National Crossroads: Valley emerged as migration, asylum epicenter in 2019 - Brownsville Herald: Local News

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National Crossroads: Valley emerged as migration, asylum epicenter in 2019

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Posted: Tuesday, December 31, 2019 8:00 pm

The Rio Grande Valley was at the epicenter of the flow of migrants and asylum seekers to ports of entry along U.S./Mexico border throughout 2019. Here’s a look back at the year’s impactful events.

Border Wall/Government Shutdown

Donald Trump’s demands over funding to construct more border wall shut down the government from Dec. 22, 2018 to Jan. 25, 2019 - 35 days, the longest in history and the second shutdown during the Trump presidency.

Reports indicated that U.S. Customs and Border Protection employees were working 16-hour shifts on the international bridges without pay.

During the shutdown, attorneys in South Texas were ushered into the litigation of lawsuits filed by the U.S. government aiming to seize the land property owners in the area to construct more wall. One of the cases, filed against a piece of property in Los Ebanos in Hidalgo County, began 11 years prior and was revamped as a result of the Trump administration’s efforts.

Later in the year, the government filed eminent domain lawsuits to seize land belonging to three property owners in Cameron County. In June, it was reported that property in San Pedro and Brownsville was subject to condemnation for the construction of the wall.

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Yvette Arroyo and her husband Salvador J. Castillo stand along the tree line of their Brownsville home Thursday evening, the U.S. government has filed a land condemnation lawsuit to gain unrestricted access to their property for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The couple fears that this lawsuit may soon replace their idyllic property with a border fence. (Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald) Denise Cathey

Brownsville residents Salvador Castillo and Yvette Arroyo fought the seizure of their property to construct a border fence just 40 feet from their back porch. The couple eventually gave up the fight.

In November, news broke that smugglers were using electric saws that could be purchased at an average hardware store for $100 to cut through newly constructed sections of the wall.

This month, a federal judge issued a restraining order against private fundraising group We Build The Wall, prohibiting supporters from installing their own section of wall along the Rio Grande in El Paso.

Trump’s next wave of border wall funding - $1.4 billion approved this month, will likely not deter families fleeing death to seek asylum at the southern border. The construction will be overseen by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner.

CBP statistics indicated that 851,508 people were apprehended between U.S. ports of entry along the U.S./Mexico Border in fiscal year 2019.

Mexican Immigration Officials Sabotage Migrant Aid

In early December, The Brownsville Herald reported that Mexican immigration officials had dismantled a camp of tents set up by asylum seekers living on the Gateway International Bridge, past the international line as a result of metering.

In July, a federal policy known as the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) went into effect in Brownsville requiring some immigrants to wait in Mexico for the duration of their asylum proceedings. It was unclear whether the incidents were related.

Matamoros Tent City
Migrants walk along rows of tents at a migrant camp erected near the Gateway International Bridge in Matamoros. By Erin Sheridan, The Brownsville Herald

Volunteers bringing migrants supplies throughout the year have reported that Mexican immigration began limiting how many and which types of supplies could be brought across to distribute to asylum seekers waiting to be processed by Border Patrol (CBP).

In early November, the camp, having expanded into the thousands as a result of MPP, was visited by Mexico’s agency responsible for family welfare. An official was seen on video threatening to take the children away from a crowd of families who refused to move to a shelter across town.

Families waiting by the international bridges have cited fear that they’ll miss their opportunity to appear in court should they leave the area near the checkpoint.

Early this month, immigration officials destroyed the tents of roughly 60 Mexican families with machetes after they were granted entry by CBP in the middle of the night. Tents were reportedly destroyed so that other camp residents couldn’t take the supplies.

Family Separation

While the Trump administration formally began its family separation policy in April 2018 under “zero tolerance”, reports indicated that children were still being separated from their parents well into 2019.

The policy began in secret in 2017 and did not include measures to reunite separated children with their parents. Trump ended the program with an executive order in June 2018 after international outcry over reports of children sleeping in cages.

In October 2019, it was reported that 1,090 children had been separated from their families despite the fact that the program had ended. In February 2019, eight immigrant families who were impacted by the policy sued the Trump administration for $6 million in damages each as repayment for lasting trauma.

The same month, The Herald reported that the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) was refusing to release a nine-year-old boy from Guatemala who was separated from his family in May 2018. Byron Xol was held in custody for 9 months prior to the filing of a lawsuit on his behalf.

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Bryon Xol, a migrant child from Guatemala, meets his sponsor family Holly and Matthew Sewell and their children at a Texas airport. The Office of Refugee Resettlement released the boy to the family on Monday, after he spent 11 months in the agency's custody. (Courtesy photo)

The boy’s deported father and Guatemalan mother wanted a family in Austin to care for him. Government officials argued that since the child did not know the family before crossing the border with his father, he would not be released from custody.

In April, a federal judge ordered ORR to allow the Austin couple chosen by Byron’s parents to apply to be a foster family for the child. The same month, Byron broke his leg in federal custody, prompting lawyers to file a motion accusing the agency of negligence.

At the end of the month, U.S. District Judge Fernando Rodriguez ordered the agency to disregard the rule keeping Byron in custody and the boy was released to his sponsor family.

In March 2019, Southwest Key Programs CEO Juan Sanchez stepped down following months of allegations of negligence in the care of children separated from their families. The program housed around 1,400 at an old Walmart in Brownsville.

The program received $523 million annually, while Sanchez earned roughly $1.5 million, according to his 2017 tax filings.

In April, Border Patrol announced that it had expanded its initiative to fingerprint migrant youth.

In May, ORR was called to answer questions by the Senate Committee on Finance regarding allegations of the misuse of funds and failure to uphold its statutory duties to ensure the health and safety of children through the contracting of private companies like Southwest Key Programs and International Educational Services.

The Department of Health and Human Services announced in June that it no longer had the funding to provide English classes and legal services to detained children.

The average stay for minors in government detention is 60 days. However, in August, the Trump administration moved to end limits on child detention. A federal judge blocked the proposal in late September.

Immigrant Deaths in Federal Custody

Immigration-Migrant Deaths
This May 20, 2019 photo shows the Border Patrol Station in Weslaco, Texas. The U.S. government says a 16-year-old from Guatemala died at the Border Patrol station, becoming the fifth death of a migrant child since December. U.S. Customs and Border Protection said in a statement that Border Patrol apprehended the teenager in South Texas’ Rio Grande Valley on May 13. The agency says the teenager was found unresponsive Monday morning during a welfare check.  Joel Martinez, The Monitor

In February, a 45-year old man died in the custody of CBP in McAllen after he was taken to the hospital and diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver and congestive heart failure.

The death came after news broke that two children from Guatemala had died after crossing into the U.S. One of those was 7-year-old Jakelin Caal Maquin, who died in Dec. 2018, two days after she was apprehended with her father.

CBP Commissioner Kevin K. McAleenan has issued a statement in the days following the child’s death in which he said that the agency “cannot stress enough the dangers posed by traveling long distances, in crowded transportation, or in the natural elements through remote desert areas without food, water, and other supplies.”

In April, a 16-year-old boy died after he became ill at a Southwest Key Programs facility in Brownsville. Juan de León Gutiérrez had been transported to a hospital on April 21 after he complained of a headache and chills.

He was released and transported back after his condition did not improve. An autopsy showed that he suffered from a rare condition known as Pott’s puffy tumor, which causes swelling on a patient’s forehead due to an infection in the frontal bone.

In May, a two year old Guatemalan child died after crossing the border, marking the fourth death of a Guatemalan child in federal custody. The boy was diagnosed with pneumonia after authorities transported the child to a children’s hospital, where he died weeks later.

A teenage girl was found holding a premature baby at a processing center in McAllen in June. Immigration advocates said that the baby should have been in a neonatal unit. The woman had needed assistance getting into a border patrol vehicle when she was apprehended.

This month, video was released showing 16-year-old Carlos Gregorio Hernandez Vasquez, who died after he was quarantined in the Weslaco Border Patrol station upon being diagnosed with the flu and a 103-degree fever.

Carlos was seen collapsing onto the floor, where he remained for 4.5 hours before he was discovered by CBP. It was reported that the agency’s press release inaccurately described how the boy’s body was discovered.

Bus Station Drop-Offs

In March, Border Patrol began dropping off asylum seekers granted entry at local bus stations en mass. Local shelters dealt with the intake of families and volunteer networks coordinated efforts to meet families at the stations and help with food, supplies, travel, and shelter.

Border Patrol officials announced that they would be releasing families onto the streets of McAllen and Brownsville as the agency’s facilities were “overwhelmed” by the wave of asylum seekers arriving at the southern border.

Later in the month, CBP announced that they would release 5,000 migrants over the course of a few days. Coalition Angry Tías and Abuelas of the RGV recalled handling roughly 900 migrants at the Brownsville bus station.

Good Neighbor Settlement House in Brownsville was able to help process the wave of migrants with the assistance of an army of volunteers, police, and city officials.

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Migrant families arrive at Good Neighbor Settlement House after being released from a local detention center and escorted by U.S. Border Patrol to the non-profit multi-service agency in Brownsville for assistance Tuesday, Mar. 26, 2019. (Miguel Roberts/The Brownsville Herald via AP) Miguel Roberts

The frenzy resulted in various migrants being mistakenly released from custody without paperwork, leaving them with no proof that they had been processed.

The City of McAllen sought reimbursement for its efforts in May. In June, the House of Representatives approved a $4.5 billion aid package to aid overwhelmed agencies along the southern border.

Respite Center Forced to Move

In February, the immigrant respite center run by Sister Norma Pimentel of the Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley was ordered to vacate its building near the city’s downtown. Neighbors of the facility had opposed the city’s issuing a permit for the facility.

By June, city officials had announced that the Federal Transit Authority had agreed to pay 80 percent of a new building adjacent to the McAllen bus station to temporarily house the facilities.

City commissioners approved a permit to house the building in the new facility in August, and a dispute over ownership was settled in September, granting the respite center a permanent location.

In November, actress Alyssa Milano toured the center to advocate on the behalf of immigrants’ rights.

MPP Implemented in Brownsville

This spring, MPP, known as the “Remain in Mexico” policy, was expanded to Texas following a pilot project at the Tijuana-San Diego border.

The policy caused numbers of asylum seekers living on the streets of Matamoros to skyrocket into the thousands. It has been criticized heavily for placing asylum seekers in areas of northern Mexico under travel warnings from the State Department due to high levels of violence.

Asylum seekers are living in tents for months between hearings. They have received little to no aid from the U.S. or Mexico’s federal government. Local volunteer networks have organized meal services and the distribution of donated supplies, as well as medical care, in order to save lives.

The program limits legal access to refugees forced to wait in Mexico, who are considered in detained status despite the fact that they’re unable to enter the country. In June, a judge in Seattle blocked a Trump administration rule barring asylum seekers from obtaining bond hearings.

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Tents and makeshift coverings fill the Federal zone on Alvaro Obregón Friday, Oct. 25, 2019, at the migrant campsite outside El Puente Nuevo in Matamoros, Mexico.(Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald) Denise Cathey

A lawsuit recently filed in the Southern District of Texas alleges, however, that officials have informed attorneys working on MPP cases that the government would refuse to accept payment if clients were to be granted bond.

By July, the program sent the first 10 migrants in Texas back across the border into Nuevo Laredo. Just over a week later, the program was expanded into Brownsville, prompting aid efforts to shift into Mexico.

A federal lawsuit was filed on the behalf of MPP recipients in Brownsville at the end of July, alleging abysmal conditions experienced by migrants detained in overcrowded Border Patrol facilities.

The lawsuit also alleged that asylum seekers subject to MPP were being denied access to credible fear interviews in violation of international law.

The same month, photos of migrants pleading for help in South Texas Border Patrol facilities made national headlines and prompted Congress to call on Homeland Security officials to testify.

Lawsuits were also filed challenging the Trump administration’s implementation of expedited removal to migrants apprehended any time in the past two years within 100 miles of the border.

October saw frustrated asylums seekers living in Matamoros block the pedestrian bridge across the Rio Grande. In videos posted to social media, Matamoros mayor Mario Lopez tried to reach an agreement with the migrants by addressing the miserable conditions in the camp.

In November, a judge in California ruled that MPP would not apply to migrants who arrived at U.S. ports of entry before July 16.

MPP recipients attend hearings in the tent court system in Brownsville, which was opened in September. Judges appear via closed circuit television. The press, attorneys, and advocates are barred from proceedings inside the tents.

Migrant Deaths

A man and his 23-month-old daughter drowned just half a mile from the Gateway International Bridge in June. Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez, from El Salvador, tried to cross the river with his daughter in frustration that he was not able to present himself to U.S. immigration authorities and request asylum.

A photograph of the bodies caused outrage around the world.

Mexico US Border Migrant Deaths
Authorities stand behind yellow warning tape along the Rio Grande bank where the bodies of Salvadoran migrant Oscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his nearly 2-year-old daughter Valeria were found, in Matamoros, Mexico, Monday, June 24, 2019, after they drowned trying to cross the river to Brownsville, Texas. Martinez' wife, Tania told Mexican authorities she watched her husband and child disappear in the strong current. (AP Photo/Julia Le Duc) Julia Le Duc

The weeks leading up to the incident saw two babies, a toddler, and a woman found dead in Hidalgo County. Three children and an adult from Honduras also died in April after their raft capsized on the Rio Grande.

In July, Border Patrol rescued a father and his child trapped in strong currents underneath the Gateway International Bridge.

esheridan@brownsvilleherald.com