A Miracle in Middle of Nowhere, New Mexico

The American Immigration Lawyers Association comes to the aid of families targeted for deportation

Published in 2014 Southwest Super Lawyers magazine

By Jerry Grillo on December 12, 2014


Over the course of several months last year, the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) engineered a massive pro bono showdown in the high desert, bringing hope and freedom to hundreds of marginalized people.

“It was a bit of a miracle in the middle of nowhere,” says Philip Smith, an immigration attorney, AILA member and partner at Nelson Smith in Portland, Oregon.

That’s what the lawyers who worked on the Artesia Pro Bono Project called the place: Middle of Nowhere, New Mexico. The U.S. government called it Artesia Family Residential Center, a title that belies the razor wire outside and the desperation inside. In response to a surge of illegal immigrants crossing the Southwest border, the Department of Homeland Security opened a makeshift detention compound, inside a federal law enforcement training facility, to house more than 1,200 migrant women and children in late June 2014. 

The small, rural town of Artesia is about 70 miles from the Mexican border and more than three hours from the nearest major metro, isolated from significant legal assistance. If you wanted an answer to the question: “How do you outrage and galvanize a bunch of immigration lawyers?” this was it.

“These were families who would probably be eligible for asylum,” says Crystal Williams, executive director of AILA, which is headquartered in Washington, D.C. The detainees were hundreds of mostly Central American families, often fleeing violence, persecution or extreme poverty in their home countries. In Artesia, they had no access to communication, no legal representation and were targeted for quick deportation back to their native countries. 

“The reaction was fast, and it began organically and just kept growing,” says Smith, a volunteer attorney who trekked to Artesia, of AILA’s fast response to the government’s actions. “AILA funded and hired a lead attorney and a coordinator on the ground to coordinate this flow of volunteer lawyers. They came in and gave this organic movement some needed structure.”

A dose of viral luck helped. “There was a chickenpox outbreak at the end of July and early August,” says Smith. “So the federal government couldn’t deport any women and children for about three weeks. That was fortunate because it gave us time to get organized and put things in motion.”

The project, which officially launched in August 2014, quickly evolved into a multilayered, national team effort aimed at providing immigration assistance to the detainees. Ultimately, about 300 lawyers, paralegals, interpreters, translators and clerks organized into a rotating on-the-ground team, comprising about a dozen lawyers at a time, and four remote support teams with specific focus areas, including technology and project administration. 

“Our ability to defend en masse was a direct counterweight to the government’s ability to deport en masse,” writes Stephen Manning, a Portland, Oregon, attorney and AILA board member in a report on the Artesia Pro Bono Project for Innovation Law Lab. 

The battle between AILA’s energized membership and the federal government soon made international headlines. “Very few people were deported once our attorneys started arriving,” says Williams. 

The Artesia Pro Bono Project helped release more than 800 people—many of whom are in the process of asylum hearings—prior to the federal government’s announcement that it would close the temporary Artesia center in December, as it had expanded its detention capacity for adults with children in Texas facilities. Remaining detainees were transferred to the Karnes County Residential Center in Karnes City and the newly opened South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley. AILA is also partnering with other organizations to set up similar pro bono projects at the facilities.

“There’s still plenty of work to do as we try to figure out how to deal with this wave of people in Texas,” Williams says. “The good news is at least these are not seat-of-the-pants developments, like Artesia. They are only 90 minutes away from San Antonio, so there are expert immigration attorneys nearby, though not enough.”

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