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A march for immigration reform at the Texas Capitol.
Priscila Mosqueda
A march for immigration reform at the Texas Capitol.

After years of struggle and protest, immigrant families finally have something to celebrate. At least four million undocumented immigrants could receive work permits for three years under the executive action.

It’s disappointing though, that the Obama proposal includes more militarization along the border, especially when border communities are begging for more oversight of the existing military-industrial border complex, which has already gotten out of hand.

Another important thing to remember is that this is only a temporary fix. There’s no path to legal residency or citizenship. Without Congress acting to reform our broken system legislatively, we’re going to have an even crazier, more complicated patchwork of temporary visas, temporary work permits, legal resident visas, etc., etc. We’re creating an immigration caste system of people living under provisional agreements, not fully integrated into our society and living under limited legal protections. This creates a nightmare for law enforcement, the courts, and most of all for the families who are subject to the whims of Congress and the next president. What happens at the end of the three-year window?

The battle continues. But for today, let’s celebrate this small miracle. Here’s a  breakdown of Obama’s immigration reform: The good, the bad and the ugly.

 

The Good

 

1) An expansion of people eligible under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, aka DACA.

Prior to the executive action, only those who were under 31 on June 15, 2012, who had entered the U.S. before June 15, 2007 and who were under 16 when they entered the U.S. were eligible. Now all undocumented immigrants who entered the U.S. before the age of 16, and not just those born after June 15, 1981 can qualify for DACA. They’ve also bumped up the U.S. entry date from June 15, 2007 to January 1, 2010. The work permits and relief from being deported will last three years, instead of two.

2) Some parents of U.S. citizens and lawful residents can also get deferred action and a work permit if:

  • They have been in the country for at least 5 years;
  • Their child was a U.S. citizen as of November 20, 2014;
  • Must complete criminal, national security background checks and pay a fee.

 

The Bad

 

1) More militarization along the border.

2) Parents of DACA kids do not qualify under the executive action.

3) Nothing in the executive action affects the thousands of women and children being held right now in immigrant detention facilities in New Mexico and Texas.

 

The (could get) Ugly

 

1) A Priority Enforcement Program, aka PEP, replaces the controversial Secure Communities program—which encouraged local law enforcement agencies to enforce immigration law. It looks like under PEP, ICE detainers will be replaced by a notfication system among other things.

Cristina Parker, spokesperson for the nonprofit Grassroots Leadership, which helped lead the charge in Texas against the unpopular Secure Communities program, says that her organization and others who have fought against the program for years are celebrating its demise. S-COMM was the reason that many immigrants were deported for minor misdemeanors or traffic infractions.

Parker says they are pessimistic, however, about the new program and eagerly awaiting more details on how it will be implemented. “ICE doesn’t inspire confidence in how it follows directives. It’s a rogue agency. And this really sounds very similar to the first day of S-COMM,” she says. “That’s kind of where we’re at now but we’re trying to be cautiously optimistic.”

Immigration attorney Dan Kowalski is equally pessimistic about any change in policy. “It’s going to be really tough for ICE officers on the ground and managers in the field and D.C. to execute because their whole training is to detect, detain, arrest and deport. It goes against the grain of their training,” he says.

2) The president also directed Homeland Security to revise policies regarding deportation priorities.

Here’s the new policy in brief from the memo:

“DHS is going to implement a new department-wide enforcement and removal policy that places top priority on national security threats, convicted felons, gang members, and illegal entrants apprehended at the border; the second-tier priority on those convicted of significant or multiple misdemeanors and those who are not apprehended at the border, but who entered or reentered this country unlawfully after January 1, 2014; and the third priority on those who are non-criminals but who have failed to abide by a final order of removal issued on or after January 1, 2014.

Under this revised policy, those who entered illegally prior to January 1, 2014, who never disobeyed a prior order of removal, and were never convicted of a serious offense, will not be priorities for removal. This policy also provides clear guidance on the exercise of prosecutorial discretion.”

Again, this will depend a lot on how ICE implements the directive. In the past, they’ve been criticized for doing their own thing and not exercising prosecutorial discretion. The new policy could get ugly if ICE continues to act on its own, and not according to the president’s directives.

Daniel Candelaria, Loren Campos at an UT Austin rally to pass the Dream Act, June 2012.
Jen Reel
Daniel Candelaria and Loren Campos at a UT-Austin rally to pass the Dream Act, June 2012.

President Obama’s plans for the long-awaited executive action on immigration will finally be unveiled tomorrow at 8 p.m. ET/7 p.m. CT in a televised announcement. This will be followed by a rally at a high school in Las Vegas on Friday with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid where undoubtedly more details of the president’s plan will be revealed.

I asked longtime immigration attorney Dan Kowalski with The Fowler Law Firm in Austin to give Observer readers a broader idea of what Obama’s executive action might contain and how it might impact the estimated 1.7 million undocumented immigrants living in Texas. What’s certain is that whatever plan Obama unveils Thursday evening it will change millions of lives for the better.

Observer: How many people do you think the executive action will impact?

Kowalski: Anywhere from 2 million to 6 million people, but the details are a closely held secret so we won’t really know for sure until tomorrow night, although I think tomorrow night could just be a teaser. I read that Congress will be briefed tomorrow so we’ll see about that. It could be that more details will also be revealed on Friday in Las Vegas.

Observer: So which categories of immigrants do you think will be covered by the executive action?

Kowalski: I think the parents of U.S. citizen kids and maybe some parents of DACA kids (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) and they may raise the DACA age and in addition there may be something for agriculture and there may be something for high tech workers. There’s rumors about that. But I think the biggest group to benefit will be the millions of parents of U.S. citizen children.

Observer: That’s a pretty large sum of people isn’t it?

Kowalski: It could be, but the limiting factors will be: No. 1, is there a time qualification? Meaning you have to have been here a certain number of years. And No. 2, what are the other eligibility requirements such as criminal record and what’s the filing fee going to be?

Observer: Typically when these types of executive actions have happened in the past there are quite a few caveats and restrictions to qualifying, correct?

Kowalski: It depends on how tightly they make it. If they make it really tight not many people will qualify. We’ll know a lot more when they release the application forms. But I think the application period won’t probably begin until two to six months down the road. USCIS (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services) can’t ramp up that fast. They need to hire staff and create procedures and forms.

Observer: So it’s not something that will begin on Jan. 1?

Kowalski: I think it’s going to be March, April at the earliest.

Observer: Will there be funding there to support the huge number of people who will be filing?

Kowalski: Well, the thing about USCIS is that everything is fee-funded. They don’t get appropriations, so everything that USCIS does has to be funded through user fees. It will be a self-funding program no matter what.

Observer: What other groups of people should be included but won’t be?

Kowalski: I would like to see it be as broad as possible but that would require legislation. This action is more of a stopgap and what really needs to happen down the road is something from Congress that makes the visa rules broader and simpler to allow more people to immigrate.

Observer: How long do you think it will take people to go through the process with their paperwork? Immigration courts are already extremely backed up.

Kowalski: Well, this won’t have anything to do with the immigration courts. It will be an administrative process similar to the way that DACA is operating now. This will be much bigger than DACA of course, maybe 10 times as many people.

Observer: Will people who qualify under the executive action get legal residency permits?

Kowalski: No, they won’t get legal status, just a work permit. It will be like DACA—call it DACA-plus. I think they will probably get a work permit for two years, like DACA.

Observer: Anything else you think is important for people to know about this impending executive action on immigration?

Kowalski: A lot of people inside government and Congress and in the media are saying this action will spur Congress into finally doing something about immigration reform legislatively. I have the opposite view. There are plenty of people in Congress and in the administration that like the system broken. Fence-builders, jail-builders and the drone people and the enforcement people make a huge profit from the system as it is now. It’s good to be broken because it’s more work for them. If everything works and there are lots of visas then there’s nothing for them to enforce. Still, it’s going to be exciting to see what Obama announces tomorrow evening. Stay tuned.

migrant children
Eugenio del Bosque
Immigrant children deported to Mexico.

An 8-year-old boy was raped and sexually abused at the Artesia Detention facility in New Mexico but Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials at the facility did little to stop the abuse, said Bryan Johnson an immigration attorney who is representing the boy’s family. As the number of detention beds for migrant children and families grows rapidly, including two facilities in Texas, advocates and attorneys worry that abuse is increasing too.

The boy is from El Salvador and came across the Texas border with his mother and younger brother this summer. The family was sent to the detention facility in July after his family sought asylum. A few days later the child was raped by an older boy at the facility, said Johnson. When his mother reported the rape to an ICE official he told her there was “nothing that could be done about it.”

“Obviously the abuser is a very troubled child,” Johnson said. “He was in the same dorm room with my client and it’s my understanding that he abused other children as well.”

Johnson said there are at least 200 children at the Artesia facility and that the game room and bathrooms, where some of the abuse occurred, are not supervised. “There were actually many witnesses the second time my client was abused and this time ICE actually called the local police,” Johnson said. “But the police never spoke with the boy or his mother about what had happened.”

Johnson said it was especially terrible that after the boy’s ordeal, ICE wouldn’t allow the family to be released on humanitarian parole to relatives living in the United States. An immigration judge intervened and asked ICE to reconsider its decision. “They were finally released on a $10,000 bond in October, which is quite a lot for a bond,” Johnson said.

This is not the first case of abuse reported in family detention facilities recently opened to hold families seeking asylum. In October, several Central American women reported that guards sexually abused them at the Karnes County detention facility run by the private prison contractor GEO Group. The company signed a contract to hold as many as 530 women and children at the South Texas facility.

A recent report “Locking Up Family Values Again,” by the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service and Women’s Refugee Commission called the U.S. government’s rush to detain families an “inhumane practice.” Since the summer, the government has opened 1,200 beds at the Artesia and Karnes facilities to detain women and children. Another 2,400-bed family detention facility is slated for a 50-acre site just outside the town of Dilley, 70 miles southwest of San Antonio.

As long as children are held in detention there will be cases of abuse, Johnson said. The average age of children held at the Artesia facility is six. “There’s an inherent conflict of interest providing what’s best for children and keeping them locked up in detention,” he said.

Leticia Zamarripa, an ICE spokesperson, said in a statement that the agency notified the Artesia Police Department this summer upon being informed of an incident between two boys at the Artesia Family Residential Center.

Both boys and their mothers are no longer residing at the facility. Both families entered the United States illegally in early July; both were arrested by U.S. Border Patrol agents and transferred to the facility. Last month, an immigration judge heard both cases, and ordered the release of both families.

ICE remains committed to ensuring all individuals in our custody are housed and treated in a safe, secure and humane manner. ICE has a zero-tolerance policy for all forms of sexual abuse or assault, and our facilities are maintained in accordance with applicable laws and policies. Accusations of alleged unlawful conduct are investigated thoroughly and if substantiated, appropriate action is taken.

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Fuentes
An image of Fuentes posted from her Twitter account early Thursday

A well-known citizen journalist who used the Twitter handle @Miut3 was reportedly kidnapped and killed Wednesday in the border city of Reynosa.

Early Thursday morning, a string of threats were tweeted on the #reynosafollow hashtag from the @Miut3 account, along with what appeared to be pictures of her before and after her murder.

“Friends and family, my real name is Maria Del Rosario Fuentes Rubio, I’m a doctor and today, my life has come to an end.”

Another tweet read:

“I can only tell you to not make the same mistake I did, it doesn’t benefit you, quite the opposite as I realize today.”

Mexico has become one of the deadliest countries for journalists in recent years. The state of Tamaulipas is infamous now as a place where almost total censorship reigns under organized crime and reporters risk kidnapping and death.

Since 2010, ordinary citizens using Twitter, Facebook and other social media have tried to fill the vacuum left by traditional media. Many Reynosa residents rely on #reynosafollow to warn others of gun battles, narco blockades and other dangers in their city. They take great pains to hide their identities online. Defying the censorship can mean being killed or kidnapped.

@Miut3 was well known among #reynosafollow users and posted on a daily basis, says Sergio Chapa, interactive manager with the Harlingen TV station KGBT, who was one of the first to write about Fuentes’ alleged murder.

“It’s created a great amount of fear,” Chapa says. Reynosa’s online users worry that if the killers have Fuentes’ cell phone they’ll have their contact information as well. “Reynosafollow users are ditching their phones, changing phone numbers and doing other things to try and protect themselves.”

After the threatening posts, the @Miut3 account was deactivated by Twitter. On Thursday afternoon, the Tamaulipas attorney general’s office opened an investigation into Fuentes’ kidnapping and murder. But in a country where 98 percent of murders remain unsolved, the motives behind her killing may never be revealed and her killers never brought to justice. Because of the anonymity of the online community in Reynosa and extreme distrust of corrupt authorities in Tamaulipas, it’s difficult even to verify the simplest details of the case—like whether @Miut3 really was a doctor named Maria del Rosario Fuentes Rubio.

Chapa says one of the original leaders of the #reynosafollow hashtag who has been investigating the death is reasonably confident that @Miut3 was a doctor, but that her death had more to do with her day job than her online reporting. Chapa says his #reynosafollow source was told that Fuentes had been unable to save a young boy who’d been brought into her clinic. After that, a member of the child’s family sent men to kidnap her.

Later, according to Chapa’s source, the cartel members discovered Fuentes’ online identity and took the opportunity to intimidate other users online.

This isn’t the first time that social media users in Tamaulipas have been threatened or killed. Last year, a video on YouTube showed what appeared to be the execution of a contributor to the Valor Por Tamaulipas Facebook page, a popular place for residents to report crimes and corruption. In 2011, four social media users were murdered in Nuevo Laredo. Messages were left with their bodies threatening to kill others who reported crimes over social media.

One of the last messages from the @Miut3 account sent a chilling message to other well known online users in the #reynosafollow community:

“I found death and got nothing out of it. @Bandolera7, @civilarmado_mx and @ValorTamaulipas, death is closer to us than you think.”

National Nurses United demonstration

After a second nurse from Texas Presbyterian Health Hospital in Dallas was diagnosed with Ebola on Wednesday, a national union said nurses are afraid and not receiving proper training or equipment to deal with the deadly virus.

Deborah Burger, a registered nurse and co-president of National Nurses United, said the Ebola diagnoses of the two nurses in Dallas were “truly heartbreaking, outrageous and totally preventable. We want to make sure it never happens again.”

Burger and at least 11,500 nurses across the nation, and as far away as Spain, participated in the press conference call Wednesday, and called for better training, equipment and resources to treat Ebola patients. In a letter sent to the White House on Wednesday, they asked President Obama to “invoke his executive authority” to order all U.S. hospitals to meet the highest “uniform, national standards and protocols” in order to “safely protect patients, all healthcare workers and the public.”

“We don’t have a national integrated health system,” Burger said during the press call. “We have a series of private corporate hospitals each responding in their own way. “

Several U.S. nurses said their hospitals were unprepared and that they had no protective equipment or training to deal with an Ebola patient, or any patient with a highly infectious disease.

El Paso nurse Yadira Cabrera said she and her coworkers received a 10-minute training, and nothing more. Cabrera did not name the hospital where she worked. “We need to get beyond business as usual,” she said. “Preparation is not a colored flyer or a number to call at [the Centers for Disease Control]. As RNs we need to be educated from triage to waste disposal.”

On Tuesday, nurses at Texas Presbyterian Health Hospital reached out to the union because they felt they were being blamed for the spread of the infectious disease. The nurses in that hospital were very angry, and they decided to contact us,” National Nurses United Executive Director RoseAnn DeMoro told CNN Tuesday. The nurses are worried conditions at the hospital “may lead to infection of other nurses and patients,” Burger said.

The nurses, who are remaining anonymous for fear of retaliation, related a number of troubling accusations to the union about how the hospital treated Thomas Eric Duncan, the first Ebola patient diagnosed in the United States. “Mr. Duncan was left in an area where other patients were present,” Burger said. “The nurses wore generic gowns with three pairs of gloves with no taping and surgical masks.”

The gowns exposed their legs from the knees down and their necks. When the nurses complained, they were told to use medical tape and “wrap it around their necks,” according to Burger. “The nurses had to interact with Mr. Duncan with whatever protective equipment was available. … There was no protocol,” she said. Duncan was extremely ill with projectile vomiting and diarrhea, which the nurses had to clean up. “There was no one to pick up the hazardous waste as it piled up to the ceiling,” she said.

The nurses also had to continue treating other patients in the hospital. Those patients were later kept in isolation for one day, then moved to another section with other patients.

The hospital and the Centers for Disease Control received more criticism Wednesday as news spread that the second nurse diagnosed with Ebola, Amber Vinson, had been on a flight from Cleveland to Dallas the day before she showed symptoms of the disease.

By speaking out, nurses are not “fear mongering,“ Burger said. What they are advocating for is “the highest standards to eradicate the disease.” The U.S. should be setting an example on how to contain and eradicate ebola, she said. ”If I was writing for the newspapers I would say, ‘We need help.’”

Immigrants marching for immigration reform in Austin.
Priscila Mosqueda
March for Immigration reform in Austin

Because of the government’s failure to reform immigration laws, faith leaders said Wednesday in a press call with media that they are building a new nationwide sanctuary movement and urging churches across the country to offer shelter to immigrants facing deportation.

The rebirth of the sanctuary movement began in Arizona in May when 36-year-old Daniel Neyoy Ruiz, who was born in Mexico, sought refuge in the Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson. After nearly a month of living in the church, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials granted Neyoy Ruiz a one-year reprieve from deportation.

Currently, Rosa Robles Loreto, a mother of two young boys, is living at the Tucson church trying to fight her deportation to Mexico. Robles said she has lived in Tucson for the last 15 years. “My goal is to stay with my husband and children because they need me,” she said in the press call today. “My struggle goes further than from my immediate family, and it is a call and a national petition so that others can also have hope and establish their lives here, where we have already lived for so long.”

Arizona, specifically Tucson, was the birthplace of the sanctuary movement in the 1980s when thousands of Central Americans fleeing civil wars sought asylum in the United States. Many of the refugees were detained in prisons then deported to their war-torn countries where the U.S. was involved in providing funding and weapons to governments and forces viewed as anti-communist. The founding of the movement is credited in part to Rev. John Fife, minister at Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson. Fife spurred other religious leaders to defy federal immigration laws and offer sanctuary to refugees at churches, spurring a powerful resistance movement that spread to Texas and other states.

In the press call Wednesday, faith leaders said the violence many immigrants are facing back home is just as dire as it was more than 30 years ago. They said the current movement is rapidly growing, from two churches in Arizona to 24 congregations promising sanctuary and another 60 faith-based groups offering support.

Rev. Noel Andersen, grassroots coordinator with Church World Service, a faith-based humanitarian agency, said faith leaders are reaching out to Texas congregations to join the movement but none have accepted yet. “We don’t have anyone in Texas but that could change in the coming weeks,” he said.

Rev. Alison Harrington of Southside Presbyterian said the deportations are destroying families across the country. Each day, the U.S. government deports at least 1,000 people, according to government statistics. “In Arizona we have witnessed again and again the destruction of families through inhumane deportation practices. Responding to the commands of our faith to love our neighbors, congregations throughout the state are declaring sanctuary for undocumented individuals like Rosa Robles Loreto who have final orders of deportation.”

Congressman Raul Grijalva, a Democrat from Tucson, blamed elected officials for failing to act on comprehensive immigration reform. “The system has to be fixed,” he said. “There’s been nothing but cowardice on the part of House leadership who won’t even allow a vote on the Senate bill that while flawed deserves a vote.” Grijalva also blamed President Obama for delaying his executive action on immigration until after the election. “It was the wrong move,” he said. “The sanctuary movement is a response to the lack of action. It is a response to the humanity of the issue. And I think it is going to be a cornerstone in pushing the decency of the American people to demand of its elected officials to do something.”

Faith leaders who took part in the announcement included: Rabbi Linda Holtzman of the New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia, Rev. Julian DeShazier of University Church Chicago, Rev. Alison Harrington of Southside Presbyterian Church, Rev. Gradye Parsons, the highest elected official in the Presbyterian Church U.S.A as well as Rep. Raúl Grijalva of Arizona’s 3rd District.

The group said that sanctuary is currently being provided to immigrants in Phoenix, Tucson, Chicago and Portland. Churches in the following cities are providing support: Boston, Chicago, Denver, Kansas City, New York, Oakland, Portland, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Seattle and Tucson.

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A backpack found on the Cage Ranch in Brooks County.
Jen Reel
A backpack left behind by a migrant in Brooks County

The Texas National Guard has deployed a team to Brooks County to conduct search and rescue operations for migrants lost in the brush.

Law enforcement has recovered more than 400 bodies since 2009 in the rural county 60 miles north of the Texas-Mexico border. Every year, thousands of migrants try to circumvent a Border Patrol checkpoint in Brooks County by walking through rugged, isolated ranchland. Many die during the journey from heat exposure and thirst.

The deployment is a separate operation from the Texas Department of Public Safety’s Operation Strong Safety and the National Guard soldiers deployed by Gov. Perry to the border, according to a DPS press release. Specially trained teams of 20 to 25 guardsmen will conduct search and rescue missions in the county when requested by the Brooks County Sheriff’s office. The National Guard didn’t say how long the deployment to Brooks County would last.

Eddie Canales, director of the South Texas Human Rights Center in Brooks County, said the guard deployment could save lives. “We welcome any assistance in search and rescue in Brooks County,” he says.“We’re very interested at the center in seeing how this works, and how they work with Border Patrol and the sheriff’s office.”

Canales believes the guard will mostly focus on 9-1-1 distress calls from the brush, which are received by the sheriff’s office. In the past, the Border Patrol has been criticized for taking two hours or longer to respond to distress calls, or in some cases not responding at all.

Another area where they need help is with missing persons reports, Canales says. The center received a dozen phone calls from relatives of missing migrants over the summer. But callers often have so little information about where their loved one went missing or fell ill in the county that it’s difficult—if not impossible—for law enforcement to locate them.

“I just received a call for someone who disappeared on the 18th of September,” he says. “But the only information we have about where he went missing is that it was near the checkpoint.”

Canales says families need help but he’s unsure what the National Guard search and rescue team can do in these cases with so little information. “What is the process to request a search and rescue deployment?” he asks. “I’m exploring all of the avenues right now, hoping they can help.”

Rick Perry at Swift Camp
Gov. Perry surveys the GOP terrain.

As part of his continuing get-tough-on-the-border campaign, Gov. Rick Perry addressed several dozen National Guard soldiers today in a sweltering hangar at the Camp Swift training facility near Bastrop. While he provided little in the way of information on his deployment of troops to the Rio Grande Valley, he did provide some striking visuals for his presidential bid.

The press had been invited to attend presumably to learn more about Perry’s deployment of the National Guard to the border. But as we all stood fanning ourselves in a metal hangar in mid-August, the only new piece of information we gleaned was that 2,200 guardsmen have volunteered for the deployment and will be sent in rotation—1,000 soldiers at a time. There was no talk about rules of engagement, or what exactly the troops will be doing, or how long they will be on the border. When asked when they might be deployed, Perry said he didn’t want to tip the cartels off.

We did learn about the federal government’s inability to secure the border and how the good people of Iowa and South Carolina, not just Texas, are scarred by illegal immigration. Incidentally Iowa and South Carolina are key presidential primary states that Perry has been barnstorming in the past few weeks, always a few steps behind the competition Sen. Ted Cruz.

Lately, Perry’s been enjoying a political boost from the “border crisis” and it’s no secret he’s considering a 2016 presidential bid. Since he announced last month that he’d send 1,000 National Guard soldiers to the border, the governor has received standing ovations from some GOP voters. Never mind that the influx of Central American children and families, which constitute the recent “border crisis,” are mostly presenting themselves to immigration officials and asking for asylum.

It was clear Wednesday that Perry—with such a bump in the polls—couldn’t pass up another photo op with the National Guard. And even better, have it in a controlled setting on a military facility in Bastrop far from the border where he might face protesters who don’t want their communities turned into a war zone.

What Perry wanted the press to know today is that he’s protecting the nation from the “tentacles” of “narco terrorists.” The cost to Texas taxpayers isn’t an issue, he said, “because Texans support a secure border.” In a not-so-curious stroke of timing, Perry also released a web ad last week, paid for by his new RickPAC. The ad is all about border security and features numerous talking heads from Fox News, making Perry look like the last line of defense from the horde of brown invaders from south of the border.

After the press conference, the media were herded on to buses and taken to a firing range to watch Gov. Perry look through the viewfinder of what appeared to be a large box draped in camouflage. We were told by a National Guard public information officer that the contraption provides “specialized training for enhanced optics.” It was the only glimpse we were allowed into what the soldiers will be doing on the border. Regardless, the “border crisis” has provided plenty of “enhanced optics” for Perry’s presidential ambitions.

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Ted Cruz at a wildly popular event in the convention's exhibition hall.
photo by Tim Faust

The Republican leadership in the House suffered an embarrassing setback Thursday after being unable to muster enough votes to pass a $659 million emergency supplemental spending bill for the influx of unaccompanied children from Central America. Now, Republican leaders say they’ll try again Friday to pass the spending bill.

Capitol Hill reporters described the scene at the Capitol as “embarrassing” and “chaotic” as Republican leaders pulled the bill down then met in the basement in a desperate attempt to muster votes before they adjourn for five weeks.

Republican leaders loaded the bill with plenty of red meat to appeal to the most extreme faction of their party. The measure guts a 2008 anti-trafficking law that protects vulnerable Central American children from being immediately deported. Leadership also offered a bill to stop the expansion of the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which defers deportation for young undocumented immigrants, also know as Dreamers. The sentiment of Republicans seems to be “deport ‘em all” but this wasn’t enough to appease the party’s most conservative House Republicans, who had a tea party in Sen. Ted Cruz’s office yesterday. Cruz wants to see DACA completely defunded.

Kevin Appleby, director of migration policy for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops called the congressional debacle a “sad day for America” during a press conference Thursday for reporters.

“Instead of choosing immigration reform the House has decided to pass bills that will deport vulnerable children—both those who have recently arrived and those who have lived among us for years. This is a defining moment in the national debate. The real issue here is ‘who we are as Americans?’ As leaders in human rights protections we often instruct other nations to receive refugees or protect human rights of people, yet we see child refugees on our own border and we respond in an inhumane way.”

 

The Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Artesia that houses the temporary detention facility
Courtesy of Artesia Chamber of Commerce
The Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Artesia that houses the temporary detention facility

An immigration attorney, working with Central American asylum seekers, in a newly opened detention facility says it’s becoming clear that the U.S. government is doing whatever it can to deport families as quickly as possible and only going through the motions when it comes to the asylum seekers.

Immigration attorney Shelley Wittevrongel, a former nun, was one of the first to volunteer to help Central American women and children pro bono at a newly opened detention facility in Artesia, New Mexico. The isolated detention center is located at a U.S. Border Patrol training facility about 200 miles from the Mexican border. It currently houses about 400 Central American women and children, according to media reports.

In Artesia, Wittevrongel has 10 clients and a list of 20 other women who have asked for legal representation. From the beginning, Wittevrongel says she has struggled to represent her clients in an isolated facility with no access to photocopiers, scanners or a place to file documents. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials who have been deployed from across the country to staff the detention facility have been courteous and helpful to attorneys but they’ve made it known that their goal is to deport the families as quickly as possible. “The officer in charge told me, ‘I want you to know that all of these people are going to be deported,’” says Wittevrongel. “He said, ‘Our job is to get them deported and there’s maybe one in 1,000 entitled to stay in the United States, and the rest are going to go,’” she says.

Wittevrongel was startled by the admission. “I told him, ‘I appreciate you giving me such a clear statement about it because the whole place feels that way.’”

All 10 of Wittvrongel’s clients had signed a form while in Border Patrol custody, agreeing to expedited removal, a fast-track process to deportation. “They are kept two or three days in custody at the border and processed under difficult, cramped conditions,” she says. “A client told me she was held for several hours in a room with several other women and children. They called her in at 3:00 a.m. and told her to sign the papers. She told me she was so tired and confused she had no idea what she was signing.”

Once someone has agreed to expedited removal it’s extremely difficult to avoid deportation, says Dan Kowalski, an Austin-based immigration attorney. “Statistically it’s hard to overturn,” he says.

Another step in the process that has been cut short, Wittevrongel says, is the credible fear interview, in which an U.S. asylum officer determines whether the immigrant has a “well-founded fear of persecution.” The interview is one of the most important steps in the asylum process. If a person doesn’t pass a credible fear interview he or she will not be able to present their asylum case before a judge. There is a chance for appeal but it’s rarely granted. Many of the women are fleeing extreme violence and persecution and have been traumatized in their home countries and on the journey to the United States. The law requires that the fear of persecution be “on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.”

But the type of violence afflicting Central America and Mexico doesn’t often fit neatly within these categories. Honduras, currently the lead country in the number of refugees arriving, has the highest murder rate in the world. But the violence is caused by a nexus of organized crime, street gangs and corrupt politicians. It takes time for Central Americans to relate their stories of persecution and explain the links between government and crime in their communities. “You’re interviewing traumatized people,” Wittevrongel says. “Typically, these type of credible fear interviews take several hours.”

Women are also forced to meet with the asylum officers accompanied by their children. This makes it difficult for them to focus on the interview and difficult to emphasize to the asylum officer the danger in their home countries. “They’re trying to protect their children,” Wittevrongel says. “They don’t want to say in front of them that they might be killed if they’re sent back, and it’s already likely they’re going to be deported.”

Some of her clients are deported before she can even meet with them for the first time, she says. “Yesterday I asked to see a client but she had already been sent back.” Another client told her that last week 80 women and children were woken up at 1:00 a.m., placed on a bus to the airport and flown back to Central America on a chartered plane. One woman, however, was allowed to stay at the last moment in the United States. She hadn’t passed her credible fear finding, but a judge disagreed with the asylum officer’s ruling and allowed her to continue her asylum case. “One out of 80,” Wittevrongel says. “That gives you an idea of the odds of staying.”

The 72-year-old immigration attorney says she left her home in Boulder, Colorado, to volunteer in Artesia so that the families can have “full access to what the law provides.” The families deserve a chance before they are sent back to the violence and persecution that forced them to flee their home countries. But unfortunately, the process at Artesia seems more like window dressing than what the law requires. “It’s more hurry up and deport than giving them their full due process,” she says.

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