Reporter’s notebook: Dispute simmers at border detention center over … crayons

ARTESIA, N.M. — It’s hard to believe — given the political bantering, the economic hardships and the humanitarian crisis all swirling around the immigration issue — that crayons are cause for distress. “Crayon-gate” was the word two volunteer attorneys used to describe their day last week at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center here, about 70 miles from the U-S Mexico border.

Lawyers doing pro bono work for the detained families spend long days inside the secure center working with mothers who have crossed the U.S.-Mexico border illegally. After a day’s work, they gather at a local church hall to compare notes and share stories. Going around the table on Monday, Aug. 18, they introduced themselves and offered a one-word characterization of their day.

Nat Damren of Idaho said “crayons” made his day. Then, Sarah Corstange, a lawyer from New York, picked up the tale, reporting that an asylum officer had given her Guatemalan client’s tiny daughter a restaurant-sized pack of 5 crayons. An Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer “fixated on” the crayons, saying “give them to me, those are contraband,” Corstange recounted. Standing up, she acted out the conversation paraphrasing the ICE officer: “If you give a kid a crayon, what are they going to do next? They’re going to want to get on the floor, they’re going to color and then what’s going to happen? Somebody is going to come along like this and bam, they’re going to kick the kid in the face and then whose fault is it?”

Laughter ensued in the meeting room. Jenna Peyton of Ohio said that the ICE officer came to her later saying, “Listen, I got kids, I’m not trying to be tough.” But she said he told her he was “going by the latest information from the higher-ups.” Still, some in the room wanted to take the crayon caper to the next level and get a ruling that crayons are indeed safe. The next day, in a move of defiance, Laura Lichter, a Denver attorney and past president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, smuggled 3 large packs of 64 crayons each into the center. Also in her bag were dinosaur stickers and colorful hair ties.

There is a serious reason for the child’s play. Attorneys say the kiddie swag helps amuse the children while they counsel their moms. Lichter said there is no child care for the legal sessions. “So not only do I as a lawyer have to deal with a situation where the woman I’m interviewing is minding her three-year-old child and the seven-year-old is over there and the thirteen-year-old, who’s causing trouble back in the corner and [I’m] trying to talk to her about how many times and how often did your husband assault you,” she said, “but we have women who are appearing in interviews before asylum officers where they’re not about to talk about the fact that the gangs threatened to kill their children while their children are in the room.”

Crayons are certainly permitted in the dormitories and elsewhere. In fact, ICE has provided many new toys for the children. These crayons were handed out in an interview room separate from the living quarters. Corstange told us late Thursday evening that the crackdown on crayons and other toys has only grown stricter. Children often spend as many as six hours in the interview rooms with only a single television for entertainment. The lawyers are permitted to give them paper but no drawing implements.

So, are crayons (and stickers and hair ties) truly forbidden in some areas? We asked ICE officials in El Paso. ICE offered a statement saying the children “are provided with recreational activities, including arts and crafts materials such as crayons” but did not address whether those materials are allowed in the interview areas.

No reporters have been allowed inside the detention center since a heavily supervised and short media tour on July 11. ICE has said it plans to schedule similar visits beginning next month that will allow access while safeguarding the privacy of the families held in Artesia.

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