The Big Bend Sentinel has been reporting for some time that the U.S. government plans to ship 700 men a week to the international bridge in Presidio. The Mexican men ages 20 to 60 are being bused from Tucson, Arizona, to the tiny Big Bend border town to “remove the aliens from the smuggling pipeline,” according to Marfa Sector Chief Patrol Agent John Smeitana. The program began November 1. Governor Rick Perry apparently received his telegram a little too late. He sent a letter to Homeland Security on October 31 “expressing his deepest concern” with DHS’ new program. “Turning the Presidio area into a way station for the repatriation of illegal immigrants adds responsibility to local authorities and holds the potential of increasing the strain on local and state infrastructure and resources,” Perry wrote.It also puts a huge strain on impoverished immigrants and will undoubtedly result in more deaths in the Big Bend region. Isabel Garcia, a lawyer in Tucson and co-chair of the nonprofit immigrant rights group Derechos Humanos, says the deportations in Presidio will only put more poor people’s lives in danger.”It’s very maddening to me,” Garcia says. “They are treating immigrants like international criminals without looking at the root causes of the immigration such as abject poverty.”Garcia pointed out that her hometown of Tucson was not a hotbed of illegal immigration until Homeland Security cracked down on other regions of the border pushing immigrants into more dangerous desert crossings. Since 2004, 1,193 people have died in the Arizona desert according to a database run by the Arizona Daily Star. ”These are 15-year old boys, 19-year old girls many of them are desconocidos and will never be identified,” Garcia says. They also saw the number of smuggling operations increase as more people tried to cross the perilous Sonoran desert. Garcia predicts that something similar could occur in Ojinaga, the Mexican town that borders Presidio.”They didn’t sell their homes, borrow money and make the treacherous journey north just to go back,” Garcia says.The ACLU reports in a new study that more than 5,000 people have died since Operation Gatekeeper began in 1994 pushing immigrants into more rural and dangerous border crossings.This is a truly shocking number that illustrates what a terrible humanitarian crisis we have on the U.S.-Mexico border. A crisis that only seems to worsen as both Mexico and the United States ignore the underlying causes of illegal immigration.
I got a sinking feeling on Oct. 18 when I read that El Paso’s online Newspaper Tree is taking a hiatus. “NPT staff, me and [reporter] David Crowder, took vacation time starting a few weeks ago,” wrote editor Sito Negron. “Unfortunately, that vacation has turned into an indefinite furlough.”
Newspaper Tree won a loyal following with original analysis, reportage on local public corruption, and a willingness to allow different perspectives. If you wanted to know what was really going on in El Paso—with local debates over revisiting drug policy, for instance, or harassment of gay couples in public—you went to NPT. Then you read the comments on the articles and op-eds. Readers were unusually thoughtful and engaged—and often contributed to understanding the stories better.
The NPT raised its level last year when it hired veteran investigative reporter David Crowder, who had worked for three decades at the El Paso Times. But the economy took its toll on the news journal’s owner, El Paso Media Group. The group has stopped funding Newspaper Tree. But Negron says he’s confident the site will be back. “What we’ve been doing has been very well received in the community,” he says, “and since we made the announcement we were going on hiatus, we’ve been contacted with some interesting options to keep NPT going.”
Negron says NPT has never made money. Going nonprofit might be the most viable option now, Negron says. Perhaps NPT can be supported by the community. It’s the tactic being taken by many newspapers and magazines these days. (The Observer has been nonprofit since 1994.)
Negron, 42, has been in journalism for at least two decades “and just about done it all,” he says. Now he has two kids to feed and no salary. But he waxes optimistic. He’s seen the need for tough local reporting and an open airing of community debates reflected in the response to Newspaper Tree.
“Journalism is super-healthy,” he says. “We used to bitch about the corporate media, and then there was an explosion of alternative weeklies, and there’s magazines like The Texas Observer and Mother Jones,” he says, along with sites like NPT. “There are multiple threads of journalism now.”
Multiple threads, but unfortunately none of them is spun out of gold.
Back in 2005 and 2006 several news stories about terrorists and suspected terrorists crossing the southern border circulated in the media and the blogosphere. I seldom see these kinds of stories now, which leads me to believe that it had more to do with the often-ugly immigration debate going on at the time in Washington D.C. which ended up tanking immigration reform.Most of the stories were anecdotal and had very little in the way of credible government sources. I’ve been going back and investigating some of those stories to see whether any credible links were ever made to terrorist organizations. One particular story that really caught my attention back in 2005 was an account that Border Patrol had discovered a jacket on a dirt road outside of Hebbronville that had two unusual patches on it. One patch was a military looking patch with Arabic script. The other was a crude home made patch which showed an airplane that looked like it was flying into a tower. Overhead it said “Midnight Mission.” Some equated this with 9-11. Another patch said DAIWA. Zapata County Sheriff Sigifredo Gonzalez has often cited the story about the patches in his congressional testimonies and in media interviews as proof that terrorists have crossed the southern border. Over the years, the right wing blogosphere has also circulated the account as proof of terrorists crossing the border into the United States.I called U.S. Customs and Border Protection to find out whether they were ever able to make any links between the patches and a terrorist group. I spoke with Agent Mark Qualia, a spokesperson for USCBP. Here’s what Qualia wrote in an email:”As it was abandoned property, we cannot have a concrete sense of how it got there or how long it had been there. It is, however, highly probable that an illegal alien wore the coat and left it in that spot. Moreover, we see a lot of clothing that is procured at the “pulgas” just before crossing the border. Though we can’t speculate on the individual’s nationality or intent, we have not seen any threat or other concern arise from this incident, which is now nearly five years ago.We work diligently everyday with the intelligence community to better address and understand the threats we face at our borders, as recommended by the 9/11 Commission.”Not content with this general response, I asked Agent Qualia whether he could be more specific about the patches. What did the Arabic script mean? What country did the patch come from?Here is the second email response I received from Qualia:”Agents called a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) translator. During contact and with the translator via phone and facsimile transmission, the investigation concluded that the Arabic script patch read, “Defense Center”, “Ministry of Defense”, or “Defense Headquarters”. The bottom of the patch read “Martyr”, “Way to Eternal Life” or “Way to Immortality”.The “Daiwa” patch is the name of a well-known corporate company, which sells Sport Fishing products with corporate offices in eight countries including Japan, the U.S., Australia, France, Germany, Taiwan, Thailand, and the UK. The patch that was located inside the jacket read “Midnight Mission”. The logo has an airplane flying over a building and headed towards a tower. A closer look appears to reveal that the plane is over an airport with terminal ramps and airplanes on taxiways. The appearance of the patch led the investigators to believe it is a homemade patch.At a later date is was determined that the jacket that the patches were portrayed on was manufactured in Mexico.No link was established to Al Qaeda.”Still not satisfied, I decided to look further into the military patch with Arabic script. I reached out to a friend of a friend who speaks Arabic. What she found was fascinating and much more revealing than what I got from Homeland Security. Here is what she wrote in an email:”The literal translation is Defense Brigades/Martyrdom is the Path to Immortality.I did a google search for the Defense Brigades in Arabic and came across the Arabic Wikipedia page that says the DB is a branch of the Syrian Armed Forces that was established by former president Hafez al-Assad’s brother Rifa’t al-Assad. Rifa’t al-Assad had a falling out with the Syrian regime after he tried to lead a coup against Hafez’s government years ago. It seems that Rifat’s defense brigades were the troops that were at the forefront in the Hama massacre in Syria in 1982. It would be ironic if anyone were to claim that the Defense Brigades was connected to any type of Islamic movement since they engaged in one of the largest massacres against an Islamic movement!Also interesting is the parachute — implying that this is a paratrooper brigade. The lion is a common symbol in Syria since the president’s last name is Assad, meaning lion. “She went on to contact some friends in Syria who corroborated her findings. “I just talked to both of my friends and they echoed everything I said. Their main perception of the Brigades is that they were a very well-trained/well-paid combat force that was staunchly loyal to Rifa’t al-Assad in the 80s. They also added that the Brigades are no longer operative and they are also infamous for another massacre in 1980 called the Tadmour (Palmyra) Massacre when the Brigades killed thousands of political prisoners (mostly Muslim Brotherhood) at one of the largest prisons in Syria. My friend also added that if the Brigades were a threat to anyone, it was the Syrian people.My friend also emphasized that the popular conception of Rifa’t al-Assad is that he is very pro-peace with Israel and, to some extent, anti-Muslim.Just a note on the use of the term “martyrdom,” I wouldn’t want anyone to assume that by using the term “martyrdom” it implies suicide bombing or anything of the sort. In this way, it means that anyone who dies during war or for God, then he is a martyr.”So there you have it. We have a military patch from a defunct air brigade in Syria that was anti-Islamist. A homemade patch picturing a plane over an airport runway and a patch with a popular Japanese fishing company on it. No known terrorist-link here but an interesting story nonetheless.
I realize Dallas is a ways from the border. This was one of those stories, however, that just seems too outrageous to believe so I had to jump the borderline.Richard Abshire and Scott Goldstein at the Dallas Morning News have a series of stories about police officers ticketing people for not speaking English. Ernestina Mondragon, 48, was ticketed on October 2 while taking her 11-year old daughter to school. Mondragon made an illegal U-turn and was pulled over. The Dallas police officer cited her for the illegal U-turn and not having her license with her, but then he also ticketed her for not speaking English.Mondragon, a legal U.S. resident, said she felt humiliated. You can take a look at her traffic citation online. What troubles me even more is that according to the citation the police officer searched her car without her consent. An officer can’t search your car without probable cause. Not only was Mondragon subjected to the nutso citation for not speaking English but she also had her car searched in front of her 11-year old daughter as if she were suspected of a crime. At least 38 people have been cited for not speaking English since 2007. Almost all of them were Hispanic and none of the officers who issued the citations were Hispanic. The officers ranged from a rookie to a 13-year veteran, according to the Dallas Morning News.While I’ve never heard of anyone being ticketed for not speaking English along the border, residents, who are mostly Hispanic, get the Dallas treatment all the time. They get pulled over and their cars are searched by the police. Last March, the ACLU released a report on the State-Federal funded Operation Border Star, which has been in operation along the border since 2007. The Texas Legislature poured $110 million into the program to fight violent crime and drug smuggling. The ACLU found that an enormous number of border residents are pulled over for no reason. They cited the Hidalgo County cities of La Joya and Sullivan City as examples of the excessive number of traffic stops:”The Cities of La Joya and Sullivan City, which have between 4,300 and 4,700 residents, and their police departments combined to make 9,576 traffic stops as part of Operation Border Star. The result? 3,314 citations and 5,387 warnings issued. That’s roughly one traffic stop per resident.”I got an idea of what the ACLU was talking about in May, when I was pulled over on Interstate 10 outside of El Paso by two officers participating in Operation Border Star. They separated my husband and I and asked us a number of questions about where we were headed and where we were staying. It was 6:30 a.m. in the morning and I was tempted to say something snarky because I hadn’t had my quota of caffeine yet. Having just seen that video of the Texas grandmother getting tasered, I decided to be as charming as one can possibly be on the side of Interstate 10 at 6:30 in the morning. Finally, they let us go. I received a piece of paper that looked like a citation but had no fine attached (thankfully), it said that I’d received a “warning” for following too close to a truck.Being pulled over by the cops, especially when you are innocent, is a jarring experience. It’s also not something you want to happen in front of your kids, as in the case of Mondragon. Every bogus traffic stop is just one more brick in the wall between the Latino community and law enforcement.
For the past few months I’ve been following the plight of Gustavo de la Rosa Hickerson, a lawyer and human rights advocate in Juarez. I was astounded to read of his detention on October 15 after Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers forced political asylum on him as he was attempting to cross into El Paso.
I’ve heard of people requesting political asylum at an international port of entry but I’ve never heard of ICE forcing political asylum on to someone and then taking him into detention. What kind of signal does it send to imprison a 63-year old man who is very visibly trying to root out military corruption in Juarez? In recent weeks he’s had death threats. One of his bodyguards was beaten and another had his house burned down.
Hickerson has been the chief investigator for the Chihuahua State Commission on Human Rights looking into military abuses and corruption in Juarez. He has documented numerous cases of abuse, according to news reports. On October 1, Hickerson held a press conference in Juarez announcing that Jose Luis Armendariz, president of the Chihuahua State Commission of Human Rights, had removed him as investigator. Hickerson said that he and his family had received death threats. Armendariz wanted him to reveal who was threatening him. This is basically a death sentence for Hickerson.
So Hickerson is staying in El Paso for his own protection and trying to negotiate with his former boss to receive better security and more bodyguards for his family. “My mistake is that I took my job seriously,” he told the media.
I spoke with Sandra Spector, wife of Carlos Spector who is de la Rosa’s lawyer in El Paso. She said Hickerson was released from detention yesterday after being held for 6 days. After being released he crossed into Juarez then turned around and came back into El Paso as any normal visitor would which is what should have happened in the first place. Hickerson has a border crossing card which allows him to cross back and forth freely.
Spector said Hickerson has received an outpouring of support from around the world. Amnesty International has also been rallying for his cause. The hope is that Mexican officials will give him the security he needs to do such a dangerous job. He doesn’t want to leave his home. His courage to stand up for justice is a bright spot among the bleak and sad news coming out of Juarez these days.
If Hickerson’s negotiations with Mexican officials fail, he will undoubtedly think twice about seeking political asylum in the United States.