Stories from Cibola

May 26, 2017

If you drive about 90 miles from Albuquerque into the tiny town of Milan, NM, you’ll come across a large complex surrounded by tall gates and barbed wire–the Cibola County Detention Center. Not long ago, Cibola was a private prison run by the infamous Corrections Corporations of America, or CCA, and was shut down due to medical violations. However, shortly after Trump took office, CCA rebranded themselves as CoreCivic, and Cibola reopened its doors as an immigrant detention center.

Cibola Detention Center

Cibola Detention Center

By March, the detention center was housing the greatest percentage of asylum seekers of any detention center in the country and included the only facility to hold transgender immigrants. Most of the people in this detention center are fleeing violence in their home countries and recently arrived in the U.S. Others have been living in the U.S. for years, but were picked up by ICE and placed in deportation proceedings.

The odds of immigrant detainees finding immigration relief are slim. Nationwide, only 14 percent of detained immigrants receive legal counsel. Without representation in court, immigrants are far less likely to win their cases or even know what type of relief they might be eligible for.

NMILC, in partnership with the Santa Fe Dreamers Project, is trying to change that. Twice a week a small team of attorneys and legal assistants give presentations and individual consults to detainees in Cibola. Sometimes, we are even able to directly represent them in court.

In the short time that we’ve been working in the facility, we’ve met many people. These are a few of their stories.


Silvia*, a transgender woman from Mexico, spent several years in the United States after fleeing persecution because of her gender identity. She returned to Mexico when her mother was diagnosed with cancer, but the violence she faced continued. After being trafficked by the Narcos, she knew that she had to find a way to get back to the U.S. She was detained and deported trying to reenter the country and declared herself as an asylum seeker at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Since December, she has been moved from one detention center to the next, all while trying to fight her case. In California, she found an attorney to represent her for free, but since being moved to Cibola it has been hard for them to communicate. NMILC attorneys are working with Silvia’s lawyer to bridge the communication gaps and ensure Silvia receives the legal support she needs.


Carlos* had been living in the U.S. for three years when he was stopped by ICE officers while pumping gas. The officers accused him of being a drug dealer, despite the fact that there were no drugs found in his car. ICE transported him to El Paso in a van where his hands and feet were chained along with other detainees. Eventually ICE moved him to Cibola, where he has spent the past month. His girlfriend, who has children and is fighting cancer, is struggling to make things work without his support.

Without legal representation, the odds of getting out of detention on bond with the immigration judge are slim, but NMILC attorney Adriel Orozco was able to represent Carlos in his bond hearing after the two met during one of our weekly trips to the facility. Adriel won the case and now Carlos can return to his loved ones while he fights his deportation case.


Ibrahim* recently graduated from university in West Africa, where he studied politics and foreign languages. A member of a rival political party to the government, Ibrahim had been arrested and detained several times by government police forces after participating in peaceful protests. While detained, he was denied food, forced to do unpaid labor, and tortured.

Things came to a breaking point one night when he was out of the house and the police showed up at his door. The police mistook Ibrahim’s uncle, who was visiting, for Ibrahim himself, and killed him in front of his mother. Knowing his life was in danger, Ibrahim flew to South America and then declared himself as an asylum seeker at the U.S.-Mexico border.

NMILC and the Santa Fe Dreamers Project have worked together to advice Ibrahim on his case and have found a pro bono attorney to directly represent him–greatly increasing the likelihood that he will win his case and be able to remain in the U.S.

Because of you, Silvia, Carlos, and Ibrahim were able to receive the legal assistance they needed to fight their cases. Your support makes this program possible–sponsor a trip to the facility today to ensure more detainees receive the justice they deserve.

Name has been changed to protect the identity of the individual

Reflections on the Border: Part 3

Reflections on the Border: Part 3

May 15, 2017

This is the third of a three-part series sharing individual NMILC staff member’s views related to border issues. Part 1 discussed a trip to a youth “shelter” located at the Mexico-US border, and Part 2 shared one employee’s views from a tour of the border with a Customs and Border Patrol officer. The views expressed herein are those of individual NMILC staff members and may not necessarily reflect the views of the organization as a whole.

NMILC attorney Rebekah Wolf was born and raised in Santa Fe, NM. After studying at NYU, Rebekah moved to Palestine full-time for five years and founded The Palestine Solidarity Project. She moved back to the US in 2011 and attended law school at University of California-Hastings. She joined NMILC in October 2016  as an Equal Justice Works justiceAmeriCorps fellow. She currently lives in Santa Fe with her daughter Rafeef. Legal assistant Zoe Bowman sat down with Rebekah to discuss her previous work in Palestine and how it relates to her work at NMILC.

Wolf at the border of Juarez and El Paso

Wolf at the border of Juarez and El Paso

Tell me a little about the work that you do at NMILC.

I provide direct legal services to unaccompanied children in immigration court, I’m the pro bono attorney coordinator, and I’m one of the coordinators in the Cibola Program for Access to Legal Services.

What you were doing in Palestine?

I ran a human rights organization that incorporated international volunteers as trained observers in documenting and publicizing human rights violations in the Palestinian territories. In addition to reporting we also had campaigns and advocacy projects around political prisoners and the building of the Annexation Wall. It was similar to the campaign tactics used here against the wall and immigrant detention. A huge part is reporting on it so people gain a better understanding of what is happening on the ground.

I did that work for about 10 years. Palestine Solidarity Project is, located in Beit Ommar, a village outside of Bethlehem, and is still going strong.

What stuck out to you or concerned you during the Mexico-US border tour?

In Palestine, the wall that is built in the West Bank separates it from Israel, and exists in the context of a military occupation that an overwhelming majority of countries believe is not in compliance with international law. When you see the same level of militarization here at the US-Mexico border in El Paso, it’s shocking because people conceptualize the border and the wall on the border as a benign structure, like ‘good walls make good neighbors’. In reality, it has a police force that is acting like a military force. When a military is enforcing civilian law, that has grave consequences. You can see that in Palestine and on the border here.


CBP Agent gives tour of the U.S. border in El Paso

How did your experience working in the field of human rights in Palestine influence your desire to study immigration law in the US?

I moved back here [Santa Fe] because I was born and raised in New Mexico, and part of human rights work is figuring out where you would be the most useful–I figured I could do really good human rights work in my own community. I went to law school because the law is one tool to enforce human rights, and it was a tool I felt comfortable using. In the fight for human rights we have to use as many different tools as possible.

Doing work for immigrant communities is fundamentally a human rights issue. It’s about how we as a society treat people, whether we are acting in a way so that their dignity and integrity remain intact. A huge part of doing this work [human rights] is drawing attention to what is happening in communities outside the view of the wider public. Human rights violations occur when governments think no one is watching.

How do you see the work that you do at NMILC as a continuation of your human rights work?

The Immigration Corps project that I’m working on with Equal Justice Works has been an amazing experience. The project is designed to engage the immigrant community–not just as people we’re providing services to, but also as a way for immigrants to enter the legal profession and have more agency in the services we provide. I think that this model for human rights work is the most effective. We’re not treating the immigrant community as outsiders, but engaging the people we serve, and hopefully empowering them to advocate for themselves.

Reflections on the Border: Part 2

Reflections on the Border: Part 2

May 8, 2017

In February, staff members from NMILC visited the Mexico-US border, touring a youth “shelter”, local processing center, and segments of the wall. This is the second of a three-part series sharing their thoughts about the experience; click here to read part 1. The views expressed herein are those of individual NMILC staff members, and may not necessarily reflect the views of the organization as a whole.

With the passage of President Trump’s 100th day in office, there has been a great deal of reflection on what has and hasn’t been accomplished in the first 100 days. Thus far, one of Trump’s most famous campaign promises, the building of a wall along the US-Mexico border, seems to remain a top priority in office. With all of the discussion, excitement, and anxiety surrounding the building of the wall, it can be easy to forget that the US already has heavily policed borders, including segments with a “great wall”. This past winter some of the NMILC staff embarked on a tour with U.S Customs and Border Protection (CBP) in El Paso to see part of the wall up close and to learn more about how our border is policed.

Our tour began outside of the immigration courthouse in El Paso in what can only be described as a luxury minivan, complete with a flat screen TV. There we were introduced to our two photogenic Border Patrol agents charged with the duty of giving tours to ‘stakeholders’ such as ourselves. As we hurtled through the streets of El Paso, they began a sort-of sales pitch/CBP advertisement complete with powerpoint slides and pie charts. We were given a glamorous rundown of the different border patrol groups, which included descriptions of various elite squads of border patrol agents with special ‘tracking techniques’ (read: drones) that enable them to hit their ‘targets’ (read:migrants).

Eventually we arrived at the wall itself. Even though I’ve seen images in the news of the border wall, it still was startling to see in person. The wall is tall and barbed, like a long snake cutting through the Chihuahuan desert. Interestingly, the land was not originally federal land, but land owned by a waste disposal company and paid for by the US government. Needless to say, the obligatory “on the taxpayer’s dime!” joke made by one of our staff members did not go over well. After giving us some explanation of what we were looking at, our tour-agents pointed to a group of houses a mile or so away. This, they claimed, was the crucial point before which to catch migrants. Once they pass those homes, they are able to ‘blend in’ with the rest of El Paso.

The final part of our tour was the El Paso Processing Center, where immigrants caught crossing without status are given Credible Fear Interviews to determine if they are even eligible to apply for asylum. In this isolated facility, the conversations between our immigration attorneys and the border patrol agents went from fake polite to something a little more heated. Deportation rates were at an all-time high under the Obama administration, but still the agents claimed it had been too easy for migrants to cross. They further insisted that those days were over–there would be no more Mr. Nice Guy on the border. To me, the most troubling part about this encounter was the lack of knowledge about even rudimentary aspects of immigration law on the part of the CBP agents, who are the front lines of enforcing this law.

Much like the political rhetoric that often characterizes discussions of building a wall on the US-Mexico border, the language used by the Border Patrol agents sought to dehumanize migrants by reducing them to ‘targets’ or statistics. This sentiment seems to be widely echoed by the media and members of our government. But the truth is that migration is a human issue, and behind each statistic is a human story. Rather than building a wall to “protect” borderlands that are already heavily policed, we need to fight for a more just immigration system that recognizes that families should be kept together and those who are fleeing violence from their home countries have a refuge in the U.S. We need to work to reframe the perception of immigrants in this country and decriminalize the actions they take to protect themselves and their families.

Zoe Bowman                                                                                                

Legal Assistant

NMILC recently started working on a project to provide a legal orientation program at a detention facility in Cibola County. Many of the people currently detained in this facility have passed their Credible Fear Interview and are seeking asylum, but without access to attorneys are at a grave disadvantage when advocating for their case. Your support will make this project possible; please consider sponsoring a trip to the facility today by making a donation here.