Kevin Sieff

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Henry Arroliga lives in South Texas’ Port Isabel Detention Center, one of the nation’s largest immigration detention facilities. After 17 years of living illegally in the United States, he’s bracing himself to return to his native Nicaragua. Although Arroliga could very well be deported within the next month, the 2010 U.S. Census will count him as a resident of Los Fresnos, in Cameron County. His short stint at Port Isabel will pay dividends to the city, county, and state for the next decade.

Arroliga is one of more than 30,000 immigrant detainees who will be counted in this year’s census. Four hundred billion dollars in federal funding over the next 10 years will be distributed based on the count, making detainees worth thousands of dollars to cities, counties, and states where they are briefly detained. The government will allocate more than $100 million in additional funds to places where immigrants are detained.

More than funding is at stake: The composition of legislative districts, county board districts, and city council districts could be skewed by soon-to-be-deported prisoners. Census data are used on the state and national levels to determine the sizes and shapes of these districts. The inclusion of detainees in the count means fewer eligible voters per elected official in places like Cameron County. It also violates the principle of “proportional representation.”

For decades, the government has included prisoners in the census, regardless of their immigration status. In the past, the impact of immigrant detainees has been slight. This is the first decennial census since the re-organization of immigrantion agencies and the subsequent boom in immigration detention. Immigration prisons have expanded from 7,500 beds in 1995 to more than 30,000 in 2010. About one-third of the nation’s immigrant detainees are held in Texas.

That doesn’t count undocumented immigrants in the custody of the U.S. Marshals Service awaiting deportation proceedings—thousands in Texas alone. Carl Caulk, the U.S. Marshals assistant
director for prisoner operations, says that recent Border Patrol crackdowns like Operation Streamline have sent the number of immigrants in Marshals’ custody through the roof. Operation Streamline mandated that charges be filed against virtually every person caught crossing the border illegally. Like ICE detainees, these immigrants will be counted in the 2010 census.

The Census Bureau’s inclusion of immigrant detainees has received little notice. It comes at a tense time in the immigration debate, with reform advocates facing a challenging political climate. This year’s population count points to an often ignored irony: The country’s detention facilities are concentrated in districts represented by some of Congress’ most outspoken advocates of reform—including several South Texas congressmen who will benefit from counting immigrant detainees.

U.S. Rep. Solomon Ortiz, a Corpus Christi Democrat, introduced a comprehensive immigration reform bill in the House this spring. Yet with about 5,000 beds for immigrant detainees, his South Texas district stands to see millions of additional tax dollars allocated on the basis of the census.

In response to questions from the Observer, Ortiz issued a statement reading: “The U.S. Census Bureau is mandated by the United States Constitution to count every resident regardless of citizenship status. I can assure you that it is in everybody’s best interest to get as many people as possible counted.”

Until this census, the count had never identified exactly where “group quarters” like prisons are and how many people occupy them. For the first time, this census will let states decide whether to count detainees in local populations. By excluding prisoners, states would get a more accurate population count and would ensure that funds are not distributed according to locations of large detention centers. The amount of federal funding directed to the state would not change.

Counting prisoners—residents or immigrants—is against Texas state law. “A person who is an inmate in a penal institution or who is an involuntary inmate in a hospital or eleemosynary institution does not, while an inmate, acquire residence at the place where the institution is located,” reads Texas Election Code Section 1.015. Nevertheless, the census counts them as residents.

“There’s a clear discrepancy between state law and the Census Bureau’s methodology,” said Peter Wagner of the Prison Policy Initiative, a Massachusetts-based research group.

Congressman Ortiz had no comment on how detainees could affect federal funding and redistricting. Some of his former supporters see his willingness to profit from his district’s immigrant detainees as evidence of hypocrisy.

“I can’t think of anything more two-faced,” said the Rev. Miguel Rivera, president of the National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders, and an advocate for immigration reform.

To the Census Bureau’s dismay, Rivera has urged undocumented immigrants not to fill out the census forms. “It’s our greatest bargaining chip,” he said. “The states and counties want the funding, and we want the legalization.” Rivera’s campaign has received considerable attention, and while many Latino leaders disagree with his approach, he is convinced that threatening to withhold the instruments of federal funding is the way to attract politicians to the table.

Within facilities like Port Isabel, detainees likely won’t be able to opt out of the census. According to Census Bureau officials, for the last month detention center employees have been completing census forms on behalf of inmates like Henry Arroliga.

“They’re using them to secure federal funding and political power, and then they’re shipping them out of the country,” Rivera said. “It’s an insult.”

The issue has made Rivera and U.S. Sen. David Vitter, a Louisiana Republican, unlikely bedfellows. Vitter, along with several other conservatives in Congress, supported an unsuccessful effort last fall to exclude noncitizens from apportionment and redistricting counts. “I don’t believe noncitizens should be counted in congressional reapportionment,” Vitter told Congress last fall. “I don’t think states which have particularly large noncitizen populations should have more say and more clout in Congress, and that states like Louisiana that don’t should be penalized.” Or, if you follow the logic, that states like Texas should be rewarded.

In Raymondville, a rural city 100 miles south of Corpus Christi, the census count is buzzing along. The Census Bureau has a booth outside City Hall. Local TV stations are advertising the importance of filling out the forms. People have been hired to distribute forms, part of a 1.2 million temporary work force nationwide that will make up the largest civilian mobilization of Americans in history.

In Raymondville, the conversation isn’t about the scale of the government’s undertaking. It’s about the Willacy Detention Center, the country’s largest detention facility, holding up to 3,000 prisoners. When the census came up at the last City Council meeting, a councilman asked city secretary Eleazar Garcia: “What about the detainees? Do we get to count them?”

If its population exceeds 10,000 in the census, Raymondville would be in the running for a panoply of state grants. The only way that could happen is if the city’s immigrant detainees are included in the count. “Overall, we would benefit if we could hit that mark,” Garcia said.

So would La Villa, just north of McAllen. The 2000 census found its population to be 1,305. Just a year later, the Louisiana-based private prison company LCS Corrections Services Inc. opened the East Hidalgo Detention Center, which houses up to 990 immigrant detainees. According to its warden, the facility is almost always full.

After the 2010 Census is tallied, the detention center will nearly double La Villa’s population on paper, potentially doubling its federal funding allocation distributed by the state according to population. (The facility, run by the U.S. Marshals, is already a boon to the local government, which receives $2 per prisoner per day.)

The distribution of funds based on immigrant detainee populations “points to a flaw in the way the population counts are used,” said Audrey Singer, a demographer at the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank. “The fact that ICE detainees are geographically concentrated will have an effect on the count.”

In Washington, there appears to be confusion about the inclusion of immigrant detainees in the census. Congressman Henry Cuellar, a Laredo Democrat, represents a district that includes the 1,900-bed South Texas Detention Center and the 450-bed Laredo Contract Detention Facility. He defended the inclusion of immigrant detainees: “Vitally important funding that supports these facilities relies, in part, on census data.”

Experts say Cuellar is wrong. “Immigration prisons are funded by the Department of Homeland Security, not formula grants” based on census data, said Wagner of the Prison Policy Initiative.  
Like Rep. Ortiz, Cuellar is a longstanding advocate of immigration reform. His attitude about immigrant detainees in the census has disturbed immigration-reform advocates in his district.

One reason Texas’ congressmen and state representatives might be looking the other way is that 375,000 Texans were not counted in 2000, according to a Census Bureau study. That cost the state a huge amount of federal dollars. The main culprit, experts agree, was the difficulty of getting undocumented immigrants—including an estimated 150,000 in the Rio Grande Valley alone—to participate.

This year, the Census Bureau has spent millions on a campaign to convince minorities, including undocumented immigrants, to get themselves counted. Still, community organizers and activists along the border say the effort faces considerable challenges.

“The census worker shows up and expects people to be compliant,” said Michael Seifert of the Equal Voice for America’s Families Network. “Much laughter is heard in the cantina around that idea.” During the 2000 census, Seifert said some immigrants distrusted and feared the government—a fear then inspired by President Bill Clinton’s 1996 immigration enforcement bills.

“I find it so sweetly ironic that those who have been caught up in the biggest dragnet of a civilian population in American history—the detainees—will be included in the census count, and therefore serve as a ‘corrective’ to all of those people who will ignore the census request,” Seifert said.

The issue could be resolved if Texas decides to remove immigrant detainees from the count before distributing state funds and addressing redistricting. The Census Bureau has agreed to release data on inmate populations earlier than usual to let states and localities consider it in apportioning districts for 2011 and 2012 races. It’s an issue that could be broached in the 2011 legislative session. Bills to make such adjustments are already pending in New York, Maryland, Illinois, Florida and Wisconsin. So far, including immigrant detainees in Texas’ census count has been a non-issue.

“It’s hard to believe that the victims of our inhumane immigration detention system are being used like this,” Rivera said, “like pawns in a game of state and national politics.”

Kevin Sieff, an Observer contributing writer, lives in Washington, D.C.

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On the morning of March 10, Andres Hernandez crawled ashore on South Padre Island, spitting saltwater and blood onto the sand. His clothes were soaked, torn, falling off his slim frame. He tried to get the attention of tourists sunbathing on the beach, but they ignored him.

"They thought I was drunk," he recalls. "They looked the other way."

Hernandez, 43, had swum for 11 hours after his small fishing boat capsized in the Gulf of Mexico around midnight. In the darkness, he and two other fishermen flailed amongst their catch: more than 100 bloodied sharks, some still struggling for life. "I was sure we were going to be eaten," Hernandez says.

He paddled frantically, not sure if he was moving closer to land or farther out to sea. Within minutes, he'd lost sight of the other fishermen and the sharks.

Around 11 a.m., Hernandez stumbled toward the island's high-rises, squinting at crowds of spring-breakers. He needed to tell someone that his friends were still lost at sea, that he desperately needed help. Hernandez also feared he would have to answer a question that could complicate everything: What was he doing in American waters?

Hernandez lives on Playa Bagdad, a beach just south of the U.S.-Mexico border, where 25-foot fishing boats called lanchas and ramshackle huts line the shore. In front of his one-room shanty, dogs pick at discarded shark carcasses. A few hours before it sank, Hernandez's lancha was parked here, loaded with more than 800 yards of fishing line.

Fifteen miles of farmland separate the beach from Matamoros, the city of 1.2 million across the border from Brownsville, and South Padre Island, where Hernandez washed up. Despite its proximity to the United States and to northern Mexico's industrial sprawl, Playa Bagdad has no electricity, no running water, and no regulatory enforcement. You can catch, kill, and sell anything that lands in your hull—a scourge to the few environmentalists who know the beach exists.

"They're fishing in a prime habitat for juvenile sandbar and blacktip sharks," says Karyl Brewster-Geisz, a biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who produced a 15-page report on illegal shark fishing along the U.S.-Mexico border in 2005. "And unlike the U.S., where permits are issued for particular species," she says, fishermen in Playa Bagdad "take whatever they can get."

Scientists say a growing trade in shark fins is depleting shark populations around the globe and disrupting ecosystems long dependent on the predator's presence. On the Texas-Mexico border, shark fishing threatens more than the environment. "This is our sovereignty we're trying to protect," says Lt. Mickey Lalor, commanding officer of the U.S. Coast Guard's South Padre Island station. "These are our resources. These are our waters."

In the last decade, the Coast Guard has devoted a growing effort, now 60 officers strong, to deterring illegal shark fishing. That hasn't stopped men from making the dangerous trip north in search of sharks.

Playa Bagdad's fishermen, like Hernandez, earn about $15 a day hauling in sharks that will eventually feed businesspeople in Hong Kong and Beijing. In large Asian cities, a bowl of shark fin soup sells for as much as $100. The resulting surge in shark fishing happened thousands of miles away, where the Rio Grande meets the Gulf of Mexico.

"Where there are sharks, we make money," Hernandez says. "When the nets are empty, we have nothing."

Shark Fins

The opportunity attracts itinerants and career fishermen from all over Mexico. Most come for the sharks and the reliable income. Others, like Andres Hernandez, have more complicated stories.

Hernandez became a shark fisherman by accident. Six years later, he's not sure how it happened—how he landed on a beach 1,200 miles from home, slicing fins off some of the Gulf's largest hammerheads and blacktips.

When he left Chiapas, Mexico, in the early 1990s, Hernandez planned to score a construction job in Texas or California. There was money across the border, enough to send a check home every month, maybe buy a house or two in Chiapas. He rode for three weeks atop the tren de muerte, or train of death, which daring immigrants take from southern Mexico to the border, and was apprehended by the U.S. Border Patrol. He tried again and again to cross the border—through farms, under international bridges—each time he was detained and sent back across the Rio Grande.

Returning to Chiapas would have been shameful, Hernandez says. With a second-grade education, he found only the occasional job picking okra in Matamoros. He was in his late 30s then, slightly hunched, almost frail-looking except for his calloused hands. A friend told him there would be jobs on Playa Bagdad.

After a few weeks on the beach, Hernandez discovered his friend was right. The demand for shark fishermen is unceasing. The job is so dangerous and so uncomfortable that few are willing to do it. When someone drowns or loses a limb to a shark, someone has to replace him. About 10 of Playa Bagdad's fishermen drowned in 2008.

Hernandez learned these dangers firsthand as he flailed for life, surrounded by the sharks that had spilled from his overturned boat.

On March 10, as usual, Hernandez's workday began at 5 p.m. He said goodbye to his girlfriend, Maria Elena, a quiet woman 20 years his elder. He walked out of their makeshift hut full of clothes and old coffee cans. The beach came to life just after sunset, when about 100 fishermen began preparing their lanchas for 10-hour trips into the Gulf. Next to the boats, decaying signs advertised restaurants and bars: La Novia del Mar, Disco Coco Loco, La Bamba. The former seaside haunts had been destroyed by hurricanes and tropical storms years ago. The beach belonged to shark fishermen.

Hernandez climbed into his boat, a 25-foot, open-top skiff called Relampago, or Lightning, with a yellow bolt emblazoned on its side. Two crewmates joined him. The three had been fishing together for more than a year. Hernandez knew the others only by their nicknames: El Pelon, for the particularly slick crew cut he once gave himself, and La Cherna, for his resemblance to a round, bottom-dwelling fish.

A rusty tractor launched Relampago into the surf. The crew used wooden pylons to propel themselves through the shallows before tugging the cord of a 10-year-old motor and speeding east through the Gulf. Thirty minutes later, they crossed the border.

At the intersection of the Gulf of Mexico and the Rio Grande, the fishermen saw no Border Patrol, no buoys, no flags along the river. In the distance, Hernandez could barely make out the pale lighthouse south of the Rio Grande—the only indication that the lancha had entered American waters. This night, Hernandez says they drifted north unintentionally, after a strong current overwhelmed the motor. But it's typically no accident when Playa Bagdad's fishermen cross the border. It's to hunt sharks.

Playa Bagdad's fishermen have concocted all kinds of explanations for the productivity of American waters. They credit the wind and the tides. They point to the reefs where fish are the most dense. At the core of their reasoning, most fishermen claim that U.S. environmental regulations have preserved the shark population north of the border. "We're poor Mexicans. We catch anything we can sell," Hernandez says. "And after a while, we caught everything in Mexico. With American regulations, there are still sharks to catch on the other side."

Fishermen leaving Playa Bagdad at night.

Jose Leonardo Castillo-Geniz, a leading shark biologist at the National Fisheries Institute of Mexico, studied the Playa Bagdad fishermen over several years in the 1990s. They came to know Castillo-Geniz well, sometimes beckoning to him from across the beach. "Hey biologist," they would yell, pointing to a freshly caught pile of sharks, "these sharks are gringos."

Castillo-Geniz never established why fishermen took great risks to pursue American sharks—the gringos—across the border. "Maybe they know about nursing areas where adults mate and give birth," he says. "Or maybe the competition for fishery grounds obligate some fishermen to catch sharks in U.S. waters."

The biologist's concern was not where the sharks were caught, but how lack of oversight had led to overfishing of several economically and culturally important shark species. If regulations aren't implemented in Mexican fisheries, particularly along the border, Castillo-Geniz fears those populations could collapse. On Playa Bagdad, he documented a decrease in catch sizes and a high number of infants and pregnant females being caught commercially—clear signs that the fishery isn't sustainable.

There's a painful irony in the exhaustive pursuit of sharks in Mexico—where the Olmecs and Aztecs once consecrated the fish. Later, in the 19th and 20th centuries, sharks were one of the country's cheapest sources of animal protein, making it a staple in poor, coastal communities. In the 21st century, Asian demand for shark fin soup is driving the price of the fish higher and drawing more fishermen into the trade.

When Castillo-Geniz published his report in 1998, he and other biologists at the National Fisheries Institute used it to lobby for increased regulations of Mexico's artisanal fisheries. His efforts to create Normas Oficiales Mexicanas have repeatedly failed, he says, because of pressure from the commercial fishing industry on the country's politicians. The situation is urgent, Castillo-Geniz says: If Mexico doesn't get stricter with shark fishermen, and if the fishermen continue to cast their nets across the border, the Gulf's biodiversity could be threatened.

Just off the coast of South Texas, Mexican shark fishermen play a high stakes game of cat and mouse with the U.S. Coast Guard. Watch the Coast Guard's aerial footage of a chase along the border, with photos by Daniel Lopez and Kevin Sieff. Produced by Kevin Sieff.

In 2007, Science magazine published a report arguing that overfishing large sharks had destroyed native species in the Atlantic. The authors, five marine biologists, reported that typical prey of hammerheads, duskies and other sharks—like the cownose ray—are thriving with fewer predators in the water. In turn, those animals are destroying mollusk populations along the Eastern Seaboard. Scientists call the phenomenon a "trophic cascade"—one likely to be repeated in the Gulf.

"The decline of the great sharks matters to the ocean's ecosystems," says Charles Peterson, one of the Science report's authors and a professor of marine biology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "In this case, overfishing of these sharks led to the loss of a fishery for shellfish and the loss of services that industry provided to fishermen and customers." During a single month, Peterson said, cownose rays—no longer kept in check by a healthy shark population—consumed enough bay scallops to close a 100-year-old fishery off the coast of North Carolina.

In the Gulf, Peterson worries, the same phenomenon might be accelerating. "When you have fishermen who are entirely dependent on shark fishing, so that there are no other options for you, that becomes a significant issue," he says.

Some time around midnight, the three men on Hernandez's lancha tossed 800 yards of fishing line with dozens of dangling hooks over the boat's rails. In American waters, the key is to unload quickly, set up the line in known avenues for migratory sharks, and keep an eye out for U.S. Coast Guard boats.

The sharks swam by in schools, groups of 10 or 15 at a time, causing explosions of whitewater. The men waited in darkness for the catch to collect. In less than an hour, the seas had grown rougher. Swells buffeted the tiny skiff as the fishermen filled the hull with sharks. The temperature dropped. The wind rose to a howl, knocking the three men off balance. But the sharks kept coming, so the crew agreed to wait it out.

The catch was one of the biggest Hernandez had seen. He tried to guess how many kilos they'd caught. Six hundred? Seven hundred? There were blacktips, hammerheads and sandbar sharks, almost all of them cazones, or juveniles, about 2 feet long. The crew would be paid 25 cents for every pound of shark meat and $15 for every pound of fin.

As he loaded the lancha, Hernandez was seeing dollar signs. Then he noticed the hull sinking, saw the boat start taking on water.

It was too late to ditch fish or gear. Water was coming from all sides, pouring over the lancha's rails. A few minutes later, the three fishermen were swimming, trying to grab anything that would keep them afloat. The boat carried no rafts, no signal flares, and only one life preserver.

Hernandez drifted from the sinking lancha, staring up at the moon to gauge where land might be. He paddled slowly west until he saw what looked like a lifesaver ring. He reached for it, threw it over his head, and started his 11-hour swim.

Lt. Mickey Lalor, the Coast Guard commander, got the call around noon, after Hernandez was found by a Border Patrol agent. "Capsized lancha. Six miles out."

Lalor was used to getting calls about Mexican lanchas. At least twice a week his men chase down illegal fishermen at 30 or 40 knots, often blasting the outboard motor with a shotgun or firing pepper balls at the motors of fleeing boats.

Mexican shark fishermen catch more than 55,000 sharks in American waters annually, according to an estimate by NOAA. Keeping them south of the border has become the focus of the island's station.

Illegal shark fishing wasn't always a problem on the Texas-Mexico border. Mexico's first shark fisheries, founded in the 1890s, were on the country's Pacific coast. Even then, most of the catch was transported to Asia. But in the 1970s, as demand for shark fins grew, Playa Bagdad's fishery began to grow. Bagdad became one of the country's most reliable sources of sharks.

Lalor had coordinated more apprehensions than he could count. But this was the first time he had been called to save a lancha's crew, the first time he'd be trying to do shark fishermen a favor. He sent three boats—the same ones used for high-speed chases—to search for Hernandez's friends. The Coast Guard's plane and helicopter left Corpus Christi to scan the Gulf from above.

The helicopter found the lancha first. It was overturned, surrounded by floating debris. La Cherna was holding onto the boat, waving with one hand at the pilot. The helicopter dropped a harness and lifted him out of the Gulf. Officers took him to the Coast Guard station, administered first aid, and asked about the third fisherman, El Pelon.

The catch.

"He told us the other survivor was within shouting distance of him," Lalor says. "So that really concentrated our efforts."

In his office at the foot of South Padre Island's 25-story high-rises, Lalor looked at a map of the Gulf on the wall, calculating where the current might have taken the missing fisherman. Coast Guard officers swept the area for almost 36 hours. When the sun set on the second day, Lalor called off the search for El Pelon. The station went back to its normal routine, running morning patrol missions to the border.

Not long after he swam ashore, the Border Patrol dropped Hernandez off at the Brownsville-Matamoros international bridge. That's always been the government's policy: onfiscate the equipment and the catch (if they haven' been destroyed) and send the fishermen back across the border. For now, there's no jail sentence and no fine for Mexican nationals who fish illegally in American waters.

Still, the costs are high for fishermen like Hernandez. Not long after returning to Playa Bagdad, he heard news that the Coast Guard had called off the search for El Pelon.

It was a Sunday. He walked to Playa Bagdad's plywood church.

Hernandez couldn't will himself back into a boat, which left him unemployed and with plenty of time to pray. "I hope my friend is alive," he recalls saying. "I hope he's across the border, starting a new life for himself."

Inside the church, Pastor Rafael Garcia leaned on a row of teal-blue pews, preparing to lead the Sunday service. Garcia, who divides his time between preaching and shark fishing, had done this several times in the last year—delivered a sermon while one of the community's fishermen was lost at sea. "It's a hard life we have here," the pastor said. "So much tragedy."

Garcia mentioned El Pelon briefly and obliquely, asking his small congregation for prayers.

Then he moved on to the scripture. Hernandez, who can't read, opened his Bible and tried to follow along. Through the church's open windows, he saw the Gulf ebb quietly.

For weeks, Hernandez waited for news of El Pelon. Hearing nothing, he started to hope his friend had somehow survived. Then he got a call from someone down the beach. A body had washed ashore across the border. The authorities needed someone to see if it was El Pelon.

When Hernandez met the group of uniformed men at the Matamoros international bridge, there was no body, only a photograph. The face in the photo was missing its eyeballs. It barely looked human. The torso was bloated and sunburnt. Hernandez recognized El Pelon's torn clothing, including a piece of orange rain gear.

"Yeah," he told the man holding the photo. "That's him."

No one knew where El Pelon was from—as with many of Playa Bagdad's fishermen. No one knew if he had family back home, wherever home was. Local authorities buried him in an unmarked grave.

"It didn't seem right," Hernandez says. "But what could we do?"

La Cherna wasn't around to help. Hernandez's other shipmate had been apprehended in American waters a week after being rescued by the Coast Guard.

Of the three crewmen, Hernandez is the only one still on Playa Bagdad. He's not sure if he's ready to fish again, not even sure he wants to live so close to the ocean after seeing what it did to El Pelon.

"But what else can I do? What else am I qualified to do?" Hernandez asks, raising his voice at no one.

Fifty yards from his hut, a lancha arrives with a boatload of sharks. Fishermen pull out their machetes. They slice off the sharks' fins and pile the bodies in a truck filled with ice. One fisherman slips a few peso bills into his pocket. Hernandez checks out the scene. He can't be sure which side of the border the sharks came from. He doesn't really care.

He sizes up the catch, watches the fishermen take the last shark out of the lancha. Hernandez shakes his head.

"Before we capsized," he says, "we had even more sharks than that."Kevin Sieff is an Observer contributing writer based in Washington, D.C. See his and photographer Daniel Lopez's audio slide show on Mexican shark fishing at texasobserver.org.

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In July, as Hurricane Dolly made landfall in South Texas, Susanna, Raul, and their daughter Nayelly huddled in their two-room wooden shanty, watching water pour through cracks in the ceiling and walls. Dolly was only a Category 1 storm, but in the family's unincorporated colonia—one of the country's poorest communities—their home was one of many that didn't stand a chance.

Susanna had wanted her family to flee the colonia, located just east of McAllen. "I looked at the house, with its flimsy walls," she says, "and I thought, 'What are we going to do here? We're totally exposed.'" As undocumented immigrants, Susanna and Raul felt they had no choice. In May, a U.S. Border Patrol spokesperson had told local media outlets that immigration checkpoints about 80 miles north of the border would continue operating during a storm. The agency later said it would "not impede evacuations," but during Dolly, when evacuation was voluntary, agents stopped every vehicle headed out of South Texas. Susanna and Raul knew that if the family evacuated, they would be asked about their citizenship before continuing to Austin or San Antonio. (The family asked that their last name not be used because of deportation concerns.) According to Texas State Demographer Karl Eschbach, about 150,000 of the Rio Grande Valley's 1 million residents are undocumented. For that population, evacuation could come at a high cost. If the Border Patrol works checkpoints during a storm, Susanna and Raul could be detained, deported and separated from their 4-year-old daughter, a U.S. citizen by birth. So while 23,000 South Texans evacuated during Dolly, Susanna's family stayed put. Wind tore through plywood panels, spitting rain between gaps in their walls. It took three hours for the storm to destroy their home. The family huddled in their hallway, where they stayed safe. The next morning, they picked through the rubble and started looking for another place to live. That was just over a year ago. After staying with friends a few weeks, Susanna and Raul moved to another home in the same colonia—a square place with a thin, metal roof and all-too-familiar gaps in the concrete façade. With another hurricane season here, there's no comfort for Susanna. "It's all I think about," she says. "What will we do if the big storm comes this year? Where will we go?" 150,000 undocumented immigrants will want to flee the Rio Grande Valley if a violent hurricane hits South Texas. But U.S. Border Patrol checkpoints might keep them from evacuating. Hear from Valley residents and U.S. Border Patrol agents in this audio slideshow. Produced by Kevin Sieff.Download Hi-Res Video (Quicktime) » The Border Patrol has been even more emphatic lately about keeping its immigration checkpoints in Sarita and Falfurrias open during storms. The checkpoints are along the only highways linking the Valley to Central Texas, where evacuation routes run. Border Patrol officials tell the Observer that even those who evacuate South Texas in state school buses will be asked to prove their immigration status. Those in the country illegally will be detained. "The checkpoint will remain open as long as it's safe for the agents, the public, and the [checkpoint] structure," says John Lopez, the Border Patrol's Rio Grande Valley spokesperson. "If there's an evacuation called, we'll work closely with state and local officials to ensure a safe and speedy evacuation. ... But that's not going to preclude us from doing our job, which is to stop illegal entrants and narcotics and other threats from entering the country." Lopez says the checkpoints' supervisors and the Border Patrol sector chief will decide whether to keep operating. Checkpoints won't close, he says, until storms have made landfall—too late for families like Susanna's to get out. Community organizers and immigration attorneys have written to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, asking that immigration enforcement be suspended during "any phase of emergency preparedness, relief, and recovery." They've held small protests, marching with signs that read, "We don't need a Katrina in the Valley." It's a bold analogy, but a potentially accurate one if the Valley's legions of undocumented residents decide not to evacuate. In a place notorious for flooding, so close to the Gulf and protected by largely untested levees, there is plenty of reason for concern. Because Susanna is here illegally, she hasn't gone to protests. She can only wait and hope for a guarantee from the Border Patrol that her family can evacuate without fear of deportation. She's pessimistic. "If they checked papers during Dolly," she asks, "what's going to stop them from doing it again?" Nothing, it appears. Last summer, even as hurricane-force winds blew in from the Gulf during Dolly, work continued at the Sarita and Falfurrias checkpoints. "We were in imminent danger," says the Sarita checkpoint's supervisor, Ruben Rendon. "High-gust winds, torrential-type rains. It was kind of eerie." As conditions worsened, Rendon says, illegal activity increased. In the hour before the storm hit, agents say they confiscated 10,000 pounds of marijuana and apprehended dozens of undocumented immigrants. Lopez says smugglers and undocumented immigrants were hoping the Border Patrol had relaxed enforcement during the storm. "It showed us that crime and extenuating circumstances go hand in hand sometimes," he says. If the checkpoints were closed during a storm this season, agents say, they worry that criminals would seize the chance to transport drugs and immigrants north from the Valley. But continuing operations at the checkpoints would dissuade thousands of undocumented Valley residents from following the suggested evacuation route to San Antonio. It's not just a source of anxiety for undocumented folks like Susanna and Raul. Some South Texans worry that serious traffic jams at the checkpoints could make evacuation difficult for U.S. citizens, too. "We already pay a very large price for living on the border," says Corinna Spencer-Scheurich, a Valley immigration attorney who signed the letter to Napolitano. "But this is asking us to pay the ultimate price of our lives."

The checkpoints in Sarita and Falfurrias are gray, tollbooth-like structures spanning two highway lanes. Both are situated about 75 miles north of the border amid scrubby, South Texas ranchland. Traffic is substantial. In Falfurrias, 15,000 cars pass through every day, stopping an average of nine seconds.

The drill is familiar to South Texans. One agent walks a drug-sniffing dog around the vehicle. Another questions the driver and passengers: "Are you U.S. citizens?" the agent asks first. The next questions will be about the car's contents, or the driver's destination—anything that might make a drug smuggler or undocumented immigrant slip up. Because passports are not required, agents pay close attention to averted eyes and nervous gestures. If something seems off, the vehicle is searched. That's how agents at Sarita and Falfurrias have found marijuana in truck tires and undocumented immigrants in piñatas and speaker boxes. "Not only do we stop contraband smuggling and alien smuggling," Rendon says. "We also use our line of questioning to find aggravated felons and other wanted criminals." Many immigrants circumvent the checkpoints, walking through ranches for 10 to 20 miles to avoid the questions. Every year, ranchers find bodies of immigrants unable to make the difficult journey. For thousands more, the checkpoints make leaving the Valley, even temporarily, impossible. Hospitals in Corpus Christi, attorneys in San Antonio and field trips to the state Capitol are all effectively off limits. (Border Patrol agents work the Valley's airports, too.) Still, many try to slip through the checkpoints, and many are caught. In 2006, the Falfurrias station apprehended almost four times more undocumented immigrants—20,000—than the town's population. The Border Patrol uses the checkpoints as a second line of defense—a way of catching aliens and, more often, drugs that evaded authorities at the border. The Department of Justice considers the checkpoints the "functional equivalent of the border," meaning that agents don't need probable cause to search vehicles and question passengers. There are 33 checkpoints along the Southwest border—17 in Texas—and one in northern New York state. In 2005, 8 percent of undocumented-immigrant apprehensions were made at interior checkpoints. The same checkpoints were responsible for 31 percent of the marijuana and about 74 percent of the cocaine seized nationally—418,102 pounds of marijuana and 10,853 pounds of cocaine in fiscal year 2004, according to a 2005 report (the most recent) by the federal Government Accountability Office. According to the GAO's 2005 report, "Border Patrol does not systematically evaluate the effectiveness of interior checkpoint operations," so GAO auditors couldn't complete their assessment of the checkpoints' productivity. "[A] lack of data makes it difficult to estimate the direct costs of interior traffic checkpoints," the GAO found. Neither could the researchers quantify the indirect costs of the checkpoints, such as delays caused to commuters and commercial shippers. (A new GAO report is due in late August.) Lack of proof that they work hasn't stopped the Border Patrol from increasing the number of interior checkpoints since 1976, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled them constitutional. Eight of the agency's nine sectors along the Southwest border now have checkpoints, all of them between 25 and 100 miles north of the border. In keeping with their near-universal support for Border Patrol expansion and funding, politicians have backed the checkpoints enthusiastically. For more than a decade, Tucson Congressman Jim Kolbe, an Arizona Republican, was a notable exception, blocking a checkpoint in his district by withholding funding from his seat on the House Appropriations Committee. Kolbe wasn't "soft" on immigration; he was known as a tough guy on border security. But Kolbe objected to what he saw as the checkpoints' encroachments on the freedom of American citizens along the border. He worried about the impact on trade and traffic, and he questioned the strategy's effectiveness. "It's an admission that we're unable to have control at the border," Kolbe says. "There is already a checkpoint—a checkpoint at the border. To say to people who live near the border that even though you're American citizens, you're going to be disturbed every day—that's unacceptable." So why haven't other border-area members of Congress raised objections? "They're afraid to do it," Kolbe says. "Everyone wants to look like they're hard on illegal immigration." The home where Susanna and Raul will try to ride out the next storm.

In the aftermath of 1967's Hurricane Beulah, the federal government opened the U.S.-Mexico border, providing refuge to thousands of Mexican nationals, who were taken by helicopter to Rio Grande Valley shelters. "If the refugees come, we'll take care of them," Harry Lewis, Brownsville's civil defense director at the time, told The New York Times.

That humanitarian spirit did not last. The operation of immigration checkpoints during a hurricane evacuation never entered the conversation when the Supreme Court determined they were constitutional in 1976. "Under the circumstances of these checkpoint stops," Justice Lewis Powell wrote in the majority decision on United States v. Martinez-Fuerte, "the Government or public interest in making such stops outweighs the constitutionally protected interest of the private citizen." The court's decision changed the way immigration laws are enforced during natural disasters. In the decades since Beulah, the Border Patrol has become increasingly inflexible during hurricane season—particularly in South Texas, where checkpoints north of Brownsville, McAllen and Laredo operate 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, no matter what. In Louisiana—where there are no permanent checkpoints, only "floating" ones—the Department of Homeland Security has made it clear that immigration enforcement will not interfere with evacuations. As Louisiana braced for Hurricane Gustav in 2005, DHS released a memo in English and Spanish: "There are no immigration enforcement operations, and there are no immigration enforcement checkpoints associated with the evacuations." The federal government has never issued a similar reassurance in South Texas, though they haven't been put to the test by a Category 1, 2 or 3 hurricane since the checkpoints were established. "Why here do we have a non-negotiable checkpoint, while in Louisiana that issue is negotiable?" asks Spencer-Scheurich, the immigration attorney. "They're saying they would rather catch a shipment of marijuana than assure the people of South Texas don't die because they can't get out of the Rio Grande Valley. It makes me angry they would prioritize a drug-enforcement mission over people's lives." "In the event of a natural disaster," says Federal Emergency Management Agency spokesperson Matt Chandler, "our first priority is facilitating the safe evacuation of people leaving the danger zone." With storms before Hurricane Dolly, officials had used similar language to reassure South Texans. But checkpoints did not shut down. Asked if operations would cease during a mandatory evacuation, Chandler declines to be specific. "That's a total hypothetical situation," he says. Not really. Some of the most intense storms ever to strike the United States have landed on the shores of South Texas. While it's been nearly three decades since a Category 3, 4, or 5 storm blew through the Rio Grande Valley, meteorologists say the area's residents should be on their toes. "The chance of another Beulah in South Texas exists every year," says Nezette Rydell, meteorologist in charge for the National Weather Service in Brownsville. "Every year there is a 33 percent chance of a strike on the Gulf Coast." When a violent storm appears imminent, it's up to state and local governments whether to call an evacuation. Immigration checkpoints, however, lie exclusively in the federal domain. Officials at the Border Patrol's national office say the agency might consult with FEMA about enforcement efforts during a storm. "If FEMA says traffic isn't moving fast enough," says Border Patrol spokesperson Mark Qualia, "we will consider their recommendation. But an evacuation wouldn't preclude us from questioning individuals involved in criminal activity in the United States ... including those without legal status." The Border Patrol's policy forces South Texas' emergency officials to work around a federal policy that affects about 15 percent of the Valley's nearly 1 million residents. In a mandatory evacuation, Cameron and Hidalgo counties plan to take residents to Central Texas in school buses before a storm makes landfall. Border Patrol officials tell the Observer that agents will check the immigration status of all evacuees, even those on the counties' buses. "We'll check every single person," says spokesperson Lopez. The Border Patrol's hard line might be no more than that, says Cameron County Judge Carlos Cascos. In private conversations, he says, agents have implied that they will not check the immigration status of every last evacuee. "I have confidence that if there's a Category 3, 4, or 5 storm and they see a line two miles long of vehicles and buses, they'll get the order to wave them on," Cascos says. "But they're not going to come out and say that." Cascos knows that without a public announcement, undocumented immigrants are unlikely to flee to safety. Cascos plans to provide pub ic buses to evacu te residents directly west instead of northwest to San Antonio—not just away from the checkpoints, but also away from the state's suggested evacuation route. Busing residents westward to Hidalgo or Starr counties is far from a perfect solution. During Dolly, those counties had worse flooding than the area adjacent to the Gulf. "There's no easy solution to this," Cascos says. "You're talking about state and local authorities trying to save things, but you're dealing with another bureaucracy which is the federal government. And their priority is security and immigration enforcement." South Texans are still waiting for Secretary Napolitano to indicate that immigration enforcement will give way to safety during evacuations. Without a promise that they won't be detained, South Texans like Susanna and Raul aren't going anywhere. If conditions get really bad, Susanna says, she might send her daughter to San Antonio with friends who are legal residents. She and Raul will hunker down in their narrow hallway, remembering Dolly, saying prayers and waiting out the storm. "We've been [in Texas] for eight years," Susanna says. "This is our home. If we leave, we won't be able to come back. It's just too big of a risk." Kevin Sieff is an Observer contributing writer based in Washington, D.C. 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Recession or no recession, double-digit unemployment is nothing new in the Rio Grande Valley. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, regional unemployment hovered around 20 percent, and the poverty rate was the highest in the country.

Times have changed at the tip of Texas, and economists now say the Valley may ride out the economic crisis more comfortably than the rest of the United States. Despite such optimism, the region is still plagued by the same structural problems that have long depressed its economy. Just ask one of the thousands of former factory workers who lost their jobs during the last decade.

In 1982, when Elizabeth Torres was 20, she landed her first job in a Levi Strauss & Co. factory in San Benito. Over the next two decades, she went from sewing buttons on pants to inspecting completed blue jeans, eventually earning $12.50 an hour plus health insurance benefits.

Torres was one of thousands of Valley residents who found stable employment with manufacturers like Levi's, Fruit of the Loom Inc. and Converse Inc. after factories sprang up throughout South Texas in the 1960s. Those austere, concrete buildings transformed the Valley almost overnight, sign and substance that manufacturing was replacing agriculture as the region's dominant industry.

"I figured I'd be working for them forever," Torres says. "I never thought about leaving or working for anyone else."

When the manufacturing industry began to erode in the 1990s, South Texas was hit hard. In 2002, Levi's closed two factories in the Valley, including the one where Torres worked, firing more than 1,000 workers. Torres remembers hearing the news from her bosses. "They told us they were sorry," she says, "that they would try to help us land on our feet."

Federal programs and contributions from private companies enabled former factory workers like Torres, who dropped out of high school in ninth grade, to enroll in vocational programs or study toward a GED. The idea was simple: Retrain obsolescent laborers to specialize in computers, health care, or other marketable skills to prepare them for jobs outside of the dwindling manufacturing field.

Torres got a few months of computer training and a GED, but seven years later, she doesn't see much use for her diploma. She's working part-time as a receptionist at a Harlingen Econo Lodge, making $6.55 an hour with no benefits. Her friends from the Levi's factory aren't doing any better. "Some are unemployed; some are struggling like me," she says. "There just aren't opportunities like the ones we used to have."

Torres has read the recent reports noting the Valley's relative immunity to the country's financial crisis. "It's kind of strange to hear that we're doing well, considering my own experience," she says.

Unemployment has increased in the area, but less so than the national average. Consumer lending is on the rise. The Valley's real estate market is stable. "With good economic development plans, a successful energy sector and strong international trade, the region hasn't been quite as badly affected as much of the country," says Ray Perryman, chief economist at the Perryman Group, who focuses his research on the border.

Elizabeth Torres

Recent statistics speaking to the region's apparent economic stability have earned the Valley national attention. In mid-April, Forbes magazine wrote, "It seems this corner of Texas is a strong candidate to ride out the recession unscathed." That assessment ignores the ongoing economic crises that have made life difficult for Torres and her former co-workers.

The Valley remains the poorest region in the United States, with a per capita income hovering around $18,000 a year. Though unemployment has declined from 18 percent to just over 10 percent in the last decade, the jobs that have emerged are mostly low-paying service positions, often without health insurance. Still, considering the population's lack of education, city and county officials are proud of the gains.

"Are they being paid less than other areas? Yes. But they have jobs," says Keith Patridge, president of McAllen's Economic Development Council. "If we want higher wages, we need more educated workers."

That calculus doesn't make sense to Torres. She's more educated now, schooled in computers and high school-level arithmetic. She's earning half her Levi's wage, with little hope of finding a full-time position-let alone one that pays more than $10 an hour, she says.

Between 2000 and 2004, nearly 3 million American manufacturing jobs disappeared, a consequence of the globalizing labor market and increasingly efficient-and less labor-intensive-technology. South Texas fought the national trend, in some cases adding new factories after Levi's and Fruit of the Loom had left the region. Economic leaders encouraged companies to build twin plants on either side of the Rio Grande. If more than 50 percent of the production value of a product is added in the United States-even if the bulk of work is done in Mexico-the product can still be considered "Made in the U.S.A.," a marketable distinction for many consumer goods.

In the years after Torres' factory closed, manufacturing jobs in the Brownsville-Harlingen area declined steadily. Though far from the region's dominant source of employment, it was still a viable industry, says Keith Phillips, senior economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. If current trends continue, ripples from the financial crisis could lay the region's manufacturing ambitions to rest. In South Texas, manufacturing is being pounded by the downturn.

"Consistent with shrinking domestic demand and ebbing overseas sales, manufacturers continued to draw down inventories [in Texas]," the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas reported on March 30. As inventories fall, demand for labor declines as well.

When manufacturing jobs are lost, so are support jobs, including truck lines, maintenance and warehousing. "The impact of a manufacturing job is much greater than jobs in other industries," Patridge says.

For a decade, the manufacturing industry's boom-and-bust story has been mythologized in the Rust Belt, where unemployment has recently spiked. That narrative, with Detroit at its epicenter, has been woven into reportage on the financial crisis. In those stories, what's being lost is the stuff of legend: American automobiles, steelworkers, a hard-working and fairly compensated middle-class lifestyle.

The Rio Grande Valley is far from the heart of American labor mythology. Take Cameron Park, the unincorporated colonia attached to Brownsville, about five miles from the U.S.-Mexico border. In 2000, the U.S. Census Bureau found it the poorest community in the United States, with a per capita income less than $5,000. It's also home to a number of former factory workers, including some who worked alongside Torres. Others have worked for auto parts manufacturers like Trico Products Corp., a windshield-wiper producer that employs 600 people in Brownsville.

Before the current economic crisis, area leaders hoped to add hundreds of jobs by trying to bring automobile manufacturers to the Valley. One such program, the North American Advanced Manufacturing Research and Education Initiative, set the goal of adding 8,000 manufacturing jobs to the region by 2017. But with the economic crisis disproportionately affecting the manufacturing industry, the plan now appears far-fetched.

If the region's factories continue to close-as plastics manufacturer Progressive Moulded Products Inc. and brassiere-maker Vanity Fair Brands LP did last year-a growing class of unemployed workers could emerge. Even before the current crisis hit, Torres had discovered that the Valley's economy was unable to accommodate workers looking to transition between industries. Now that the crisis is touching South Texas, life beyond the factory could be particularly trying.

As the Valley looks to rebound, its location on the border will no doubt play a critical role. Nearly all the Valley's economic leaders point to the region's proximity to Mexico-and cheap Mexican labor-as a potentially saving grace. But lately, some companies have been reluctant to construct twin plants on both sides of the border, despite the economic advantages. "We try to recruit companies, but all they hear is how violent it is on the border," says McAllen Mayor Richard Cortez. "It's caused some companies to reconsider relocating here." Cortez says that though drug-related violence has not spilled over to McAllen, the perception of instability has hurt the region's economic prospects.

Alongside an increase in violence, Mexico is combating a rapidly declining currency. In the last six months, the Mexican peso has depreciated more than 30 percent against the dollar, a decline that has resonated across the border. Mexican consumers account for 25 percent to 35 percent of the Valley's retail activity-about $2.3 billion a year in El Paso, Laredo, Brownsville and McAllen, according to a 2006 study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. If the downturn continues in Mexico, those cash injections may become unreliable.

Still, optimism is prevalent. Forbes ranked McAllen as the country's best midsized city for jobs in 2009. Forbes didn't mention that 37.5 percent of the metropolitan area's residents live below the poverty line. Most of those residents, like Elizabeth Torres, don't have the credentials to qualify for available jobs with the government or the school district. Ten years ago, in the factory that has since become a county office, there was an alternative. Now, Torres is not so sure.

Kevin Sieff is a reporter in Brownsville.

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When sexual-assault counselor Elia Alvarado first met Maria in 2007, Maria was wearing a blue prison uniform, sitting in a doctor's office at the Port Isabel Detention Center. She was in her early 30s, but looked haggard, Alvarado recalls, older than her age. Two months and more than 1,500 miles after leaving Honduras, she had been detained at the border and taken to the immigration holding facility north of Brownsville.

Maria, a single mother, had left her 8-year-old daughter at home, she told Alvarado, and paid a man to take her to the border. Her ultimate destination, she said, was the Northeast, where a friend had promised to find her work as a housekeeper. "I went to send money home for my daughter," she told Alvarado in a subsequent counseling session. "This was how I planned to support my family."

Maria and several other Hondurans were guided on a journey by car and train, she said. At night, they stayed in ramshackle homes, sleeping on crowded floors. One of those nights, just before she reached the border, she said that a man grabbed her near an abandoned shack where the immigrants were staying. He forced himself on her, leaving Maria defenseless, the only witness to the violent act. Afterward, Maria blamed herself. She wondered if this was what she deserved for leaving her daughter.

Days later, as the group waded quietly through the Rio Grande, Maria carried the secret with her. It was something she planned to tell no one. Not long after crossing the river, she heard the engine of a Border Patrol truck, saw the green uniforms coming at her. Within minutes, she was corralled into the backseat of a Border Patrol pickup.

Weeks after the rape, Maria took a pregnancy test at the detention center—a mandatory procedure for female detainees between ages 10 and 50. An official from the Division of Immigration Health Services took the test away and came back to tell Maria the news: She was pregnant.

In 2008, 10,653 women were detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). According to agency spokeswoman Cori Bassett, 965 of those women — nearly 10 percent — were pregnant. Many of them, like Maria, were raped on their way to the United States—a journey known to be dangerous for any willing to take it, but especially so for women.

Elia Alvarado: It's not that I don't want the baby, they would tell me. It's just the way it was conceived.

For two months, while Maria awaited her detention hearing, Alvarado says they met about once every two weeks to talk about the ordeal. Maria asked about her options for ending the pregnancy. "I can't do it," Alvarado remembers her saying. "The baby's face will just remind me of him—the man who did this."

But Maria ran into a practice limiting the reproductive rights of ICE detainees. For pregnant women in immigration detention facilities, it is virtually impossible to obtain an abortion. According to Bassett, in fact, "Preliminary records indicated that during fiscal year '08 and '09 to date, no detainee has had a pregnancy terminated while in ICE custody." Not a single one.

"I told her, 'If you weren't in detention, these would be your options,'" Alvarado says. "But while she was detained, it just wasn't a possibility."

It was a line Alvarado had used many times before. As sexual-assault coordinator at Harlingen's Family Crisis Center, she had agreed to let ICE contact her when abuse victims at Port Isabel, which holds up to 1,200 immigrants, requested counseling. Because ICE does not employ such counselors, the agency depends on people like Alvarado, even though they're not on its payroll. (The agency would neither confirm nor deny having such a relationship with Harlingen's Family Crisis Center.)

For five years beginning in 2003, Alvarado says she counseled about 50 detainees whose rapes had resulted in pregnancies. More than half, she says, asked about ways of ending their pregnancies. Alvarado couldn't help them. "That was just the policy," she says.

So Alvarado talked with Maria about responsibility; Maria still blamed herself for her situation. They talked about Maria's family in Honduras, how they would respond when she returned. Always, Alvarado says, Maria cried, but she never gave up hope of ending her pregnancy. Days after her court date, Maria—now about 10 weeks pregnant—was deported, sent on a plane back to Honduras, where abortion is illegal.

Alvarado says she heard from Maria one more time, when she called from Honduras. Her voice sounded shaky, Alvarado remembers. She was crying.

Maria told Alvarado she had found an unlicensed abortion provider and paid him to perform the procedure. When her family saw that she was bleeding, they accused her of ending the pregnancy prematurely. When Maria told them about the abortion, she said, they forced her to leave. At the time she spoke with Alvarado, she said she was living with a friend, trying to regain custody of her daughter.

Alvarado remembers hanging up the phone, saying goodbye to Maria. It was the last time the two spoke.

Along the U.S.-Mexico border, on stretches of desert and farmland trafficked by undocumented immigrants, women's underwear is draped from the branches of trees. On a single tree outside Tucson, Arizona, an orange pair, a blue pair, and a white pair hang like grotesque ornaments among the desert's thorny brush. Border activists and women's advocacy groups call them "rape trees." Each pair of underwear, they say, represents a victim of sexual abuse.

Immigrant women are told by many Latin American agencies about the danger. In some Central American communities, they're advised to take oral contraceptives to prepare for the possibility of rape, to dress like men during the journey. The women are told they could be abused by the coyotes (guides) who take them across the Rio Grande, or by the border bandits who wait along the river, ready to pounce. They're told that sometimes the threat comes from men in uniform. In at least two cases in the 1990s, U.S. Border Patrol agents were charged with sexually abusing female immigrants along the border.

"The message that these women hear is that abuse will happen. Not that it might, but that it will," says Montserrat Caballero, the program director of Su Voz Vale at the Arizona Center Against Sexual Assault. "For a lot of ladies, they're resigned to this inevitability ... and for some of them, sexual abuse isn't just a one-time incident. It happens several times before they arrive in the U.S."

With the prevalence of rape among immigrants and the government's increasingly stringent immigration enforcement policies, ICE's treatment of pregnant detainees has become particularly relevant in recent years.

Medical services within ICE detention facilities, including requests for abortions, are handled by the Division of Immigration Health Services, a subagency of the Department of Health and Human Services. The division has sometimes scrambled to fulfill its growing responsibilities, since ICE was created out of the now-defunct Department of Immigration and Naturalization Services.

The joint policy of the division and ICE is to not fund elective procedures, including abortions. On its "Detainee Covered Service Package," the division lists abortion as an example of commonly requested procedures that are "not covered but can be requested in the event of an emergency situation." (The boldface is from the document.) "ICE must pay for the termination of a pregnancy if a physician determines that the continuation of a pregnancy is life-threatening for the mother," says agency spokeswoman Bassett.

If the situation is not life-threatening, Bassett says, "a woman can request to terminate her pregnancy. Requests are reviewed on a case-by-case basis." If clients can secure funding and make arrangements with an abortion provider, Bassett says, "ICE will not restrict women's access to terminate the pregnancy ... and will provide transportation to and from the facility."

Immigration attorneys and researchers say such a scenario is unlikely, with detention centers often standing between pregnant detainees and local abortion providers and funding sources. In many cases, immigration attorneys say, no one within ICE facilities explains to detainees what their reproductive rights are. (Even Elia Alvarado, who counseled abuse victims in ICE custody for five years, says she was not aware that the detainees could have access to abortions.)

For local family planning centers and abortion clinics, ICE detention centers have remained largely impenetrable. "I have no idea what goes on inside those facilities," says Brownsville Planned Parenthood CEO Blanca Cavazos.

"Once they're in ICE detention, it feels like they're lost," says Caballero of Su Voz Vale.

Without an explanation of their rights or access to abortion providers, detainees remain especially vulnerable to ICE's policy of not funding elective procedures.

"Because of the language and cultural barriers, this is a particularly vulnerable population," says Brigitte Amiri, director of the ACLU's Reproductive Freedom Project. "There's no understanding of what [reproductive] resources there are, which effectively prohibits access to abortion."

ICE's policy on abortion is markedly different than that of its sister organization, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, which requires that each pregnant inmate receive counseling to help her decide "whether to carry the pregnancy to full term or to have an elective abortion," according to federal regulations. If a detainee asks for an abortion, the prison's clinical director "shall arrange for an abortion to take place."

Representatives at ICE and the health division were unwilling to explain why the two policies diverge. "It's not appropriate for ICE to comment on the policy of the Bureau of Prisons," Bassett says. She would not comment on whether detainees are told of ICE's abortion policy while in custody, saying only that "ICE medical personnel are trained to handle a variety of medical conditions and situations. When care requires expertise beyond the in-house health care personnel, ICE makes sure the detainee is referred to a community caregiver."

The answer might be found in the health division's feeble raison d'être. In documents released by the Washington Post, one division medical director wrote that the agency's goal is "keeping the detainee medically ready for deportation."

The problem isn't specific to South Texas. The repercussions of the policies restricting immigrant reproductive rights have been discussed at the national level. On Oct. 4, 2007, Cheryl Little, executive director of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center, testified before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, Refugees, Border Security, and International Law about a particularly disturbing outcome.

During the hearing, titled "Detention and Removal: Immigration Detainee Medical Care," Little told the subcommittee about an African-born asylum-seeker who learned she was pregnant while in custody. She referred to the case as an example of how "[o]fficers' personal beliefs can ... interfere with their ability to provide an effective and safe environment for female detainees.

"The pregnancy," Little testified, "was the result of a politically motivated gang rape in her home country which compelled her flight to the United States to seek asylum. When the [Broward Transitional Center] staff learned that the pregnancy was unwanted, they purposefully delayed the woman's release and pressured her to carry the baby to term. Only after FIAC took her case was she informed that she could get an abortion at her own expense while in custody. This woman was later released and miscarried."

While they await deportation proceedings, pregnant women are kept within ICE's network of detention centers, occasionally shackled en route to prenatal treatments, according to a January 2009 report from the University of Arizona.

A decade ago, pregnant immigrants were most often released on their own recognizance and asked to show up at deportation or asylum hearings weeks or months after being apprehended. The policy began to change with the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act. According to the act, there is no consideration of whether individuals pose a flight risk or threat while their deportation is pending. Instead, virtually all noncitizens are detained for the entire duration of their removal proceedings. In 2007, detainees remained in ICE custody for an average of 37 days, according to a Government Accountability Office report.

Some detainees have been convicted of a crime in the United States, including a range of misdemeanor offenses, which triggers deportation proceedings. Others, like Maria, are charged with a civil violation of immigration law for entering the country or arriving at a port of entry without proper documentation. According to a 2006 report from the GAO, 58 percent of ICE detainees had not been convicted of a crime.

Unlike the criminal justice system, in which a judge determines the availability and amount of bail, noncitizens subject to mandatory detention are rarely offered bond hearings. That means pregnant detainees can spend most of their pregnancies in ICE facilities. Immigration attorneys can appeal for their release, but such appeals are seldom successful.

"The government can always make the argument that they can provide the care needed without releasing the woman," says Meredith Linsky, director of Harlingen-based ProBAR, which provides legal services to immigrants in detention. "It's much more difficult to get them released now than it was five years ago." Within the last few years, the Port Isabel Detention Center has added medical facilities enabling the in-house treatment of detainees who might previously have been released, Linsky says.

Several recent reports—by the GAO, the University of Arizona and Human Rights Watch—have enumerated the ills of ICE's growing network of detention facilities. The reports point to the hitches in the policies of the health services division, including policies affecting pregnant women.

The director of the Arizona study released in January, immigration attorney Nina Rabin, says that interviews with detainees and former detainees illustrated a clear pattern of mistreatment in Arizona detention centers. The degree of mistreatment, she says, varied from facility to facility. Numerous pregnant women interviewed were unable to place even a single call to their families for weeks after their arrival at facilities. Female detainees also reported that requests for prenatal vitamins were ignored.

ICE denies that most of the problems cited in the Arizona report exist. One of the challenges facing ICE, spokeswoman Bassett tells the Observer, is that "in some cases, this is the first health care (the detainee) has received in a long time." She adds that "the care provided is comparable to the community standard for care."

But in June 2008, the GAO found that the Department of Homeland Security's complaint hotline—the primary way for detainees to file complaints—was blocked at 12 ICE facilities. A new report by Human Rights Watch, set for release in mid-February, also documents the poor treatment of pregnant detainees.

"Abortion is one of the major issues of ICE's policy gaps," says researcher Megan Rhoad. "Everyone gets pregnancy tests, but [ICE] doesn't tell detainees about their reproductive rights. And even if they're aware that the procedure is legal in the United States, they have no access to abortion providers."

A crucial part of the government's treatment of pregnant immigrants—one that takes place outside detention facilities—has been scarcely addressed in these studies. Attorneys in South Texas know it well: As their due dates approach, ICE often releases women on probationary status. With nowhere to go and babies on the way, ICE makes rrangements to dro the women off at shelters often run by Catholic charities. Such arrangements vary on a case-by-case basis, Bassett says. "There's no overall relationship" between ICE and local shelters, she says.

It's a practice motivated as much by legal concerns as by humanitarian obligation, attorneys say. "They know they can't legally detain a lawful U.S. citizen," Linsky says. "And as soon as the child is born, it's a U.S. citizen."

In South Texas and beyond, ICE's reliance on local refugee shelters run by Catholic charities appears to have grown with the number of detainees. That reliance has had serious implications for the reproductive rights of immigrant adults and minors.

La Posada Providencia's Sister Zita Telkamp

The road leading to La Posada Providencia refugee shelter in San Benito is lined with farms, fields of overgrown brush, and the occasional country home. Less than 20 miles north of Brownsville and the U.S.-Mexico border, it's the biggest such facility in the Rio Grande Valley. Opened in 1989 as a shelter for immigrants fleeing abuse in their own countries, La Posada has provided a temporary home for Cubans, Eritreans, and even two North Korean women who snuck across the border to China, flew to Brazil, and crossed by land into South Texas. The immigrants stay in the shelter's two dormitories, often doing odd jobs while they pursue political asylum.

Recently, La Posada has also become a popular ICE drop-off location for pregnant immigrants. In the last five years, its administrators say La Posada has housed 50 pregnant immigrants—most of them former ICE detainees. More than half, they say, were victims of rape.

In her office, Sister Zita Telkamp, a 75-year-old former school teacher and principal from Missouri, reaches for a pile of photos that tells the story. Nursing mothers hold their babies in pastel blankets. La Posada's sisters cradle them, smiling at the cameras. Telkamp knows all the details—where the mothers came from, the circumstances of their abuse, the status of their asylum cases.

"The babies are miracles," she says. "Each one."

Funded with private donations and a federal grant, La Posada has accommodated hundreds of people fresh out of ICE custody. Its sisters have come from all over the United States to the quiet San Benito shelter, "imparting values which witness God's Providence in our world," according to its publicity materials.

La Posada provides prenatal care for pregnant women and funds hospital deliveries when their due dates arrive. But the shelter's services are dictated by its mission as a Catholic charity, which means that abortion is off limits.

"If a woman requests an abortion, we'll ask the diocese to recommend a good pro-life counselor," says Telkamp, adding that such requests are rare.

For women who have already run into ICE's restrictive abortion policy, the shelter's stance might come as a second denial. For Telkamp, the policy is only a small part of La Posada's mission. What's most important, she says, is that the immigrants have "a roof over their heads, a place to go while they put their lives together."

The connection between federal immigration agencies and Catholic charities has raised eyebrows far from La Posada. In January 2008, a 16-year-old Honduran immigrant—a victim of sexual abuse—requested and received an abortion while in the custody of Commonwealth Catholic Charities of Virginia in Richmond, Virginia. When the organization's administrator found out about the incident, the four social workers who facilitated the abortion were fired.

Commonwealth Catholic Charities receives funding through a federal grant allocated by the Administration for Children and Families. In 2008, Catholic Charities was one of the top 10 voluntary agencies responsible for resettling refugees, according to the U.S. Department of State. The ACLU has accused Catholic Charities of constitutional rights violations, claiming that the Conference of Catholic Bishops has been pressuring its chapters to prevent undocumented minors in its care from accessing abortions.

The ACLU claims that contractors who provide care to unaccompanied, undocumented minors are "legally obligated to provide or arrange for family planning services"—an assertion the organization made in a November lawsuit attempting to acquire records related to government contractors' policies on abortion and contraception. "The government and its contractors cannot constitutionally obstruct or prevent access to contraception and abortion for the teens in their care and custody," the lawsuit continues. "Nor can the government allow its contractors to obstruct access to contraception and abortion based on their religious beliefs."

In January, the ACLU filed another lawsuit against the Conference of Catholic Bishops, claiming that it had misused government funds by prohibiting abortion services. Officials at Catholic Charities disagree, calling the ACLU lawsuit "meritless."

"It violates the longstanding principle of religious liberty to disqualify ... any religious provider of social services from working with the government based on the provider's religious beliefs," says Bishop John Wester of Salt Lake City, chairman of the U.S. Bishops' Committee for Migration and Refugee Services.

"We will continue to provide those services in the contract that are consistent with our belief in the life and dignity of the human person," says Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokeswoman for the bishops' conference.

Pregnant women can spend months in detention before being guided to a shelter like La Posada. By then, many of the women are approaching their due dates, making access to abortion even more difficult.

Three percent of female prisoners in Federal Bureau of Prison facilities are pregnant, according to a 2008 report by the Justice Department. In immigration detention centers, that number is nearly three times higher. With nearly 1,000 pregnant immigrants having been in ICE custody in 2008, the numbers give weight to a problem long voiced by advocates.

Rape Tree

The best solution, they say, starts with changes in enforcement policies. If pregnant immigrants are released promptly, without having to endure long, often fruitless appeals, the problems plaguing their stints in detention could be prevented.

In 2007, U.S. Rep. Hilda Solis of California and Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, both Democrats, introduced legislation to keep pregnant women out of ICE custody entirely. The Families First Immigration Enforcement Act was written in response to a spike in ICE raids on factories and plants in 2007. In one raid on a New Bedford, Mass., leather manufacturer, 351 undocumented immigrants were detained—four of whom were pregnant or nursing mothers. Among its recommendations, the bill suggested that ICE "release pregnant detainees on humanitarian grounds." The bill never made it out of committee. According to Kerry's office, it might be reintroduced after a new ICE director is named by Janet Napolitano, the new secretary of Homeland Security.

Until the enforcement policy changes, counselors like Elia Alvarado will likely continue seeing a stream of pregnant detainees. After five years of counseling, there are more than a few cases that haunt Alvarado. She has treated victims of rape and torture from four continents, she says. She worked quickly, shuttling among three South Texas detention facilities housing 4,200 detainees, always with the knowledge that her clients could be deported overnight.

In October, Alvarado was laid off from Family Crisis Center and stopped working with ICE, but she still thinks about the horror stories. The woman assaulted by African paramilitaries. The three Mexican women living in sexual slavery just south of the border. The girls from South and Central America, raped on their journeys to the United States.

When Alvarado recounts those stories now, she makes an effort to string together a single narrative, linking the women by their shared responses to abuse. It was only a matter of time, she says, before they turned against themselves, cursing their decisions to immigrate. Among some pregnant detainees, that self-hatred was exaggerated.

"'It's not that I don't want the baby,' they would tell me," Alvarado says. "'It's just the way it was conceived.'"

She looked them in the eyes. She touched them. "If you get out of detention," she would say, again and again, "we can talk about your options."

Kevin Sieff is a reporter for the Brownsville Herald.

Investigative reporting for this article was supported, in part, by a grant from the Open Society Institute.

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Henry Arroliga lives in South Texas’ Port Isabel Detention Center, one of the nation’s largest immigration detention facilities. After 17 years of living illegally in the United States, he’s bracing himself to return to his native Nicaragua. Although Arroliga could very well be deported within the next month, the 2010 U.S. Census will count him as a resident of Los Fresnos, in Cameron County. His short stint at Port Isabel will pay dividends to the city, county, and state for the next decade.

Arroliga is one of more than 30,000 immigrant detainees who will be counted in this year’s census. Four hundred billion dollars in federal funding over the next 10 years will be distributed based on the count, making detainees worth thousands of dollars to cities, counties, and states where they are briefly detained. The government will allocate more than $100 million in additional funds to places where immigrants are detained.

More than funding is at stake: The composition of legislative districts, county board districts, and city council districts could be skewed by soon-to-be-deported prisoners. Census data are used on the state and national levels to determine the sizes and shapes of these districts. The inclusion of detainees in the count means fewer eligible voters per elected official in places like Cameron County. It also violates the principle of “proportional representation.”

For decades, the government has included prisoners in the census, regardless of their immigration status. In the past, the impact of immigrant detainees has been slight. This is the first decennial census since the re-organization of immigrantion agencies and the subsequent boom in immigration detention. Immigration prisons have expanded from 7,500 beds in 1995 to more than 30,000 in 2010. About one-third of the nation’s immigrant detainees are held in Texas.

That doesn’t count undocumented immigrants in the custody of the U.S. Marshals Service awaiting deportation proceedings—thousands in Texas alone. Carl Caulk, the U.S. Marshals assistant
director for prisoner operations, says that recent Border Patrol crackdowns like Operation Streamline have sent the number of immigrants in Marshals’ custody through the roof. Operation Streamline mandated that charges be filed against virtually every person caught crossing the border illegally. Like ICE detainees, these immigrants will be counted in the 2010 census.

The Census Bureau’s inclusion of immigrant detainees has received little notice. It comes at a tense time in the immigration debate, with reform advocates facing a challenging political climate. This year’s population count points to an often ignored irony: The country’s detention facilities are concentrated in districts represented by some of Congress’ most outspoken advocates of reform—including several South Texas congressmen who will benefit from counting immigrant detainees.

U.S. Rep. Solomon Ortiz, a Corpus Christi Democrat, introduced a comprehensive immigration reform bill in the House this spring. Yet with about 5,000 beds for immigrant detainees, his South Texas district stands to see millions of additional tax dollars allocated on the basis of the census.

In response to questions from the Observer, Ortiz issued a statement reading: “The U.S. Census Bureau is mandated by the United States Constitution to count every resident regardless of citizenship status. I can assure you that it is in everybody’s best interest to get as many people as possible counted.”

Until this census, the count had never identified exactly where “group quarters” like prisons are and how many people occupy them. For the first time, this census will let states decide whether to count detainees in local populations. By excluding prisoners, states would get a more accurate population count and would ensure that funds are not distributed according to locations of large detention centers. The amount of federal funding directed to the state would not change.

Counting prisoners—residents or immigrants—is against Texas state law. “A person who is an inmate in a penal institution or who is an involuntary inmate in a hospital or eleemosynary institution does not, while an inmate, acquire residence at the place where the institution is located,” reads Texas Election Code Section 1.015. Nevertheless, the census counts them as residents.

“There’s a clear discrepancy between state law and the Census Bureau’s methodology,” said Peter Wagner of the Prison Policy Initiative, a Massachusetts-based research group.

Congressman Ortiz had no comment on how detainees could affect federal funding and redistricting. Some of his former supporters see his willingness to profit from his district’s immigrant detainees as evidence of hypocrisy.

“I can’t think of anything more two-faced,” said the Rev. Miguel Rivera, president of the National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders, and an advocate for immigration reform.

To the Census Bureau’s dismay, Rivera has urged undocumented immigrants not to fill out the census forms. “It’s our greatest bargaining chip,” he said. “The states and counties want the funding, and we want the legalization.” Rivera’s campaign has received considerable attention, and while many Latino leaders disagree with his approach, he is convinced that threatening to withhold the instruments of federal funding is the way to attract politicians to the table.

Within facilities like Port Isabel, detainees likely won’t be able to opt out of the census. According to Census Bureau officials, for the last month detention center employees have been completing census forms on behalf of inmates like Henry Arroliga.

“They’re using them to secure federal funding and political power, and then they’re shipping them out of the country,” Rivera said. “It’s an insult.”

The issue has made Rivera and U.S. Sen. David Vitter, a Louisiana Republican, unlikely bedfellows. Vitter, along with several other conservatives in Congress, supported an unsuccessful effort last fall to exclude noncitizens from apportionment and redistricting counts. “I don’t believe noncitizens should be counted in congressional reapportionment,” Vitter told Congress last fall. “I don’t think states which have particularly large noncitizen populations should have more say and more clout in Congress, and that states like Louisiana that don’t should be penalized.” Or, if you follow the logic, that states like Texas should be rewarded.

In Raymondville, a rural city 100 miles south of Corpus Christi, the census count is buzzing along. The Census Bureau has a booth outside City Hall. Local TV stations are advertising the importance of filling out the forms. People have been hired to distribute forms, part of a 1.2 million temporary work force nationwide that will make up the largest civilian mobilization of Americans in history.

In Raymondville, the conversation isn’t about the scale of the government’s undertaking. It’s about the Willacy Detention Center, the country’s largest detention facility, holding up to 3,000 prisoners. When the census came up at the last City Council meeting, a councilman asked city secretary Eleazar Garcia: “What about the detainees? Do we get to count them?”

If its population exceeds 10,000 in the census, Raymondville would be in the running for a panoply of state grants. The only way that could happen is if the city’s immigrant detainees are included in the count. “Overall, we would benefit if we could hit that mark,” Garcia said.

So would La Villa, just north of McAllen. The 2000 census found its population to be 1,305. Just a year later, the Louisiana-based private prison company LCS Corrections Services Inc. opened the East Hidalgo Detention Center, which houses up to 990 immigrant detainees. According to its warden, the facility is almost always full.

After the 2010 Census is tallied, the detention center will nearly double La Villa’s population on paper, potentially doubling its federal funding allocation distributed by the state according to population. (The facility, run by the U.S. Marshals, is already a boon to the local government, which receives $2 per prisoner per day.)

The distribution of funds based on immigrant detainee populations “points to a flaw in the way the population counts are used,” said Audrey Singer, a demographer at the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank. “The fact that ICE detainees are geographically concentrated will have an effect on the count.”

In Washington, there appears to be confusion about the inclusion of immigrant detainees in the census. Congressman Henry Cuellar, a Laredo Democrat, represents a district that includes the 1,900-bed South Texas Detention Center and the 450-bed Laredo Contract Detention Facility. He defended the inclusion of immigrant detainees: “Vitally important funding that supports these facilities relies, in part, on census data.”

Experts say Cuellar is wrong. “Immigration prisons are funded by the Department of Homeland Security, not formula grants” based on census data, said Wagner of the Prison Policy Initiative.  
Like Rep. Ortiz, Cuellar is a longstanding advocate of immigration reform. His attitude about immigrant detainees in the census has disturbed immigration-reform advocates in his district.

One reason Texas’ congressmen and state representatives might be looking the other way is that 375,000 Texans were not counted in 2000, according to a Census Bureau study. That cost the state a huge amount of federal dollars. The main culprit, experts agree, was the difficulty of getting undocumented immigrants—including an estimated 150,000 in the Rio Grande Valley alone—to participate.

This year, the Census Bureau has spent millions on a campaign to convince minorities, including undocumented immigrants, to get themselves counted. Still, community organizers and activists along the border say the effort faces considerable challenges.

“The census worker shows up and expects people to be compliant,” said Michael Seifert of the Equal Voice for America’s Families Network. “Much laughter is heard in the cantina around that idea.” During the 2000 census, Seifert said some immigrants distrusted and feared the government—a fear then inspired by President Bill Clinton’s 1996 immigration enforcement bills.

“I find it so sweetly ironic that those who have been caught up in the biggest dragnet of a civilian population in American history—the detainees—will be included in the census count, and therefore serve as a ‘corrective’ to all of those people who will ignore the census request,” Seifert said.

The issue could be resolved if Texas decides to remove immigrant detainees from the count before distributing state funds and addressing redistricting. The Census Bureau has agreed to release data on inmate populations earlier than usual to let states and localities consider it in apportioning districts for 2011 and 2012 races. It’s an issue that could be broached in the 2011 legislative session. Bills to make such adjustments are already pending in New York, Maryland, Illinois, Florida and Wisconsin. So far, including immigrant detainees in Texas’ census count has been a non-issue.

“It’s hard to believe that the victims of our inhumane immigration detention system are being used like this,” Rivera said, “like pawns in a game of state and national politics.”

Kevin Sieff, an Observer contributing writer, lives in Washington, D.C.

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