WASHINGTON (CN) - Ten mothers and children sued the United States on constitutional grounds Friday, claiming their imprisonment in the government's new immigration center in Artesia, N.M., 200 miles from the nearest large city, denies them due process, intentionally denies them access to legal counsel, and that the Obama administration's "detain and deport" policy violates the Convention Against Torture.
Major immigration law offices across the country signed the 60-page federal lawsuit, representing Honduran and Salvadoran mothers and children who are imprisoned at Artesia.
Attorneys for the refuge-seekers claim that the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement deliberately chose the remote site to imprison immigrant mothers and children to deny them access to counsel, in violation of the Immigration and Nationality Act, the Convention Against Torture, the Administrative Procedure Act, and the Fifth Amendment.
The Obama administration opened up the remote prison in response to a perceived influx of immigrant children, particularly at the Texas-Mexico border.
Border Patrol statistics show that undocumented immigration actually is at a 40-year low; the only increase this year has been in the percentage of immigrants who are children, and/or from Honduras.
Lack of prisons to hold children, and political protests against immigrants, led the Obama administration to open the Artesia center to hold children and mothers, and speed up adjudications on their requests for refugee status.
Attorneys for the American Immigration Council, one of the law offices representing the mothers and children, said in a statement Friday that the Obama administration is systematically violating laws by policies that have:
"Categorically prejudged asylum cases with a 'detain-and-deport' policy, regardless of individual circumstances.
"Drastically restricted communication with the outside world for the women and children held at the remote detention center, including communication with attorneys. If women got to make phone calls at all, they were cut off after three minutes when consulting with their attorneys. This makes it impossible to prepare for a hearing or get legal help.
"Given virtually no notice to detainees of critically important interviews used to determine the outcome of asylum requests. Mothers have no time to prepare, are rushed through their interviews, are cut off by officials throughout the process, and are forced to answer traumatic questions, including detailing instances of rape, while their children are listening.
"Led to the intimidation and coercion of the women and children by immigration officers, including being screamed at for wanting to see a lawyer."
American Immigration Council attorney Melissa Crow called it "an assault on due process."
The 10 plaintiffs in the lawsuit, some of them widows, describe death threats from violent drug gangs who control neighborhoods in Honduras and El Salvador, whose notoriously corrupt police agencies allegedly told the mothers they could do nothing to protect them.
The lawsuit states: "This is an immigration case involving life and death stakes.
"Plaintiffs are mothers and children from El Salvador and Honduras who, like many other Central Americans, have fled persecution in their countries of origin.
"The United States government arrested plaintiff mothers and children shortly after they crossed into the United States near the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, and brought them to a makeshift detention facility in Artesia, New Mexico. The detention facility is profoundly isolated, miles away from any major cities and lawyers. The closest major metropolitan area is El Paso, Texas, which is close to 200 miles away.
"Under the Immigration and Nationality Act ('INA') and its implementing regulations- as well as under the Due Process Clause - plaintiffs have an indisputable right to seek asylum and related relief, and to a fair hearing to present their claims. But that process at Artesia has been anything but fair, and falls far short of the government's obligations under existing law. Instead, the government has created what can only be described as a 'deportation mill' that is sending mothers and children back to their home countries to face serious harm without ever having given them a meaningful opportunity to present their claims."
In response to the perceived "crisis," the administration "imposed a more stringent - and unlawful - standard to deny meritorious claims presented by mothers and children detained at Artesia," the complaint states.
It continues: "Further, the government has instituted various procedural changes to the process, which are designed to limit the number of successful claims. The government's new policies make it much more difficult for detained women and children to present and substantiate their claims to asylum or other forms of immigration relief, and to seek the assistance of counsel in doing so. Under these new policies, families detained at Artesia are almost completely cut off from communications with the outside world, provided insufficient information and in some cases no information about their rights under the INA, affirmatively precluded from effectively contacting and receiving assistance from attorneys, and ultimately forced to navigate pro se a complex immigration process that is heavily weighted against them. Detained mothers are subjected to a highly truncated process in which they are provided virtually no notice of when critical proceedings are scheduled to occur; asylum officers and immigration judges rush them to answer questions regarding the violence, death threats, and sexual abuse they fear - all while their children are listening; their children are ordered removed without being individually screened to determine whether they have a separate basis for fearing persecution; and their claims are denied for failing to properly respond to questions about their asylum claims phrased in complicated legal terminology.
"The asylum process at Artesia and its consequence - a dramatic drop in the number of families who are found eligible to apply for asylum - is the direct result of policies announced at the highest levels of our government. As Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson has stated: '[O]ur message to this group is simple: we will send you back.' That sentiment has been echoed publicly by others in the administration, who have stated that the overwhelming majority of these Central American women and children do not have meritorious asylum claims - a political and policy-level judgment they reached before the detainees had an opportunity to present their individual cases. Thus, rather than adjudicate these cases individually based on the actual facts presented at a fair asylum interview, the government has categorically prejudged the claims of these Central American women and children, and decided - in advance - that these cases are not meritorious and that these women and children must be deported. That message has been heard loud and clear in Artesia. As a result, plaintiffs and numerous other women and children with obviously credible claims have been ordered removed to countries where they face danger. Indeed, the passage rate for the Artesia families is 37.8 percent, compared with the nationwide average grant rate of 77 percent under the preexisting procedures.
"The government's new asylum process at Artesia patently violates the INA and its implementing regulations, as well as the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment."
The lawsuit recapitulates major class actions filed 30 years ago, under the Reagan administration, which also built or contracted out immigration prisons to hold people fleeing the wars in Central America. One of those lawsuits - American Baptist Churches v. Thornburgh
- overturned more judicial decisions than any other ruling in U.S. history.
Then, as now, the Justice Department was accused of isolating refuge-seekers in remote prisons and using abusive processes to deny them legal counsel and speed up their deportation.
Then, as now, attorneys who shuttled to the isolated prison to try to represent refugees on an emergency basis, described systematic abuses of due process.
The Obama administration has barred reporters from court proceedings at Artesia, claiming that such a bar is standard procedure, though it is not.
The plaintiffs seek declaratory judgment that the "system of expedited removal" at Artesia is illegal, an injunction prohibiting it and demanding corrective action, and an order directing the defendants to give the mothers and children "a meaningful opportunity to apply for asylum," with "a reasonable amount of advance time to obtain and meet with counsel" to prepare for their removal hearings, and an order that the government "return any deported plaintiff to the United States for new proceedings that comply with the law."
Lead counsel is Matthew Price with Jenner & Block, of Washington, D.C.