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The early summer months of 2014 will be remembered as a frightening time for the Central American children that found their way to the southern border of the United States. There, thousands of unaccompanied Salvadoran, Guatemalan, and Honduran minors and mothers with children crossed the Rio Grande River onto U.S. soil and waited to be detained by the Border Patrol. The humanitarian crisis in South Texas evolved into a political crisis as the story made headlines for weeks. It left the U.S. Congress roiling, but still unable to act. The paralysis on the Hill, in turn, forced the Obama Administration to begin a politically fraught plan for executive action on immigration reform.
As the Administration struggles to cope with the crisis, immigration attorneys, judges, and human rights advocates on the border and around the country are gravely concerned that the legal and human rights of migrant children and families are being compromised in the rush to push cases through the already overwhelmed – some say broken – immigration system and out the deportation door.
Politics aside, however, there is another story from the frontlines of the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas. During a recent visit, CDA found evidence that Texas Governor Rick Perry’s military response to the wave of immigrants doesn’t represent the attitude of all Texans.Our Report from the Border will follow the El Salvador Update.
As the Sánchez Cerén Administration approaches its first 100-day mark, the government is making efforts to address the violence that has propelled much of the emigration, but as the community policing model gets off the ground, El Salvador’s homicide rate is approaching pre-2012 gang truce levels. And though violence related to gangs, organized crime, and domestic abuse is a principal cause of emigration, controlling crime and violence will not necessarily reduce the decades-long exodus of Salvadorans to the United States. A historic-level drought and extensive damage inflicted by a blight on the coffee industry’s crops are forcing agricultural workers north as well. According to one account, only the women are staying behind in some rural towns to look after the children. Poverty is at the heart of the matter, along with violence and the desire for family reunification.
The flow of families and children across the border slowed in July and August. This decrease could be a temporary response to weather and other factors, but it also may indicate that migrants are coming across using different routes or methods. Coyotes offer “three for one” packages: one fee covers three crossing attempts and many of the deportees say they will try again.
Any real success in reducing migration will require patience and a long-term development vision that provides incentives and opportunities for Salvadorans to attain the proverbial “better life” in El Salvador. With remittances set to top $4 billion this year – 16% of the GDP – the financially-strapped Salvadoran government has little economic incentive to discourage migration. However, the new Sánchez Cerén Administration may adopt a long view toward the country’s development. As President Sánchez Cerén stated in June: “We cannot continue thinking that the country is going to have an economy sustained by remittances… We cannot continue expelling people, now even children!”
The U.S. strategy for the country – other than fighting the drug war and fast-tracking deportations of women and children migrants as a deterrence to further migration – is unclear. Rep. Joe García (FL-26) called for a comprehensive development plan similar to the $7 billion Plan Colombia, but Vice-President Joe Biden vetoed the idea, arguing that Central American countries “are not even close to being prepared to make the kinds of decisions Colombians made.” Meanwhile, the long-awaited Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) $277 million development grant to El Salvador is still on hold, and Mari Carmen Aponte, who has served as U.S. Ambassador in San Salvador since 2010, has been nominated as the U.S. representative to the OAS.
The Immigration Crisis:
“The conditions are not appropriate for children. They are prisoners, sleeping on the floor, with respiratory illnesses, bad food and air conditioning on very high.”
Liduvina Magarín, Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs for Salvadorans Abroad
Tens of thousands of Salvadoran women and children crossed the border near McAllen, Texas in the past year. After months of delay, Salvadoran consular services are now on the ground in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. On local television in McAllen, consular official Sandra Agreda said her office will provide humanitarian services for children and adults “to attend to their needs quickly, not to speed up deportations.”
The numbers are staggering: nearly 13,000 Salvadoran families and 14,951 unaccompanied Salvadoran children were detained in the Rio Grande Valley between October 31, 2013 and July 31, 2014. Vice-Minister Magarín has visited the border area and detention centers twice since June and expressed dismay at the “inhumane” conditions.
Fourteen children (ages 1-15 years old) were repatriated to El Salvador on August 11th after their mothers signed voluntary departure agreements. At that time, 450 minors were reported to be in the process of repatriation. “It is the decision of each compatriot to continue the [asylum] process or to return,” the Vice-Minister said. As of mid-August, 426children had been deported from the U.S. this year, a 30% increase over 2013. On August 19th, El Mundo reported that the U.S. had notified El Salvador’s Foreign Ministry that 500 children were ready to be returned in groups, but the Foreign Ministry clarified that these deportation flights had not yet been coordinated. In total, some 16,000 Salvadorans have been deported from the U.S. this year, according to the Director of Migration, Héctor Rodríguez. The Salvadoran government reportedly understands the trauma and the difficulties faced by deportees and will offer social and psychological help.
During a meeting with representatives of the diplomatic corps and international aid agencies in mid-August, Foreign Minister Hugo Martínez said a comprehensive approach is necessary in order to cope with the child migration. The immediate priorities must be “respect for the human rights of the children, due process, and family reunification,” he said.
Joaquin Chacón of the Salvadoran Consulate in Phoenix visited the so-called “Family Residential Center” in Artesia, New Mexico on August 21st. Since its opening in late June as a detention center, the Artesia facility has come to represent the most egregious abuses, humiliating treatment, and violations of legal and human rights of detained mothers and children. One hundred Salvadorans were deported from Artesia that day, as Chacón excoriated officials for the unsanitary conditions and demanded an investigation. As he recounted to Univisión, the women and children “are treated as criminals,” verbally abused and humiliated: They were “told to eat like animals”, he said, and fed “raw, bloody chicken” that they refused to eat. Another report by KUNM has detailed detainees’ fears of reprisal by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”) for speaking out about conditions.
The Artesia site is 200 miles from El Paso, situated in the desert and in the middle of nowhere. As immigration officials decided to close the emergency detention centers at three military bases originally housing families – Lackland Air Force Base, Fort Sill, and the Ventura Country Naval Base – the remote Artesia training center, known as the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC), was prepared for the fast track deportation of families, following the last-in-first-out model.
Instead of releasing families to bus stations with a notice to appear in court – as was done until recently – the policy in Artesia is to deport immediately. Families detained in South Texas are transported 700 miles to the Artesia center, where “due process” consists of brief teleconference interviews with judges in Arlington, Virginia. The interviews are conducted on 15” laptop screens divided in half: the mother with her children on one side of the small screen, government representatives on the other. One attorney told of one distressed mother nursing her baby, with her son banging his head on the table as she attempted to answer questions. Bond is rarely granted or set impossibly high; access to mail, phone calls, and attorneys are all tightly restricted. “The government wants the only option to be voluntary departure,” said Victor Nieblas, an attorney from the American Association of Immigration Lawyers. According to local news, over 600 undocumented women and children are being held in the Artesia center.
The “Karnes County Residential Center” in Karnes, Texas, a for-profit detention facility near San Antonio, opened after a “makeover” to hold migrant women and children in early August. The 537-bed facility that is run by the Geo Group, manages prisons and mental health hospitals in Texas and is operating under the same fast-track deportation model as Artesia. It is “total chaos,” according to one report: mothers are threatened with deportation if they do not “control” their children, a “no bond” policy has been pushed by Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson, and deportation decisions have been made “before credible fear interviews.”
A lawsuit has been filed in federal court by the ACLU, the National Lawyers Guild, and the National Immigrants’ Rights Center charging “coercion” at Artesia, “egregious due process violations,” unsanitary conditions, and more. “They (the families) are pawns in a political game,” one ACLU attorney said, “even though their lives are at stake.” As part of the lawsuit, attorneys demand that the 300 women and children deported from Artesia so far be returned for a fair hearing with legal representation. The ACLU also filed an injunction in the Seattle Federal District Court in an effort to block deportations of unaccompanied children.
Two unprecedented and historic legal decisions announced at the end of August could potentially have far-reaching consequences for the women and children immigrants:
- For the first time, women victims of domestic violence will be eligible to apply for asylum. The Department of Justice (DOJ) Board of Immigration Appeals opened the door byrecognizing the “well-founded fear of persecution” of a Guatemalan woman who fled to the U.S. to escape her abusive husband.
- The ACLU reached a settlement in a lawsuit against the federal government for the “coercive” practices of ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and CBP (Customs and Border Protection), using intimidation and threats to force immigrants to sign voluntary departure agreements. The case was brought by nine Mexican immigrants deported from Southern California between June 2009 – August 18, 2014. Several hundred thousand Mexican deportees will be eligible to return to the U.S. for a hearing.
In a brief visit to El Salvador on August 22nd, Alan Bersin and Thomas Winkowski, two high-level officials from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement respectively, stressed that the U.S. border “is not open to illegal immigration.” According to La Página, Winkowski emphasized: “All the illegal children who are detained will be repatriated to their countries of origin.” The majority of children don’t meet asylum requirements, the officials said. There was no reported mention of due process, as required for children from countries with non-contiguous borders with the United States by the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, or TVPRA, 2008 anti-trafficking law. The officials also held discussions with Luis Martínez and Oscar Chinchilla, the Attorneys General for El Salvador and Honduras, to strengthen mechanisms of cooperation to prosecute human traffickers.
“The police must earn trust and integrate with the population.”
In a statement released on August 29th, the leadership of the country’s five main gangs announced “a new effort, a second chance for the country to achieve peace.” The attempt to re-launch the 2012 truce includes commitments to the original terms: a cease to all intra-gang hostilities; an end to attacks against family members, police, and prison personnel; an end to forced recruitment and harassment at schools; and permission for humanitarian organizations to freely access areas under gang control. It is not clear if the leaders still have control of their members and the ability to enforce these commitments. Meanwhile, violence continued throughout the summer, seemingly unabated. According to data from the National Civil Police (PNC), 67% of all homicides are gang-related, and 85,000 people have been murdered due to gang violence during the past two decades. El Salvador has one of the highest ratios of police officers per inhabitant in Latin America (260/100,000) but the security institution – as well as the judiciary – has been at best, ineffective and at worst, corrupt.
When the conservative Archbishop José Luis Escobar Alas suggested the country is on the verge of collapse (“We are about to be a failed state,”) President Salvador Sánchez Cerén countered that his goal is to build a “strong state” by strengthening institutions that comply with their “constitutional roles.” A strong state, he said, does not repress the people, militarize the cities, or fill the streets with police and soldiers.
Restructuring the PNC under a community policing model is the public security priority. But, transforming the mentality of law enforcement – and thus the way in which a public security institution interacts with the civilian population – is a formidable challenge. With support from the U.S. Embassy, community policing has been successfully implemented in several communities since 2010. Now, after months of training and preparation, the first community police station in the capital was opened in Colonia Costa Rica on August 11th. The program is to be expanded to 42 high-crime areas in metropolitan San Salvador and eventually around the country.
PNC Director Mauricio Arriaza Chicas explained the mission of the community policing model as more than fighting crime: it is focused on advocating for the population around local issues such as trash collection, electrical connections, water supply, and street repair, as well as identifying risk factors in the community. Instructors will work closely with the patrols to assist and evaluate progress. In Colonia Costa Rica, three teams of three officers will work in shifts so that the station is always open. Officers will make house-to-house visits, carry cell phones, and wear identification badges. The officers will be known to the community, and those who don’t comply with the new model will be reported, according toVice-Minister of Security Juan Javier Martínez. It will take at least six months to see results, Arriaza Chicas acknowledged. For his part, Jaime Martínez, the Director of the National Public Security Academy, described the goal of the community policing model as accountability and citizen participation in public security, insisting that officers must be “receptive, open, accountable and responsible.”
Efforts to remove or reassign allegedly corrupt police officials continue quietly. On August 16th, it was reported that Óscar Aguilar, the former director of the CIP (Police Intelligence Center), has been assigned as a “collaborator,” or advisor, with the Rural Police. Aguilar’s future role with the Rural Police is unclear, but this is one way that officials can remove an officer from a position of power without purging him from the institution. Óscar Aguilar is one of the officers investigated by Zaira Navas during her tenure as Inspector General of the PNC. His case and dozens of others were archived in 2012 when General Francisco Salinas was appointed to head the civilian national police force.
The arrest of Spanish priest Antonio Rodríguez on July 30th was ordered by Attorney General Luis Martínez, who charged “Padre Toño,” as he is known, with influence peddling, smuggling prohibited items into prisons, and illicit association with gangs. He was convicted on September 4th of the first two charges and sentenced to two years of probation. He will be free to travel, but will not be allowed to visit prisons or jails to meet with gang members. The priest, who worked with gang members in his Mejicanos parish for the past decade, has been a controversial figure during the two-and-a-half years of the now-defunct gang truce, first opposing, then joining truce efforts, and finally working to discredit the truce. He denied all charges in court, was briefly hospitalized with hypertension and a flare-up of diabetes, and is now back in a jail run by the Anti-Narcotics Division (DAN) of the police. On August 14th and 16th, online journal Diario1 published “The Secret Conversations of Padre Toño,” alleged wiretap calls between the priest and gang leaders.
- “For me, Romero is a man of God,” Pope Francis told reporters on August 19th. He said all “doctrinal problems” and obstacles preventing the beatification of the slain Archbishop Óscar Arnulfo Romero had been resolved, “and it is very important that it be done quickly.” For two decades conservative popes blocked the process toward sainthood, alleging the Archbishop’s “Marxist ideas.”
- The Ministry of Education has published “El Mozote, Struggle for Truth and Justice.” The graphic history book was written by Tutela Legal “Dra. María Julia Hernández” and illustrated by Equipo Maíz.
- According to Minister of Justice and Security Benito Lara, the main human rights problems in El Salvador today are “widespread corruption, the weakness of the judicial system and the security institutions that contribute to the high level of impunity and abuses.”
- The many violations of human rights that result from the “extreme vulnerability” of migrants passing through Mexico is “one of the principal humanitarian tragedies” in the region, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). The Commission cited “violence, insecurity, and discrimination…kidnappings, homicides, disappearances, sexual violence, racism and xenophobia,” and charged the Mexican government with failing to protect migrants. Some 30,000 migrants were reported disappeared in Mexico from 2006-2011.
“As U.S. Speeds the Path to Deportation, Distress Fills New Family Detention Centers.” Julia Preston, New York Times.
“Confronting a Crisis: Child Refugees at Our Southern Border.” Rep. Joe García (Fl-26), Roll Call.
“El Informe de la Comisión Ad-Hoc era una lista, nada más.” El Faro. Interview with former President Alfredo Cristiani covering important topics from the war and amnesty to organized crime.
“Who Counts as a Refugee in U.S. Immigration Policy – and Who Doesn’t.” Pablo Lastra. The Nation.
“Guess Where the Gangs Got Their Guns?” Alec MacGillis. The New Republic.
“The Deadly, Invisible Borders Inside El Salvador.” Oscar Martínez, The New Republic.
“The Untold Story of Unaccompanied Minors.” Jorge Rivas, Fusion. Brief interviews with 11 scholars and activists.