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 first of a three-part series sharing their thoughts about the experience. The views expressed herein are those of NMILC’s staff members.
Southwest Key is an “Immigrant Children’s Shelter” located on the outskirts of El Paso. In this detention facility, children ages 6-17, most of them from Guatemala and other countries in Central America, wait to be placed with family members or friends able to take them in while they go through court proceedings in the US. Here are some reflections from staff members who toured the facility.
Kate Hopkins, Legal Assistant
Southwest Keys was a poignant embodiment of the unjust and unsustainable nature of our current immigration laws. Too often we hear the argument over immigration reform grossly oversimplified to a stalemate between those who think that if you break the law you need to suffer the consequences and those who think that anyone who breaks immigration laws should be forgiven, just because. But the truth is that that isn’t the argument at all. Those of us who see the immigration system as broken are not arguing that those who break the law for immigration purposes should just be forgiven. We are arguing that the laws themselves are unjust and do not sit naturally with our standards of what is humane and what is not, which is why they are being broken so often in the first place.
The Immigrant Children’s Shelter for me served as a powerful example of this disconnect. In the eyes of the court, the children in the shelter are considered to have done something “illegal” and thus expected to be held in detention and deal with the consequences of having broken the law. In the eyes of literally any humane human being, however, they are seen as children and thus deserving protection and help. They should be able to do whatever they need to do in order to be safe and secure, even cross borders. When these two ideas meet, the result is shelters like Southwest Key, which are really just detention centers with brightly painted walls.
Children who come to the United States unaccompanied are not illegal. They should not be criminalized. They are brave and young and deserving of help and protection because for them, for one reason or another, being alone in a foreign country is a better alternative to being at home.
Adriel Orozco, Attorney and Equal Justice Works Fellow
Though Southwest Keys is called a “shelter,” it was hard to ignore the fences that lined the exterior of the building and that were topped with barbed wire. We were also constantly reminded that we couldn’t open certain doors without sounding off the alarms. During lunch, one young boy from El Salvador told me that he had been in detention for more than 4 months. He had an uncle and aunt in the midwest who were willing to care for him, but red tape and lack of resources were preventing his family from meeting the definition of a “safe place” that is required by the government. So he continued to wait, hoping that one day the administrative process would allow him to get out of detention and be with his family.
Zoe Bowman, Legal Assistant
If you visit the website for Southwest Keys, you’re taken to a sunshiney non-
profit page with a motto that reads, “Opening doors to opportunity so individuals can achieve their dreams.” And indeed, when touring the detention facility outside El Paso, you are assured over and over again just how great it is here. How the kids are so happy and thank goodness Southwest Keys is here to protect these poor children. They’re so convincing, that at one point I referred to Southwest Keys as a school.
But the truth is that Southwest Keys is not a school. And it’s not where these children need to go. Shelter is another word for detention center which is another word for prison. And when you look at the beige cluster of boxy buildings and barbed wire on the outskirts of El Paso, you can see it as just that. Southwest Keys doesn’t open “doors to opportunity”, it traps children for months at a time, even when they have friends or family members in the US waiting for them. The existence of Southwest Keys and places like it presupposes that unaccompanied children fleeing violence in Central America need to be locked up.
At NMILC, we are fighting for a just legal system for all immigrants, including those who are currently detained in prisons. We recently started working with the Santa Fe Dreamers Project to provide a legal information program at an adult detention facility in Cibola County. Each trip to the facility costs us about $200 in transportation and materials costs and staff time. If you are interested in sponsoring a trip to the facility, please make a donation here and specify “Cibola County detention facility” in the acknowledgement line. Your support makes programs like this possible. Thank you for standing with ALL immigrants in New Mexico.