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New Mexico city divided over sheltering immigrants awaiting deportation

July 16, 2014 at 6:29 PM EST
Artesia, New Mexico, is home to ranches and farmland, as well as a federal law enforcement facility that is now housing nearly 700 Central American mothers and children under the age of 17 -- most of whom will be sent home, say officials. Special correspondent Kathleen McCleery reports on how the national debate on immigration policy is playing out among residents of one city.
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GWEN IFILL: Now the immigration divide.

A new Washington Post/ABC News poll shows a majority of Americans agree on at least one aspect of the debate: They don’t like how politicians are handling the situation; 58 percent disapprove of what President Obama has been doing and 66 percent disapprove of how House Republicans have handled it.

We took a look — we take a look now at a small Southwestern city on the front lines of the crisis. Since June 27, it’s become a temporary home for some of the thousands of families who have entered the U.S. illegally.

Special correspondent Kathleen McCleery reports.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: The hot, dry, dusty town of Artesia sits about 70 miles north of the Mexico border in southeastern New Mexico. It’s rich in oil and gas and home to ranches and farmland. Most people in this red part of a blue state are conservative.

Phillip Burch has been mayor for seven years.

MAYOR PHILLIP BURCH, Artesia, New Mexico: By and large, the community would prefer this installation not be here, because we view the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center as a place to train law enforcement people, and we just don’t feel that it’s appropriate to have it changed to a detention center.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: The Federal Law Enforcement Training Center is run by the Department of Homeland Security. In no small irony, it trains Border Patrol agents, as the mayor said.

Now the federal government has converted three former barracks to house 672 mothers and children under age 17. Eight-foot fences keep them hidden from the people of Artesia. The women and children come from Central America’s northern triangle, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. They crossed from Mexico into Texas, were captured by the Border Patrol and bussed here. Officials say most of them will be sent home.

Last week, Homeland Security officials took reporters on a supervised tour of some unoccupied rooms. This facility is spanking clean, air-conditioned and comfortably equipped, and will help relieve the overcrowding at the border. Four bunk beds with new linens line the walls of bedrooms. There are flat-screen televisions, playrooms stocked with toys, and clinics with medical equipment.

Residents get housekeeping, laundry services, new clothing and three meals a day. Federal authorities won’t say how much money has been spent, or how many staff they have hired here.

Outside a local brew pub in town, longtime resident Joann Griggs questioned the federal spending.

JOANN GRIGGS: We’re giving it away to people that are not even citizens of the U.S. mainly. We are supporting them. We are feeding them. We’re boarding them. We’re probably going to doctor them and probably educate them. And it’s our tax dollars that’s doing it, and it really upsets me.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: At a veterans memorial, we found Vietnam vet Ken Boles.

KEN BOLES: We have got people in this country that are needed housing. We have got homeless vets running around, and kids that are starving and things like that. They need to clean their own yard before they go to somebody else’s place.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: And at a car wash for a high school fast pitch softball team, nurse Becky Perez had similar thoughts.

BECKY PEREZ: I’m like, take care of our own before we go and help the illegal immigrants.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: Not everyone in town held that view. The immigrants are fleeing gang violence, drug lords and poverty, creating a human rights issue that Americans should pay for, said Pamela Nordstrom at the Jahva House coffee shop.

PAMELA NORDSTROM: I don’t think we can afford not to. You have them here. You can’t not just take care of them. That’s inhumane. We provide for lost animals. We have to at least provide the basic care.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: Some in Artesia think the comfortable living quarters may actually encourage those deported to venture back. But Mayor Burch believes the amenities won’t mask the government’s message: Don’t come back.

MAYOR PHILLIP BURCH: They are probably sleeping in the best bed they have ever slept in, and these are just plain bunk beds. They’re probably eating the best or the most nutritious food they have ever eaten. So, from that standpoint, you could say, yes, they will go home and they will come back to be in the Artesia Hilton.

Well, they’re going to be sent home. And the message they’re going to be sent home with is, don’t go, because you’re going to be deported.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: Unlike Murrieta, California, where jeering crowds of protesters turned back buses of undocumented immigrants headed for a processing center, here, the reaction has been more muted; 400 people showed up at a town hall earlier this month. Many voiced concerns about health problems and other issues.

The mayor believes the immigrants will get the message: Don’t return. But in downtown Artesia, we heard worries about problems that may arise, no matter how long the immigrants are detained here.

Lori Dudek used to work at the training center.

LORI DUDEK: I know they have a problem with them bringing in diseases and lice and all kinds of other things. And the workers there are getting sick.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: But a doctor at the center said the children only have illnesses common to U.S. day care centers. At the local Wal-Mart, Tita Harris said her worry is the safety of her community.

TITA HARRIS: This is the thing. They keep saying that they can keep them in that compound. But they escaped their country. A fence is not going to keep them in if they want to get out. To me, that is common sense.

DON RALEY, Chief, Artesia Police Department: For the first quarter of the year here in Artesia, over 70 percent of our crime was graffiti.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: Violent crime isn’t common in this small town, says police Chief Don Raley, and he’s not worried about escapees from the detention center.

DON RALEY: Mommas don’t leave babies, and babies don’t want to be left without mommas, so because of the nature of the population, our escape concern is significantly less than it might be if we had a mixed population.

We kind of joked about the escape flier resembling a family of ducks or quails crossing the road with momma in the front, and three or four little babies behind them. And because they are so focused as family units, and if you go into the facility, and you see the people who are inside there, they’re very focused as family units.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: Here and elsewhere, there is compassion, especially for the children. Artesia’s population is half Hispanic. Many are immigrants themselves.

Tony Estrada thinks the center is a good thing.

TONY ESTRADA: I think it’s OK because I think that everybody deserves a chance. And it’s like everybody says, we are doing it for the children. They are the ones who are getting hurt, you know?

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: Vicki and Ramon Calderon have lived in Mexico, and understand poverty.

VICKI CALDERON: I feel for these ladies and these children. I think they deserve help, as much as we can give. We help everybody in the world. Why can’t we help the people that come here seeking refuge?

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: Many in the town of 11,000 have tried to help. Hayley Klein is executive director of the Chamber of Commerce.

HAYLEY KLEIN: In a way, I have been surprised. We tend to take care of our own in this community, but they have — there’s been a very strong outpouring of concern for the innocent victims.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: Donations have poured in and piled up at the Chamber’s office.

HAYLEY KLEIN: Folks have tried to donate all kinds of things, from formula, to diapers. But really what they are accepting are clothes, shoes for women and children, toys, art supplies, coloring books, crayons, and books, reading books, preferably in Spanish. Those are the things that they will take.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: Still, for many who live and work here, the issue is far larger than the detention center. It’s about immigration policy determined 1,800 miles away in Washington, says oil industry worker Randy Ray.

RANDY RAY: There has to be a point where you have to say, this is enough, we have to stop, and we have to secure our borders. Then we deal with it at the border itself.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: Meanwhile, the flood of immigrants continues. About 40 people from Artesia were flown back to Honduras on Monday. Officials expect more to be deported in the coming days and weeks and new busloads of immigrants to arrive here.