Google+ Back to mobile

La Linea

Immigrants marching for immigration reform in Austin.
Priscila Mosqueda
An Austin rally for immigration reform.

A national bipartisan movement to reduce the United States’ outsized prison population is gaining momentum, but immigration reform advocates say an important piece is still missing from the reform conversation: Thousands of men and women are being incarcerated every year because they entered the U.S. without documents.

Illegal entry and re-entry — essentially, the crimes of crossing the border without authorization — are now the most-prosecuted federal crimes. Overloaded judges struggle to make time for other cases, including violent crime and financial fraud. Thanks to the surge in illegal entry prosecutions, Latinos now make up the majority of the federal prison population.

On Tuesday, more than 170 organizations representing criminal justice, immigration reform and faith-based groups sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, urging the Department of Justice to end prosecutions for illegal entry and re-entry.

Bob Libal, director of Grassroots Leadership, an Austin immigrant advocacy group, said it’s time for the DOJ to reconsider its overzealous prosecution of undocumented immigrants. “There’s a conversation going on about how to reduce mass incarceration, but at the same time you have leaders talking about mandatory minimums for people coming back into the country for basically petty immigration offenses,” he told the Observer.

Libal said that many people caught at the border are trying to reunite with family members in the United States. “We shouldn’t be throwing immigrants en masse into the prison system,” he said. “We have tens of thousands of people languishing in prison, their only violation being a re-entry offense.”

A broad spectrum of organizations, including the ACLU, the National Lawyers Guild and the Jesuit Conference, signed the letter. Libal said he hopes the move will bring immigrant detention into the broader reform movement around mass incarceration.

“We want to urge the administration to de-prioritize these immigration prosecutions,” Libal said. “If they do, it will have all kinds of positive impact.”

memorial Reynosa Mexico
Courtesy of Eugenio del Bosque
A memorial in Reynosa, Mexico, for migrants who died at the border.

On July 7, 2012, Juan Pablo Perez Santillan was fatally shot in Mexico by a U.S. Border Patrol agent standing on the U.S. side of the Rio Grande near Brownsville.

Que se muera el perro—let the dog die,” shouted one of the agents as Perez’s brother begged for help on the Mexican side of the riverbank, according to a lawsuit filed by the family. Perez and his brother were unarmed. Perez had been standing watch for a group of immigrants as they swam across the Rio Grande in an attempt to enter the U.S. without documents.

The Border Patrol agent shot at Perez at least five times, using a high-power scope, according to the lawsuit. One of the bullets pierced Perez’s chest and he later died at a hospital in Matamoros. The 30-year-old left behind eight children and a widow. The identity of the agent hasn’t been released to the public.

But a recently completed internal investigation by U.S. Customs and Border Protection of 67 shooting incidents by Border Patrol agents may offer some hope of justice for the family. The Perez case is one of just three that the Department of Justice has stepped in to investigate for possible criminal charges. Another fatal shooting at the Texas-Mexico border, which was filmed by a bystander, also was flagged for further investigation.

On September 3, 2012, Guillermo Arevalo Pedraza, a 37-year-old bricklayer was fatally shot by a U.S. Border Patrol agent on an airboat. Arevalo was barbecuing at a park on the Rio Grande near Nuevo Laredo with his wife and two young daughters when he was shot in the thigh and chest. Arevalo died in his 9-year-old daughter’s arms.

The decision by the Border Patrol not to pursue criminal charges against the agents involved in 64 of the cases has outraged civil rights advocates.

“We had higher expectations that when the new commissioner came in there would be more accountability and transparency,” said Vicki Gaubeca, director of the ACLU Regional Center for Border Rights. “It seems the biggest reason they’ve closed the cases is because the agents conducted themselves in the manner they were trained.”

The 67 shooting incidents that were reviewed included 19 fatal incidents from 2010 to 2012. The agency has released little information about the fatalities and none of the agents involved have been punished beyond reprimands.

The investigation came amid growing criticism and pressure to reform what many view as a rogue agency. In 2013, the CBP commissioned a closer look into the use of deadly force by agents. That report, by an independent Washington-based nonprofit called the Police Executive Research Forum, found that agents fired unnecessarily at people and vehicles and that Border Patrol officials failed to conduct thorough investigations of shooting incidents. The damning report remained classified until it was leaked to the Los Angeles Times in February 2014, creating an uproar.

A month later, in March, newly appointed U.S. Customs and Border Protection commissioner Gil Kerlikowske vowed to crack down on the use of excessive force by agents and provide better training. Kerilkowske quickly replaced the head of the agency’s internal affairs division with FBI agent Mark Morgan, who was charged with investigating the 67 shootings.

Advocates are questioning why agents involved in some high-profile cases were cleared of wrongdoing. For example, in 2010, Border Patrol Agent Jesus Mesa Jr. shot a 15-year-old boy, Sergio Adrian Hernandez Guereca, who was standing in Juarez. Hernandez was unarmed and had peeked out from behind a concrete pillar when he was shot in the face by Mesa.

“The U.S. government’s position is that because a bullet landed in Mexico it’s outside their jurisdiction, which is ridiculous,” said Gaubeca, of the ACLU. “They need to be reminded that the Constitution still applies at the border.”

The third case still under investigation stems from an October 2012 incident in Arizona. In October of that year, Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez, who was 16, was walking home in Nogales, Mexico, when he was shot 10 times—eight bullets pierced his body as he lay on the ground—by a Border Patrol agent standing on the U.S. side of the border fence. The agent said people on the other side of the fence were throwing rocks.

In the three cases, criminal charges are still possible, but that’s little consolation for the families whose loved ones’ cases have been closed, said Gaubeca. “It’s clear the agency wants to put it all behind them and move forward,” she said. “But the families haven’t moved beyond the sadness, the tragedy of the loss of their loved ones. They still deserve justice.”

lost in detention

In the last year, Texas has become the epicenter of immigrant family detention. There are now at least 3,000 beds in the state run by private for-profit prison companies devoted to family detention. We’ve been through this before. In 2010, the controversial T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Taylor stopped housing detained immigrant families after a protracted legal battle and public outcry at claims of abuse, including children made to wear prison uniforms and threats of isolation for children who didn’t behave.

Five years later, the number of immigrant families in detention vastly outnumbers the bad old days of T. Don Hutto. In late April, three women detained with their children at the Karnes County Residential Center, a 532-bed immigrant detention facility in South Texas, filed a class-action lawsuit against U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and GEO Group Inc., the private for-profit prison company that runs the facility. The three plaintiffs, Delmy Pineda Cruz, Polyane Soares de Olveira dos Santos and Lilian Castillo Rosado, say they were put in isolation, threatened with separation from their children and interrogated after participating in hunger strikes at Karnes.

Their pro bono lawyer, Ranjana Natarajan, director of the Civil Rights Clinic at the University of Texas School of Law, says the women are allowed under the First Amendment to peacefully protest. “This lawsuit is saying that the campaign of retaliation and harassment by ICE and GEO Group needs to stop,” she says. “Their rights need to be respected.”

In March, the three plaintiffs joined more than 75 other women in circulating a petition for their release. The group began a hunger strike to protest their detention in prison-like conditions. Immigration judges are issuing exorbitant detention release bonds that range from $5,000 to $15,000. (Single men in detention are typically given bonds of $1,500.) Immigrant rights advocates say it’s part of the government’s strategy to prevent another influx of Central American families seeking political asylum at the southern border.

Faced with the impossibly high bonds, the women and children have no choice but to remain locked up in Karnes or to accept deportation. The majority of the families come from three countries—Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador—that have some of the highest rates of violence in the world. Being locked up only exacerbates the trauma they’ve already suffered. “I’ve represented women who have been in detention for nine months already,” Natarajan says. “These women are simply saying that they’re not a threat, and that they shouldn’t be detained.”

But the women suffered a setback in May. U.S. District Judge Xavier Rodriguez denied their motion for a temporary restraining order to halt alleged retaliation against the women for participating in protests at the Karnes facility.

Rodriguez questioned whether the women, because they are undocumented, have legal standing to seek protection under the First Amendment, according to the San Antonio Express-News.

Government lawyers also argued that the undocumented women didn’t have the right to seek protections under the U.S. Constitution. If the U.S. government prevails on that argument, it could set a dangerous precedent: a two-tiered society of some who are protected under the U.S. Constitution, and some who are not.

Q&A with Dawn Paley, Author of Drug War Capitalism

In new her book, Paley breaks from a tired narrative to connect U.S. policy, free trade and the devastating war on drugs in Colombia and Mexico.
Dawn Paley - Drug War Captialism

Since Mexico sent the military into the streets to fight the drug war in 2006, at least 140,000 people have lost their lives. Drug capos are killed or jailed by the Mexican government, and still the violence escalates. Canadian journalist Dawn Paley peels back the layers of this complex conflict, dismissing the simple cops-versus-cartels narrative that dominates most U.S. media reporting on the drug war. Her new book, Drug War Capitalism, reveals how U.S. foreign policy, free trade and the ever-expanding drug war and militarization contribute to the bloodshed in Latin America. Currently living in Mexico, Paley covers dangerous territory: greed, political corruption and a battle for dwindling resources under the guise of a drug war.

In her courageous and ambitious book, Paley argues that there’s no longer a clear distinction between the drug cartels, the government forces supposedly fighting them and the rapacious global economy.


Texas Observer: Can you talk about the origins of your book Drug War Capitalism and why you decided to write it?

Dawn Paley: I was in Colombia and watching Mexico totally degrade over the first couple of years of the Merida Initiative, and I wanted to link what people were telling me in Colombia and the kind of experiences they were having there with what was happening in Mexico. It was instinctual. But I didn’t have a hypothesis at the beginning so I just started working. The first thing I did was go to Reynosa and Monterrey and started speaking with people. And then I met [Tamaulipas politician and businessman] Francisco Chavira Martinez, and his way of understanding what was happening in Reynosa was that it was the municipal politicians themselves that were working with drug cartels to set off explosions in public buildings so that people would be afraid to go and ask for transparency from the municipality. What is happening is that it’s about more than just controlling cocaine. The violence is bleeding into political life, creating this climate of fear that is useful in maintaining the current economic and political model.

TO: Why did you call the book Drug War Capitalism?

DP: When I was writing the book I was thinking about it along the lines of Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine and the subtitle of her book “The Rise of Disaster Capitalism.” My book is a different take on a similar idea of these various strategies that are deployed to promote and expand capitalism and I argue that the drug war is one of them.

TO: It was very interesting to hear your March presentation in McAllen. You talked about how trade agreements are often linked with military expansionism in countries. It reminded me of the Keystone XL pipeline expansion in Texas. The company hired local police as security. The police are from the community but then they become this private security force protecting the pipeline.

DP: Yes, it’s a whole area where we can see how U.S. foreign and military policy is brought back to the U.S. It’s been talked about with Ferguson, for example, where you see military equipment that was used in Iraq and Afghanistan. And then there are former soldiers who have returned from overseas and are now policing communities. In the case of the drug war, the militarization is something that we know less about and it’s less documented.

The easiest argument to communicate to people who live in the United States, for example, is about how militarization benefits the corporate sector. People understand that. There are these environmental struggles and struggles around social justice and occupying public spaces, and the role that the police play here in the U.S. as protectors of banks, protectors of capital. It’s a role police play everywhere. Of course the police are good for big corporations that are conflictive and that create conflict in communities.

Drug War Capitalism
Dawn Paley via Facebook
Drug War Capitalism
By Dawn Paley
AK Press
$10.55; 255 pages

TO: In your book you talk a lot about the link between militarization and the extractive industries like mining and oil and gas exploration.

DP: In Colombia during Plan Colombia it was very overt. Part of Plan Colombia included funding for U.S. soldiers to train Colombian soldiers to protect a pipeline that belonged to Occidental Petroleum. And there were other developments in Plan Colombia where soldiers had protected mining companies in the exploitation phase and were carrying the product and actually guarding the sites. One of the things announced in 2010 was that the Colombian Army would also carry out security for corporations carrying out mining exploration. So it’s the militarization of the entire lifecycle of extractive projects. And it was being done in a very blatant way and in the case of the oil pipeline, which was specifically funded by the U.S. And it’s done always with the same argument that it’s crucial to improve the business climate because that’s the way to reduce poverty—but it’s an argument that I think doesn’t have any basis in reality.

In Mexico, the militarization of the extractive industries might be a little less obvious. But there are a couple of cases in my book of federal police bursting into ejido meetings and trying to influence landowners, and trying to influence their decision-making around a mining project. In the same area in Chihuahua the army used its trucks to bring mining employees across a strike blockade. Those were two instances I was able to find for the book, but I think unfortunately over time there will be more evidence of collusion between police, the military and the promotion of these types of extractive projects. It’s not like this activity is always part of Plan Mexico. But Plan Mexico is crucial in arming and equipping soldiers and police units. Also we have a very hard time knowing exactly what’s being done with the money the U.S. is dispersing through the Initiative.

TO: What do you think will happen in Tamaulipas with fracking opening up, especially in a place with so much insecurity and violence?

DP: Multiple mass displacements have taken place in the Burgos Fields (in Tamaulipas). The area of the Eagle Ford Shale that runs south from Nuevo Laredo is essentially one of the most violent areas in Mexico where there’s no free press, people live in fear and there’s been multiple displacements from that region. We’ll see what happens with the fracking. It depends on gas prices, depends on the auctions held by Pemex and it depends on the ability to access water and how residents react to it. But I feel like what my book is doing—in the case of fracking in Tamaulipas—is calling attention to this new energy boom in one of the scariest, most dangerous regions of Mexico and saying, “let’s be open to the possibility that that’s not a coincidence.”

TO: Do you think there will be a rise in paramilitaries? Will oil and gas companies use private security forces in Tamaulipas because of the insecurity?

DP: Well, you can look at a case that Pemex started in Houston around the sale of stolen condensate, which the Mexican government says was stolen by the Zetas, primarily in Tamaulipas and Coahuila, and then brought across the border and sold to a syndicate of Texas fossil fuel companies that knew they were buying product that had been extracted illegally. And so these companies in Texas had these direct links with these armed groups. So it’s not a stretch of the imagination to think that their cooperation with these armed groups could extend to playing other types of roles. Another thing is, I’ve interviewed a number of oil and gas workers in Reynosa who talk about how dozens of people over a handful of years have been kidnapped and disappeared while they were working at remote sites and Pemex doesn’t do anything about it. One man recently told me that part of his job is marking these men down every week as absent. Some of these men have been missing now for four years and he marks them down as absent because the company won’t acknowledge that they have disappeared. It’s this absurdity where these high-level Pemex people are allowing this to happen and there’s been no big public denouncement by Pemex. I think if there were attacks against private contractors and U.S. or Canadian companies then it would be a scandal and there would be things we would know about and there would be more security measures in place.

TO: After so many years of writing about the drug war in Mexico, the U.S. media still covers it mostly like a crime story with body counts and not a lot of depth. Why is that, do you think? Why is there no context?

DP: I feel like as a journalist there is this idea that if you’re not writing about the drug cartels and the battles and not chasing ambulances then you aren’t really covering the drug war, you’re covering something else. The dominant discourse in the media is so restrained and the language that they use is about Cartel X and Cartel Y fighting each other and the amount of drugs, and there are these sets of things that you have to say… the body counts. And what the police say and what the government is doing about it.

Going outside of those boundaries is something that could be risky for people’s careers. There is very little space in the mainstream media for telling other versions or for challenging that official version. People have built their careers on that version of events. I think that’s another part of it: There’s analysts, there’s journalists, there’s police officers, DEA officers there are all of these segments of society that depend on that official version. Challenges to that version of events could undermine the legitimacy.

TO: What are you working on now?

DP: I’m currently working on a book about clandestine mass graves in Mexico and the politics of exhumation and who is looking for these graves. It feels like my next logical step after this book. I think of the clandestine mass graves in Mexico as being one of the very important physical remnants that the drug war has left in Mexico. The drug war has transformed Mexico into a cemetery. We are talking about upwards of 24,000 people declared disappeared over the past six years. Meanwhile the state and federal governments are not following any type of protocol when it comes to finding these graves or matching them with folks who have been disappeared. Looking at the way the mass graves are treated reinforces this structural impunity that allows the war to continue.

border security
Staff Sgt. Terra C. Gatti, Virginia Guard Public Affairs/Flickr
Soldiers depart from the Virginia National Guard’s Army Aviation Support Facility in Sandston, Va., to provide aerial reconnaissance support to U.S. Customs and Border Protection as part of the national effort to counter illegal immigration along the Texas border.

The state’s republican leaders have made border security their top priority and are prepared to spend millions, perhaps even billions, on it. Now if they could only agree on what securing the border means.

In late February, the Senate Finance Committee began debating the state budget for the next biennium. But the state’s top budget analysts, the Legislative Budget Board, told the committee that since the state lacked any consensus on—or definition of—border security, it was nearly impossible for them to track expenditures or determine how effective the funding has been.

Despite the confusion, the Senate is proposing to spend as much as $815 million on border security in its draft of the budget. State Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin), a member of the committee, said at the hearing that it was unclear to him why the extra funding is needed. “We’re crafting this out of a very vague set of numbers and comments,” he said. “Recently we had an influx of young children crossing the border that resulted in the reaction of putting a whole lot of money at the border. Now we’re doing something different … We all need to know what the goal looks like, not just, ‘The more money we put into it the tougher we are.’”

Senate Finance Chair Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound) said she left the draft budget vague on purpose. “My goal was to increase funding significantly, which we did … and to cover certain areas, but to leave it up to the committee’s discretion how we do that. … We do have a very clear goal and that’s a secure border,” Nelson said.

From the meeting it also became evident that the debate over border security spending isn’t entirely a partisan one. State Sen. Kevin Eltife (R-Tyler) said he wanted to see clear goals and performance measures before voting on more money for border security. “On this subject in particular I’ve heard people say it polls well and that’s what voters are demanding. I get that,” he said. “I don’t care what it polls. Every dollar we spend has to be accounted for. We’re dealing with all of these contract fiascos. I don’t want to come back in another two years after spending $800 million to find out we have another boondoggle on our hands.”

Eltife has cause for concern. No-bid border security contracts have been doled out in the past. In 2012, the Austin American-Statesman revealed that the Texas Department of Public Safety had given at least $20 million in no-bid contracts to a private Virginia consulting firm called Abrams Learning and Information Systems Inc. (ALIS). The company, founded by retired Army Gen. John Abrams, is one of the main architects of the Texas border security plan.

After the 2012 revelations, the Public Integrity Unit at the Travis County District Attorney’s Office began to investigate the ALIS contracts. But the unit was forced to end its investigation in 2013 after then-Gov. Rick Perry vetoed $7.5 million for the anti-corruption agency.

U.S. Rep. John Culberson in Appropriations Committee
U.S. Rep. John Culberson (R-Houston)

In 2009, Congress passed a statutory quota requiring Immigration and Customs Enforcement to keep 34,000 immigrants in jail on a daily basis. But immigration patterns are cyclical, and apprehensions—with the exception of an influx of Central Americans in the Rio Grande Valley—are at a 40-year low. Nevertheless, congressmen like John Culberson (R-Houston) want ICE to keep the detention facilities at capacity at all times. Apparently, Culberson wants immigrants locked up even if there’s no legal reason to do so.

Culberson got into a heated debate last week with Sarah Saldaña, the new director of ICE, during an appropriations hearing, over locking up more immigrants in the country’s growing patchwork of private for-profit prisons.  Culberson sits on the subcommittee that oversees funding for ICE and Saldaña to her credit pushed back.

In Congress, Geo Group, Corrections Corporation of America and other private prison companies spend millions on lobbying. Much of that lobbying is focused on powerful members of the appropriations committee like Culberson, who received campaign contributions from CCA, which runs detention facilities including Dilley’s controversial South Texas Residential Center, which detains women and children.

A new study by the nonprofit Grassroots Leadership finds that the private prison industry has increased its share of immigrant detention beds by 13 percent since the 2009 quota was passed. For-profit corporations now operate sixty-two percent of ICE immigration detention beds.

At one point during the U.S. House Appropriations Committee hearing last week, Saldaña tries to explain to the tea-partier Culberson that she can’t put people in detention “just for the heck of it.”


Culberson: What is ambiguous?—I don’t see that it’s ambiguous—the requirement that you use not less than 34,000 detention beds. That’s statutory in the Homeland Security bill.

Saldaña: Yes, I have it right here—it says, “provided further that funding made available under this heading…”

Culberson: Is there anything about that that’s discretionary or optional?

Saldaña: No, we have maintained that capacity.

Culberson: Right, But you’re not using it. Right now you’re at about 26,000.

Saldaña: Well, that’s dictated sir by the flow of immigrants. As you know Customs and Border—

Culberson: There’s no shortage of folks coming over the border illegally.

Saldaña: Right, and we need to apprehend them and find them. But as you know at the border, apprehensions are down—the first line of defense is CBP—is down about 24 percent. So that’s going to obviously affect—since we get 60 percent of beds—or apprehensions—from CBP, that’s going to affect that. Plus, it’s seasonal. This is a seasonal flow and we’re just getting to the warmer months where the migration patterns in the past have shown us there might be an increase in migration.

Culberson: So is it optional for you to use those 34,000 beds in your opinion?

Saldaña: Optional? It’s not optional to have them available.

Culberson: But it’s optional whether or not you use them?

Saldaña: It’s not optional, sir. We have those and we will use those to the extent that we make decisions that someone needs to be detained. If you’re asking me whether it is more important to fill a bed than it is to do it right, then I’m going to have to go with doing it right. And that is make our decisions on the basis of—just like the federal courts do—

Culberson: But if it’s not clear I mean, whereas, policy makers and statute drafters wrote this so it is not ambiguous, it’s not discretionary, it’s not optional. We want you to use 34,000 beds.

Saldaña: That’s absolutely clear to me.

Culberson: You’ve got plenty of demand. You’ve got plenty of demand—

Saldaña: But sir, we don’t detain people just for the heck of it.

Culberson: I know that, but—

Saldaña: We detain people based on what the law tells us, and that is: Is this person a flight risk? And is this person a threat to public safety? Those are the decisions that our very seasoned officers are out there making every day. And from what I have seen and observed, they are making the right decisions.

Culberson: I feel very confident you could find an extra 9,000 criminal aliens that needed to be detained to fill those beds in a heartbeat.

Saldaña: We’re working on that. That’s part of what Operation Cross Check was.

Culberson: But you feel like this is not a requirement to use the beds. So perhaps the language might need a little tweaking.

Saldaña: That’s not what I intended, I said it is capacity in my view—

Culberson: Well the president thinks statutes are optional and subject to his discretion. He’s obligated by the constitution to take care the laws are faithfully executed. He’s clearly in violation of that. You’ve told us that you don’t think this policy the president has issued is contrary to the law. We as policy makers and legislators are here—the law enacted by Congress that the president and agencies are to follow. Not a policy directive or memorandum sent out by the head of an agency. It is the law enacted by Congress that you and the president are obligated to follow. And there’s just a fundamental disagreement here. I think it’s at the root of what’s outraged the country, quite frankly, from coast to coast. The president systematically and repeatedly refuses to enforce the law as written and you just confirmed that for us today. It’s upsetting and concerning because we in Texas feel the brunt of this with the number of criminal aliens crossing border, drug runners, killers, sex traffickers. It’s appalling and outrageous and no one is more concerned about it than the communities—for example our good friend U.S. Rep. Cuellar represents along the Rio Grande river. Laredo is a ghost town as you know; it’s a terrible situation. We expect you to follow the law as written and when something says “shall. “Shall” is not optional.

Saldaña: I didn’t say that, sir. I really said—

Culberson: But you don’t feel like you need to use them.

Saldaña: No, sir. We are working to use them. Every day people are out there trying to find—particularly with respect to people with criminal records and those who meet our priorities. We are trying to find those folks if CBP doesn’t hand them to us. To me the important thing is to make the right decisions as required by law as to whether we can detain someone or not. It’s not the sole purpose and goal to fill a bed; it’s to fill it in the right way. That’s my view.

Melissa del Bosque
Left to Right: Valeria Ramirez, Salma Guzman, Ashlei Levrier-Howell, Yineli Carreon and Jesslyn Garay

It’s early Thursday morning at the Texas Capitol and Yineli Carreon, 18, and Ashlei Levrier-Howell, 17, huddle around a map with three other high school students. They’re trying to find House Speaker Joe Straus’ office but have gotten lost in the confusing maze of hallways and staircases. “We literally just did a circle,” Levrier-Howell laughs. “Yesterday I took the elevator and ended up outside.”

This isn’t a typical school field trip to the Capitol. These high school students are members of the South Texas Youth Congress, a nonprofit started in 2013 to involve South Texas high school students in public policymaking. The program’s executive director, a Corpus Christi educator named Armando Villarreal, modeled the STYC after the Iowa Youth Congress, which he started when he was director of the Iowa Division of Latino Affairs. The STYC currently has 28 members from 14 South Texas counties, each of them voted into the congress by their high school classmates, school administrators and alumni of STYC.

For the past two days, Levrier-Howell, Carreon and 14 other teenagers have been lobbying legislators to pass House Bill 3467, which would allow graduate and medical students to take specialized classes from experts outside of the region via high-speed video streaming. The high school students came up with the idea for the bill, debated and agreed upon its language, and then persuaded state Rep. Armando “Mando” Martinez (D-Weslaco) to carry it.

“This goes beyond student council,” says Salma Guzman, a 16-year-old STYC member from Laredo. “We are at the Legislature working to get bills passed. A lot of the representatives are surprised that we are still in high school.”

But now the bill is stuck in a House committee, and the students are making their case to legislators to get the bill moving. After a few minutes, the students find the speaker’s office and Levrier-Howell opens the stately etched-glass door that leads into the reception area. The five young women file inside. Levrier-Howell, the group’s vice president, is confident and poised. She asks the woman at the front desk, Megan Collins, if they can meet with an education policy analyst about their bill. Collins disappears into the depths of the cavernous office.

Levrier-Howell has another year of high school but she’s already mapped out her plans for college. She wants to become a pediatric oncologist. “I’m applying to UT-Austin and to Cornell,” she says, “but when I’m done I want to go back to the border.”

Carreon, the group’s president, will be attending Texas A&M in the fall, where she plans to study to become a certified dietician. She also wants to return home when she’s finished. “We have a high rate of diabetes in South Texas, especially in the colonias,” she says. “I want to help my community.”

The group isn’t happy that the border often gets a bad rap, especially at the Capitol. “I saw this trip as an opportunity to speak out on issues important to my community,” says Carreon. “I don’t appreciate when people try to stereotype us, that we are all the same because of our background and that we won’t get anywhere.”

Villarreal, the executive director of the South Texas Youth Congress, says these high school students represent the new Texas. “Our motto is: ‘The future is here and we are the future,’” he says, “They’re going to have an impact on social policy and bring a whole new type of politics with them. They are more focused on the application and allocation of resources where they are needed and less focused on ideology.”

At the speaker’s office, Collins, the young staffer, returns with disappointing news. The woman in charge of education policy is busy and can’t meet with them. Collins offers to meet with the group and pass their concerns along to Speaker Straus.

Levrier-Howell and the other students follow her into a meeting room, where she, Carreon and the others launch into a pitch for their bill, and how access to post-grad video courses will help their community. “How much will this cost?” Collins wonders, furrowing her brow.

“What we’re asking for first is a feasibility study to determine the cost and where the money might come from,” says Levrier-Howell.

Collins looks impressed. “Wow, so did you say you are in high school?”

Afterward, the students regroup in the hallway. Levrier-Howell says they’ll swing by Straus’ office again later to see if they can meet the education staffer then. “You have to keep going back,” she says.

“I was nervous when I first got to Austin,” Carreon says. “I thought they might question our knowledge on the bill because we are high school students. But now I’m really pumped. There’s a lot of energy in here.”

The high school students are pragmatic about their chances of passing their bill this session. More than most adults, they already understand that getting something passed in the Legislature takes persistence, and probably more than one legislative session. But they have their whole lives in front of them and plenty of time.

“We’ll be back,” Levrier-Howell says. “We’re just getting started.”

Eugenio del Bosque
Omar Garcia and Maria de Jesus Tlatempa Bello

“I am Maria de Jesus of Tlapa, Guerrero, and I am here to ask for your help.” The mother of three stood before state Rep. Celia Israel (D-Austin) and about 15 legislative staffers in a hearing room early Thursday at the Texas Capitol.

Maria de Jesus Tlatempa Bello had come more than 1,110 miles from her home in Guerrero, Mexico, to tell the story of her son, Jose Eduardo, one of the Ayotzinapa 43. On the night of Sept. 26, police in Iguala, Guerrero, opened fired on the three buses he and other students of the Ayotzinapa Normal School were riding in, and then kidnapped 43 of the students, including Jose Eduardo.

Maria de Jesus has been looking for her 19-year old son ever since. Meanwhile, Mexicans have been searching for answers about the fate of the 43 students. “They were taken alive, we want them back alive” has become a national rallying cry, even though federal prosecutors insist the students were burned to death in a garbage dump.

The truth, like many cases of forced disappearance and violence in Mexico, has been hard to find, obscured by cynical political theater and deliberate misinformation. But it is clear that elected officials were involved in the disappearance of the students.

The mayor of Iguala and his wife are in jail facing allegations they ordered the attack on the Ayotzinapa 43 over fears that the students, with their long tradition of radical politics, would interfere with the wife’s bid for office. The governor of Guerrero has resigned under pressure from the public.

The federal government’s callousness toward the the victims’ families, and its refusal to conduct a transparent investigation, has helped spark a massive protest movement in Mexico and around the globe. The fallout from the Ayotzinapa atrocity has also become a political and public security crisis for Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto. Human Rights Watch has called it the worst human-rights crisis facing Mexico since soldiers massacred unarmed students at Tlatelolco in 1968.

Maria de Jesus and 24-year old Omar Garcia, an Ayotzinapa student who survived the police assault, arrived in Austin Tuesday on the Caravana 43. Organized by a coalition of grassroots organizations in the United States, they are traveling across the U.S. to raise awareness about the growing number of disappearances in Mexico and to put pressure on the Mexican government to find the 43 students.

“We’ve had enough,” Maria de Jesus said. “We’re tired of the kidnappings, the murders and disappearances. The Mexican government doesn’t help, it only abuses its power. We come here to ask for your help because we know the U.S. gives Mexico a lot of funding. Some of that money goes to pay the police, the military to fight the drug cartels. But this money is being used to repress the people, not fight the drug cartels.”

The two were invited to the Capitol by Rep. Israel (D-Austin) and state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez (D-Austin). Afterward, state Sen. Sylvia Garcia (D-Houston) presented a memorial resolution on the Senate floor to the families of the 43 students.

The caravan, which began on March 15 in McAllen, is one of three criss-crossing the United States. All three caravans will converge in Washington, D.C. for meetings with Amnesty International and other human rights organizations, according to Julio Cesar Guerrero, a community organizer from San Antonio and a national coordinator for Caravana 43.

Guerrero says the U.S. coalition brought 15 family members and students from Mexico to participate in the three caravans. “There aren’t just 43 students missing,” he said. “There is at least 23,000 people forcefully disappeared in Mexico. They have become a symbol of thousands of deaths because of the senseless war on drugs.”

In the legislative hearing room at the Capitol Thursday, Omar Garcia told legislative staffers that he is lucky to have survived the brutal attacks in Iguala. “We are very happy that the voice of Ayotzinapa is resounding around the whole world. This case has gotten a lot of attention but it still has not been resolved. Imagine what happens with the other cases that receive less attention. Just in Iguala, 600 families are searching for missing family members. Our task is to not only seek justice for ourselves but others violated in Mexico.”

Rep. Israel said she was thankful for the caravan visit. “Maria de Jesus is taking a big risk being here and being critical of the Mexican government,” she said. “You have incredible strength to have gone through all of that and to be here today.”

Omar Garcia said some parents have been killed in Mexico for refusing to give up the search for their children. “We worry that that could happen to some of the parents of the 43 students,” he said. “But we will continue knocking on doors and urge the Mexican government to do an honest investigation of what happened. We refuse to accept that our classmates are dead.”

A DPS training near McAllen
Alex Landeen
A Texas DPS training session near McAllen

While reporting my 8,000-word feature on the Texas Department of Public Safety helicopter shooting of two undocumented men over the last year, I tried repeatedly to obtain documents from the Texas DPS by using the Texas Public Information Act. I wanted to better understand the agency’s dramatic transformation in the last decade into a militarized police force, especially when it comes to its border security programs.

I was met with resistance at every turn by the agency, even when it came to documents that I knew had already been released to other news outlets.

In September 2014, I filed a public information request with DPS seeking documents, such as contracts and memos, on a Virginia-based contractor called Abrams Learning and Information Systems Inc. (ALIS). The private company, founded by retired Army Gen. John Abrams, is one of the main architects of the sweeping Texas border security plan.

In January, the Texas attorney general issued an opinion that DPS didn’t have to release much of the information, citing homeland security concerns, among other reasons. But DPS had already agreed to release documents that it considered to be public information. In October, I paid a $221 deposit to DPS. For months I have written and phoned Molly Cost, the DPS lawyer in charge of the agency’s public information requests, but have never received a response.

Other media outlets have had problems getting even basic information from DPS.

The Houston Chronicle recently reported that DPS refuses to release border crime data. Even the Texas Attorney General’s office can’t get a response from Cost at DPS, despite numerous attempts to reach her, the Chronicle wrote. What kind of state agency won’t even talk to the state’s top lawyer?

In 2012, Jeremy Schwartz at the Austin American-Statesman published an important investigative piece about ALIS, pointing out that the company had received at least $20 million in no-bid contracts for everything from drafting border security talking points for then-Gov. Rick Perry to helping DPS set up joint intelligence centers and military-style commands across the state.

After these revelations, the Public Integrity Unit at the Travis County District Attorney’s Office began to investigate the ALIS contracts. But the unit was forced to end its investigation in 2013 after Perry vetoed $7.5 million for the anti-corruption agency.

Yesterday, the liberal group Progress Texas made the important point that the ALIS contracts have been all but forgotten, even as Gov. Greg Abbott and the Legislature are considering an increase in border funding of as much as $815 million.

Now would be the time for the Public Integrity Unit to reopen its investigation into the ALIS contracts and help shine some light on DPS, said Progress Texas.

“The human cost and lack of transparency surrounding DPS operations at the U.S.-Mexico border underscores why we must scrutinize third-party contractors training DPS and other state employees in border security,” said Ed Espinoza, executive director of Progress Texas.

One thing I wanted to figure out during my investigation was who crafted the policy authorizing DPS personnel to fire from helicopters during pursuits. No other law enforcement agency in the country would entertain such a policy, because it’s so clearly reckless. “What if you hit the driver? Then you’ve got an unguided missile on your hands,” Geoffrey Alpert, a professor of at the University of South Carolina and a national expert in police pursuits, told me. “What they were doing was totally crazy.”

But without DPS providing even basic information, there’s no way of knowing who was responsible for that deadly policy.

Listen to Melissa del Bosque discuss her story, Death on Sevenmile Road, on Texas Standard.

Families in the hall at the notorious T. Don Hutto family detention center
Department of Homeland Security
Families in the hall at the notorious T. Don Hutto family detention center

Ever since thousands of Central Americans sought asylum in Texas last summer, the White House has been trying to stop other families from doing the same. One of its most controversial tactics is to lock up asylum-seeking women and children in detention facilities and charge such high immigration bonds that they can’t get out. Eventually, the mothers become desperate, give up their asylum claims and agree to be deported.

The United States has recognized valid asylum claims under international conventions and treaties since World War II. But the government’s treatment of the families currently detained in Texas defies basic U.S. asylum law, says Jonathan Ryan, executive director of the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, or RAICES, a San Antonio nonprofit assisting women and children in detention facilities in Karnes City and Dilley in South Texas.

“This is about politics, not about the law,” Ryan says. “I’ve never seen them apply such high bonds. It’s not only unusual, it’s extraordinary.”

It’s also inconsistent, says Ryan: “Single men who were taken into detention are given bonds of $1,500 but the women are being given bonds as high as $5,000 up to $15,000.”

Faced with impossibly high bonds, most women have no choice but to remain locked up with their children for several months, waiting for their court date with the asylum judge. Faced with this grim scenario many accept deportation instead.

RAICES is trying to change that. In October, it started a fund to raise money from individuals and from religious and other groups to help women and children get out of detention on bond. So far, the organization has collected $82,000 and helped 21 families. Bond money goes to the U.S. Treasury, where it collects interest. If the family doesn’t report to immigration court, the money is forfeited, but otherwise, it returns to the person or group that donated it once the case resolves.

The important thing, Ryan says, is to give the families a chance to start their lives over without the fear of persecution or death that caused them to flee their countries. “These women and children are being treated as if they are a national security threat,” he says. “You have these private companies that are making a profit from keeping women and children in a box against their will until they can pay enough money to get out.”

The two detention facilities in South Texas are capable of holding up to 3,000 women and children. Ryan says RAICES has nearly depleted its bond funds and is trying to raise additional money to free more families. “You want to cry tears of joy every time a woman and her child is released,” he says. “What we are doing is just a drop in a bucket. There’s still so much more to be done.”

1 2 3 35