Traveling to Oaxaca forced Amber Attalla to question her confidence in governmental policies and the media. It also changed her life.
Attalla, who graduated from UVM in 2011 with a degree in psychology and participated in the Oaxaca Semester Abroad Program, is now a student at the University of Maine School of Law. In November, she volunteered at an immigration detention camp in Artesia, New Mexico, where women and children — who fled domestic and gang violence in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala — were incarcerated after crossing the Southwest border
The conditions were shocking to witness and devastating for the women and children to experience, Attalla says. Children as young as infants were among the detainees. Nearly every child Attalla met with was sick with flu-like symptoms, noting that mothers reported that their children had lost weight and were having nightmares, according to Attalla’s recent interview with the Bangor Daily News.
Attalla spent a week at the Artesia center and was one of two legal representatives from the law school to travel to the southwest in the wake of a humanitarian crisis along the US-Mexico border. Attalla minored in Spanish at UVM and is fluent in the language, allowing her to act as legal counsel to the detainees under the supervision of practicing attorneys.
What troubled her the most was how attorneys for the US Department of Homeland Security had portrayed the detainees — women and children — as terrorists.
We talked to the 25-year-old law student about how the UVM Oaxaca Semester Abroad Program helped shape her views on immigration law and why immigration policy is one of the most severe human and civil rights issues of our time.
Interview on Oaxaca Travel and Policy
You first traveled to Oaxaca, Mexico as an undergraduate at UVM. How did your time in Oaxaca open your eyes to the complexities and unfairness of immigration law and international policy? Did you decide to pursue a law degree after traveling to Oaxaca?
My time in Mexico, if nothing else, made me realize how little about the world I actually know. It has forced me to question every headline I read and every broad categorization I hear about an issue. It made me want to learn more about our country’s immigration laws, because I saw from my time in Mexico that what we see and hear about the issue is extremely distorted.
My time and experiences in Oaxaca were also life changing and guided my future decisions, including going to law school and developing an interest in immigration law. Living in Mexico was an eye-opening experience and allowed me to see first-hand the effects of international and US policy on communities in Mexico, which are intrinsically tied to the driving forces behind our nation’s migration patterns.
About 700 women and children were picked up in south Texas by US Customs and Border Patrol officers last year. They were then turned over to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement and ended up at the Artesia detention center, according to news reports. Originally held in facilities in Texas, the detainees — women, as well as children under the age of 17, who had no criminal records — were moved to the Artesia center last summer. Can you describe the work you were doing to help the detainees?
We [Attalla and another Maine law student] prepared the women for bond hearings and represented them before immigration judges who sat in Denver, along with the government lawyers, and appeared in Artesia by video conference. We each saw between five and 10 clients every day.
Once a cash bail was set and paid, a woman and her children could be released. Bail ranged between $4,000 and $12,000. Most went to live with a relative until a hearing could be held to determine if she qualified for asylum. If so, she can stay in the US, obtain a work permit and a job, and eventually apply for citizenship. If not, she and her children face deportation and a return to the exact conditions they fled in the first place.
According to a Bangor Daily News article, the conditions at Artesia sounded extremely difficult. Why don’t more people in the United States know about the conditions these women and children people are living in? Why are there the assumptions that these women are “terrorists,” rather than victims of domestic or gang violence?
I think that observation is the precise point that makes the situation so appalling. The lack of transparency and the mischaracterization by the media dilutes awareness of what is, in my opinion, one of the most severe human and civil rights issues of our time.
I could never have imagined that a system of family imprisonment could become commonplace in this country. Unfortunately, the reason I couldn’t have imagined it is because the information is simply not widely available, and the information that is available is distorted by media bias.
The categorization of these women and children as “national security threats” is based on the need for the government and others in opposition to justify otherwise frivolous, harmful, and costly detention (paid to private corrections companies).
There is outrage among human rights organizations, the ACLU, and legal professionals, but I think the current state of the heated immigration debate in our country has created a bias of hatred and resentment that shields many individuals in our country from seeing this as a humanitarian crisis.
Any plans to return to the Artesia center to volunteer?
The Artesia detention center closed, and all of the families that remained were transferred to a new facility in Dilley, Texas, which has a much greater housing capacity. I am hoping to fundraise in the next couple of months so that I am able to go to Texas in the spring to volunteer at the Dilley Center.
Did your experience in New Mexico make you re-evaluate how immigration lawyers can make a difference?
I was definitely compelled by the experience, and it alleviated any doubts I previously had about pursuing a future career in law. I was able to see how access to legal counsel and effective advocacy can change someone’s life.
I was especially moved by the experienced attorneys I was working with, many of whom had left their practices back home and were using vacation time and their own funds to travel to Artesia and work 15+ hours a day as volunteers. It was inspiring to see both the dedication and outrage among the legal community about what is happening.
How has your volunteer work at the immigration center changed you?
My experience in New Mexico provided me with even greater motivation to be the best advocate that I can be. I wouldn’t say that I will necessarily approach my work differently. Rather, I feel that the experience gave me more exposure and insight into the factors that influence the need to flee one’s country and seek protection under our country’s asylum laws. I think that the exposure will certainly be helpful in terms of being a better attorney for my clients.
Read more about Amber Attalla’s experience and the reality of detention camps in the United States.
New York Times:
The Shame of America’s Family Detention Camps
Portland Press Herald:
Detention of Women and Children is Not Justified (by Amber Attalla and Laura Shaw)