The following is a guest post from Ashley Hoornstra, a 3L in our International Human Rights Law Clinic, who was in the contingent of eight students and two faculty who recently traveled to New Mexico to work with detainees in the Artesia Temporary Facility for Adults with Children. You can read more of Ashley’s reflections about Artesia at her blog, My Week in Artesia. You can also view more video reports from our Immigrant Justice Clinic and International Human Rights Law Clinic who went to Artesia on our YouTube channel.
The AILA volunteer lawyer efforts focus only on the mothers at the facility, involving the children only if the mother has no claim. In court, if a mother is released on bond, her children are released with her. When the women win, the children win.
As a result, the children are somewhat ignored. Of course they are physically present, as they cannot go to school right now (the school has been closed indefinitely, without explanation). But for the most part, the children blend in as part of the background. Their needs are entirely overlooked – a HUGE gap in the current system. But we are in triage mode, so with the limited resources at our disposal, the best we can do is to focus on the mother’s case.
The children come in with their mothers each day, some of them asleep in their mothers arms, some awake but clinging onto them, still others willing to engage and play with the other children. DHS does provide coloring books and crayons for the kids, and the officer assigned to oversee them does his best to show kindness and compassion to the children. Some of the kids are terrified of him, as they are of any authority figure. “Will you give the man my crayons?” one girl asked, “He’s scary.”
I try to assure the children that he is a nice man, and they have nothing to be afraid of. While that seemed true with this particular officer, I don’t know if it’s the case with other officials at the facility. Rumors of abuse and mistreatment abound. I would like to think that they are just rumors, but I recognize that the officers are assigned here on short-term details, leaving plenty of opportunity to engage in inappropriate behavior. I can only hope that effective monitoring mechanisms are set in place, both by their supervisors and by the DHS Office of Inspector General.
The children who do not sit with their mothers love to watch movies. There were a handful of Disney movies that played in Spanish over and over again. The most popular – by far – was Frozen. The second time the movie played through (our first day at the detention center), the song, “Let it Go” began. The lyrics in the Spanish version of the song had been changed so that they did not hold the same meaning in English as “Let it Go”. The chorus, in Spanish, is “libre soy.” Directly translated: “I am free.”
Monday afternoon, as I scrambled to grab the next case file, I heard one of the attorneys say, “Oh my gosh. I can’t handle it.” In the midst of the chaos, the attorneys and law students were suddenly silent. We could hear the voices of several young children singing along to the film:
Libre soy, libre soy.
I am free, I am free.
The irony made me sick to my stomach and brought tears to my eyes. These children were not free; they were imprisoned. I had a strong urge to pick up one of those children and hold them in my arms and to tell them, “Soon, my loves, soon.”
Instead, I took a deep breath, collected myself, and moved on to the next client. The truth is, I couldn’t promise the kids anything. I have no idea what the outcomes of these cases will be. For the rest of the week, when that movie was played, the children would always chime in singing that song. And every time, I had to pause, take a deep breath, exhale, and move forward.
These children are so strong and so resilient, but they are also traumatized. They desperately need attention and love and counseling and support and school. They need to have quality medical attention, as every single child in that facility has some form of sickness, whether it is a cold or something more serious. Regardless of their condition, they always accompany their mothers. Unfortunately, basic services to support these children are limited or entirely unavailable.
While working with the women, I always made an effort to ask them about their children, to meet them and learn their names. One day, I met with a client who had just been granted bond. We were wrapping things up and preparing her for what came next.
Once her family paid her bond, they were also responsible for arranging her travel. These women had family all over the country, and had no concept of how far they would have to travel. Most of them, because of limited resources, would take buses as far as Georgia, Maryland or Massachusetts. I explained this to the client, and also the fact that she would be released with nothing – not a dime in her pocket, no method of communication, not even a toothbrush. Fortunately, the South West Human Rights Coalition has generously put together backpacks with food, toiletries and a $25.00 Visa gift card to get them started.
As I sat there, explaining all of this to the woman, she sat, nodding, a huge smile across her face. She did not seem to care that her bus ride would be long, or that her resources were limited. She would be free – free to leave the detention facility, free to reunite with her family here in the United States, free to make a fresh start and take control of her life.
As we discussed everything, her daughter sat silently in the folding chair next to her mother, obediently focusing on her paper and crayons. At one point, I paused to comment on how beautiful the young girl’s drawing was, and how she was doing an excellent job of coloring inside the lines. The little girl was no more than 5 years old. She smiled at me and then returned to her work, as her mother and I resumed our conversation.
Eventually, our meeting concluded. I shook the woman’s hand and congratulated her on bonding out, wishing both her and her daughter all of the best in their future. I then walked back to the attorney area and began typing up my case notes before I moved on to the next client.
Only a few minutes later, to my surprise, my DHS officer came back, calling my name. Once I reached him and looked around the corner of the cubicle-wall barrier that cordoned off the “attorney work area,” I looked down to see the precious little girl from a moment ago, with her drawing in hand.
“This is for you,” she spoke softly with a grin, holding out her completed masterpiece. It was a picture of Mickey Mouse, torn out of a coloring book, which she had labored over during my meeting with her mother.
“Oh, mi amor, muchísimas gracias! Es tan lindo, este dibujo!” I told her, “Voy a guardarlo para siempre!“
She smiled proudly, her mother standing behind her, also grinning. Once again, tears welled in my eyes. I continue to be moved by the selfless acts of kindness from those who have the least in our society. This is not only true in Artesia, but in all of my travels. I plan to have her drawing framed when I return home, to serve as a reminder of my time here and a symbol of freedom for one family. Of course, while one precious child was able to leave, so many others stay behind, impatiently awaiting their turn to be set free.
Each night, as I go to bed, my mind swirls thinking about case strategy, task lists, and stories that were shared by clients during the day. Yet something else has stuck in my mind each night as I lay there awake: “Let it Go” from Frozen. I silently pray that God will free these beautiful babies and their mothers. I pray that one day these young boys and girls can sing along to the song and have the words ring true:
Libre soy, libre soy.
I am free, I am free.