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The sheriff and his sons (from left to right) Juan Carlos and Jonathan
Photo from Sheriff Trevino’s Facebook page.
The sheriff and his sons (from left to right) Juan Carlos and Jonathan

Guadalupe “Lupe” Treviño, the former sheriff of Hidalgo County and once one of the most powerful lawmen on the border, was sentenced to five years in jail Thursday and a $60,000 fine for money laundering. The sentencing of the former sheriff capped off a two-year corruption scandal that included his son Jonathan Treviño and several other members of law enforcement in the Rio Grande Valley.

First elected in 2005, the 65-year-old Treviño was forced to resign in March after being charged by federal prosecutors. Treviño pleaded guilty in April to one count of money laundering. According to prosecutors, he took thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from a Weslaco drug trafficker named Tomas “El Gallo” Gonzalez.

At the sentencing, Treviño—who had won his last election with 80 percent of the vote—apologized to voters, his family and fellow law enforcement officers and told U.S. District Court Judge Micaela Alvarez at the McAllen hearing that he was “embarrassed” and “remorseful,” according to Sergio Chapa, from the Rio Grande Valley’s KGBT-TV.

In December 2012, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the FBI arrested the sheriff’s son, Jonathan Treviño, a former Mission police officer. Jonathan’s arrest sparked two years of speculation among Valley residents about whether the sheriff was involved in illegal activities, which he repeatedly denied.

Since at least 2006, Jonathan Treviño had run a street-level narcotics task force called the Panama Unit in Hidalgo County. In March 2013, Jonathan and other officers associated with the Panama Unit—including five Hidalgo County deputies—were indicted for “conspiring to possess with intent to distribute cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamine. Treviño and other Panama Unit members are now serving time in federal prison.

Former deputy Miguel Flores was at Treviño’s sentencing Thursday. He became an FBI informant after Jonathan Treviño and members of the Panama Unit tried to recruit him in 2012. Now a corporal with the La Joya Police Department, Flores told the Observer that Treviño’s five-year sentence was fair. But he said corruption is still a problem in the Rio Grande Valley. “I believe it will send a message but not everyone will get it,” he said. “It’s a way of life.”

Beto O'Rourke
Beto O’Rourke (D-TX)

In the last decade, U.S. Border Patrol has become one of the largest law enforcement agencies in the nation. But regulatory oversight and transparency haven’t kept pace. Border residents complain of civil rights abuses including body cavity searches and other harassment at immigration checkpoints. Border Patrol shootings have also increased. Since January 2010, at least 28 people have been killed by agents, some shot in the back while standing in Mexico, according to the ACLU. But for anyone with a grievance against the federal agency, there’s little remedy other than a lawsuit. In March, two border congressional leaders—one a Republican and the other a Democrat—filed a bill to make the Border Patrol more accountable to the public and to require better use-of-force training and oversight for its agents.

Whether the bill will make it through a Congress deeply divided on anything border-related is questionable. But Congressman Steve Pearce (R-NM), cosponsor of the bill along with Congressman Beto O’Rourke (D-TX), is pragmatic about its chances. So far, he’s the only Republican signed on to House Resolution 4303, known as the Border Enforcement Accountability, Oversight, and Community Engagement Act of 2014. “Immigration is one of the hottest, most volatile issues,” Pearce says. “So it’s not like we think it’s going to automatically pass.”

To date, six Democrats have pledged support, and in April the bill was referred to the Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security, where it remains. Even if it doesn’t pass, Pearce says, it still sends a message many Republicans can get behind: that federal overreach—which is sometimes literal—needs to be reined in. “The Border Patrol agents are very arrogant, and I can’t tell you how many constituents I’ve had in my office complaining,” Pearce says. “I’ve had constituents subjected to body cavity searches.”

HR 4303 would require the agency to create a Border Community Liaison Office to field complaints and a committee to evaluate Border Patrol training and use-of-force policies, and to report to Congress on agent-related deaths. Momentum for reform is growing. Under pressure from lawmakers and human rights groups, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the umbrella agency of Border Patrol, recently released a highly critical report by an independent auditor evaluating the agency’s use-of-force policies. The report found that in some cases agents stepped in front of moving vehicles to justify shooting, and that other agents shot at people throwing rocks when they could have simply moved out of the way. “I think this bill—even if it doesn’t pass—communicates its own message to the Border Patrol,” Pearce says. “People are watching. And as other legislators learn more about the bill there’s going to be a predominant opinion that something needs to be done.”

Migrantchildren
Eugenio del Bosque
Mexican children waiting in Reynosa after being deported by the U.S.

President Obama issued a presidential memo Monday calling the huge number of unaccompanied children crossing the border—primarily into Texas—an “urgent humanitarian situation.” The White House announced it will put the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in charge of coordinating federal agencies to respond to the growing crisis.

Thousands of unaccompanied children—the majority between 7 and 18—are fleeing deteriorating security and economic conditions in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. They are primarily arriving in the Rio Grande Valley—the shortest distance from Central America to the U.S. border. The number of children has been climbing since 2009 from an average of 8,000 a year to an estimated 60,000 or more children in 2014.

In a media conference call arranged by the White House, Cecilia Muñoz, the White House director of domestic policy, said President Obama issued the memo to unify federal agencies and provide for a coordinated response. Muñoz acknowledged that the growing number of children crossing the border alone was not a new phenomenon, but the scale in the last few months caught the government off guard. “The number of children coming is much larger than we anticipated,” she said. “It’s a 90 percent increase from last year and we are seeing more girls and more children under the age of 13 compared to previous years.”

In response to the growing crisis, the Department of Defense opened the Lackland Air Force Base two weeks ago in San Antonio to house as many as 1,200 children. The government also plans to fly children to a naval base in Ventura County, California, which can serve as an emergency shelter for up to 600 children, said Mark Greenberg, assistant secretary of the U.S. Health and Human Service’s Administration for Children and Families, the agency primarily in charge of caring for the unaccompanied children. The nonprofit BCFS Health and Human Services will care for the children at Lackland, Greenberg said.

Craig Fugate, FEMA administrator, said the goal is that no child be in Border Patrol detention for more than 72 hours, when the law mandates that the child be transferred to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and a shelter that is appropriate for children. Currently, Border Patrol stations are at capacity or overflowing in South Texas with children in need of assistance. U.S. Customs and Border Protection is struggling with the overflow, Fugate said. “They are backing up in facilities that were never designed for children.”

 

CarlosSpectorOffice
Carlos Spector in his El Paso office

El Paso immigration attorney Carlos Spector represents more than 100 families who have fled violence in Mexico. Many were forced to flee while investigating the disappearances of their loved ones by the military or law enforcement.

In Mexico, 98 percent of murder cases are never investigated or solved by the authorities. Even fewer cases are investigated when the disappearances or murders are linked to soldiers or law enforcement. Families who investigate on their own often risk their lives.

This was the case for the Alvarado Espinoza family from the small town of San Buenaventura 170 miles south of Juarez. On December 29, 2009, Mexican soldiers forced 32-year-old Nitza Paola Alvarado Espinoza and her cousin Jose Angel Alvarado into a military vehicle. Another cousin Rocio Irene Alvarado was also picked up the same day, according to a petition filed with the Organization of American States Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Their families haven’t seen them since and the Mexican military won’t provide any answers. So the family took it upon themselves to investigate the disappearances. But soon they began to receive death threats. Ultimately, they were forced to flee to the United States and seek political asylum.

Seeking justice in Mexico from the United States adds another layer of difficulty and frustration for families in exile. The three daughters of the disappeared Nitza Paola Alvarado Espinoza—18-year-old twins Mitzi and Nitza and fifteen-year-old Deisy who now live in the United States—formed a group called Hijos de Desaparecidos (children of the disappeared) to pressure Mexican officials to investigate the disappearance of their mother and countless others. The Mexican government estimates there are as many as 27,000 disappeared in Mexico since the drug war violence began in 2006. But many Mexican activists suspect the number is much higher since most families are too scared and distrustful of the authorities to report disappearances.

So it was a significant event last week when a Mexican federal law enforcement official, Salomon Baltazar, came to El Paso to meet with relatives of missing men and women. Baltazar was appointed in 2013 as the head of the newly-formed Special Unit to Search for Disappeared Persons within Mexico’s Attorney General’s office. For the first time, Baltazar traveled to the United States to take complaints and testimony from the Alvarado Espinoza family and other exiles searching for missing relatives. During a short press conference at the Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center in El Paso, Baltazar said officials in Mexico were committed to investigating the missing persons cases. Baltazar’s meetings with the families were private. But Carlos Spector said another high-ranking Mexican human rights official, Ricardo Garcia Cervantes, also attended the meetings in El Paso and was visibly moved by the testimonies of the families. “He was the most vocal in pledging to do something about the disappearances,” Spector said.

Three days later, however, Mexico’s attorney general Jesus Murillo Karam announced that Garcia Cervantes would be resigning from his post. “Garcia Cervantes was the most open to doing something,” says Spector. “It seems odd he would leave his post three days later, which makes you wonder if he was fired and if so, why?”

Spector and the nonprofit group Mexicanos en Exilio, as well as Mexico’s Women’s Center for Human Rights, were instrumental in persuading the Mexican officials to come to the United States. The next step for Spector and Mexicanos en Exilio is to persuade Mexican congressional members to hold a hearing in El Paso on the murders and disappearances as well as the numerous properties and businesses lost by people now living in exile. More than anything families want justice and they want closure after years of searching for missing loved ones. “So far there’s been symbolic gestures, which is a positive step,” Spector said of Mexican government officials. “But it’s not enough.”

(UPDATE: On May 31, Ricardo Garcia Cervantes told the Mexican magazine Proceso that he chose to resign and was not pushed out by the Peña Nieto administration. Garcia Cervantes said he left because Peña Nieto’s administration was giving less priority to investigating  the thousands of disappearances throughout the country, and that he could no longer bear the sorrow of so many families whose cases were not being investigated by the human rights agency.)

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Courtesy of Mexican government
A diagram released by the Mexican government on its plan for Tamaulipas

The residents of the Mexican State of Tamaulipas, Texas’ closest neighbor to the south, have been living under a near constant threat of violence since 2010. That was the year the paramilitary organization Los Zetas splintered from its former partner in crime the Gulf Cartel.

Since then, so many kingpins, plaza bosses and sicarios have been killed by the military or cartel rivals that it’s almost impossible to keep count. But one thing is certain. The death of kingpin “Tony Tormenta” or the arrest of “Z-40” hasn’t made Tamaulipas a more peaceful place. Instead the state of 3.3 million people is experiencing its worst wave of violence since those dark times in 2010 when 72 migrants were massacred in San Fernando and nearly the entire city of Ciudad Mier fled to Texas after living under siege for weeks. In 2010, journalists from Mexico City who came to report on the bloodshed in Tamaulipas were kidnapped and threatened with execution. Many local reporters were killed.  After two reporters escaped with their lives and returned to Mexico City their editor in an open letter pronounced the death of press freedom in Tamaulipas.

After that the lights went dark. Most of Mexico’s national media stopped coming and few foreign reporters ever go to Tamaulipas. It’s a tough state to parachute into, because it’s been co-opted for so long by the Gulf Cartel and organized crime. Corruption has flourished for decades and festered. The local police have worked for the cartels for years. The only way any information gets out of Tamaulipas these days is through a dedicated network of citizen reporters sending out short dispatches on Twitter streams like #reynosafollow or through Facebook.

But the most troubling aspect of Tamaulipas’ descent into violence is how a state so rich in hydrocarbons and other natural resources could be so utterly abandoned by Mexico’s political class. That’s why many citizens were buoyed by the news that after weeks of gun battles, bodies in the streets and blockades, Mexico’s president Enrique Peña Nieto announced he had a plan. Last Tuesday, Mexico’s Interior Secretary, Miguel Angel Osorio Chong, and top military officials traveled to Reynosa to announce the government’s new strategy to quell the violence. The government will split the state into four parts: two regions controlled by the Army and the other two by the Navy. Each region will have its own federal prosecutor to investigate crimes. Local and state police, which have long been accused of corruption, will be disbanded and replaced by the federal police.

It might sound like progress until you look at what happened in the state of Chihuahua or Michoacan—largely run now by self-defense forces—where Mexico has tried similar military takeovers. Violence and human rights abuses have skyrocketed.  In 2009, former President Felipe Calderon sent more than 8,000 soldiers and federal police officers to Juarez to help fight organized crime. But after their arrival, the murder rate spiked,  and Juarez became the murder capital of the world. Human rights abuses were rampant and residents fled to other parts of Mexico or to the United States to seek asylum. In the Juarez Valley, which I wrote about in 2012 for the Observer, it was a scorched earth scenario. Many surviving residents blame the military and the federal police for extortion, extrajudicial killings or for standing by as cartel gunmen massacred families and burned down their homes. No law enforcement or military official has been investigated in any of these allegations.

Still, at least we knew about the extrajudicial killings, the human rights abuses and other atrocities because of the fearless Juarez journalists who not only didn’t give up despite the murders of their coworkers, they also helped hundreds of foreign journalists like me access the sources and information we needed to report these tragedies to the world. We can also thank the state’s brave activists and human rights defenders. Tamaulipas has few such journalists or activists. The grip of organized crime is so tight that few journalists or activists can take the risk and speak out.

What our neighbor really needs are strong civic institutions, freedom of the press and the rule of law.  These are the most effective weapons against the deep-seated corruption that is fueling the violence and destroying the state. Sadly, President Peña Nieto’s plan to save Tamaulipas doesn’t include any of these key aspects of a healthy democracy.  Instead, it’s the old heavy-handed method that so many leaders have tried before. “What Tamaulipas needs is not military occupation but sustainable peace,” says Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, chair of the government department at the University of Texas-Brownsville who has studied this complex border state for years. We should all pay more attention to our neighbor to the south because it points to Mexico’s future. And if we’ve learned anything from the past, we should be deeply concerned.

Migrantchildren
Eugenio del Bosque
Unaccompanied Mexican children waiting to be processed in Reynosa, Mexico

The U.S. government has reopened an emergency shelter at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio to house unaccompanied children from Central America.

Government officials had estimated as many 60,000 unaccompanied kids—the majority of them from Central America—would be apprehended at the border this year, but now officials predict it will be 70,000 or more.

“The shelters are running out of bed space,” says Lavinia Limon, CEO of the nonprofit advocacy organization U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants. At least 75 percent of the children traveling without a parent or adult relative are from three countries: Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.

On May 12, the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson declared “a level-four condition of readiness” in the Rio Grande Valley, according to the New York Times, which allows the department to receive resources from other federal agencies when it’s been overwhelmed. The level-four declaration also triggered the reopening of Lackland Air Force Base as an emergency overflow shelter. The military base was used as an emergency shelter for two months in 2012.

The military base will temporarily house at least 1,000 children, says Kenneth Wolfe, deputy director of public affairs for the Administration for Children and Families, which provides care and shelter to the children as an agency under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Since 2011, the number of unaccompanied children in U.S. government shelters has skyrocketed from 8,000 to more than 60,000 this year. Limon said that officials had worked to significantly shorten the time in detention as a way to deal with the surge in child migrants but the rapidly increasing number of children outpaced them. The increase in children trying to immigrate to the U.S. is due to several factors, including deteriorating security and economic conditions in Central America. “Honduras is the murder capital of the world,” Limon says. “Children are willing to risk the dangerous journey because they think it’s less dangerous than staying home.”

DPS Goes International

Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw
Steve McCraw

Ever since Steve McCraw, who was once an FBI agent, became director of the Texas Department of Public Safety in 2009, he’s striven to make the state’s largest law enforcement agency more like a wing of the Department of Homeland Security. McCraw has invested in armored gunboats, a surveillance plane and even a helicopter sniper program (since discontinued after two undocumented Guatemalan migrants were killed in 2012). Now the agency has become the federal government’s newest partner in fighting the global war on drugs.

In late March, McCraw signed an agreement with the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) that allows DPS to send its troopers to other countries to train. DPS can also train foreign police officers in Texas under the new agreement.

The INL oversees a $1.7 billion annual budget, of which about half a billion is dedicated to “counternarcotic control strategies” such as law enforcement training, drug crop eradication and foreign programs that support the U.S drug war strategy. INL spokesperson Pooja Jhunjhunwala says the federal agency has one other partnership in Texas. Webb County Sheriff Martin Cuellar (whose brother is Democratic Congressman Henry Cuellar) signed an agreement with the agency in 2011. Last year, Martin Cuellar’s department hosted a three-week study tour in Laredo for eight narcotics officers from Ecuador.

After signing the agreement with DPS’ McCraw, Ambassador William Brownfield, assistant secretary for the INL, told Texas Public Radio that DPS has unique expertise in border security, especially in drug- and gang-related crimes. Brownfield cited Central American gangs as one area that DPS might focus on in the new collaboration. He said he hopes U.S. law enforcement will soon “address issues related to gangs down there that eventually operate up here.”

McCraw, in a written statement, said he was pleased to have DPS join the U.S. State Department’s global campaign in the war on drugs: “Crime today is alarmingly transitory, transnational, organized and covert, and it’s not enough for governments to focus solely on protecting public safety and disrupting crime within their borders—the efforts must be global.”

A Memorial for Migrants in Reynosa, Mexico
Eugenio del Bosque
A memorial to fallen migrants at the edge of the Rio Grande in Reynosa, Mexico.

On Saturday a group of 61 men, women and children walked across the Hidalgo International Bridge near McAllen to seek political asylum. At least 48 of the immigrants were fleeing Honduras, which has the highest murder rate in the world.

The men, women and children who arrived in the Rio Grande Valley on Saturday had been on a weeks-long odyssey through Mexico that began in mid-April. Their exodus from Honduras underscores growing problems in that country as well as the persecution of Central Americans as they make their way to the U.S. through Mexico.

Since a coup in 2009 of the democratically-elected President Manuel Zelaya, the country of 8 million has come unraveled. Crime has skyrocketed and the country now has the greatest income inequality in Latin America. Increasingly, Hondurans are fleeing the country for safer ground.

But many never reach their destination. In Mexico, Hondurans and other Central Americans are often beaten, raped, kidnapped or even killed by police and organized crime members especially while riding on top of the freight train north, known as “The Beast.” In early April, a group of Hondurans who had lost legs and arms after falling or being pushed from trains in Mexico requested an audience with Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto. The dozen men from a group called the Association of Disabled Returning Migrants said they represented 452 mutilated migrants from Honduras, and several more from other Central American countries. The men were rebuffed by Peña Nieto but were allowed to address the Mexican Senate where they asked for visas to travel safely through Mexico and an end to the persecution of migrants. “We have hit bottom,” said Jose Luis Hernandez, leader of the group, according to the Associated Press. “It is no longer even news when two people die on ‘The Beast,’ or that somebody fell under the train and lost his legs.”

A few weeks after the group’s plea to the Senate, a thousand Central American migrants, Catholic priests, activists and reporters began the Viacrucis del Migrantevia crusis is Latin for “stations of the cross”— on April 15 marching from the southern border of Mexico to Mexico City to protest the cruel treatment of Central American migrants. But instead of stopping the protest at the capital it swelled to at least 1,500 with more Central American migrants joining after they were barred by the railway companies from riding The Beast north. The government also began a massive roundup of Central American migrants, many of whom were reportedly beaten, arrested and deported.

A core group of about 400 protesters kept marching north into the border state of Tamaulipas, one of the most dangerous regions of Mexico. They arrived on the outskirts of the border city of Reynosa on May 2, where gun battles were raging among the the military and splinter groups of the Gulf Cartel. The city is in the midst of its worst episode of violence since 2010 when the Zetas split from the Gulf Cartel. Most left for Mexico City the next day, but 61 migrants—the majority of them Hondurans—chose to cross the Hidalgo International Bridge to ask for asylum. Their chances of getting it are slim; U.S. asylum law doesn’t recognize poverty and violence as credible claims for asylum.  In 2013, 70,658 Hondurans were deported from the United States and Mexico—nearly twice the number of Hondurans deported in 2011, according to Aracely Romero of the Center for Returned Migrant Services in Honduras.

Without a lawyer it’s also nearly impossible to win asylum. Carlos Spector, an El Paso immigration attorney, who specializes in political asylum cases, has volunteered to help the asylum seekers. Spector, who founded a nonprofit called “Mexicans in Exile,” says the group has a good chance of winning because they’re part of a political movement. “They’re fleeing authorized crime—gangs in complicity with the state who are persecuting them,” he says. “This is one of the strongest cases I’ve seen in a decade.”

 

The sheriff and his sons (from left to right) Juan Carlos and Jonathan
Photo from Lupe Treviño's Facebook page
The former sheriff and his sons (from left to right) Juan Carlos and Jonathan

One by one, members of the disbanded Panama Unit, a street level drug trafficking task force, stood before U.S. District Judge Randy Crane in a McAllen courtroom this week to receive their sentences. The longest sentence—17 years—went to Jonathan Treviño, the leader of the task force and the son of Guadalupe “Lupe” Treviño, the former sheriff of Hidalgo County.

“I blame nobody else but myself,” Treviño told the courtroom Tuesday, according to KGBT News. He then thanked the federal prosecutors for arresting him and stopping the rogue Panama Unit before more damage was done.

Jonathan’s father, once the most powerful law enforcement figure in the Rio Grande Valley, was noticeably absent from the courtroom. Last month he was indicted for money laundering and forced to resign as sheriff. It was the 65-year-old Treviño, a career lawman, who had engineered his son’s quick rise through the ranks of law enforcement, making sure he was appointed head of the Panama Unit in 2006 at the age of 22, just months out of the police academy.

But instead of busting drug dealers, the task force devoted itself to stealing from dealers and reselling the drugs for a profit. Jonathan surrounded himself in the unit with close friends, including Alexis Espinoza, the son of Hidalgo Police Chief Rudy Espinoza and five deputies who worked under his father. For a while the rogue task force was the worst-kept secret in Hidalgo County, at least among law enforcement and local drug dealers. Then, in December 2012, the FBI indicted Jonathan and other members of the Panama Unit, following a nearly year-long investigation.

But the scandal only widened from there to include two deputies, Jorge Garza and J.P. Flores, from the sheriff’s crime stoppers program who worked in tandem with two drug dealers, Fernando Guerra Sr. and Fernando Guerra Jr. The crew would fake police stops in order to rip off other local dealers trying to move their product north, according to court documents. Eventually, Flores introduced the Guerras to the Panama Unit, which also included deputies Gerardo Mendoza, Claudio Mata, Eric Alcantar, Sal Arguello and Fabian Rodriguez, who had until then sold their stolen drugs to various local dealers.

The trial, which stretched from early Monday to late Tuesday, was packed with media, attorneys and family members of the 11 defendants. The deputies received sentences between 10 and 14 years with Jonathan receiving the stiffest sentence. Fernando Guerra Sr. received 15 years and his son received 8 years.

This week’s sentencing signals the end of one complicated chapter in a law enforcement scandal that continues. Throughout his son’s travails, the former sheriff has repeatedly insisted he knew nothing of his son’s activities or of the corruption in his own department. But after his recent indictment, the normally talkative former sheriff has gone quiet, even deactivating his Facebook page—where he often addressed his critics. The sheriff’s right-hand man, Deputy Commander Jose “Joe” Padilla, recently pleaded guilty to bribery and has been linked to a local convicted drug dealer, Tomas “El Gallo” Gonzalez, who reportedly gave thousands of dollars to Treviño’s reelection campaigns. And just two weeks ago, the former sheriff pleaded guilty to taking the campaign contributions. Now Treviño is awaiting his own sentencing before a federal judge in July.

The hunger strike has ended at a federal immigrant detention center in El Paso, but at least 37 men from northern India say they are still being wrongfully detained after requesting political asylum in the United States nearly a year ago.

The men, in their 20s, are from Punjab state, and follow Sikhism. They are part of a minority political party that has advocated for a separate Sikh state. John Lawit, a Dallas-based immigration lawyer representing six of the men, says the party’s members are politically persecuted in India. “They’ve been attacked and threatened with arrest,” Lawit says. “And they’ve been victimized at rallies and their families have received death threats.”

The majority of the men arrived last June and July and requested asylum at the international port of entry at Columbus, New Mexico. From there they were detained and transferred to the El Paso Processing Center. Lawit says his clients have passed their credible fear examinations and should have already been released on parole to wait for their day in immigration court. “It’s abysmal,” Lawit says. “They’re being held indefinitely, and ICE has thrown away the key.”

The men started their hunger strike to protest their continued detention, Lawit says. The men began the strike on April 8 and ended it April 21 after Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents promised to facilitate their release, Lawit says. But the agency has yet to make good on its promise, Lawit says. “There’s a very strong chance that there could be another hunger strike,” he says. ICE wouldn’t comment on specifics of the case.

The El Paso strike came just weeks after separate and unrelated hunger strikes at immigrant detention centers run by the private corporation GEO Group in Tacoma, Washington, and Conroe, Texas. With no movement in Congress on immigration reform and a growing number of immigrant detention facilities, families have become increasingly desperate to see their relatives released. In 2011, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security held a record-breaking 429,000 immigrants in more than 250 facilities across the country, even though a majority of the cases didn’t warrant detention, according to the ACLU.

El Paso is the toughest venue for political asylum cases in the country, Lawit says. “I’ve been practicing there for 35 years, and it’s always been that way,” he says. El Paso has an 87 percent denial rate for asylum. The national average is 50 percent. El Paso Immigration Court Judge Thomas C. Roepke has the fourth highest denial rate in the nation, rejecting 96.7 percent of all applications, according to a 2012 report by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), a research organization based at Syracuse University. But the El Paso sector also has an unusually high number of immigrants without legal representation, and without a lawyer, it’s often difficult to win asylum. And now some of them, desperate to get their cases moving, are resorting to hunger strikes.