Tuesday, February 21, 2006

From the Border Report #9

The border delegation arrived in El Paso early Monday morning. This is a large border area with El Paso on the US side and Ciudad de Juarez on the Mexican side. Divided by the Rio Grande, the population of El Paso is a little more than 600,000, while Juarez is more than 2 million. El Paso is almost 80% Latino (64% Mexican American).

The Rio Grande serves as the border in some areas in and around El Paso, while chain-linked fence is found in other areas. More than 11,000 Border Patrol agents are employed in the El Paso sector, which covers west Texas and New Mexico. This border area cover 189 miles of land and 109 miles of water border. The Rio Grande itself does not have much water flow, its water being diverted upstream in New Mexico and other places for farming and other uses.

The household income in El Paso is $31,000, and the area has one of the nation’s highest poverty rates. An estimated 30,000 jobs in the region were lost after the implementation of NAFTA—80% of those who lost work were women.

County voted for Kerry over Bush.

About 15-20% of the workers in El Paso cross the border from Juarez to work everyday. Juarez itself has hundreds of maguiladoras. At one point 90% of the televisions in the world were produced in Juarez.

Prior to 1993, it was easy to pass the border in the El Paso urban area. After Hold the Line, crossing became difficult. Then after 9/11, agents began checking all the buses and cars. Coyotes charge $1500-2000 for assistance to cross the border. Rumor has it that after the Sensenbrenner bill passed the House in December, coyotes began adding another $200 to their fees, even though HR 4457 is not law!

The Border Patrol patrols in the downtown area, and sometimes agents arrest people walking on the streets. When we met with human rights and immigrant rights workers in El Paso, they complained that Sensenbrenner provisions that would criminalize undocumented immigrants would be devastating. They argue that migrants have human rights and deserve to be treated with dignity.

Even now, Border Patrol agents are not trained to meet the special needs of children. Many crossed 2 or 3 countries by themselves. The Border Patrol abuses children by keeping them in custody too long—way beyond the 72 hour maximum, and sometimes 2 weeks! The children are not supplied with blankets or dry clothes if they are wet.

Many children are here seeking asylum because of gang problem in Central America (which US deportees have helped to create). Many of those countries, like Guatemala, don’t have resources to deal with the criminal deportees. Youngsters fleeing these countries often seek asylum because they are being forcibly recruited by gangs; their families have also been threatened. Immigrant rights workers also wonder why we favor deportation over rehabilitation of longtime lawful permanent residents of the US who have committed crimes.

We heard from health care workers in El Paso. To them, immigration in El Paso is about life. It’s about quality of life and families. It’s about human rights. That should permeate all borders. But by militarizing the border families are being torn apart by these rules.

People now have to look for other ways to make their dreams come true. In the health area, people go without care because they’re afraid to come forward. This causes more suffering, and they end up in emergency rooms anyway. The refrain from using preventive care for their children for fear of exposing their status.

One advocate noted that there is relatively little gang activity in El Paso, because of strong Mexican value of families. Time and again, we heard that El Paso is rated the second safest city in the United States (after San Jose, CA) for cities with over 500,000 residents.

We heard from a Catholic nun whose father came as an unaccompanied minor through Ellis Island decades ago and was able to achieve the American dream. Her order serves a colonia in New Mexico that is 90-95% immigrant. She is deeply concerned with criminalization of the undocumented. The attitude of linking immigrants and terrorism exacerbates the problem. It’s a God given right to feed and clothe your family. The law is untenable from a moral and logistic point of view. The detention facilitate in Chapparel colonia is filled to capacity. The Sensenbrenner bill would make it illegal for her to help the undocumented even though she is a religious worker.

A staff member from a women’s shelter gave a moving presentation. She informed us that living on the border is so different; “we’re all mixed together”—documented, undocumented, mixed families, with a history and tradition of moving back and forth across the border. She is disappointed with what’s happening now in the community: the Sheriff wanting to make immigration law, by touting Operation Linebacker (as a backup to the border patrol). She knows of one man who was given a ticket traffic, when he was on his way to pay his water bill. He was asked for documents, and when he didn’t produce them, he was reported to border patrol and deported, with his 5 year old son. Another family was deported because their car was stopped with an expired car license sticker. This really discourages residents from relying on local law enforcement for help when they are crime victims. The community is being isolated in their homes. Some stay in abusive relationships because the alternative is being deported. They are afraid of people who should be helping them. The community is being terrorized. Incidents of domestic violence or rape will not be reported. Operation Linebacker just makes things worse.

Fernando Garcia of the Border Network explained that the Sheriff’s office was strapped for money, and they came up with the Operation Linebacker strategy to approach DHS for funds by offering to back up the border patrol. They received $100 million to implement Operation Linebacker.

We also met with members of the El Paso City Council, local police officers, a state senator, and a representative from the office of a local member of the US Congress.

City representative Susie Bird thinks that the city needs federal officials (e.g., the Border Patrol) to help provide a more welcoming aesthetic, rather than a sense of patrol. A more welcoming environment would recognized El Paso’s relationship with Mexico. El Paso needs to recognize that its economic development policy is integral to a successful relationship with Mexico. We should have a role in shaping cultural and economic policy. We also need balance to make sure Mexico is integrated into our economy. So far, El Paso hasn’t attempted to measure the negative economic impact of an unwelcoming environment, but she is sure the city is being hurt economically.

City representative Steve Ortega talked about the Minutemen’s plan to come to El Paso last September. He sponsored a resolution opposing them. The negative impact on economic development that the Minutemen represent was emphasized. They would also negatively affect the area’s interdependence and regionalism. The resolution passed 7-1, and the Minutemen did not receive a warm welcome.

State Senator Elliott Shockley is chair of a 10-state border group (US and Mexican states) that emphasizes interdependence. He made 4 important points:

1. Racism on the rise in the US. Anti-immigrant agenda is all about racism. Instead, we should realize that our number 1 goal should be free trade, and a demonstration project is needed.

2.Lessons from abuse cases teach us that the fourth amendment cannot be forgotten. “Walking while Mexican” is going to be a crime if the Sensenbrenner bill passes.

3.Take crime away as the bait. Yes, there’s a problem with respect to drugs. Assumption that everyone at the border is a drug dealer is wrong. Separate drug issues from immigration questions.

4.Stop treating the border like a laboratory. We just need to recognize our long term relationship with Mexico from a regional perspective, and things will work out..

The representative from Congressman Sylvester Reyes’ office noted that 80-90% of the shoppers in downtown El Paso are Mexican. This is a tremendous positive impact on the local economy. Mexicans have had to adapt to harsh immigration policies over and over. But their criminalization amounts to the criminalization of your being of your person, and that really makes it difficult to live a normal life.

El Paso is one of the poorest places in the US. This is a state (Texas) with no state income tax, where cities rely on property taxes. El Paso has a low rate here. Families are a big deal here; people rely on their relatives. Making the undocumented felons is a recipe for disaster, that will lead to hunger.



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