Immigrant facility in N.M. freeing more undocumented families than deporting them, mayor says

One of three temporary detention centers for Central American families who have entered the U.S. illegally this year has started releasing many more detainees than it deports, a New Mexico city official said.

Federal immigration authorities reported 61 releases and no deportations last week at the Artesia Family Residential Center in southeastern New Mexico, Artesia Mayor Phillip Burch said.

It was the second week in a row that Immigrations and Customs Enforcement authorities reported to Artesia officials that more detainees were released than deported.

The numbers show a dramatic change from the center's first two weeks, when 135 people were deported and 12 were released, according to figures provided to Burch by ICE officials. The center opened in late June and is one of just three facilities in the U.S. with units for migrant families who were among a recent surge of people crossing the border illegally.

ICE declined to comment on the recent shift, or say whether it's also happening at the other two lockups, in Pennsylvania and Texas. However, experts said factors that likely led to the change include detainees having better access to lawyers, and judges setting lower bond amounts.

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The Artesia barracks can house up to 650 women and children.

ICE spokeswoman Leticia Zamarripa said 324 people have been deported to Central America since it opened in late June. Burch said 227 detainees were released since then.

Federal officials haven't said how many people were released and referred questions to the U.S. Justice Department's immigration review office. That office said it would take 10 to 15 days before the AP could obtain the numbers.

Homeland Secretary Jeh Johnson said in July the facility would serve as a processing center to quickly deport people through expedited removal.

Civil rights advocates later sued the government, complaining a lack of access to legal representation has turned the center into a "deportation mill." They say bail is set impossibly high and asylum claims are denied at a much higher rate than the rest of the immigrant population.

ICE recently has opened a place where lawyer can meet with clients, and has set up a private room for lawyers. The agency also has provided mothers the opportunity to leave their children at a separate room if they need to discuss traumatic experiences that would make them eligible for asylum.

Laura Lichter, an immigration attorney working with detainees in Artesia, said judges listening to cases closed-circuit from Colorado are imposing much lower bonds for immigrants that are granted release.

Alex Nowrasteh, an immigration policy analyst for the Cato Institute, said better access to legal representation and pressure on the Obama Administration from immigrant advocates both likely played roles to the change in Artesia detainees getting released.

"But I think better lawyering probably played a bigger role," Nowrasteh said. "Better access to attorneys is key, and as long as detainees have legal representation, this trend will likely continue."

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