916.695.6882; jazmineulloa@gmail.com

Border and Immigration

Dispatches from the southern tip of Texas.

Seeking asylum to escape government persecution

By Jazmine Ulloa
Austin American-Statesman
 
Jorge Luis Reyes Salazar remembers when soldiers arrived in March 2008 in Guadalupe, a small Mexican farming community along the border in the Juárez Valley about 50 miles from Juárez.

They swept through the streets of his hometown, he said, terrorizing families and ransacking homes in what they said were searches for drugs, guns and money.

“A war began, but not against narco trafficking — against civil society,” Reyes, 19, told an audience of about 70 people Wednesday at a forum held by the Texas Observer. “The people — people like my family — began to protest.”
Full story.

U-visa might take a U-turn

By Jazmine Ulloa
San Antonio Express-News
 
A police report that Patricia Martinez keeps folded in a large Ziploc bag tells some of the story she wants to forget.

A man, it states, walked into the small travel agency in Los Angeles where she worked, chatted her up, then grabbed her arm and thrust her against a wall, fondling her breasts and trying to disrobe her.
Full story.

Born To Be Barred

At the border, U.S. citizens are being refused re-entry because they were delivered by midwives.
By Jazmine Ulloa
The Texas Observer
 
It was just another sweltering Monday morning in August. Yuliana Trinidad Castro sat in her truck with her mother, sister, and newborn daughter, windows up and air conditioner on high, waiting to cross into Brownsville from the Mexican border city of Matamoros. That weekend, like so many before, they had visited family on the southern side of the border. The trip back home, a sluggish procession across the international bridge through curving aisles of bumper-to-bumper traffic, was frustrating but familiar. The Castro sisters did it practically every week. “It was just so routine,” Yuliana’s sister, Laura Nancy Castro, recalled months later.
Full story.

Seasonal workers sue agricultural giant

By Jazmine Ulloa
The Brownsville Herald
 
As a day laborer, Raul Salas would often have to wait for odd jobs that were never steady and barely allowed him to make a living.

So he says he jumped at the opportunity when, last year on a June day, a fellow laborer named Pensamiento offered him a seasonal job detasseling corn in Indiana.

“He came up to me over there,” said Salas, pointing to a spot in downtown Brownsville where day laborers were known to gather to wait for work.
Full story.

Boy struggling for life now faces mom’s deportation

By Jazmine Ulloa
The Brownsville Herald
 
Angel de Jesus Barrera will turn 3 next month. But at 22 pounds and eight ounces, he is fighting for his life as his mother faces deportation later this month.

He was born with congenital craniofacial dysmorphism, an abnormality in fetus development, which left part of his cranium and face disfigured. Barrera looks more like a 1-year-old given his size and weight. He has a whole list of medical conditions, some of which include Down’s syndrome, scoliosis, mental retar dation, seizure disorder and a serious case of glaucoma that recently caused the removal of his left eye.
Full story.

Mexican citizens looking for sanctuary

By Jazmine Ulloa
The Brownsville Herald
 
A middle-aged woman was driving along a busy street in Matamoros on her way to visit family, when she passed a Soriana grocery store barricaded by a throng of Mexican soldiers and vehicles. Gunshots cracked in the distance.

She kept her eyes on the road and pressed on the gas, following what many Mexican citizens consider unspoken policy: Look away. Mind your own business. Keep your mouth shut.
Full story.

U-visa applicants mired in bureaucracy

By Jazmine Ulloa
The Brownsville Herald
 
He erupted in rage one night, slamming her against the wall while she wrapped her arms around her stomach in an effort to protect her womb. He stormed through their home, yelling, cursing, “breaking everything in sight,” she recalls.

When he left, shattered glass and tears were riddled across the floor. She called the police, then made the decision — perhaps the toughest she has ever made — to press charges against her husband. An immigrant woman from the small Mexican town of Silacayoapan, she had no legal documents, no steady income, no family members nearby.
Full story.

Magazine and newspapers published from the mini publishing empire that was my old Macbook. A collection of the best clips from my summers and semesters as an intern. And other good stuff.

Abroadly Speaking

Volume II, Spring 2008

Volume II, Spring 2008

I helped found Abroadly Speaking with three other students our freshman year at the University of Texas at Austin. The student-run magazine was sponsored by the school’s Study Abroad Office with the mission of increasing and diversifying the study abroad student body. Over three years, we received funding to produce 1,500 print copies of the first issue and 3,500 copies of each of the following two issues. As editor in chief from 2006 to 2009, I wrote articles, gathered and edited photos and stories from more than two dozen contributing writers, and designed all three issues and promotional materials.
To read the Spring 2008 issue click here.
To read the Spring 2009 issue click here.

ADELANTE

March 2008 issue

Adelante was created in the Fall of 2006 by the Hispanic Student Journalists Association at the University of Texas at Austin with the goal of covering Latina/o issues often overlooked by traditional media outlets.

As editor in chief, I wrote, edited, shot photos and designed pages. By Spring 2008, I organized a team of four to cover the U.S.-Mexico Border Fence in Brownsville, Texas. At the time, increased border security since 9/11, the passing of the Secure Fence Act of 2006 and the simmering demand for immigration reform had shifted the nation’s focus to its southern border. The negative debates were affecting all Latinos – regardless of their legal status – and often dehumanized the “in-between” place many call home. We set out to produce a print and web issue to counter the prevailing narrative.
Check out our work here.

Lurch and a lifeline 37 floors up

By Jazmine Ulloa
The Boston Globe

A pair of window washers at the peak of a Financial District skyscraper yesterday morning were jolted from their perch when their platform abruptly pitched downward, leaving them dangling 37 floors above the street and banging the windows for help.
Full story.

Bus drivers, company caught in labor battle

By Jazmine Ulloa
The Boston Globe

A controversy that has captured the attention of the Chinese community is pitting a group of bus drivers against a well-known Hong Kong-born businesswoman.

The 10 drivers say they were forced to work longer hours than the government allows for Sunshine Travel Services and then let go after protesting pay cuts. But Lorraine Tse, owner and founder of the Chinatown company, has denied the allegations, with the labor feud escalating in recent months to dueling news conferences and a lawsuit – all played out in Chinese-language newspapers.
Full story.

Rings among few clues in woman’s death

By Jazmine Ulloa
The Boston Globe

One ring marks the promise to marry, another the honor of that promise held true. And the last, a 10-karat band with heart-shape settings and three birthstones, is the keepsake of a mother. What once symbolized three joyous stages in a woman’s life have become some of the only pieces law enforcement officials have to put together the story of her death.
Full story.

Women play major roles in the drug trade

By Jazmine Ulloa
The Brownsville Herald

At the lowest level of the illegal drug trade are cases like that of Laura Trevino, her mother and two sisters.

The four women arrested in June allegedly stashed approximately 37 pounds of cocaine packages inside “girdles” three of them wore underneath their clothes. Authorities said they attempted to smuggle the narcotics through the B&M International Bridge.Court testimony later revealed Trevino had admitted to organizing the operation and would be paid $2,000 after they had crossed into the United States, a small percentage of the nearly $1 million estimated street value of the drugs.

The case was the first of its kind in the Rio Grande Valley. But among the roles women play in the illegal drug business, a majority of them, like Trevino and her family, still take a huge risk for a small cut of their load’s worth.
Full story.

Restaurants taking no risks with salmonella outbreak

By Jazmine Ulloa
The Brownsville Herald

When customers ask Fidela Montelongo whether she serves tomatoes, she points to a large eraser board hanging on a wall of her restaurant. In red letters, it reads in Spanish:

“If you wish for tomato to be served with your food, please ask for it…for your health.”

Montelongo, owner of Refresqueria and Taqueria Montelongo on Southmost Boulevard, isn’t the only restaurateur in Brownsville to take the red fruit off the menu after a multi-state salmonella outbreak was linked to raw Roma, red plum and round red tomatoes.
Full story.

Shrimpers head to Mexico to fuel boats

By Jazmine Ulloa
The Brownsville Herald
 
Fuel prices have more than doubled since 2001, when Pedro Purata bought a 16,000-gallon shrimp boat he dubbed the “Alma Marie.”

The wooden boat, coated in layers of peeling black and white paint, now rocks gently on the bayou waters – moored to the dock along with more than half of the Port of Brownsville’s shrimp boats. Although some need repairs, most simply lack the fuel to head to Louisiana, where shrimping season has begun.

But before the Texas coast kicks off its shrimp season July 15, Purata and many other shrimpers along the Gulf of Mexico’s coastline say they are sailing south.
Full story.

U-visa might take a U-turn

By Jazmine Ulloa
San Antonio Express-News
 
A police report that Patricia Martinez keeps folded in a large Ziploc bag tells some of the story she wants to forget.

A man, it states, walked into the small travel agency in Los Angeles where she worked, chatted her up, then grabbed her arm and thrust her against a wall, fondling her breasts and trying to disrobe her.

More than eight years later, in the living room of her San Antonio home, Martinez, now 27, could still recall his face, disheveled hair and ragged clothing. He was larger than her and stronger, she said. The struggle seemed to last hours. Then he fled and she sank to the floor and wept, more from her feelings of impotence than anything else.

Martinez, a petite woman with short, brown hair from Monterrey, Mexico, was living in the United States illegally when the assault occurred on Dec. 28, 2002. To call police seemed “well, illogical,” she said.

But she did. It led to something she hadn’t expected — a U-visa, temporary legal status for crime victims who cooperate in criminal investigations, especially cases of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking. Some recipients can apply for permanent residency after three years.

Holding up the police report, Martinez said, “This has changed my life.”

Most of the 5,825 U-visas granted in 2009 and 10,073 in 2010 have stemmed from domestic violence cases, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Congress approved the U-visa through the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act, almost unanimously in 2000 to encourage immigrants to report crime without fear of deportation, forge trust between them and local authorities and thus strengthen crime fighting in their communities.

But a push among Texas lawmakers to prohibit “sanctuary cities” and other measures that would link local police work to immigration enforcement could derail those efforts, critics say, creating ambiguity for officers and crime victims who don’t want to be questioned about their citizenship.

HB 12, expected to hit the House floor early next month for debate, would not require officers to check the immigration status of individuals they detain but it would prevent local governments from denying them the ability to do so, at the risk of losing state funds. Proponents say the bill aims to stop local jurisdictions from protecting illegal immigrants but wouldn’t threaten efforts to help crime victims.

“Contrary to arguments made by some, there is no conflict between U-visas and banning sanctuary city policies,” said U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. “Illegal immigrant victims of crime will not be prevented from obtaining U-visas if sanctuary city policies are banned.”

Some Texas police chiefs and sheriffs, including San Antonio Police Chief William McManus, have lobbied against HB 12, meeting at the state Capitol in February to denounce a slew of what they termed “Arizona-style” bills they said would undermine cooperation between officers and otherwise law-abiding people who are here illegally.

El Paso County Sheriff Richard Wiles said local police have a more urgent need to build partnerships with the public than federal law enforcement.

“We need the whole community to trust and respect us and to call us and help us to prevent crime, and we don’t want to tear that down,” Wiles said in a recent interview while at a border sheriffs’ meeting in San Antonio. He called HB 12 “just a political smokescreen because we already have plenty of room under the existing laws to do what we have to do.”

Programs such as Secure Communities, which compares fingerprints of those arrested to Department of Homeland Security and FBI databases, have the benefit of keeping local officers from having to enforce immigration laws, a job they’re not trained to do and that would be especially difficult in family violence cases, Bexar County Sheriff Amadeo Ortiz said.

“Who do you ask (about their status)?” Ortiz said. “Do you ask everyone you come into contact with? Who knows? They could be from Russia or Canada, and those people are usually not targeted.”

Officers want to solve cases and keep the streets safe regardless “of who you are or where you’re from,” added his deputy chief for patrols, Dale Bennett. “There is an inherent propensity to shy away from law enforcement that makes solving cases difficult in our current population,” he said. “Adding the potential threat of arrest and deportation (to those who report crimes) increases that risk of never solving cases that much greater.”

Because of those concerns, state Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, filed a bill that would keep authorities from asking victims and witnesses their immigration status, but observers say it is not likely to make it out of committee.

And if those people fail to come forward, investigators stand to lose valuable witnesses, said Lee J. Terán, a St. Mary’s University law professor. One of her clients was shot and severely beaten by drug traffickers who left him for dead, but survived and helped authorities capture his assailants, Teran said.
“In this case, as well as in others (with different witnesses), the police really needed him to prosecute the perpetrators,” she said.

Today, Martinez is studying for a graduate school entrance exam and will seek a part-time job when her two children are a little older. Because her U-visa’s benefits extend to her former boyfriend, now her husband, he is working at a local restaurant to support the family.

She remembers how stunned she was to see Los Angeles police rush to respond to her report of the assault. They even searched the streets for her attacker with dogs and a helicopter but were unable to find him. Months later, Martinez nervously picked him out of a photo lineup. She hadn’t even wanted to go to the station, she recalled.

“I was afraid he would come back one day to finish what he started,” she said

As published April 17, 2011

 

The Iron Canvas

By Jazmine Ulloa
The Texas Observer

ON A WINDY, LATE-FEBRUARY SUNDAY in Brownsville, gallery owner Mark Clark and a dozen artists left the gallery carrying paintings and other pieces. They crossed the street, passed a lone Border Patrol van on the river levee, and arrived in Hope Park, a green space on the Rio Grande that celebrates ties between Mexico and the United States. In defiance of the Border Patrol, they began hanging artwork on the rusty, unfinished wall snaking its way partly through the park, the art’s colors popping against the gritty iron bars and overcast sky. It was a way to “beautify the ugly,” Clark says. “It lets people know that the wall has not gone away as a political issue and that we are extremely disappointed in the Obama administration and their decision to continue this idiocy.”

Clark has been fighting the wall since 2006, when former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and his entourage first came to the border city. Clark picketed Chertoff’s press conferences, participated in citywide protests, and tagged the gallery’s roof with No Al Muro (“No Border Wall”) in charcoal. When Chertoff’s tenure ended in 2009, Clark threw him a retirement party at the gallery, where guests could pummel a piñata modeled after Chertoff and throw shoes at a George W. Bush impersonator.

Clark is still fighting, even though the struggle can feel doomed at times. Immigration reform has fallen on the nation’s backburner, and construction on the wall is rolling along at $12 to $18 million a mile. The rest of the country may have moved on to other topics, but Clark and his neighbors can’t because of the hulking reminder. He no longer rides his bicycle along the levee to work. “It used to be a quiet, serene ride through nature,” he says. “When you have an iron curtain on one side blocking your view, it is a little on the oppressive and depressing side.”

He says he is not going to let the United States forget it’s making a mistake. So on Feb. 28, he turned the wall into a canvas that displayed people’s frustrations with the metal divide. There were paintings of moonlit mojadas, female border-crossers, and the river view undisrupted by the fence. An illustration by Clark depicted dozens of Mexicans marching into the country through a hole in the fence. One Mexican was an unemployed Ronald McDonald selling helados, ice cream, on the corner. It is “every nightmare about Mexican immigration,” he says. There were conceptual pieces, such as a missing-person poster and a pile of stuff including a pair of shoes, a deflated flotation tire, and a water jug left behind by immigrants illegally crossing the border through Arizona. A 30-foot ladder of green bamboo and twine leaned against the fence, reaching toward the sky and swaying in the wind. Artist David Freeman, an arts instructor at South Texas College in McAllen, stuck salva-tree thorns on the rungs to symbolize obstacles faced by illegal immigrants in the United States.

Perhaps the brightest display was that of Susan Harbage Page, a photographer and lecturer at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Page designed a funeral wreath using colored ribbons and plastic flowers arranged like a target. It is a memorial to the lives lost crossing the border, “a beautiful thing that sucks you in but represents many harsh realities and losses,” she says.
The installation came and went quietly, without any clashes with U.S. Border Patrol or local authorities. “I plan to do this every year,” Clark says, “until the wall goes away.”

As published March 24, 2010, Texas Observer

Born To Be Barred

At the border, U.S. citizens are being refused re-entry because they were delivered by midwives.
 
By Jazmine Ulloa
The Texas Observer
 
IT WAS JUST ANOTHER SWELTERING MONDAY MORNING in August. Yuliana Trinidad Castro sat in her truck with her mother, sister, and newborn daughter, windows up and air conditioner on high, waiting to cross into Brownsville from the Mexican border city of Matamoros. That weekend, like so many before, they had visited family on the southern side of the border. The trip back home, a sluggish procession across the international bridge through curving aisles of bumper-to-bumper traffic, was frustrating but familiar. The Castro sisters did it practically every week. “It was just so routine,” Yuliana’s sister, Laura Nancy Castro, recalled months later.

Then they reached the checkpoint. As always, the sisters, both American citizens, rolled down their windows and handed their entry documents to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer on duty, Eliseo Cabrera. Laura Nancy handed over her U.S. passport. Yuliana presented her daughter’s Texas birth certificate and her own, along with a receipt proving she had applied for a U.S. passport. Their mother, a Mexican national, presented her visitor’s visa.

The officer, Laura Nancy says, scarcely glanced at the documents—except for Yuliana’s. He examined her birth certificate and application receipt for a few moments, then ran the information on his computer. He was especially interested, the women would soon learn, in the person who registered Yuliana’s birth certificate—a once-popular midwife named Trinidad Saldivar.

Midwifery was once a cultural institution and an economic necessity for many along the border. Since the 1960s, the practice has almost disappeared as regulations for midwives, or parteras, have become more stringent—and as they were increasingly accused of falsely registering children of Mexican families as U.S. citizens. Until the early 1990s, Saldivar was one of the most sought-out parteras along both sides of the Texas-Mexico border. Following an investigation by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (as it was then called), Saldivar was one of more than a dozen Valley midwives accused of falsifying birth certificates. Some pleaded guilty—to avoid, they said, serving prison time. No one was asked which records they had been paid to forge and which were authentic, making it nearly impossible to determine which children had been delivered in the United States and which had not. Saldivar was never convicted, but her name was tarnished in the process—at least in the eyes of the U.S. government, which included her in a list of more than 230 “suspicious” midwives.

Maybe her name registered that morning with Officer Cabrera. But he appeared to be convinced from the start that the document was false, Yuliana has since stated in legal filings. He asked questions but ignored the answers, she says. He confiscated all four passengers’ documents, directed them out of traffic, and referred them for further inspection. What happened then, Yuliana’s mother says, “I would not wish on anyone.”

The three womens’ court statements tell the same story. They were taken into separate rooms and held for 11 hours. They were interrogated, mocked, harassed, and threatened with deportation or imprisonment—all, they say, to persuade them to sign confessions saying they held fraudulent documents. They were offered neither food nor water. Their requests to call for help or speak to relatives who’d come to the international bridge to look for them were denied. A cousin who wanted to see them was spirited away by officers, the sisters say.

“It was as if we had been kidnapped,” says the mother, Trinidad Muraira de Castro.

“I was so scared,” says Laura Nancy. “No one knew what was happening to us.”

Yuliana remembers hearing her baby, Camila, cry uncontrollably outside in the lobby while an officer interrogated her. She insisted she was born in Brownsville, as the certificate said. Her citizenship had never before been questioned, she told the officer, and if permitted, she could retrieve more documentation, including her mother’s blood work from a Brownsville hospital after Yuliana’s birth. In that icy little room, none of that mattered. “The officer continued harassing me, yelling at me, and telling me that I was Mexican and that he was going to deport me,” Yuliana, then 25, wrote in her statement. “After a while, I realized I had no way out since he told me no matter what I did, to him I was Mexican.”

It was all too much for her mother. Trinidad says she was grilled at length about falsified birth certificates she had indeed obtained for Laura Nancy and Yuliana when they were children—certificates saying they were Mexican citizens so they could attend school in Matamoros. Out of fear and exhaustion, she says, Trinidad signed a confession saying she had falsely registered her daughters as born in the United States.

That was that. By the time Trinidad, her daughters, and granddaughter were released, the sky was dark. Their entry documents had been taken away, and the Castro sisters were stranded in Mexico. What began as a “routine” return home to Brownsville had turned into a nightmare—one that would stretch over months, landing the Castros in a protracted legal battle and separating family members in Mexico and the United States.

They were not, they soon learned, alone. The Castros have filed suit in federal court against Customs and Border Protection. Their attorneys are seeking class-action status for the case, which could broaden its reach and have widespread implications along the border. The Castros’ experience last Aug. 24, their attorneys allege in court filings, was not an isolated incident, but a symptom of a systematic problem—a “window into the cases of dozens, if not hundreds, of similarly situated persons.” It’s also a window into the human costs associated with the U.S. government’s patchwork “crackdown” on illegal immigration.

NOT LONG AFTER the Castros were denied entry, a group of their U.S. relatives showed up at the Brownsville law office of Jaime Díez. An immigration attorney who has worked in the Valley for 12 years, Díez has become well known in the region for his pro bono immigration work, his strongly opinionated columns in a Mexican newspaper, and his weekly television commentaries on border and immigration issues for a Matamoros station. After he discussed the passport problem faced by U.S. residents returning from Mexico on one of his television spots, people started showing up at his studio.

Díez and other immigration attorneys in the Valley have heard of countless experiences similar to the Castros’. “Most people are totally unaware of this risk, which is why they fall into this trap,” says Lisa Brodyaga, who is working with Díez as a lead attorney on the Castro case. “We still do not know how often it is happening,” she says, because “when it happens to someone they end up in Mexico, cut off from access to counsel.”

Jessica Garcia, a Brownsville lab technician, was among those sent back to Matamoros without her legal documents. A few weeks later, after seeing Díez on TV, the 22-year-old Garcia and her mother went to the station to meet the attorney. She told him about her experience at a Brownsville international bridge on Halloween morning of last year—a morning that, she says, “changed everything, turned everything around for me.”

Two years earlier, Garcia’s husband had lost his U.S. work visa, and the family had moved back to Matamoros. Garcia kept her well-paying job at a Brownsville plasma center to support the family, which meant crossing daily through the port of entry.

Like the Castro sisters, Garcia had been delivered in Brownsville by midwife Trinidad Saldivar. Her mother, Ana Maria, remembers shopping in downtown Brownsville one day when she came across a colorful board on Saldivar’s front porch advertising her services. It was decked with a stork delivering a baby, she recalls. “Partera,” it read.

For Ana Maria, it seemed like a convenient way to have her baby in the United States and give her more opportunities. There was no need to commit fraud, she says. “If I had paid for a false document for Jessica,” she says, “I would have bought one for her older brother as well. But he is a Mexican citizen.”

On the ever-hardening line between the United States and Mexico, customs officials have long been accused of mistakenly detaining, deporting, or denying entry to U.S. citizens. Since a heightened security measure called the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative went into effect last June, most of those targeted for interrogation at ports of entry, immigration attorneys like Díez say, have been U.S. citizens who present birth documents registered by midwives—people like Garcia and the Castro sisters, born in U.S. homes, not hospitals. (See “Locked Out”)

The new mandate requires U.S. citizens to present passports, passport cards, or other “initiative-compliant” documents when crossing from Mexico by land. Even before it was implemented, the requirement brought to light a series of complications faced by people born with the assistance of midwives. For years, the U.S. State Department had been rejecting passport applications from people whose births were attended by midwives, citing the forgery convictions. The issue came to widespread attention two years ago, when an increasing number of border residents began requesting passports to comply with the new travel-security measures.

Immigration attorneys say they began to see a stream of cases in which the U.S. State Department sent applicants in bureaucratic loops, asking them to provide all sorts of supplementary proof of citizenship—including newspaper birth announcements and high-school yearbook photos. Rejected applicants included children, senior citizens, U.S. military veterans and federal employees. The process was so arbitrary, says Díez, that some siblings in the same family would get their passports while others were denied. The Castros were a case in point: While Laura Nancy received her passport within weeks of applying, Yuliana had been asked to provide additional proof of citizenship—and was still waiting when she was denied entry last August.

In a class-action lawsuit against the State Department, the ACLU and immigration attorneys representing citizens whose applications had been rejected claimed that the department had “adopted a blanket suspicion toward one group of passport applicants.” In a settlement last year, the department agreed to initiate new procedures and training for officials taking passport applications. The settlement helped some, but many others’ requests remain in limbo, says Díez. Customs officers at ports of entry, like the ones who sent Garcia and the Castros back to Mexico, are not bound by the agreement.

“These are issues that should be handled in a courtroom, not the port of entry, where people do not have access to counsel, nor their constitutional rights,” Díez says. For many U.S. citizens still awaiting passports, border checkpoints are where their fates are decided, with customs officers serving as judge and jury.

Citing ongoing legal proceedings, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials declined to comment about their procedures. Eddie Perez, public affairs liaison for ports of entry in Brownsville, would not say much, either. “CBP officials are not at liberty to discuss any cases under litigation,” he told the Observer. Perez said the issues can be difficult for customs officers to deal with. “We try to cover every base. We want to make sure every person we process is clear to enter,” he said. “Sometimes that process is long; sometimes it is short.”

For Yuliana and Laura Nancy Castro, the process has been long. Since their ordeal at the international bridge, a federal judge has granted the sisters permission to re-enter the United States, where they live with their husbands. But they can no longer visit their mother and extended family in Matamoros. Christmas and New Year’s were gloomy holidays, they say, spent around the dinner table in Laura Nancy’s Brownsville apartment, cut off from the celebrations of their Mexican family. Their mother is depressed, family members say, and has trouble eating. The separation has been especially tough on Laura Nancy, who was pregnant when she was denied entry and last month gave birth to a daughter. “My mother has not seen the baby,” she says, “only photos my husband has taken of her.”

Her husband and 3-year-old son, Polo, can still visit Trinidad Castro. Laura Nancy has trouble explaining to Polo why she can’t accompany them. “I tell Polo, ‘I can’t go. I am going to the doctor.’ I am always at the doctor,” she says.

Her son does not understand. Her teenage niece does. She planned to have her quinceañera this month. The coming-of-age ceremony is held on a girl’s 15th birthday. Her niece, Elvira Alexandra, had a band and dance hall booked in Matamoros, but she doesn’t want to have the party without her aunts, whom she calls her second mothers.

“Now the date is open,” says the girl’s mother, Maribel Ramirez de Castro. “It may seem like little changes, but they really affect your life.”

As published May 13, 2010

Photo by Jazmine Ulloa

 

Boy struggling for life now faces mom’s deportation

By Jazmine Ulloa
The Brownsville Herald
 
Angel de Jesus Barrera will turn 3 next month. But at 22 pounds and eight ounces, he is fighting for his life as his mother faces deportation later this month.

He was born with congenital craniofacial dysmorphism, an abnormality in fetus development, which left part of his cranium and face disfigured. Barrera looks more like a 1-year-old given his size and weight. He has a whole list of medical conditions, some of which include Down’s syndrome, scoliosis, mental retar dation, seizure disorder and a serious case of glaucoma that recently caused the removal of his left eye.

Any infection could prove fatal, doctors say. Every medical and physical treatment is critical. But whether Barrera makes his next doctor’s appointment in Houston at the end of this month depends not only on his delicate state. It hinges on his mother’s immigration status.

Alma Lerma, his mother, crossed into Brownsville from Matamoros illegally in 1995 and has been fighting against deportation since last year. This week, a U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement official denied her request for permission to stay in the United States for another year based on her son’s medical case.

Lerma will have to voluntarily leave the country by April 20 or be forcibly removed. She has eight children, including Barrera, all of whom were born in the United States. Their future is now uncertain.
“My son’s life is hanging by a thread,” Lerma said Friday at her home in Southmost. “Doctors have told me he will not live much longer if I take him with me to Mexico. But I do not know of anyone who can take care of him for me if I leave.”

For immigration attorneys, stories like Lerma’s are not uncommon. Applications for Stay of Deportation or Removal, the requests illegal immigrants must file for permission to stay in the United States if ordered to be deported, are rarely granted, even in cases where the applicant has a child with a severe medical condition or who is terminally ill, attorneys say.

“You submit a document, like this thick, of all the problems that the children has and all the reasons why they can’t get medical care in their home country, and you get this back,” said Jodi Goodwin, an immigration attorney in Harlingen, pointing to a copy of the one-page denial letter sent to Lerma. “It is a death sentence.”
Goodwin does not represent Lerma, but she said the response from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to Lerma’s case was all too familiar.

“This is the exact same language that I have received in every single case that I have ever requested any type of discretionary action from the government,” she said. “It is the exact same boiler plate language.”

What is discretion?

All illegal immigrants ordered deported from the United States can file the Application for Stay of Deportation or Removal, or form I-246. A U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement officer evaluates the applications on a case-by-case basis and decides whether to enforce the law against an individual, using “his (or her) own discretion based on the circumstances of their case,” said Nina Pruneda, spokeswoman for U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement.

Individuals granted permission to stay in the country have cases that warrant a “favorable action of discretion” and meet the following criteria: the person’s removal is not imminent; the person is not a flight risk; the person is not a threat to national security and family safety; the person has family ties to the community.
Since January 2009, 76 people have filed the form for stay of deportation. One application is still pending, 26 have been approved, Pruneda said.

Lerma first filed I-246 form last April, after she was detained at the U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint in Sarita on her way to take her son to a Houston hospital for surgery. She was granted permission to stay in the United States for a year.

But last month, Lerma’s attorney, Jaime Diez, sent a packet to the federal immigration agency with Barrera’s medical documents and reasons why Lerma should be allowed to stay with her son for another year. He explained Barrera’s condition had not changed. The boy is still on numerous medications and uses a feeding tube to eat and an oxygen tank to breathe. He also stated Barrera needs the care of a nurse at his home
nearly every day.

The denial response faxed back to Diez on Wednesday stated no reason why Lerma’s application was denied.
“I have carefully reviewed your request and your client’s immigration history. Your supporting documentation was given full consideration. I have conducted an inquiry into your request and based on the documentation reviewed, I have determined that your client’s case does not warrant a favorable action of discretion,” stated the letter signed by ICE Field Office Director, Michael J. Pitts.

Due to the federal immigration agency’s privacy policy, Pruneda said she could not “provide any particulars regarding the individual’s case.”

Lack of discretion

Part of the reason, federal immigration officials limit their use of discretionary action is because it has been so “flagrantly abused” in the past, said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank in Washington D.C. that favors tighter control on immigration. Through illegal immigration reform legislation in 1996, Congress tightened the flexibility of the system, he said.

“We had and still have an immigration policy that is just a collection of lots of exceptions,” he said. “With immigration lawyers committed almost fanatically to opposing immigration enforcement, it is hard to allow that flexibility (in the immigration system) because they will take advantage of it, and they do, all the time.”
Those who have suffered from what Krikorian described as immigration attorneys’ and judges’ “exploitation of loopholes” are “the people who need flexibility the most.”

But immigration attorneys said the mentality of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to fill deportation quotas is tearing families apart and affecting the most vulnerable, hundreds of thousands of children. Like Lerma, many illegal parents ordered for deportation have no criminal history, attorneys said.

“Legally, technically, under the law, are those people here illegally? They are,” Goodwin said. “But legally, technically, under the law is that the kind of person you want to deport? Our country, which is based on family values, wants to leave children without parents when they are terminally sick?”

Once parents’ requests to stay in country are denied, Goodwin continues to fight for their cases pro bono, often filing motions to reopen their cases based on an asylum theory, which has kept her clients in the United States.

But she says she has never won a case; the proceedings only “drag on and on and on.” She has worked on some client cases that have lasted for nearly 10 years.

“Those are the cases that really make me depressed,” Goodwin said. “You want to fix their problem but a lot of times fixing their problem is not winning their cases, it is losing it as slowly as possible.”

Angel’s future

Lerma, 32, crossed illegally into Brownsville from Matamoros, where she was born, when she was seven months pregnant with her first daughter. She wanted to escape what she described as an abusive relationship with her former husband. She is currently unemployed and Medicaid covers all the medical expenses for her son.

Doctors first told Lerma the boy was going to have a congenital disorder five months into her pregnancy. They suggested abortion, but she said she wanted “to give him a chance at life.”

When he was born, they did not bring the baby to Lerma right away because they said he looked “like a little monster,” she said. And within hours of his birth, he was flown by helicopter to a hospital in Corpus Christi, where doctors “gave him minutes, hours to live.”

“They only brought him to me for a few minutes to say good-bye because he might not ever wake up from the surgery,” she said. “They told me to be strong.”

Almost three years later, Barrera is now interacting and can acknowledge the world around him, said Dr. Elsa Mendoza, who has served as the child’s primary pediatric physician since birth.

He smiles when his mother kisses him. He attempts to wave when someone says his name. In the last four months, he has also begun to grab his toys and is now learning to sit himself up.

“We have made a difference in the child’s life,” Mendoza said. She is unsure if in Mexico he would be able to receive the best care but moving him out of the United States is certainly not the best option, she said.

But leaving him in the United States on his own is also putting the child in danger. The child’s prognosis is poor, and the doctor says, “he would not be able to survive in the United States without his mother.”

As published on April 10, 2010

 

U-visa applicants mired in bureaucracy

By Jazmine Ulloa
The Brownsville Herald
 
He erupted in rage one night, slamming her against the wall while she wrapped her arms around her stomach in an effort to protect her womb. He stormed through their home, yelling, cursing, “breaking everything in sight,” she recalls.

When he left, shattered glass and tears were riddled across the floor. She called the police, then made the decision — perhaps the toughest she has ever made — to press charges against her husband. An immigrant woman from the small Mexican town of Silacayoapan, she had no legal documents, no steady income, no family members nearby.

“I felt I had nowhere to go, that he was my only salvation, that without him, I could not do anything,” she says, taking a deep breath. But she had been six months pregnant, and her son, then 16 years old, had witnessed the abuse.

Though she did not know it then, the police report she filed that night in 2006 would become her way out. By coming forward to the authorities, the immigrant woman, who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation from her husband, became eligible for a U Visa, a temporary legal status for victims of violent crime in the United States who cooperate in criminal investigations.

The visa was created through the Victims of Violence and Trafficking Act in 2000 to encourage a vulnerable immigrant population to report crime without fear of deportation. But it took seven years for the Department of Homeland Security to issue the regulations that would govern the application process, a delay that has mired legal services agencies aiding visa petitioners in a bureaucratic tangle.

From 2000 until October 2007, while the rules were under negotiation, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services did not grant the visa, but “interim relief,” which had to be renewed every year and authorized work and travel but not legal status.

Next week, the interim relief period ends — meaning that by then, all who have qualified for the temporary status should have filed their paperwork again under the new application process.

That has tied back legal service agencies in the last two years. Before the formal rules were established, agencies had created their own forms, working out the process as they went along, said Celestino Gallegos, an immigration attorney at Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid in Edinburg.

“It was a piecemeal, time-consuming process,” he said, and in a way “revictimized” immigrants by its sluggishness and unpredictability. Now the new regulations require additional documentation or records that some petitioners no longer have, putting victims through another long process, Gallegos said.

“Congress intended for victims to have immigration relief. I do not think Congress intended for them to be bogged down in red tape,” he said. “It should have been, from the very get-go, a simple process.”

Some immigration advocates said bureaucratic reshuffling after Sept. 11 caused the delay in regulations, others said the change in administration has now accelerated the process. But establishing criteria and training for immigration officials was a complex procedure, which took time, said Chris Rhatigan, spokeswoman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

The national immigration agency is making progress, she said. It can grant visas for up to 10,000 petitioners plus family members each fiscal year, according to the limit set by Congress. While a little more than 50 were approved in 2008, about 6,000 were approved the following year, Rhatigan said. This year, the agency has begun to process more than 11,000 requests.

“We really have done a tremendous effort to reach out to those people who have not responded to our request for supplemental information (for the visa application),” she said.

Proyecto Libertad, an immigration legal services agency in Harlingen, has helped about 80 petitioners qualify for the visa and, like other area service agencies, has dozens of more applications pending. Despite the backlog, Juan Rios, an assistant coordinator at Proyecto, urged people not to become discouraged.

“We are helping people, not at the rhythm we want, not at the level the community is demanding,” he said. “But we want people to still come in and ask questions and to know what rights they have.”

Immigrants also should not be afraid to report crime to the authorities, said Cameron County Sheriff Omar Lucio. Law enforcement officials have viewed the U Visa program with skepticism in the past, believing it encouraged some to exaggerate crimes or create scams. But on the positive side, the program is a way for authorities to build trust among immigrant communities, Lucio said.

“People can come here and report a crime and they will not be questioned about their citizenship,” he said.

Like the woman from Silacayoapan, at least three-fourths of applicants from across the country and more than half in the Rio Grande Valley have been victims of domestic violence, according to immigration services agencies.

For many women, the choice to call the police comes with great pain, Maria Salas Aquino said. She endured an abusive relationship for more than a decade before she finally reported her husband to the authorities.

Her husband’s blows were first psychological, she says. He took away her pride, her beauty and her self-worth. The physical abuse followed.

She thought he would change — that she could change him. And she had withstood it all, she recalls, even his addiction to cocaine. But seeing him wring her teenage child’s shirt and lift him off the ground one day in June tore her apart.

She dialed 9-1-1 and arrived at local women’s shelter soon after. There, she learned she could apply for a U Visa even though she and her husband were in the country illegally.

The process was long, but it opened doors, Aquino said. The day she got her first job at a local tortilleria, she cried out of joy.

“At the shelter, we would have night discussions. We would think, ‘poor him,’ ‘poor him.’ That is when we learned to think, ‘poor me,’ why should I tolerate this?” she said. “I am very happy now, my children are safe. I am grateful.”

As published Jan. 24, 2010

 

Mexican citizens looking for sanctuary

By Jazmine Ulloa
The Brownsville Herald
 
A middle-aged woman was driving along a busy street in Matamoros on her way to visit family, when she passed a Soriana grocery store barricaded by a throng of Mexican soldiers and vehicles. Gunshots cracked in the distance.

She kept her eyes on the road and pressed on the gas, following what many Mexican citizens consider unspoken policy: Look away. Mind your own business. Keep your mouth shut.

“These things don’t come out in the newspapers,” said the woman, who works as a housemaid in Brownsville and asked her name not be used out of concern for her family’s safety.

In recent months, she and other residents say, sporadic shootouts in broad daylight, like this one, seem to have become more common in Matamoros, once one of the quieter cities along the Texas-Mexico border.

With little trust in authorities and few reports from the media, it is difficult for Mexican residents to discern what is fact from hearsay. But to be caught in the crossfire is a legitimate fear, families say — even more distressing, is constantly seeing their schools shut down, their news outlets silenced and their streets blockaded by Mexican soldiers and military trucks.

Such concerns are driving Matamoros families away from the border city and into the Rio Grande Valley, residential and commercial real estate agents said. The migration follows a steady stream of Mexican nationals, including journalists, officials and business leaders, who have relocated to the United States since Mexican President Felipe Calderón launched a sweeping battle against drug cartels in 2006.

But families from Matamoros have only been moving to the Valley in higher numbers since last year, real estate agents said. And some brokers noted calls from Mexican nationals had become even more frequent in the last six months.

“They call and tell me, ‘I need (a home) fast. I want to take my children out of school. There is too much danger here,’ ” said Sandy Lee Galvan, a real estate agent with Century 21 Johnston Company in Brownsville. “Many want to pay cash upfront.”

‘Violence escalates, migration escalates’

Drug war violence along the Mexican side of the lower Texas borderline began to intensify in late February, first after a bloody turf battle erupted between the Gulf Cartel and its former armed wing, the Zetas, and now has amplified as drug cartel men increase their assaults against the Mexican army.

“As the violence escalates, the migration escalates,” said Mary McGowan, broker and owner of All Star Realty in Brownsville.

Real estate agents are taking inquiries from Matamoros, Monterrey, Victoria and Valle Hermoso, and even from families living farther in the interior of Mexico. Many Mexican nationals are not stopping in the Valley but choosing to go farther north, to San Antonio or Austin, and even into other states, agents said.

But those who do stay prefer gated communities and condos throughout Brownsville and Rancho Viejo. Near McAllen, the sweetest deals are in the Sharyland community, said Leanne Richards, broker for Trendsetters Realty in McAllen.

“Everyone wants to get their children into the Sharyland school district,” said Richards, who has worked in real estate in the Valley since 1994. In the past, Richards recalls few Mexican families calling in to inquire about homes in the area. When they did buy, it took time and they purchased expensive $500,000 homes, she said.

Now people are buying properties costing between $80,000 to $120,000 because they want to move out soon. Many also choose to rent.

“They tell me, ‘We are not going back to Mexico, we are afraid,’” Richards said.

The high number of asylum applications from Mexico in part shows this increase in migration. The number of people applying for asylum under “credible fear of persecution,” jumped from 179 in 2007 to 312 in 2008, and increased again slightly to 338 in 2009. These figures were based on people who pleaded for asylum at the nation’s southern ports of entry, according to U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Separate statistics collected from U.S. immigration courts showed an increase in the number of asylum petitions from Mexico in the first two years since Calderón initiated the drug war offensive, from 2,793 applications in 2006 to 3,459 in 2008, according to the Executive Office for Immigration Review under the U.S. Department of Justice. But the number of petitions dropped to 2,816 in 2009.

Hard to keep count

Nonetheless, tracking the number of people coming into the Valley, Texas or the United States from Mexico out of fear is difficult, experts said. No agency seems to be keeping count.

Part of the reason is because the way Mexican families are moving into the country runs the gamut. Some Mexican nationals have double citizenship, others apply for investor visas or asylum, and some come in illegally.

To judge the economic impact, thus, is much tougher. But Howard Campbell, professor of anthropology at the University of Texas at El Paso points to Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, as an example.

Between 30,000 to 500,000 people have fled from Juarez to the United States, according to estimates based on the number of abandoned homes and the assumed number of people per household, he said. The number may be exaggerated, and it is uncertain how many of these people reside in the bordering city of El Paso, “but the impact is tangible. You can see it,” Campbell said.

“It is very sad and tragic but the suffering in Juarez is contributing to the economic stimulus of El Paso,” he said. “There is also a cultural side. There is a sort of rejuvenation and reincarnation of Mexican culture in the United States.”

Many of the people fleeing Juarez are some of the wealthiest in the city and have injected a lot of money into El Paso’s economy, the professor added.

Business boom

Real estate agents in the Valley said Mexican nationals moving in are helping keep the housing market afloat. Richards, for instance, estimated Mexican nationals to make up between 40 to 50 percent of Trendsetters’ clientele in Hidalgo county.

Many families also are “realizing it is a great time to make investments in the United States,” said Norma Rasco, a real estate agent with Rancho Viejo Realty.

“Mexican nationals are cash buyers, and in this economy, cash is king,” she said.

The stimulus is true of business in the Valley as well, financial leaders said. Larry Jokl, a commercial real estate agent with Brownsville Real Estate Management Company, said he helped six Mexican clients move their businesses to the Valley last year.

“In the first three months of this year, I have had a dozen clientele from Mexico who have looked to locate their businesses here, two of whom already have,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Brownsville Economic Development Council has hosted about half a dozen prospects, or companies serious to relocate in Brownsville, from Mexico since January. On any given year, that number would have been about two, said Gilbert Salinas, spokesman for the city’s development council.

“A recurring theme has been that due to security issues in their country, they are now putting their plans on a fast track to break into the U.S. markets,” he said. “Business men and women always have that — breaking into the U.S. market — in the back of their mind. Now they are making it a priority.”

As published April 3, 2010

 

Adelante

Adelante was created in the Fall of 2006 by the Hispanic Student Journalists Association at the University of Texas at Austin with the goal of covering Latina/o issues often overlooked by traditional media outlets. A new and unique voice on campus, the small staff of eight operated out of a single laptop.

As editor in chief, I wrote, edited, shot photos and designed pages. By Spring 2008, I organized a team of four to cover the U.S.-Mexico Border Fence in Brownsville, Texas. At the time, increased border security since 9/11, the passing of the Secure Fence Act of 2006 and the simmering demand for immigration reform had shifted the nation’s focus to its southern border. The negative debates were affecting all Latinos – regardless of their legal status – and often dehumanized the “in-between” place many call home. We set out to produce a print and web issue to counter the prevailing narrative.

Check out our work here.