FILE - This June 26, 2014, file photo shows U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement press secretary Barbara Gonzales in a barracks for law enforcement trainees that was turned into an immigrant detention center at the Federal Law Enforcement Center (FLETC) in Artesia, N.M. The American Civil Liberties Union announced Friday Aug. 22, 2014, it filed the federal lawsuit against federal immigration authorities, claiming detainees at a New Mexico detention center aren't getting proper legal representation. (AP Photo/Juan Carlos Llorca, File)
A barracks for law enforcement trainees was turned into an immigrant detention center at the Federal Law Enforcement Center (FLETC) in Artesia, N.M.
AP

In a challenge to the Obama administration’s strategy for deterring illegal border crossings by Central American migrants, civil rights groups filed a federal lawsuit Friday claiming the government committed egregious due process violations against women and children held for deportation at a detention center in New Mexico.

The lawsuit, brought in U.S. District Court in Washington, says immigration authorities created a system to rush deportations from the temporary center holding about 600 mothers and their children in the isolated desert town of Artesia. The suit accuses officials of raising numerous legal and practical hurdles to discourage migrants from seeking asylum, after deciding in advance that few petitions would succeed.

“By locking up women and babies, the Obama administration has made it their mission to deport these people as quickly as possible,” said Marielena Hincapie, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, one of the groups bringing the suit.

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“Our message to the government is simple: Follow the law,” she said during a conference call with reporters. “We must ensure that every person who interacts with our legal system has a fair hearing.”

Other groups bringing the lawsuit, on behalf of 10 women and children who are or were recently detained in Artesia, are the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Immigration Council and the National Lawyers Guild.

The lawsuit escalates the confrontation between the administration and immigrant legal organizations over the effort by the Homeland Security secretary, Jeh Johnson, to stem an influx across the South Texas border by detaining more illegal crossers, particularly families with children, and sending them home speedily, to discourage others from attempting the trip.

Johnson has said he wants to send a clear message to Central Americans coming illegally: “You will be sent home.”

In the Artesia center, on a federal law enforcement training campus 200 miles from El Paso, Texas, officials set up a courtroom where immigration judges hear asylum cases by video-teleconference and asylum officers interview migrants to make initial assessments of their claims.

But according to the lawsuit, the center does not provide conditions for legal advocates to represent the migrants or inform them of their rights. Telephone communications are severely limited, and migrants are not allowed to receive mail to gather documents to bolster their cases. Lawyers routinely had trouble meeting with migrants and were denied access to hearings and interviews.

Mothers were required to be interviewed with their children, and they reported being reluctant to discuss threats, sexual abuse and violence they faced.

“Of course these women want to shield their children from these stories,” said Melissa Crow, legal director of the American Immigration Council.

Homeland Security officials said they could not discuss the lawsuit directly. But they said free volunteer lawyers were always available to migrants in Artesia through a sign-up system established in the center. Marsha Catron, a spokeswoman for the department, said the administration’s response to the border surge had been “both humane and lawful.”

Officials are imposing a stricter standard in their evaluations of the migrants’ fears of persecution, the suit says.

Homeland Security Department figures show that migrants in Artesia have been denied asylum at a much higher rate than others. As of October, asylum officers were finding migrants’ fears credible in 80 percent of cases, allowing them to go on to battle for asylum through the courts. In Artesia, officers have found migrants credible in 38 percent of cases.