Detention center brings immigration debate to small-town New Mexico

In this small New Mexican town, high school football is so popular that the celebration of Halloween gets moved if it happens to fall on a Friday.

The sport is especially welcome this year after Department of Homeland Security officials opened up a makeshift immigration detention center during the summer, thrusting this oil town just shy of 11,500 residents into the middle of a national immigration debate.

“Football takes their minds off of it,” said Shales Zuniga, who sported an orange Artesia High School Bulldogs football jersey. “It’s hard not having anything else to talk about. Now there is.”

Unprepared for thousands of parents with children who entered the country illegally, immigration officials parceled out a portion of the federal law enforcement training facility in Artesia to use as a detention center for about 600 women and children, most of them from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

Although more than 280 women and children have been deported, hundreds more remain as they wait for immigration hearings or to be returned to their native countries.

The new arrivals have sparked controversy in this mostly conservative town, where a statue of an oil pump is the centerpiece in a downtown park. Some say the strangers’ detentions have divided neighbors, inconvenienced new mothers looking for baby formula and touched off heated arguments during history class at the high school.

Whether people think the outsiders should stay or go, most in town seem to agree that rumors surrounding the facility have been fueled by a lack of information from federal officials about the center and its operation.

Which helps explain why the arrival of football season is so welcome.

On a recent Friday afternoon, most of downtown Artesia seemed deserted. The Bulldogs were playing an away game and many residents already had headed off for the 7 p.m. kickoff in Hobbs, about 80 miles east.

Some of those who couldn’t make the trip could be found at the Wellhead Restaurant & Brewpub, wearing orange jerseys and noshing on queso-drowned tortilla chips chased with beer.

“It’s God, football and family. You’re in the Bible belt of New Mexico right now,” said Meghan Harris, who was enjoying the start of the weekend with two girlfriends.

Most of what the 21-year-old Harris and her friends have heard about the detention facility has come from Facebook, and it was troubling.

“You have a bunch of pissed-off rednecks in this town, and it’s not going to be good,” she said.

Harris’ friend Danielle Cabezuela, 26, weighed in. “It’s not what Artesia signed up for,” she said. “I don’t think they thought it through.”

This year’s surge in illegal immigration, most funneled through Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, took authorities by surprise. Women with children were taken to Arizona, where they were released at bus stations in Phoenix and Tucson under orders to report to immigration officials later. At the time, only one facility was available to house parents traveling with children — and it was in Pennsylvania.

After a severe backlash from some congressional leaders and anti-illegal-immigration activists, federal officials opened up the Artesia facility in June. A permanent facility opened up two months later in Karnes, Texas.

Immigrant advocates filed a complaint this summer with the Department of Homeland Security accusing the detention centers, including the one in Artesia, of maintaining substandard living conditions; it also charged that young migrants had been subjected to abuse. The department’s inspector general recently rejected those allegations.

Federal officials, under orders from the White House, have vowed to speed up the processing and deportation of thousands of single women with children. The advocates say that directive has led to slipshod and hurried legal proceedings that have denied migrants due process.

Homeland Security officials insist that the Family Residential Center in Artesia is temporary. However, some residents say that improvements to the complex, such as new education trailers for the children and a repaved parking lot for visitors — particularly a platoon of pro bono immigration attorneys for the detainees — suggest otherwise.

Some residents say they are already miffed that the center was opened without community input.

“If they would have taken a community vote, it would have been turned down,” Harris said. “It’s like we’re being taken advantage of.”

Harris says she has friends with newborns who have had to drive an hour away to Roswell, because federal officials had cleared out local store shelves of diapers and baby formula.

“They’re pulling from our community to supply over there,” she said.

But not everyone feels the same way. Larry Combs, who teaches earth science at the junior high school, called the run at the store “minuscule.”

“I don’t understand that thinking,” Combs said. “Do we just not take care of these kids because they are not our own … because they inconvenience someone else?”

Combs, who leads Bible study at a local church, said the mothers and children in the facility hadn’t negatively affected his life. The 57-year-old rides his bicycle by the facility twice a day on his way to and from school, and said he heard children giggling a few evenings ago. Though he couldn’t see them, he called it “heartwarming.”

“These kids were just having a lot of fun. How cool is that?” he said.

Zuniga described the comments she’d heard about the new arrivals as overwhelmingly negative.

The daughter of one of Zuniga’s friends told her mother recently that three Central American child detainees had enrolled at her school.

Zuniga said her friend told her, “We’ll get tuberculosis and malaria.”

Although there have been a few cases of chickenpox at the detention center, federal officials say everyone entering the facility receives vaccinations. They also point out that many medical problems, such as diarrhea, colds and vomiting, can be found in any day-care facility — lice too.

Zuniga said she thought her friend’s daughter likely just assumed three new students were from the detention center. Children don’t know any better, Zuniga said with a shake of her head, adding, “but that’s what starts the rumors.”

If migrants do leave the facility, they tend to reunite with their families across the nation, where they are given a notice to appear to an immigration hearing. Rarely do they stay in Artesia.

Twitter: @TheCindyCarcamo

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times

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