Behind the tall barbed-wire fence that surrounds the Artesia Center, young children crowd around a small table inside a makeshift trailer to color with crayons on their photocopied pages of Disney’s “Frozen” coloring book. Their mothers wait solemnly to speak to an attorney, and guards stand post, monitoring every move.

How has the systematic imprisonment of women and their children, fleeing conditions of extreme violence in their home countries, found its place in the United States?

After spending a week last month volunteering at the Artesia Center (https:// amberandlaurainartesia. wordpress.com/), an immigration jail currently housing around 400 women and children in a remote area of New Mexico, we still cannot ascertain a justified, moral answer to that question. Instead of being held in detention, the women and children in Artesia should be released on reasonable bonds and given the opportunity to fight their asylum cases remotely.

Most of our work at the jail was aimed at achieving this goal, which has several benefits.

First, outside of Artesia, individuals will have improved access to counsel and resources, giving them a better chance to adequately pursue their immigration claims. When the Artesia Center opened in June, the women and children there had no access to legal counsel. Noncitizens in the U.S. have no constitutional right to counsel, and Artesia is about four hours from the closest major city.

Since June, attorneys from all over the country have been traveling to Artesia to volunteer whatever services they can. But this often does not amount to the same level of representation and resources one would receive if they had their own attorney with a local office.

 Second, family immigration jails cause irreversible physical, emotional and psychological harm to women and children. This harm is escalated by the fact that mothers must recount, and thus relive, their horrifying stories in front of their children.

While in Artesia, we learned that most of the children at the facility are in poor physical and mental health. A woman who had been in Artesia since it opened reported that her daughter had been scratching her own face, pulling her hair out and talking about killing herself. Her daughter was 3 years old. Others reported that children had lost up to 10 pounds since arriving at the facility.

Generally, individuals can be released from detention on bond if they can show they are not a flight risk, are not a danger to the community and have ties in the United States.

In Artesia, however, Department of Homeland Security attorneys regularly argue that the women and children in the Artesia Center should not be released because they are part of a “mass migration scheme,” and thus present “risks to national security.”

Judges in Artesia often buy in to this argument, and set higher bonds as a result. For example, one woman was offered a $12,000 bond simply because she had traveled to the United States with a group of others for a small portion of her journey.

The women fleeing Central America, primarily from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, are not threats to our national security who need to be behind bars. They are strong, brave women who each have their own, tragic story of why they fled their country. They want nothing more than to protect their children.

We met one 19-year-old woman who had traveled to the United States with her young daughter from El Salvador. All her life, she had been physically, emotionally and sexually abused. When she began receiving death threats by gang members, she knew she had to get out. She said: “My choice was to stay and watch my daughter die or to leave.”

Unfortunately, although the Artesia Center is scheduled to close at the end of this year, the government is relocating these women and children to an immigration jail in Dilley, Texas, in mid-December.

There is no justification for the systematic detention and mistreatment of refugee mothers and their children who have come to the U.S. to escape extreme violence and harm in their home countries. Releasing women and children with viable immigration claims will save taxpayer dollars, prevent further physical and psychological trauma and will allow refugees to adequately prepare their immigration cases.

— Special to the Press Herald