Responding to a crisis at the border

Amber Attalla ’16, and Laura Shaw ‘15, in coordination with Maine Law’s Refugee and Human Rights Clinic, volunteered at The Artesia Center, a family immigration detention camp in New Mexico, for a week in November of 2014.

Attalla and Shaw provided legal assistance to children and women who had fled Central America and were seeking refuge in the U.S. The Maine Law students were the first legal representatives from Maine to travel to The Artesia Center in the wake of a humanitarian crisis on the southern U.S. border.

In the fall of 2014, more than 65,000 unaccompanied children and tens of thousands more Central Americans traveling as families sought refuge at the border. Most of these individuals fled their home countries due to conditions of extreme violence, gang activity, rape, and poverty. Unprepared for what has been characterized as a surge of immigration, the United States federal government started The Artesia Center, a makeshift camp located in a remote, desolate area of New Mexico.

Representatives from the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) along with other immigration advocacy organizations stated that “severe due process violations” were taking place at The Artesia Center. Specifically, women and children fleeing their home countries out of fear of persecution were denied access to legal protections without any meaningful opportunity to contact a lawyer. In response, lawyers and law students from around the country traveled to Artesia, volunteering their time to provide urgent legal assistance to the women and children detained there.

Maine Law Professor Anna Welch, who oversees the Law School’s Refugee and Human Rights Clinic, led the coordination of the trip. In the Clinic, student attorneys provide direct legal representation and advocacy to immigrants and refugees seeking political asylum and similar protections under federal law. To cover their costs, Shaw and Attalla raised $2,500 from area law firms, attorneys, fellow law students, staff and faculty from Maine Law, family, friends, and funding from the Student Bar Association at Maine Law.

Shaw, who graduated from Maine Law in the spring of 2015, returned to the southwest for a second week of volunteer work in May 2015. By that time, the remaining women and children from The Artesia Center had been relocated to a facility in Dilley, Texas.

Deeply affected by their volunteer experience at The Artesia Center, Attalla and Shaw wrote an opinion article after they returned from New Mexico. The piece was published in the Portland Press Herald.