Women to Women

Two Island women aid detainees in New Mexico.

Michael Cummo

Government officials threaten them and call them names. They are crowded into insufficient housing with bad food and lack of medical care.They can be kept locked up in a room, with no bed, cot, or cover in frigid conditions for up to seven days. These are women and children,  refugees from Central America, and this is the treatment they receive on this side of the border. But they persevere because the alternative is going back to Honduras, El Salvador, or Guatemala — and likely to incarceration, torture, or death.

Islanders Lynn Ditchfield and Rebecca McCarthy recently volunteered for two weeks in an immigrant detention center in Artesia, New Mexico. On Thursday night, they will share their experiences with the public in a program at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School Library (details below).

Ms. Ditchfield, founder and program director of ACE MV, and Ms. McCarthy, an immigration attorney who lives in Vineyard Haven, flew to Albuquerque several weeks ago, and, ultimately, to a makeshift prison in the middle of a desert. Lynn acted as interpreter while Ms. McCarthy assisted detainees in preparing for asylum hearings.

“I heard about it and volunteered,” Ms. McCarthy recalled in an interview with The Times. “I’ve had a lot of experience representing women and children while they’re in custody.”

Ms. Ditchfield had skills that fit right in. “I taught Spanish at MVRHS for 24 years,” she said.

“I think that one of the biggest misconceptions is that all of these women and children are ‘illegal,’ Ms. McCarthy said. “They are lawfully present in the United States while their proceedings remain ongoing. Under immigration law, all of the women and children in the facility have due process rights. Not all of the women will be granted asylum, but if they have suffered past persecution or have a well-founded fear of future persecution upon returning to their country of citizenship, the U.S. is required to hear their claims.”

Although briefed beforehand by attorneys who had already made the trip, the two Islanders were not prepared for what they encountered when they arrived. “The facility is a detention center on a federal law enforcement training center,” Ms. McCarthy said. “It is basically mobile trailers pieced together. The average age of the detained child is six years old. Women describe how their children are not eating and how much weight they have lost. When the facility first opened many of the kids were getting physically ill from the food.”

“There are over 600 people in this makeshift facility made for half that many,” Ms. Ditchfield said. “There is no green area for the kids. They are given two changes of clothing; it has flooded with rain and they are getting sick and unable to change.”

Each day at the detention center began at 6:45 am, and they wrapped up their work on-site at around 6 pm. After a dinner break, they debriefed for a few more hours. After that, they prepared cases for the next day. Their day typically ended around midnight.

When she wasn’t needed for other functions, Ms. Ditchfield frequently gathered detainees for spontaneous English classes. “The hunger of both moms and kids to learn is amazing,” she said.

Ms. Ditchfield detailed some of the frustrations of the women “in process” at the facility. “The process is painfully slow,” she said. “Everyone here has family or friends willing to take them in and even pay a reasonable bond to get them out of detention, but the bonds have been set at ridiculously high rates ($20,000 or $30,000) making it impossible for some.”

“The takeaway from Artesia,” Ms. McCarthy said, “is that this ‘surge’ of women and children to the border is a humanitarian crisis. These are not financial migrants. The women and children in Artesia have not fled Central America because of rumored changes in immigration policy, but are fleeing violence and have viable asylum claims.”

Lynn Ditchfield and Rebecca McCarthy will share Eyewitness Report from the Border: Women and Children in Detention in an ACE forum on Thursday, October 23, 6:30–8 pm at the MVRHS Library. Free with suggested donation. ACE will also offer a winter Human Rights class inspired by the experience.