ARTESIA, N.M. (CBS Las Vegas/AP) — Hundreds of Central American immigrants could be at a detention center in southeastern New Mexico for up to a year, according to a mayor briefed by federal officials.
Artesia Mayor Phillip Burch told The Associated Press on Thursday that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials recently informed him of detention plans at a border training facility that has been largely dormant for six years.
Around 700 immigrants will be housed at Artesia’s Federal Law Enforcement Training Center for at least six months to a year, Burch said. But Burch thinks the detention center could be in operation longer than that “unless the policy in Washington changes.”
Last week, the Obama administration announced plans to open the Artesia center and other temporary sites for families due to a surge in children suspected of entering the country illegally.
Border Patrol agents have apprehended more than 52,000 immigrant children crossing the border alone since October.
News of the detention center opening in Artesia have stirred up fears and anger among some residents who worry about possible illnesses, a lack of resources and dramatic changes to this small, close-knit city in the middle of oil and gas country. Some said the detention center will serve as encouragement for more immigrants to come.
“I don’t know if they are bringing hungry people or dopers,” Cecil Laman, 89. “But what this creates is that they will tell their families to bring more in.”
Others said the federal government was going about the crisis all wrong and should be quickly sending immigrants back to their countries of origin.
“These kids didn’t get here by themselves. They were brought here by adults,” said Collier Allan, 62, who lives near the training center. “What we should do is take them to the Air Force base, put them on a plane escorted by two fighter jets and send them back, and come back for the next group.”
Burch said some area residents were worried about unvaccinated children and some immigrants possibly trying to escape. But he said ICE doctors plan to evaluate all immigrants upon entry and then again 48 hours later to ease concerns over diseases.
Asked if he thought a new prison was opening up in the city, Burch said “to some degree” it was. “But the people here are women and children ages infant to 17. They are not hardened criminals,” he said.
New Mexico state lawmakers said they were not told of the plan until last week.
“It raises a lot of suspicion and creates a lot of distrust, as far as the community goes,” state Rep. Candy Spence Ezzell told KOAT-TV. “Each one of these rooms will have eight bunk beds. There will be televisions and play things for kids … it looks like a better pre-K program than what our kids will be experiencing.”
Ezzell questioned the use of federal dollars to house the immigrants at a time when veterans aren’t getting proper health care and she’s encouraging residents to speak out about the facility.
“I was told this is federal. Did they not understand that it is the tax payers’ dollars that are funding them federally?” Ezzell told KOAT.
Ezzell also noted the irony of housing immigrants at a Border Patrol facility where people are being trained to stop immigrants from crossing the border illegally.
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