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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

 

East Austin Stories

Eastside Pride
Perla Arpero is a senior at the recently re-named Eastside Memorial High School. Eastside is a troubled school fighting for its existence and that has a profound effect on the students. Perla talks about her hopes for her school and her community. Made by Jazmine Ulloa and Rita Chapa.

La Botánica
John Cazeras is the owner of the Green and White. This East Austin landmark has changed roles over time. Formerly a neighborhood grocery store it now offers more esoteric goods, from herbs and incense to lucky candles and arcane artifacts. His clientele is growing. La India or La Mistica is one of his regular customers. She also has her own business in the store. She can break a curse or give you a reading. A film by Caitlin Diaz, Araceli Jaime, Lauren Pruitt, and Jazmine Ulloa.

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.

Women have had long-standing roles in Mexico’s illicit drug trade despite presumptions that in the country’s macho society the business has been entirely male-dominated. Many have also historically held powerful positions, though they have had to “pay their dues twice as hard” to move up the drug syndicate, officials and researchers said.

In the past, women in the narcotics trade tended to fall behind-the-scenes, but their roles have grown more prominent in recent years as their participation in all areas of the business has increased – and continues to rise.

To track the increase, researchers point to the number of women behind bars for drug-related crimes, which began to rise at alarming rates in the 1980s.

From 1990 to 1996, the number of women incarcerated for drug offenses rose by 101 percent, according to a 1997 prisoner’s report from the Federal Bureau of Statistics. Since, the increase has slowed, rising only 3 percent by 2006, as the latest figures show.

However, the Sentencing Project estimates that the annual growth of female inmates, a third of whom are incarcerated for drug offenses, is increasingly at nearly double the rate for men.

“Recently, women have been entering the business at increasing levels at every level of the drug cartel,” said Howard Campbell, anthropology professor at the University of Texas at El Paso. “But most women in the trafficking business don’t get caught. So, incarceration and indictment rates may not fully speak to the issue of who is doing it.”

He found rising numbers of women incarcerated for drug-related offenses at U.S. and Mexican prisons, increases of women dying in drug violence and interviewed dozens of women for a study published in the winter edition of the Anthropological Quarterly.

Two key reasons account for the increases: Mexican drug cartels are at large and have grown in size and profitability, while poverty in Mexico and along the border remains high, Campbell said.

Women have then been able to expand their positions in the drug trade, where many find the lucrative opportunities to move up economically. Their position can serve as a vehicle to empowerment, Campbell said.
At the highest level of drug cartels in the recent limelight have been “queen pins” Enedina Arellano Felix and Sandra Avila Beltràn. Felix is alleged to have become one of the leaders of the Tijuana cartel across California’s border after her brothers were murdered.

Beltran, dubbed the “Queen of the Pacific,” was indicted on drug charges in Florida four years ago and is said to have developed smuggling routes through Mexico for a Colombian cartel. A beautiful woman, Beltran would ask to do her make-up before her court proceedings and gained even greater fame for her haughty and arrogant behavior.

More women have also become notorious brokers and money launderers. Large sums of money are laundered in a small street in Mexico City, where beautiful women in low-cut dresses provide currency exchanges for tourists, Campbell said.

However, the majority of women continue to fall into the lowest levels of the illegal drug trade, said Correctional Program Specialist Marueen Buell of the Prison’s Division for the National Institute of Corrections.
In the business, these women are known as “sirenas,” “las sanchas” and, as in the case of the allegations against the Trevino family, “mules.”

The most expandable and most essential group is the “mules.” They are the “laborers” who run the risk of moving the illegal narcotics from Mexico into the United States.

“There are risky, huge implications for carrying drugs, but there is a susceptibility among these women because they may not be as aware of these risks or the economic circumstances are so bad at home,” said Rosalie Pacula, director of Rand’s Policy Research Center.

Although not the case for all, the majority of women who enter the lower levels of the narcotics trade tend to be poor and living in desperate conditions, said Jasmine Taylor, deputy director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. As a growing number of them become the head of the household, they must provide for their families.

“So their life situation is used as an enticement to enter this line of work,” Taylor said. “Another way they join the drug trade is by being coerced by a male actors, husbands, boyfriends.”

While women might be entering the business in higher numbers, illegal drug organizations may have also increased their use of women as drug couriers in response to past law enforcement strategies, Pacula said. As technology becomes more advanced, smugglers need to find new, creative ways to get the drugs across.
Traffickers know women can play on gender stereotypes to avoid being questioned, researchers and law enforcement officials said. Women are also told to wear sexy clothing and flirt with officials.

“There have been more women, women with children and whole families [caught smuggling],” said Capt. Jack PeÐa with the Criminal Investigations Division for the Texas Attorney General’s Office. “Drug traffickers think that they can use women to cross the drugs because they may look less suspicious. But we are checking everyone.”

However, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials said smugglers are constantly changing their methods.

During various periods, teens and even senior citizens will be used to cross narcotics, said Roger Maier, U.S. CBP public affairs officer for El Paso.

“If you happen to see more instances of females caught with drug loads recently, it may not necessarily be indicative of an overall trend because we have seen it before and we will likely see it again,” said Rick Pauza, Laredo’s U.S. CBP public affairs officer.

Whether women are being used at higher rates also depends on the region smugglers are in and possibly the drug being crossed, Pacula said. The booming Mexican city of Tijuana across from southern California, for example, has a large population of young people from which drug-traffickers draw upon, she said.

Nevertheless, as the illicit drug trade expands in profitability, women are going to take the risk to enter into the trade by their own accord, Taylor said.

“Now in the last three years, the number of women searched has increased,” she said. “But money is still a strong motivator for women to join the business.”

As published Aug. 17, 2008

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.

Other businesses are not giving customers an option when ordering.

Jason’s Deli, El Pollo Loco and Whataburger all have signs alerting customers they will not serve tomatoes until further notice. Carino’s Italian Grill has stopped using them in every dish, including salads and sauces, and Taco Palenque is only using tomatoes in their salsa, which is heated to kill bacteria.

But the city also has local fare specializing in Tex-Mex and Mexican dishes that have stopped adding tomatoes to flautas, tortas, tacos, tostadas and salsas. Customers haven’t complained, restaurant owners said.

“I’ve had no trouble with customers,” said Yolanda Barrientos, as she prepared cheeseburgers at her small taqueria on Southmost Boulevard. “In fact, they ask me not to serve them tomatoes. Who wants to get sick?”

Barrientos, owner of Taqueria Mely, said she doesn’t buy tomatoes even though some grocery stores have been authorized to sale them. Other restaurants, like Kikis2, have temporarily switched to using canned tomatoes.

“The food doesn’t taste the same,” owner Marco Martin said. “But what can I do about it?”

The Texas Department of State Health Services has confirmed 68 cases of salmonella in Texas as of June 12, according to its Web site.

Salmonella bacteria cause diarrhea and vomiting, which can lead to dehydration. The bacteria are spread by tainted soil or water and can only be killed effectively with heat.

No city ban on tomato exists because the exact source of the outbreak hasn’t been pinpointed, said Arturo Rodriquez, director of Public Health for the city. Health officials have only recommended restaurants not to use thethree types of tomatoes that have been linked to the outbreak, unless cooked at 145 degrees.

Health officials also advise consumers to properly wash tomatoes.

As published June 12, 2008

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.

“There has never been this many boats tied to the dock during this season,” Purata said in Spanish, pointing to boats along the Port of Brownsville Shrimp Basin. “We just can’t afford the fuel.”

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.

Like other industries in the United States, shrimping businesses have been hit hard by soaring fuel costs and some are finding relief, if only temporary, by filling up their tanks on Mexican shores. And it’s legal.

“The bottom line is that if we weren’t going to Mexico for fuel we would be out of business,” said Carlton Reyes, president of the Brownsville-Port Isabel Shrimp Producers Association.

Diesel fuel sells for about $2.40 per gallon at Mexican ports, half the price along U.S. coastlines, where costs can reach up to $4.20 a gallon.

Reyes owns six 18,000-gallon shrimp boats and pays $45,000 to fuel each in Tampico, Tamaulipas, as opposed to $75,000 per boat in Brownsville, he said. That saves up to $180,000 for his entire fleet.

His trip to and from Tampico takes four days and costs $5,000 to $6,500, including fuel, port and customs charges. But shrimpers travel to the city from as far as Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida, Reyes said.

Bob Jones, executive director of the Southeastern Fisheries Association in Florida, said low fuel prices in Mexico are worth the trip even for Florida shrimpers.

“It’s available to them, and I hope it’s something that a lot of them do,” he said. “They can’t fish if they have to pay $3 or $4 a gallon. We’d have 80 percent of our boats tied to the docks at that price.”

A host of factors may lie behind Mexico’s lower fuel prices, said Michelle Michot Foss, chief energy economist at the Center for Energy Economics at the University of Texas at Austin.

State-owned petroleum company Petroleos Mexicanos, or PEMEX, distributes Mexican fuel, and the government sets prices. But labor costs and environmental regulations are also less in Mexico than in the United States, Foss said. Modern refining facilities in the United States also cost more to maintain, she said.

Although crude oil is imported from Mexico and refined in the Gulf of Mexico region in the United States, there is no way to track whether the same refined products are going back into Mexico to be sold at lower prices, Foss said.

The only joint venture in which this does happen is at Deer Park Refining in Baytown, Texas. PEMEX and Shell Oil Co. have a “swap agreement,” where crude oil is processed at Shell and sent back to Mexico.

Less than 11 percent of refined diesel fuel is imported into Mexico from the United States, said Eric Potter, associate director for the Bureau of Economic Geology at UT Austin.

Before considering traveling to Mexico, local shrimpers would typically fuel up at S&S Sales shrimping company at the shrimp basin. S&S would sell 8 million to 9 million gallons of diesel fuel a year to local and outside boating companies on credit, office manager Jack Snodgrass said.

The company has not done so this year, however, because it can no longer afford enough fuel in the United States, Snodgrass said. Even its own seven shrimping boats were filled in Tampico, he said.

Without credit, some shrimpers at the port can’t buy fuel up front – not even to get to Tampico. Reyes said some 70 percent of Brownsville shrimp boats remain docked because owners can’t afford the fuel.

Meanwhile, Purata said he was lucky enough to make the trip to Tampico but would sell his boat if anyone would buy it.

“The way the situation is right now, this is isn’t a business,” Purata said. “We know March, April and May are slow, but we also know that the price of diesel fuel won’t go up that much.

“This year is a different story.”

As published June 20, 2008

Photo by Jim Rob