September 16, 2014
Since the Artesia, New Mexico family detention facility for those who cross our border without documents opened three months ago I have hoped for an opportunity to see it and to visit those who are detained there. My opportunity came this past Saturday, September 13th when I decided to attend the funeral of the father of a priest serving in my Diocese of El Paso. Accompanied by a transitional Deacon for the Diocese I began the 200+ mile journey at 6:00 a.m. in the morning. We drove west out of El Paso and within two hours of travel through sparsely populated desert landscape we found ourselves driving through fog and mist near the Guadalupe Pass.
Once we entered New Mexico the signs of an oil boom were everywhere to be seen. Gas and oil wells are in evidence wherever one looks from south of Carlsbad and beyond. We arrived in Artesia, a town of 12,000, in a little more than 3 hours. El Paso is the nearest large city.
After the funeral at the Catholic Church in Artesia we proceeded on to the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) on whose property the detention center was placed. A tour had been graciously arranged by ICE and that was to be followed by Mass in the hall which also serves as a cafeteria. One of the two directors of the center met us along with the chaplain. They took us through the facility along a similar path to those who were being brought there for detention.
The center is being used for “family units” which consist of a mother with children younger than 14. It was explained to me that older children were found to be more difficult to manage. Most of those who arrive come by bus from El Paso after having been brought to our west Texas city by plane or bus from other places on the border. When they arrive they are processed and given identification they must carry throughout the facility. They are also screened for health issues. There is a 24 hour medical staff on hand. They have seen a lot of lice and scabies.
The facility is in a barren location. There are no trees, no grass. Temporary buildings are set upon brown sandy dirt. As the ICE agents readily admitted this detention center has been and continues to be a work in progress. It was a surprise to everyone, including the agents, when this location was chosen. Since then they have been racing to catch up. Temporary buildings have been brought in. Medical facilities created. The most recent arrival was an x-ray machine which is set up in a tent to allow them to screen on site for TB. Even psychological services are now offered.
School classes will soon begin. A nursery has been provided to care for children while parents are in court or seeing doctors. Cubicles for private visits with attorneys are coming in. A parking lot has been paved and a new gate will soon allow direct access to the facility. They will soon be providing food especially tailored to the needs and tastes of the detainees. I was impressed with the care and compassion of those I met at the center.
At the Mass around 220 of the 520 residents joined us. They sang with gusto and responded to the prayers in a way that showed me they have been active in their churches at home. It was the Feast of the Exultation of the Cross. I told them that I could see the cross that was so present in their lives and I could clearly see the face of Christ in them, Christ carrying his cross among us.
We blest and provided rosaries donated by the Knights of Columbus after Mass. Many requested individual blessings after Mass. I met some who had been there for two months, some who had been there as long as three months. Many were concerned about their sick children. One asked me to pray for her sister who was separated from her after they were detained. She had not heard from her since.
My guides were responsive to questions I posed. Questions which no one there could answer were those that had to do with why this center was opened before all of the detainee’s basic needs could be provided? And why was this place, so far removed from services the community could provide such as legal support and pastoral care, would be chosen in the first place? Nor could I find the answer as to why we would spend all this money for a temporary facility when release to the custody of family members would have been much more humane and cost effective? Some questions just don’t admit of easy answers I guess.
Bishop Mark J. Seitz, DD
Bishop of El Paso