Community advocates, attorneys call for end to migrant detention in New Mexico                      

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Immigrant rights attorneys and advocates are not giving up their fight against the reported inhumane treatment of migrants detained in New Mexico.

“For those simply seeking a safe place to live and work in peace, our government’s actions add to the trauma they have already experienced,” said priest Mike Angell during a memorial event Thursday evening.

Nearly 100 people gathered outside the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement “ICE” office in Mesa Del Sol Thursday to remember the life of Kesley Vial. The 23-year-old Brazilian migrant took his own life last August in the Torrance County Detention Facility. Attorneys say Vial’s death was a direct result of inhumane treatment from facility workers – something echoed in messages from migrants currently detained in the facility read out loud by attorneys.

“If you say you’re not feeling well, they put you in torture rooms,” said one migrant in a written message. “Guards yell at us and treat us like punching bags for how they might feel on any given day.”

“They treat us like animals. They don’t have humanity. Our rights don’t exist here,” said migrants in another written message.

A group of immigrant rights groups recently released a large complaint (PDF LINK HERE) outlining a history of reported violations at the facility near Estancia since it re-opened in 2019. Those reported violations include unsanitary conditions, critical staff shortages, a lack of legal services, and violent and racist treatment towards migrants. It also details 2022 reports from the Office of the U.S. Inspector General recommending ICE relocate detainees to other facilities due to unsafe conditions.

“The Torrance County detention facility is an attempt to build a rural economy atop a foundation of human suffering and death,” said Ian Philabaum, an attorney with the Innovation Law Lab.

The Torrance County facility is owned and operated by Tennessee-based CoreCivic. The company is contracted by ICE to house migrants detained by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol as they go through the asylum process.

Members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation have increased pressure on the facility in recent years – at one point calling on ICE to terminate its contract with the facility. An attorney with the New Mexico Immigrant Law Center suggests the Biden administration is standing in the way of serious change.

“Right now, there is a lot of pressure at the federal level to not seem friendly to immigrants, to control the situation at the border,” said Sophia Genovese. “They are fighting really, really hard to keep that facility open, and we’ve seen them change the way the facility operates to frustrate advocacy efforts.”

Genovese says the facility recently transformed into a “credible fear interview factory” – where migrants are being forced to undergo an expedited asylum process. Since January 2023, she estimates just about 12% of migrants at the Torrance County facility cleared their credible fear interview – which is a requirement to be granted asylum in the U.S. She says the national average is around 70%.

“If you do not pass that credible fear interview screening, you are swiftly deported, and there is no judicial review of these determinations,” she said. “It’s completely depriving asylum seekers of the right to seek asylum of due process.”

Genovese suggests the lack of due process is just another symptom of a broken system.

“Torrance County attempts to evolve with each situation, but the problems persist, again, because of mismanagement and staffing shortages, and the failure to provide basic due process rights to asylum seekers detained there,” she said.

Genovese revealed ICE’s current contract with the Torrance County facility ends in May 2024. She says activist groups are ramping up awareness efforts to convince federal leaders to close the facility instead of entering a new contract.

KOB 4 reached out to CoreCivic about the ongoing concerns. A spokesperson sent us this statement.

We continue to hear claims and allegations about our Torrance County Detention Facility (TCDF) and Cibola County Correctional Center (CCCC) that are false and misleading. The reality is that we provide a safe, humane and appropriate environment for those entrusted to us at both of these facilities and are constantly striving to deliver an even better standard of care. Our teams at TCDF and CCCC work to provide immigration detainees a variety of services from comprehensive health care to faith-based support and access to legal resources while they prepare for the next steps in their immigration process. Staff are trained on and regularly use the interpretation services at both facilities. Tablets provided to detainees and the facility handbook have been translated into 14 additional languages as provided in the ICE National Detainee Handbook.  All of our immigration facilities, including TCDF and CCCC, are monitored very closely by our government partners at ICE, and they’re required to undergo regular review and audit processes to ensure an appropriate standard of living for all detainees. We’re proud of our dedicated team at TCDF and CCCC who work hard every day to keep those in our care safe while providing for their needs as they progress through the civil immigration process. Our staff are trained and held to the highest ethical standards as part of our commitment to our Human Rights Policy. We have a robust grievance process for detainees to raise any concerns they may have.

CoreCivic is not involved in any immigration decisions.