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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.

The Kings and Queens of Brownsville

By Jazmine Ulloa

Texas Co-op Power Magazine

When it comes to chess, students in Texas’ southernmost border town make all the right moves

With foldable chessboards in small, oblong bags slung over their shoulders, armies of excited children squeeze through the halls of Filemon B. Vela Middle School on a winter Saturday morning. Everywhere, coaches, teachers and volunteers shuffle groups back and forth from one corridor to the next to gaming areas set up throughout the small campus in Brownsville. Alongside follow mothers and fathers, cousins and grandparents, aunts, uncles and anyone else the competitors’ families have invited to the annual Chess of Champions, one of 10 major chess tournaments held for students in kindergarten through high school in this border city.

Brownsville, with a population exceeding 175,000, sprawls along the southernmost tip of Texas in the Rio Grande Valley. The lush city with tropical temperatures and palm-fringed, artificial lakes, known locally as resacas, attracts avid bird-watchers from around the world and serves as a winter home for thousands of retirees—typically from the Midwest and the North—dubbed Winter Texans or “snowbirds.”
But the city lies in an impoverished area, where the median household income is roughly $30,000, about 95 percent of students are considered economically disadvantaged and 34 percent have limited proficiency in English. When Brownsville and other cities in the Valley make national headlines, it is usually in connection with the politics of immigration or the atrocities of the drug war only a stone’s throw away in Mexico.

Yet, over the past two decades, a different story has attracted the attention of major media outlets, including Texas Monthly, The New York Times, CBS and HBO, as they chronicle the legacy of chess as a phenomenon in the region and the burgeoning of some of the world’s newest young talent.

At national championships, schools from the Brownsville Independent School District have placed among the top five in team competition since 2005. At the state level, they have dominated the Texas Scholastic Championships chess competition, winning about a dozen first-place slots at the elementary, middle and high school levels since 1993.
Tournaments like the one at Vela Middle School are family affairs. Parents, relatives and community members pitch in to raise money, contribute team snacks and meals—be it breakfast tacos or lasagna—and pack schools during competitions, so much so that in some instances, police have even been called out to unsnarl traffic jams.

At Vela, the parking lot is filled to the brink, and cars spill onto the side streets, parked brazenly under “No Parking” signs. Inside the gym, the commotion amplifies. Players search for their places among rosters taped to the walls and press their way through rows and rows of numbered, brown cafeteria tables. Hundreds of chessboards, checkered forest green and white, deck their surfaces, pieces at the ready: rooks biding time to topple kings, queens waiting to capture knights.

Gertrude Sharp Elementary School second-grader Eduardo Campella Rodriguez, or “Campy” as his friends call him, climbs onto his assigned metal chair. He sits on his knees to get a full view of the chessboard in front of him. The pint-sized 8-year-old with bright, chestnut eyes and a quick wit isn’t nervous, he says. Not yet. So far, he has always won his first round. “Maybe by the fourth or fifth I will be, but I get more confident when I win,” he later says with a sheepish smile.

He is good at winning, too. He beams when his teachers list his victories. He placed second in his division at his first national chess tournament. He was 5 then, and in kindergarten. But Campy’s triumph for such a young child does not surprise most Valley educators or chess coaches. There is no mystery—and more to it than luck—behind what has led to the rise of young chess stars like Campy.
It’s due to hard, hard work. It’s due to community effort. “To me, it comes down to expectations,” says Juliet V. Garcia, president of the University of Texas at Brownsville. Children from the Valley, predominantly Hispanic, are often clumped into stereotypes and assigned government labels, such as at-risk or low-income. But when it comes to the game of chess, educators and parents impel them to succeed—and they thrive.
“It’s a pretty powerful change of a paradigm,” she says.

Chess: What the Cool Kids Play

J.J. Guajardo has told this story at least 600 times to friends, family members and dozens of reporters, he estimates, chuckling. But he does not mind sharing it again. It is inspirational, he says, one of the few positive tales told about Brownsville, where the good is often overlooked or forgotten.
School officials and parents consider Guajardo the father of the city’s chess movement. He’s a figure they revere along the lines of Jaime Escalante, a Los Angeles high school teacher whose mentoring of at-risk students turned a failing calculus program into one of the nation’s best. The true story played out in the 1988 film “Stand and Deliver.”
But Guajardo, a soft-spoken, large man with kind eyes, is more modest. On a warm November night, sporting a Hawaiian shirt and a brown, tweed flat cap, he sits with his wife at a small pub in McAllen, a large Valley city about an hour from Brownsville. He is honored by the Hollywood comparisons, he says, but prefers the focus stay on the students. “I don’t think I picked chess,” Guajardo says. “Chess picked me.”

He was a teacher at Brownsville’s Russell Elementary School in 1989 when several children in his rambunctious group of sixth-graders were believed to have broken the gym coach’s vinyl square dance records as part of a prank. No outright accusations were made, Guajardo recalls, but the episode brought the principal marching into his classroom.
The principal urged him to create an extracurricular program that could keep the group of high-energy students busy in the mornings and stop them from causing trouble. She suggested chess.

Chess. The art form—or sport (it is often debated which)—is known as the “royal game,” in which the pieces, kings and queens, bishops and pawns, are moved across a checkered board to attack and capture. Its history spans centuries, a pastime popular among the echelons of the elite who have mastered the skills of strategy and analytical thought.
And Guajardo was charged with introducing all of this to a group of children who could barely keep still. But his students showed an interest, and he taught them how to play, even though he only knew the basics. All of the children built upon the foundations Guajardo taught them, and later, they could win in a match against their instructor.
The students raised about $500 (Guajardo paid most of it out of his own pocket) to attend their first state championship in Austin in the spring of 1990, he recalls with a proud smile. They did not win that year. But they did win two school years later—and every time after that for the next seven consecutive years.

Like the students, Guajardo improved with practice and started organizing competitions at the school. “I started learning the nuances of the game and how to run a tournament, how to read a wall chart, how to make sure the pairings were correct, and we began to become more sophisticated as we participated,” he remembers.
The chess team at Russell Elementary also gained participants, growing from a dozen students to more than 50 after the team won its first school title. Soon the school’s competitions were drawing hundreds. Students from across the country wanted to travel to Brownsville for a chance to compete against Russell players, and newspapers throughout the region began featuring its hometown heroes, Guajardo says. Chess became what the cool kids did.

Kings and Queens on Campus

Guajardo resigned as Russell Elementary’s chess coach in 1999, but the movement he spurred continued forward. More schools in the Brownsville school district and private schools across the area developed chess programs.

In 1999, Morningside Elementary School gripped media attention when a group of second- and third-graders placed second in the national championships. It was the first time a school from Brownsville had made it that far.

“And it really just took off. We started with six kids, and by the time we left Morningside, we had well over 100 kids playing chess,” says Rusty Harwood, one of three second-grade teachers at the time who, inspired by Guajardo’s success, started the chess team. Harwood, who now serves as the director for the chess program at The University of Texas at Brownsville, went on to teach at Americo Paredes Elementary in 2001. There, he helped start another chess team that advanced to win seven national titles through the years, including six under his direction.

The community rallied behind the students’ successes, and the chess movement grew into a citywide effort, with students and faculty working with families and local businesses to raise funds for tournaments and trips. For many children who had never left Brownsville, traveling to state and national competitions allowed them to explore other parts of the country for the first time. Parents later banded together to gain financial support from Brownsville ISD. Now, the program operates on an annual budget of $400,000.

As the program soared, UTB President Garcia was among its major proponents. While on a visit to Washington, D.C., to serve as chair of the Advisory Committee to Congress on Financial Aid, she told then-U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley about Morningside Elementary’s 1999 feat. It became the first example of success cited by Riley in his speech titled “State of the Union Address for Hispanic Education.”

And when a former college student approached her with the idea of launching a chess program at UTB, Garcia says she did not have to think about it twice. “It felt absolutely natural,” she says of drawing upon an existing pool of students who were quickly surpassing the levels of their instructors and seeking a higher platform to which to advance.

When the UTB chess team formed, one of its loftiest ambitions was beating The University of Texas at Dallas, known for its success at the national level. Now the college students are going head-to-head with Ivy League students from Harvard and Yale: UTB teams have advanced three times to Final Four competition—the country’s topmost collegiate tournament sanctioned by the United States Chess Federation—and have placed in the top five four times at the Pan American Intercollegiate Team Chess Championships, the foremost intercollegiate team chess competition in the Americas.

Better training at the university level also has since trickled down to younger students, school officials say. The area had no grandmasters, the highest title a player can attain in chess, back in the 1990s when Guajardo’s students first started taking state titles. Now, the UTB chess team, including its coach, boasts four of roughly 1,250 grandmasters in the world.

Future Moves

School officials say they do not see enthusiasm for the game ever fizzling out in Brownsville. With university players now serving as coaches, and with former Brownsville ISD students returning to teach, younger students are developing increasingly higher skills.

Chess competitors in the Valley now span the ages. Most train in free, afterschool lessons held three to four times a week. Before violence escalated in Mexico, some families crossed over into Matamoros, only a few minutes’ trip across one of the city’s three international bridges, where they could pay less for coaching than on the U.S. side. There are still some brave enough to try, like the family of 12-year-old Edgar Santoyo, who was featured on HBO’s Real Sports. But most stick to private tutors and computer programs designed to increase proficiency, school officials say.

Many outsiders are amazed upon learning that Brownsville students are so good at chess. Back in the day, Guajardo remembers, intimidated opponents would spread rumors that students practiced instead of going to class—of course, that was not true, he assures. School leaders have more realistic theories; bilingual students, for instance, could have an edge when learning chess because it is a lot like learning another language.

To Garcia, the most important piece, she says, is that educators need to do a better job of tapping into students’ potential. “The discussion is not really about chess, is it?” she asks. “It’s about how the brain really works and how expectations work and how then, why aren’t we able to translate the success children are having in chess into other disciplines?”

Yet some educators have seen chess help students in other areas. It boosts self-confidence and develops high critical-thinking and memory skills, school officials say, requiring players to recognize and memorize elaborate patterns of attack. Teachers and coaches attest to students’ improvements in academics as well, noting higher state standardized testing scores.

And chess also teaches students life lessons, Guajardo says. “One of the basic rules of the game is ‘touch move,’” he explains. “That means that if you touch a piece, you have to move that piece. You can’t take it back.”

You can’t say, “Never mind.” So the children sit on their hands, until they absolutely know what their next move will be and can commit to it. They learn the virtue of patience and to calculate, to predict outcomes, to be self-sufficient. “They learn how to succeed using their own wit, without anyone’s help,” Guajardo says. “Because in chess, you are all alone out there.”

Across the street from Vela Middle School sits Cameron Park, a colonia, or humble neighborhood, considered one of the most impoverished areas in the nation.
But the disparities and struggles of the outside world seem far removed from the classroom where several children have their chessboards laid out on the floor, enthralled in last-minute practice sessions before their next match.

As published June 2012

The Working Life: Mina Thornton, 47

Thornton opened Tres Hermanos Ropa Usada thirteen years ago in Hidalgo. As president of the 25-employee business, she buys ropa usada, or used clothing, from around the country and resells it in South Texas and throughout Mexico.
As told to Jazmine Ulloa
Texas Monthly
People always ask, “Does this color look good on me?” I never ask. There’s not a color I won’t wear. I’ve liked clothes since I was a little girl. I’d always mix and match shades and patterns. But I was the youngest of ten, and my parents could only afford to give us so much. So I grew up to be resourceful, even as I sought out expensive brands. I remember how, after those rare trips to the mall, my sisters would come home with double the number of outfits that I did. I was particular. I preferred having fewer garments of higher value.

I still choose quality over quantity. I don’t have a closet full of shoes. I don’t wear many accessories. I keep it simple, classy. That’s what guides my ropa usada philosophy. Used clothing has long been a thriving industry in Hidalgo and all over the Rio Grande Valley. Like other ropa usada dealers, I buy my secondhand clothing by the pound from all over the country; I then sell the bales internationally, mostly in Mexico. But I also sell some of the clothes at my store. While most vendors traditionally focus on either selling wholesale, by the truckload, or retail, in a storefront, I was one of the first store owners in the city to do both.

Full story.

As published in the October 2011 issue

Photo by David Strohl


The Working Life: Jody Blackburn, 45

Blackburn is the founder of the Magick Circle, in Brownsville, where he offers card readings, cleansings, and spiritual healing.
As told to Jazmine Ulloa
Texas Monthly
I FIRST LEARNED ABOUT folk healing from an elderly woman in my neighborhood named Rita. None of our neighbors in Brownsville liked her much. They called her la bruja. The witch. I was nine then and living with my father and grandparents, just down the block from her home. My grandparents would chide me for visiting her. There were lots of stories, like that she knew black magic and used it on ill-behaved children.
But I had a strange desire to be around her, and as we became friends, I realized that the rumors were just misconceptions. What I remember most about Rita are the plants she used to grow in pots inside her house and around the backyard. She taught me to connect with herbs, to know their scents, feel their textures. I learned how to brew ointments and concoct “kitchen witch” recipes with foods and teas. She taught me that every person, every animal, every plant has its own energy.

Full story.

As published in the March 2011 issue

Photo by Kenny Braun


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


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


Proposal calls for upscale businesses

By Jazmine Ulloa
The Brownsville Herald

Ropa usada stores are ubiquitous in downtown Brownsville. They are the hole-in-the-wall places where shoppers rummage through bundles of second-hand clothes to the murmur of portable fans, items are often sold by the pound, and bargains can be negotiated.

But these run-down little shops might not mesh well with revitalization plans the city is considering for the area. The city’s planning consortium, United Brownsville, is looking to transform downtown into a tourist draw and a cultural and economic boon for the city. And that signals the need to attract more upscale businesses to the area.

In the works is a proposal to create an entertainment district centered on Adams Street/Market Square. City leaders aim to spur the development of entertainment along the street by cutting fees for coffeehouses, brewpubs, bars, dancehalls, nightclubs and restaurants among other approved establishments.

The city will not shutter ropa usada stores by mandate. But with the revitalization plan, rents are expected to increase to the point where many vendors will be forced to shut their doors. If a ropa usada shop closes, another will not be allowed to open in its place, as second-hand clothing stores are not on the list of approved entertainment establishments for the area.

Still, many ropa usada vendors along Adams Street said they welcome the proposal, even if they have to close their stores. As Nena Garza, manager of Nena Ropa Usada, said, “It may affect our businesses, but the district, if it ever is created, would be an overall good for the city.”

Others, however, lamented the demise of the used-clothing trade in Brownsville, which once thrived and sparked an entire culture, where small-time entrepreneurs with backyard businesses in Matamoros and Reynosa would come to buy clothes, rubbing shoulders with big-time traders with space at large flea markets in Mexico City who were on the same mission.

Maria Rangel, a cashier at RYB Ropa Usada, said she was skeptical the high-end businesses city leaders were hoping to attract would even survive the tough economic climate. Like other used-clothing retailers in downtown, most of her customers are Mexican nationals, many with large families and low incomes.

“They are looking for cheap stores where they can buy clothes for the whole family. If you bring in all these expensive stores, they are going to be empty,” Rangel said. “If we have to close these secondhand stores, it would be outrageous.”

The only large retail chain that has opened downtown in recent years has been Ross, whose catch-phrase epitomizes what this demographic is looking for: “Dress For Less.”
Virtually all the used-clothing vendors said business has been tough the last few years. Increasingly stringent immigration policies at international bridges and escalating violence in Matamoros have discouraged many families from making shopping trips to the United States.

Marta Hinajosa, co-manager of Hinajosa’s Ropa Usada, said she and her sister have already been planning to move their store out of downtown and deeper into the city because of the drop in sales.
“The (ropa usada) business in the city is just not what it used to be,” said Hinajosa.

Some vendors pointed to dismal sales as further evidence that downtown revitalization plans need to go forward. Maria Cordova opened Sueños Outlet just a few months ago and barely makes ends meet, she said. But if the rent goes up and she too closes her doors, she said she would be flexible enough to open an entertainment business.

“I think the district will inspire other people to open different kinds of businesses other than ropa usada stores,” she said.

Miguel Tavera, owner of Supertienda Miguelina II, said he too would be quick to adapt. Brownsville needs an entertainment district like 17th Street in McAllen or 6th Street in Austin, he said. It would give the city an economic lift and bring a new customer base to downtown, including many young people.

“We do not need to frighten ourselves — progress is good,” he said.

As published July 02, 2010

Municipal judge released from psychiatric facility

By Jazmine Ulloa
The Brownsville Herald

A Brownsville municipal judge was ordered released Monday afternoon from a mandatory stay at a psychiatric facility, where he had been held since his arrest earlier in January.

In a two-day hearing, Municipal Judge Phil Bellamy was found to be mentally unstable, but a Cameron County judge said there was not enough evidence to suggest he would be a danger to himself or others if he were released.

“Mr. Bellamy, I am concerned about you…Whether you agree or not, it does not matter, but I do think you need some serious help on this. I hope that you, for the sake of your family and yourself, get these things straightened out,” Cameron County Court-at-Law No. 3 Judge Menton Murray Jr. said at Monday’s continuation hearing.

Bellamy, 46, had been at Valley Baptist Medical Center East Campus since Jan. 11, when Brownsville police officers arrested him after a customer service dispute at Sam’s Club, according to court testimony. Police said he was taken into custody on charges of disorderly conduct and terroristic threats for arguing with two Sam’s employees and a manager and yelling expletives before leaving the store.

At the hearing, psychiatrists testified that Bellamy had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and described his refusal to take medications, “flight of ideas” and manic episodes of “grandiosity,” in which Bellamy likened himself to fictional characters Spock and Spongebob.

Daniel Villarreal, the lead psychiatrist at the medical center, testified that Bellamy had tried to escape from the facility last week and had made several threats to sue hospital staff. Francisco Torres, another psychiatrist at the medical center, said Bellamy had been aggressive and irritable, describing one instance in which Bellamy tried to prevent staff from treating another patient.

But in an impassioned response, Bellamy defended his behavior, claiming the medical facility maltreated patients and forced them to take psychoactive drugs they had a right not to accept.

“I was acting like a caged animal, which is exactly what I was, held against my will, brought in unconstitutionally and illegally,” Bellamy said, when asked about the day he was first transported to the medical center.

And although Bellamy had expressed outrage, not once had he tried to cause another person bodily injury, said Noe Garza, Bellamy’s attorney. Threats against hospital staff, for example, had been legal not physical, Garza said.

Bellamy said in court he would set up appointments with two of his own doctors upon his release. It is still unclear whether he will return to his position as a municipal judge. But City Manager Charlie Cabler said part-time judges are handling his cases to allow the city to make a decision.

“We are going to have to evaluate the situation,” Cabler said. “We are giving him time to handle his personal situation right now and any concerns he may have. We need to make sure he can handle the operation of a municipal court.”

As published Jan. 25, 2010

Photo by Brad Doherty