ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — A coalition of lawyers filed a lawsuit Friday to halt the quick deportation of Central American women and children, saying immigrants at a New Mexico detention center don't have proper access to lawyers and are being forced to clean restrooms and retell stories of violence and rape in front of children.
The American Civil Liberties Union and three other groups filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on behalf of immigrants being held at an isolated detention center in Artesia.
The groups say U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials should be more accommodating to the volunteer lawyers who have traveled to the remote site to aid the recent surge of Central American immigrants. Instead, the groups say, officials are putting illegal barriers between detainees and their lawyers by limiting consultation time and not allowing them to talk on the phone for more than five minutes. The lawyers from around the country are forced to operate in a law library without books and aren't given full access to their clients, the groups said.
"While expedited removal isn't new ... the manner in which it is being implemented in Artesia is new," said Melissa Crow, the legal director of the American Immigration Council, one of the groups involved in the lawsuit. "Essentially, our government has created a deportation mill."
The immigrants are being sent back to their country without any meaningful opportunity to present their claims for asylum, Crow said.
An ICE spokeswoman said in an email to The Associated Press that the "response to this unprecedented surge has been both humane and lawful." She declined to comment further, citing the pending litigation.
The lawsuit claims that women being detained at the center are being forced to clean restrooms to earn more phone privileges. It also says that in asylum hearings with a judge listening by closed-circuit television from Arlington, Virginia, they often have to recount stories of rape and violence in front of their children.
The lawsuit comes before what many expect will be a broad effort by President Barack Obama to protect millions of immigrants already living in the country illegally from deportation. In June, he announced that he would act on his own to address whatever immigration issues he can while immigration legislation stalls in Congress.
Republican lawmakers have been swift to decry previous administrative actions on immigration, including the president's decision in 2012 to create the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which allows many young immigrants to avoid deportation and get a work permit for two years.
At the same time Obama is considering protecting millions of immigrants from deportation, he has pledged to return newly arrived immigrants, mostly from Central America, who have been arrested along the Mexican border since Oct. 1.
More than 62,000 immigrants traveling as families, mostly mothers with young children, have been arrested at the border this year. Before the Artesia detention center opened in June, most families were released with a notice to report back to immigration authorities after they arrived at their final destination in the United States.
The detention center, at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Artesia, is in a town of about 10,000 people about 3 1/2 hours away from Albuquerque or El Paso, the two closest large cities where immigration lawyers willing to volunteer their services can be found.
Since the center opened June 27, close to 300 women and children — mostly from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala — have been deported from the facility, which currently houses about 600 women and children.
Approval rates for credible fear claims, the first step for an immigrant seeking asylum, have been dropping since U.S. immigration officials reissued rules on how asylum officers should make decisions in these cases. A Feb. 28 memo says immigrants who make a credible fear claim must prove a "significant possibility" of winning an asylum case before a judge.
A federal report given to human rights organizations says about 38 percent of detainees at Artesia pass the initial interview to apply for asylum, compared with 63 percent nationally.
Marielena Hincapie, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, another group in the lawsuit, said that statistic shows a pattern of civil and human rights violations.
"Our message to the federal government is simple: Follow the law," she said.
Caldwell reported from Washington. Juan Carlos Llorca in El Paso, Texas, also contributed to this report.