possible, hear their stories and begin the legal process of seeking political asylum for those who qualify before they get deported.
“If we can just slow the deportation train down, we would have a better opportunity to meet with these people and make sure they are treated fairly,” Smith said. “That means getting them the representation they deserve, and that they are entitled to.”
Since late June, more than 200 of the 600 to 700 detainees who have been held at the makeshift detention facility have been deported. Those who remain are being kept in poor conditions with few provisions, and many are sick, Smith said.
The detention center is set up in what normally serves as a training facility for Border Patrol agents.
“Every person you meet has a different story, and all are equally bad,” she said of the accounts given by immigrants who are trying to escape the growing problem of gang violence in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
Smith arrived in Artesia on July 24 and met up with Shelley Wittevrongel, a fellow immigration attorney from Denver, to begin providing legal counsel. Their efforts are sponsored by the American Immigration Lawyers Association. Smith is the secretary for the Colorado chapter of AILA.
By the following week, a dozen volunteer attorneys were on hand to help, and AILA is coordinating teams of attorneys to go each week.
Lawyers were given space to work in a conference room at the Artesia Chamber of Commerce, but the process to see clients and begin the legal filings necessary to earn them asylum is wrought with obstacles.
Even just being allowed to talk to people to advise them to demand their right to legal counsel before deportation hearings begin was a challenge, Smith said.
“Asylum is one of the more complicated areas of immigration law,” she said. “We’re just trying to serve these people and stand up for their rights.”
Virtually every one of the families she spoke with had someone who was already in the United States to go live with, which is key to making a case for asylum, she said.
“It’s also important to remember that these are children we’re dealing with, and the reasons they are coming here,” Smith said. “What they are fleeing from is horrendous.”
Smith is already planning a return trip sometime next month, and will need to follow any of her cases that do make it to court.
“The need for due process is not going away, so the need for people to go to Artesia to help is not going away,” she said.
The detention center in Artesia was opened in June to accommodate only some of the flood of Central American immigrants who are crossing the border, primarily into Texas.
Federal authorities have estimated that about 90,000 children alone, many of them not accompanied by parents, will arrive in the United States this year.
The Artesia facility is for both women and children who are crossing the border, while numerous separate facilities have been set up for unaccompanied children, including one in Denver.
Beyond legal assistance, Smith says it’s also important to offer emotional support.
“Sometimes it’s just holding their hand, and playing with the children, and just explaining that there are people who want to help,” she said.
One of the volunteer attorneys also brought coloring books, games and soccer balls for the children to play with, although certain items have proven to be against the detention facility rules.
Numerous relief organizations have also begun offering assistance, providing clothing, blankets, toys and other items for the detainees.