Public Health New Mexico
7:00 am
Thu August 28, 2014

Immigrant Detention Center Not Approved By State For Childcare

Women and their children line up at the Artesia immigrant detention center, as protesters gathered outside the facility
Women and their children line up at the Artesia immigrant detention center, as protesters gathered outside the facility
Credit Ed Williams-KUNM

As Immigration lawyers prepare to battle the federal government over possible due process violations against immigrant women and children detained in Artesia, records obtained by KUNM raise another legal question about the facility—whether the detention center is in compliance with state child welfare laws.

Protesters from across New Mexico lined the streets near the immigrant detention center in Artesia last week decrying what they said were substandard living conditions and due process violations at the former border patrol training center.

Hundreds have been deported from Artesia since the facility was re-purposed as a detention center to accommodate the flood of Central American women and children arrested at the border after fleeing violence and poverty in their home countries.

Now many of the immigrants that remain in the detention center are relaying stories of children losing significant amounts of weight and of sick kids not getting medical care for conditions like fever and diarrhea.

Christina Brown is part of a group of attorneys working on pro-bono asylum cases for the Artesia detainees. She says immigrant women there have given the legal team over a dozen handwritten letters that describe a lack of medical care in the facility--often hiding the letters in their bras and slipping them to the lawyers on the sly because of fear of retaliation from authorities.

“They can’t get any medicine in there," Brown said. "They’ve been giving them Tylenol, it actually took a congressman to come and intervene to get some antibiotics for a kid that was very sick the other day. All of our letters say the same. We have about 15 of them, and everyday we hear more stories.”

These kinds of problems—lack of medical care and improper nutrition—would be illegal in a state-licensed childcare facility. And lawyers working in Artesia say they’re illegal in the immigrant detention center too, if they’re happening.

That’s because of a law that requires immigrant detention centers that hold minors to either move children into state licensed childcare facilities within 72 hours of arrest or to have the state license the detention center itself as a childcare facility.

Carlos Holguin of the Los Angeles-based Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law was part of a lawsuit that created that licensing requirement in the 1990s.

He says the purpose of the law, called the Flores Settlement Agreement, is to make sure detention centers are appropriate places to hold children.

“It was the assumption I think on all parts that these state standards and the licensing requirements, they’re supposed to be policed by the state agencies, would prevent substandard conditions from existing, at least for very long in these facilities in which minors are being held,” Holguin said.

But a records request filed by KUNM to the New Mexico Children Youth and Families Department shows that nearly two months after immigrant children began arriving in Artesia, the state of New Mexico has not licensed the detention center as a legal childcare provider. The request also said the federal government had no correspondence with CYFD regarding licensing requirements for the facility. 

“Now if the federal government has failed to seek licensing or to meet licensing standards," Holguin continued, "then I think that’s a fundamental violation of the law and needs to be corrected. I see no excuse for failing to meet minimal standards, especially when it comes to something as fundamental as medical care.”

At least one immigrant detention center has been shut down for violating these rules in the past.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials did not answer questions about whether they have been seeking childcare licensing in Artesia, or whether they have gotten an exemption from licensing laws. They did, however, say in an email that the government has a professional medical staff and a large selection medications on site.