For much of the summer, the immigration news has been dominated by the recent surge of some 60,000 unaccompanied minors and young children with their mothers fleeing the violence and lawlessness in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. The Central American humanitarian crisis has resulted in a national debate about how to treat this vulnerable population: send them back to their home countries or grant them humanitarian relief in the United States.  Below is a very brief overview of what the federal government’s response has been thus far, a depiction of conditions on the ground, and a historical perspective on the numbers.

Shortly after the crisis emerged, the Obama Administration marshaled the resources of the numerous federal agencies involved in the apprehension, processing, housing, and repatriation of unaccompanied minor children, and sought emergency funding from Congress. Unfortunately, the Senate and the House of Representatives could not agree before their August 4 recess, and will have to resume negotiations and deliberations when Congress returns after Labor Day. In the meantime, the immigration courts have been instructed to expedite the hearings these immigrants are afforded to determine if their fears are credible, if they are eligible for asylum status, or if they should be deported.

While many of the children have been reunited with other family members who already live in the United States or have been released to sponsors, many others are being detained in detention centers awaiting hearings. One such center is the federal detention center at Artesia, a tiny town in Southeastern New Mexico. Artesia has been thrown into the national spotlight because the federal training center located there was turned into a make-shift detention center for women and children fleeing violence in Central America. 

In the wake of the crisis, the immigration bar mounted a massive pro bono effort to ensure that detainees are afforded due process. Teams of experienced immigration lawyers, many of whom are members of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, are volunteering their time and experience to help these mothers and children. The following dispatches from lawyers who have spent a week at Artesia sheds some light on the conditions in these detention centers:

“I spent last week at the Artesia ‘family detention’ center, a 4-hour drive from both Albuquerque and El Paso. We had a group of roughly ten volunteers (attorneys, translators, and administrative staff) trying to stop the rapid deportations and see that the women and their children get some modicum of due process. This was the first week there has been a full time volunteer attorney presence on site during the month it has been open.

“The first impression you get . . . is that all the children are sick, with coughs at minimum. They are dehydrated and listless. They are cold — there were two mornings where the temperature was around 60, and there were no jackets or blankets, so mothers and kids walked around with towels wrapped around their shoulders for warmth. Nearly all of them have valid claims for asylum — the majority based on domestic violence or gang issues. An unfortunate number were already deported without the opportunity to even consult with an attorney. Some mothers are giving up and asking to be deported because their kids are so sick.” [Editor’s Note:  Individuals are giving up even though the conditions in their home countries are dire.  For example, five recent Honduran deportees were murdered by gangs upon their arrival in Honduras. NPR, 8/21/2014.]

One pro bono lawyer from Oregon describes her experience in Artesia in this way:

“The lack of justice, due process, and the gross infringement on basic human rights at Artesia is truly staggering. . . . We need to send our members here to see and experience what is happening firsthand, so that they can shed light on this very dark place. . . . These are the most vulnerable people in the world, and our government is using them to send the message that America’s southern border is closed. As advocates, we can’t sit by and allow this voice of hate to be the loudest.”

A third volunteer lawyer reports:

“Women and children detained at length, being refused a chance for a fair hearing and access to counsel, and ultimately being sent back to the danger from which they fled. That’s what we’re seeing at Artesia . . . .

It shouldn’t be like this. But this is what we’ve come to. We need to help these families, to offer them due process and humane conditions, and ultimately address the root cause of this crisis: the conditions in Central America and the smugglers and traffickers who are making money off the misery of others.”

A recent op-ed article, “Children Deserve Protected Status,” written by noted immigration lawyer and author Ira J. Kurzban and published in the July 16 issue of the Miami Herald, sums up the current crisis and our moral imperative to provide relief:

The presence of more than 50,000 children who have crossed the U.S. border in the past two years hardly evokes the hysteria and predictions of chaos and ruin touted by politicians and the anti-immigration lot. That the United States is being overrun by children and that their numbers will create some cataclysmic event is not only morally abhorrent, it is factually erroneous.

To begin, let us put the numbers in perspective. Today the world has more than 50 million refugees and displaced persons. The government of Lebanon currently has over 856,500 refugees in a population of 4.4 million, representing 19.4 percent of its population. Jordan, 641,000 refugees in a population of 7.3 million representing 8.79 percent of its population.

Accepting 60,000 children in a population of 317.2 million — less than two hundred-tenths of 1 percent (.02 percent) of our population — would hardly be straining our resources.

Despite the vast differences in wealth and resources between our country and those of Lebanon, Jordan and even Iran, which currently has one of the world’s largest refugee populations, the end-of-the-world scenarios proffered by some ring of hyperbole.

At a time when we were a more generous, caring nation, we brought 14,000 children into the United States from Cuba under Operation Peter Pan. In 1966, we flew 266,000 Cuban men, women and children into the United States from the Port of Camarioca. At the time, those 266,000 Cubans represented .14 percent of our population, seven times the number of migrants we are talking about today.

The way to tackle this problem is not to deprive children of their right to a fair hearing regarding their fear of returning to their countries of gang violence and poverty.

The proposals to call up retired immigration judges and have “expedited” hearings for these children is nothing more than an offer of sham proceedings in the same way that U.S immigration authorities offered Haitian refugees “expedited hearings” in Miami in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Those expedited hearings were described by U.S. District Judge James Lawrence King as “a systematic program designed to deport [Haitians] irrespective of the merits of their asylum claims.”

Nothing short of that will occur here, and public-spirited lawyers dedicated to treating children fairly will use our legal system to expose the sham. Worse, we will spend billions of dollars creating this unfair system. Such expedited hearings were unfair then and made a mockery of our country’s pledge to be a country of asylum — and will be now.

The president wisely sent Vice President Joe Biden to Guatemala when the issue arose. If we want to address this issue properly, address it at the source of the violence in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. As a powerful northern ally, the United States has the ability, if it has the will, to address these problems in their countries of origin.

At the same time, recognize these helpless children for who they are — victims of violence — and grant them Temporary Protective Status.

Granting TPS has several benefits. The billions of dollars in savings, by canceling sham hearings, can be used to address the root causes of smuggling and gang violence in their countries.

This is not an issue of border security. The children are not being smuggled into the country; they are brought to the border. We need to address the smugglers and the causes that allow the smugglers to thrive. Grant TPS, and go after the smugglers and causes of gang violence.

We could not agree more. This is not a border security crisis that demands deporting kids to deadly conditions back home; it is a humanitarian crisis that demands due process and temporary relief.