Fewer immigrant women and children are being deported from a remote detention center in New Mexico.
A new immigration court is hearing cases from that facility and its judges are setting lower bonds, allowing more immigrants to leave detention. It's a departure from the government's initial message that those who enter the country illegally can expect a speedy deportation.
In June, Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson visited the newly opened immigrant detention center, located in Artesia, N.M.
"This facility represents the proof that we intend to and we will send people back who come in to the Rio Grande Valley sector illegally,” Johnson told a crowd of reporters.
The Rio Grande Valley is a section of the South Texas border that is the busiest in the nation for illegal crossings. But contrary to Johnson's message, the number of deportations from Artesia is dropping.
"Last week 101 illegal immigrants were released into the United States and zero were deported,” said Artesia mayor Phillip Burch.
Those released were let go on a bond. They still have to show up to court and continue their deportation case. Typically they are released into the care family members already in the United States.
The numbers Burch cited are from the third week of October. But the trend was true for the entire month. He meets with detention center officials every Tuesday.
"This is one heck of a waste of American taxpayer money to bring people from the Mexican border to Artesia, New Mexico, house them, clothe them, feed them, and then release them,” Burch said.
As the wave of migrants hit the Texas border, there wasn't enough detention space to hold them. Most were simply processed by the Department of Homeland Security and let go with a future court hearing.
Meanwhile, officials scrambled to open the detention center in Artesia, which is housed in a federal law enforcement training center. Currently there are more than 500 women and children detained there.
Inside a conference room at an Artesia church, a printer spewed out sheets of legal documents. It was 10 p.m. on a Wednesday and volunteer immigration attorneys from across the country were poring over cases from the detention center. They sat at a long table cluttered with paperwork, coffee cups and laptops.
"Everyday is a long, rough day here,” said attorney Christina Brown.
Brown is the project leader for this pro bono effort headed by the American Immigration Attorneys Association. She's been in Artesia since July when the immigration court in Arlington, Va., was hearing cases here via video teleconference.
In October the Justice Department switched the Artesia cases to the immigration court in Denver so both would be in the same time zone.
"The Arlington immigration judges were setting bonds of $20,000, $25,000, $30,000 almost every case,” Brown said.
Those bond amounts are unusually high, Brown said. The Department of Homeland Security sets bond amounts, which judges can adjust. Brown said the national average is $5,200. The Denver judges, she said are setting much lower bonds, between $2,000 and $8,000.
"As a result the good news is we've seen a lot more clients leaving detention,” Brown said.
Between July and September the federal government deported about 100 women and children from Artesia each month. By late October only 17 had been deported. The change is palpable from within the detention center itself.
Frances Torres lives in Artesia and volunteers during the detention center’s religious services. She sings songs with the women and children and teaches Sunday school. Torres said they can tell if an immigrant is going to be released or deported just by the look on their faces.
“Yes because we had already seen one, she was happy, ‘Hey I'm leaving and I'm going to my family.’ She was going to New York,” Torres said. “And the other one, she never said where she was going, but her sad face and she started crying. We figured she was going back.”
While the federal government argues in favor of deportation in court, the team of volunteer attorneys is making the case that many of their Artesia clients deserve asylum. Since July they have helped seven women win the right to stay in this country.