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After the Inferno, Undocumented Workers Find Themselves Without Federal Help

Co-published by Newsweek
Undocumented laborers who worked in Wine Country vineyards are now finding the only assistance they can hope for, following Northern California’s recent wildfires, is mostly private charity.

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Gabriel Thompson




Coffey Park, Santa Rosa. (Photo: Michael Short)

For undocumented immigrants who have lost jobs or homes in the Northern California fires, the road to stability will be especially steep. Many are ineligible for federal aid of any kind.

Co-published by Newsweek

By 11 o’clock in the morning, as smoke billowed down a nearby hillside, Tesorito began to wonder if he ought to be in the vineyards. It was Monday, October 9, and he was harvesting wine grapes near the town of Sonoma. He was accustomed to the challenges of the job: the cold mornings, the snakes that hid beneath rocks and the double shifts during harvest time, when he could labor upwards of 90 hours a week. But when he paused to look north, he saw something he’d never seen before: a wall of flames.

Tesorito pointed the flames out to his friend, Lalo, a row over. Though both men could feel the heat on their faces, they turned back to the grapes. This was la pisca—the harvest—when they were paid by the amount of fruit they clipped, so every second counted. They had left for work at 5 a.m. and hadn’t heard about the fires that had begun to spread across Sonoma and Napa counties. At one point, Tesorito realized that the flames threatened to encircle the vineyard. In an instant, he and the rest of the panicked crew bolted for their cars and raced down the bumpy country road, using their windshield wipers to push away the falling ash.

“It was crazy, absolutely crazy,” Tesorito said in Spanish. He cleared his throat, which had gone raspy. He had picked up a hacking cough from the smoke, which he couldn’t seem to shake. It was a Saturday in late October, and he and Lalo were seated on folding chairs in the middle of a school gymnasium in Santa Rosa, attending a Spanish-language meeting about resources available to people affected by the fires. They hadn’t worked in two weeks, because roads to the fields were closed.

“My rent’s due soon and I don’t have it,” Tesorito told me. The 37 year old is short and stocky, with broad shoulders and callused hands. Lalo is 58, though he looks at least 10 years younger. Collectively, the friends have spent more than two decades in California’s famed Wine Country, part of an immigrant workforce that props up the state’s $57 billion a year industry.

“Everywhere we go, people have told us, ‘If you don’t have papers, we can’t help you.’ There is nothing for us.”

Both men are undocumented Mexican immigrants, but tell me that until recently their status hasn’t been much of a concern. (“I don’t cause problems and I do good work,” said Lalo.) The fires changed that. Neither man is eligible for the various forms of federal disaster aid, which ranges from unemployment benefits to housing assistance. This was their fourth meeting in eight days of searching for anyone who might be able to help.

After sitting through the 90-minute forum, the men approached a table staffed by a representative of a local Legal Aid office and explained their predicament, but while the woman listened politely, she had no advice for them. “Everywhere we go, people have told us, ‘If you don’t have papers, we can’t help you,’” Tesorito said as he walked out. “There is nothing for us.”

Vineyard workers Tesorito and Lalo seek help at a Santa Rosa meeting. (Photo: Gabriel Thompson)Vineyard workers Tesorito and Lalo seek help at a Santa Rosa meeting. (Photo: Gabriel Thompson)

The Nuns Fire that nearly engulfed Tesorito and Lalo was the largest of the recent California wildfires, consuming 54,000 acres, destroying at least 1,300 buildings and killing two people. But it wasn’t the most destructive. The Tubbs Fire, which began outside of Calistoga and roared south into Santa Rosa, killed at least 22 people and transformed entire neighborhoods into surreal hellscapes. The various Wine Country fires turned the sky black for days and rained ash across the Bay Area, sending folks scurrying to the nearest hardware store in search of protective masks.

For undocumented immigrants who have lost jobs or homes, the road to stability will be especially steep. Many are ineligible for federal aid of any kind. Others may qualify for assistance if they have children who are U.S. citizens, but that would require turning over personal household information to the federal government.

Photo: Michael ShortPhoto: Michael Short

At the forum, one audience member asked an official from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to promise that it wouldn’t share information with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The official stated that FEMA had never done so in the past, but that he couldn’t guarantee that it wouldn’t happen in the future. Several days earlier, ICE’s acting director, Thomas Homan, released a statement that appeared to link the wildfires to the unrelated arrest of an undocumented immigrant. In response, Sonoma County Sheriff Robert Giordano slammed Homan’s statement as “inaccurate” and “inflammatory.” (Breitbart News also reported — then retracted — that the undocumented immigrant was suspected of starting the wildfires.)

The forum, which was attended by about 100 people, was held in Roseland, a neighborhood just south of downtown Santa Rosa. This is the heart of Sonoma County’s Latino community, and although the fire didn’t reach Roseland, the neighborhood has been deeply impacted. A day earlier, I had visited Roseland’s library, where dozens waited to speak to representatives of the Mexican consulate. One woman, Trinidad, said that her husband was a gardener and that the homes of half his clients had burned down. Another woman, Nayeli, cleaned five large homes; all five had burned down. It went like this down the line: dishwashers, hotel housekeepers, landscapers and nannies, all without work because their workplaces no longer existed.

Less than a mile from the library, Jonathan Bravo sorted through food donations at Bayer Farm, a community garden that has become a refuge for immigrants during the fires. “The tragedy has been immense,” said Bravo, a 63-year-old former math teacher in Mexico. “People are scared, especially our undocumented residents. We try to tell them: Don’t have fear. We are all together on the same boat.”

Several days after the fire started, Bravo and a group of volunteers began feeding meals to anyone who showed up. “We couldn’t just watch the smoke—we needed to respond,” said Bravo. On the first day, they served eggs, beans and handmade tortillas to 30 people. The next day, they fed 80. Since then, they’ve dished out three meals daily to an average of 250 people, all cooked by volunteers. As word about the meals spread, donations started to arrive: organic produce from the food bank, bread from a local bakery, checks to defray the costs of running what amounts to a restaurant for the unemployed.

One recent donation came from the Graton Day Labor Center, located in the small town of Graton, west of Santa Rosa. “We serve the people who fall through every safety net—the day laborers and the domestic workers,” said director Christy Lubin. On the other side of the office, a group of men chatted quietly in Spanish, hoping to be sent out. “We’ve only dispatched 12 folks today, when we’d normally send out 25 or 30,” Lubin said.

The Coffey Park neighborhood damaged by the Tubbs Fire in Santa Rosa, Calif, on Monday October 16, 2017.Photo: Michael Short

Donations soon began to arrive from people who knew that the day labor center could get money into the hands of people who needed it. “We gave out about $5,000 in cash—just money for cellphones, gas and food,” said Lubin. “But people wanted to give more, and so I thought, ‘What are we going to do?’” Together with the North Bay Jobs with Justice and North Bay Organizing Project, Lubin launched UndocuFund to provide disaster relief to undocumented immigrants. Within 24 hours they had raised more than $100,000. To date, they’ve brought in $750,000. The fund, whose advisory committee includes undocumented immigrants, will soon begin to accept applications for financial assistance.

Photo: Michael Short

Photo: Michael Short

At Bayer Farms, about 50 people were seated at picnic tables eating dinner. This was the 11th day that the garden had provided free meals to the community, but with school starting back up soon, it wasn’t clear how much longer the experiment would run. Jonathan Bravo had also started to get pressure from the city, which wasn’t entirely pleased about the unlicensed operation.

Not that he had any regrets. “We say that we don’t grow tomatoes or lettuce, we grow people,” he said. The fire had provided a chance to prove it. He picked up a walnut from the ground, cracked it open, and handed me a piece. The nut was from a black walnut tree that rose high above the garden. Bravo told me that last year, nearby construction had damaged the roots of the tree, and an arborist had suggested that they cut it down while the wood was still salvageable. Instead, they decided to see if they could nurse the tree back to health. Each week, classes of schoolchildren work in the garden, and when they learned that the tree was sick, a few made a habit, before leaving, of speaking words of encouragement to the tree and giving it a hug.

“There is hope,” Bravo said. “We can’t minimize the suffering that the fire caused. Twelve of our garden teachers lost their homes. Four of our volunteers lost their homes. But we still have families and we still have children and we are still here. So there is hope.”

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Trump: Make Immigrants’ Use of Public Health Benefits A Deportable Offense

Co-published by The American Prospect
New proposed restrictions mean that immigrants are more liable to be turned away at points of entry, or have their applications to extend their stays in the country be denied.

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(AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

Immigration Attorney:
“There’s no doubt that we’re seeing on a national level what we saw in California in the Pete Wilson era.”

Co-published by The American Prospect

The Trump administration is making new rules that would prevent immigrants from settling in the country or receiving a green card if they or their families have received benefits from a wide array of federal, state and local programs — even if the benefits were for an immigrant’s U.S.-citizen children.

The language in the administration’s rule change, first reported by Reuters, shows that immigrants who enroll their children in public programs like Head Start or the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) risk having their visa applications rejected.

The same goes for immigrants who apply for health insurance subsidies under the Affordable Care Act, along with Women, Infants and Children (WIC) assistance for poor pregnant or nursing women and their children.

“There’s no doubt that we’re seeing on a national level what we saw in California in the Pete Wilson era,” said Alvaro Huerta, referring to the get-tough policies of the former Republican governor in the 1990s. Huerta is a staff attorney for the National Immigration Law Center, which defends and advocates for the rights of immigrants with low incomes. “It’s the same over-the-top reaction to immigrants coming in, and the always-present scapegoating of immigrants for the economic woes of the country.”

Under Wilson, state health officials enthusiastically cooperated with the U.S. Department of State’s ill-fated Public Charge Lookout System. Initially touted as an anti-fraud program aimed at immigrants bilking the state’s Medi-Cal system, the program was discontinued after reports that state investigators and immigration agents were pressuring legal immigrants and even citizens to repay millions in Medi-Cal benefits to which they were legally entitled, or risk having their relatives’ visa applications rejected.

Federal guidelines passed in 1999 require immigrants seeking to become lawful permanent residents to demonstrate that they will not rely on government services. This nearly two-decade-old rule has been narrowly interpreted as reliance on government-funded long-term disability payments or government cash-assistance programs like Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and state unemployment programs.

As a result, public charge is an element of federal immigration policy rarely invoked or enforced. According to State Department records, the denial rate for applicants on public charge grounds from 2005-12 was less than one one-hundredth of one percent.

The new restrictions that Trump is proposing mean that immigrants who have received any public benefit to which they were legally entitled are liable to be turned away at points of entry, or have their applications to extend their stays in the country be denied.

“We’ve already seen chilling effects at our health center since last January,” said Thu Quach, an administrator at Asian Health Services in Oakland, referring to the month when a draft executive order, directing the Department of Health and Human Services to change its policies so that use of health benefits could constitute a public charge, leaked from the White House.

Though the order was never issued, its message was clear. Immigrant-rights advocates say Trump’s new restrictions on government benefits are likely to trigger widespread fear in immigrant communities and frighten many legal immigrants into avoiding prenatal care and dropping their children from Medi-Cal rolls — to avoid having their or their family’s visa applications rejected.

“We have stories from staff indicating people are not signing up for food stamps or Medicaid, even though they’re eligible,” Quach said. “These are green card holders, not undocumented people. They will pay out of pocket so as not to be listed in records. They’re worried about whether the government will go after them and worried about their sponsors having to pay this back.”

Madison Hardee, a senior policy analyst with the Center for Law and Social Policy in Washington, DC, sees other consequences: “It’s a proposed rule that could force families, including citizen children, to choose between getting the help they need and reuniting with those who they love.”

The draft rule from HHS states the issue as one of legal immigrants placing an undue burden on American taxpayers.

“Non-citizens who receive public benefits are not self-sufficient and are relying on the U.S. government and state and local entities for resources instead of their families, sponsors or private organizations,” the document states. “An alien’s receipt of public benefits comes at taxpayer expense and availability of public benefits may provide an incentive for aliens to immigrate to the United States.”

A 2016 report by the National Academy of Sciences found the annual net cost to state and local budgets of first-generation adult immigrants is, on average, about $1,600 each. Second and third generation adults, on the other hand, annually provide a net positive of about $1,700 and $1,300 each, respectively, to state and local budgets.

Randy Capps, research director for U.S. programs at the Migration Policy Institute, an independent think tank in Washington, DC, says the administration is cherry-picking data to imply that immigrants as a group are dependent on the government or not working as much as they could be.

“We think of things like health insurance coming as support for initial integration, not long-term dependency,” Capps said. “If you look at the trajectory of benefits use it’s lower over time. That’s something not mentioned by the administration.”

A new rule change will require a lengthy review process before it can take effect. Jonathan Withington, a spokesman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said, “No decision about public charge is final until the rulemaking process is completed.”

Immigration advocates say they are also preparing a legal challenge, if necessary, which could further delay implementation.

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Mentors Under Siege: California’s DACA Teachers

Of California’s roughly 223,000 DACA recipients, an estimated 5,000 are working teachers, according to the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington think tank.

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Bill Raden




Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

“I don’t understand why they’re trying to kick us out and recruiting people with our same qualifications when we’re already here.”
— San Bernardino math teacher


Students were crying,” says Cristian Aguilar, recalling the Wednesday after Election Day, 2016. “Parents were calling me; there was just a lot of tension, a lot of emotions. … Because whether or not they were born here, they still felt threatened. They knew someone — either their families, their friends or their neighbors — that were [going to be] affected.” The man who had famously launched his candidacy by slurring America’s Latino immigrants was now the president-elect.

Most of all, the students of San Jose’s nearly 80 percent Latino Hoover Middle School were acutely aware that if Donald Trump made good on his threats to revoke DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), Aguilar, their 25-year-old public school teacher, would soon again be living under the murky cloud of deportation. Ironically, he had long made it a point to share his own immigration tale with his kids as a means of inspiring them and to connect with their families.

For a melting pot like California, his story is far from unique. Of the state’s roughly 223,000 DACA recipients, an estimated 5,000 are working teachers, according to the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington think tank. But with a March 5 deadline looming, California’s DACA teachers may soon find themselves locked out of jobs and careers.

Trump has lately rejected bipartisan immigration compromises that would have granted eventual citizenship to young immigrants like Aguilar, but which didn’t provide any funding for the president’s proposed border wall, or include White House demands for the termination of the current visa diversity lottery and deep cuts to the country’s traditional family reunification priorities.

“[Trump] wants to decrease legal immigration by about half, which is not something that’s ever been done in our country’s history,” pointed out California Sate University, Los Angeles anthropology professor Beth Baker, who specializes in immigration. “That’s very disconcerting, particularly because immigrants are really the motor of the economy.”

But for California’s DACA educators, losing their right to teach would be a crippling setback to a public school system in the throes of a chronic teacher shortage and in which one in eight school children have an undocumented parent. It would also mark a bitter reversal to what has been a quintessentially American odyssey of immigrant resolve and aspiration. Here are three of those 5,000 DACA teacher stories.


The Organizer

Aguilar was 10 when he crossed the border from Mexico with a brother in order to join his parents, who had been drawn here by the promise of a better life. Despite growing up without the legal rights and expectations taken for granted by birthright Americans, he quickly distinguished himself as a math prodigy after a bilingual teacher recognized his ability and tutored him, in Spanish, after school.

“It wasn’t until junior and senior year that I really found out what that meant, being undocumented,” he recalled. “Not being able to drive; not being able to apply for financial aid when it came to college applications. … I started noticing the discrepancies between my peers’ and my education.”

Despite having the grades and being accepted by California State University, Stanford University and the University of California, he settled for De Anza, a two-year community college in neighboring Cupertino. That’s when fate and Sacramento Democrats intervened with the introduction of 2011’s California Dream Act, which extended state financial aid to undocumented students at public universities and colleges. As battle lines formed over the contentious measure, Aguilar threw himself into the political fight, organizing students throughout Northern California as part of a campus immigrant-rights group that also lobbied the legislature.

Though the new law paved his way into UC Berkeley, it was the 2012 implementation of DACA by the Obama administration and Aguilar’s winning of temporary legal status that enabled him to set his sights on giving back to his community: “That’s when I knew I wanted to be there for students, especially other students of color, who have been marginalized and who have been under-represented for so long. Knowing [first-hand] the difficulty of being part of an educational system that really pushed us out — students who ‘don’t belong.'”

The Object Lesson

Ever since being brought from Mexico as a young child to Southern California by a mother determined to leave behind a nightmarish marriage and secure the best possible future for her daughter, Elysa Chavez (her real name has been withheld at her request), a third-year DACA high school math teacher in San Bernardino County, has been preparing for the best but girding for the worst.

“I can’t even believe that this is happening,” Chavez said of the immigration impasse. “The administration talks about getting rid of chain migration and bringing in people based on their merits and degrees, and the basic language — but I have a degree in math, which not a lot of people like. I teach math in a low-income community. I have a master’s degree. I speak the language. I pay my taxes. Everything that Trump is looking for, [DACA teachers] have. I don’t understand why they’re trying to kick us out and recruiting people with our same qualifications when we’re already here.”

She is not alone. In the months since Donald Trump announced the elimination of DACA and began threatening to abandon its recipients, Chavez has seen a pall of fear fall over her school’s 85 percent Hispanic students, particularly among the freshman and even some sophomores, who were too young to make DACA’s 15-year-old age threshold before it was canceled.

“What I have seen is students that are reluctant to share that they’re undocumented, when a couple of years back it wasn’t such a big deal,” she explained.

To offer them hope and encourage them to open up, Chavez tells them her own up-by-her-bootstraps story of attending Cal Poly Pomona at a time when there was no DACA or chance of a teaching career, or even financial aid for undocumented college hopefuls. (Chavez graduated just before DACA came online.)

“It’s tough, but it’s something that can be done,” she asserted. “So whenever they have questions, they come and they ask me. I have a feeling that I comfort them, but they do the opposite for me. They just make me worried, because I’m like, ‘Oh my goodness, what’s going to happen with them, and are they going to see education as something that is valuable?’ Because I have a feeling that they might think, ‘What’s the point of me getting good grades if at the end of the day I might get deported?’”

The Activist

Like many California DACA teachers, 25-year-old Angelica Reyes, who is a first-year Advanced Placement history teacher in South Los Angeles, traces her decision to become an educator to the inspiration provided by her own high school history teacher.

“I grew up in East L.A. and I saw a lot of disparities, both in the education that we were receiving, but also in huge wealth inequity,” she remembered. “This teacher used to engage me in a lot of really interesting conversations and challenged me to go beyond just inquiring, to try to change something in my community. So, I was involved in the project that brought in a grocery store to the community.”

Reyes said this campaign transformed the way that she saw herself and her relationship to the community. “I felt like the best way to make folks feel empowered and like they mattered was through education.”

So, that’s what she did. She was at Pasadena City College when she received DACA protections soon after the program came into being. That enabled her to do what had previously been unthinkable: complete both her undergraduate degree at the University of California, Los Angeles and enter a master’s program in UCLA’s school of education.

“There wasn’t ever a question in my mind of whether I was going to go to college,” she recalled. “I knew that I was going to be more … My mom would always remind me that folks who have an education have more power, more agency and they’re able to better advocate for themselves and for folks like them. Of course, I was worried about not being able to work in the field that I’ve chosen, but that’s still a fear today.”

It hit home in September with Trump’s decision to rescind DACA. Like the other teachers in this story, Reyes came to school that day to find her kids terrified both for her sake and by the specter of the uncertainty and instability it would bring if she were removed as their teacher.

“That day,” she remembered, “it was a lot of validating their existence, their feelings, and also making sure that they understood that DACA in the first place wasn’t something that was granted to us. It’s something that a lot of folks fought for, and that’s where our communities get their power from, from advocacy and from grassroots organizing. I let them know that our federal government is very strong, but our communities are strong, too, when we come together. We can stop deportation.”

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DACA Dreamers Vent Rage at Senate Deal

Each day that Congress fails to find a solution for Dreamers, another 122 DACA recipients lose their legal status, according to the Center for American Progress.

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Charles Davis




Photos by Joanne Kim


Undocumented youth called Republicans “racists” and Democrats “cowards” at a Monday evening rally in downtown Los Angeles. They were angry that the U.S. Senate reopened the federal government without resolving the legal status of more than 800,000 immigrants who were brought to the United States as children.

“To the Democrats in Congress, we want to tell you that we are outraged,” said a young woman, Diana, who was born in Peru and brought to the U.S. as a toddler. She was once protected from the threat of deportation by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA), but President Donald Trump rescinded that program last fall, setting a March 5, 2018 deadline for it to expire — unless Congress acts.

Each day that a legislative solution fails to materialize, another 122 DACA recipients, popularly known as Dreamers, lose their legal status, according to a study by the Center for American Progress.

Earlier on Monday, Democratic Senate leaders announced they had agreed to vote for a resolution funding the government for another three weeks in exchange for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-TN) promise that the chamber would soon take up the issue of immigration. More than 2,500 DACA recipients risk losing their legal status by the time funding runs out again.

Democrats “didn’t hold the line for us,” Diana said. “So we’re really, really furious. They don’t care about us. The Republicans as well. They’re heartless.”

Both California Democratic senators did vote against the move, which was acknowledged by speakers at the rally, organized by the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA). Senator Kamala Harris is rumored to be a 2020 presidential candidate, while Sen. Dianne Feinstein is facing a progressive primary challenge from California State Senate President Pro Tem, Kevin de León.

Manny J., a young man who’s had DACA protection since 2012, would like to stay in the country in which he grew up after his parents fled Central America — but not at the expense, he said, of other immigrants. “What we’re fighting for is a clean DREAM Act,” he said, meaning a bill that restores DACA without, among other things, funding a border wall.

“In every negotiation there’s a give and take,” Pablo Morales, political director at CHIRLA, said in an interview. “But we feel the conversation’s gone way beyond what’s been discussed in the past. In the past, when [Republicans] talked about a wall or more enforcement or changing the visa system, that was in exchange for 11 million undocumented immigrants having a path to citizenship. So now [they] want all that, and . . . to limit it to the Dreamers. And that seems to be not negotiating in good faith.”

CHIRLA is calling for a mass mobilization to demand a “clean” DREAM Act on February 3, five days before funding for the federal government runs out again.

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Scenes From Tijuana’s ‘Little Haiti’ Refugee Center

Photographer Ted Soqui documents life in a Haitian refugee center on the outskirts of Tijuana. Barred from entering the U.S., the Haitians live near a polluted stream but are building new living spaces on a church’s property.

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Some 3,000-plus Haitians have become refugees in Tijuana, Mexico. Most had worked building and servicing the venues of Brazil’s 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. Later they worked their way north to Tijuana, where they hoped to enter into the U.S. under Temporary Protected Status (TPS).

False rumors spread through the traveling community that President Obama would allow them to immigrate, as long as they made it to the U.S. before Trump was to take office. Some say they tried to enter  the U.S. illegally, while others paid coyotes as much as $20,000 per person to help them cross the border. Most found themselves quickly deported back to Tijuana.

Then, last November, the Department of Homeland Security rescinded TPS protections for Haitians living in the United States that had been in place following Haiti’s 2010 earthquake. The protections are scheduled to end July 22, 2019.

Immigration relief centers in Tijuana, originally constructed for Mexican deportees sent from the U.S., are now filled to capacity with the Haitians. Many sleep side by side on wooden shipping pallets covered with donated blankets in a recently converted parking area. Several centers fear a humanitarian disaster if the U.S. begins deporting more Haitians back to Mexico via Tijuana.

A small group of evangelical Haitians have decided to remain in Tijuana on a church site located in Cañón del Alacrán (Scorpion Canyon), where these photographs were taken. They say they have tried to find work in Tijuana, but jobs are scarce and wages are so low they barely break even after a day’ s work. (Along their perilous, two-year journey to Mexico, the Haitians developed a hybrid language of French-Creole-Spanish-Portuguese, which makes it difficult to communicate with the locals.)

The large church now serves at capacity as a dormitory for the Haitians, who are sustained by food and clothing donations. The pastor has begun to build small shacks nearby for the refugees, and the locals refer to the area either as “Little Haiti” or “Haitijuana.”

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Deadly Detention

Deadly Detention: The Lonely Death of Moises Tino Lopez

The death of an undocumented laborer raises questions about detention translation protocols for non-English speakers, delays in providing needed care and inadequate medical staffing.

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Robin Urevich




It’s an open question whether Tino Lopez would be alive if he hadn’t landed in the Hall County Jail. But it was clearly bad luck that got him locked up in the first place.

Co-published by Newsweek

In late August of last year, Moises Tino Lopez, 23, drove his wife, Petrona Juarez Tino, to an appointment with immigration authorities near their Grand Island home in Central Nebraska. Officers questioned Juarez Tino about her husband as he and the couple’s 2-year-old daughter waited in a nearby parking lot. Before Juarez Tino’s appointment was over, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers arrested her husband on a previous deportation order. They delivered the toddler to her mother and booked Tino Lopez into the local jail, which also houses ICE detainees.

Less than a month later, Tino Lopez lay in a hospital bed, brain-dead and completely dependent on a ventilator to breathe.

On September 27, Tino Lopez’s family gave doctors permission to disconnect him from life support; the official cause of death was a brain injury brought on by seizure-related cardiac arrest, during which the brain was starved of oxygen.

“We don’t know what happened to him in jail,” said Juarez Tino. “He wasn’t sick, he was working in construction.” She noted that he had headaches, for which he took over-the-counter medication, but no history of seizures.

Moises Tino Lopez and wife Petrona appear at left, with daughter Juana Jennileth.

                                Moises Tino Lopez and wife Petrona appear at left, with daughter Juana Jennileth.

In a Hall County Department of Corrections mug shot, Tino Lopez, who was short and slight, looks straight at the camera with a serious expression. His head is shaved on both sides in a fade and a shock of black hair falls over his forehead. “He was friendly. He was never rude,” Juarez Tino recalled. She said the two had settled in Grand Island with Tino Lopez’s sister just two months before her husband’s arrest. Grand Island’s large meat-packing plant and generally healthy job market has drawn scores of new immigrants here—mostly from Latin America and Somalia.

The couple had grown up as neighbors in the small town of Joyabaj in Guatemala’s highlands, and married four years before Tino Lopez’s death. Juarez Tino speaks Spanish with the accent of her native K’iche, the Mayan language of her region. Her husband was a saxophone player who loved making music and singing. “But what he loved most,” Juarez Tino said, “was his daughter.” She’s 3 and a half now, and will start preschool in January.

It’s an open question whether Tino Lopez would be alive if he hadn’t landed in the Hall County Jail. But it was clearly bad luck that got him locked up in the first place.

According to Rose Godinez, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney, Tino Lopez would have had a chance to fight his case with a competent immigration attorney. He hadn’t committed a crime in the United States; he was ordered deported simply because he had entered here illegally, was caught and later failed to check in with immigration authorities, possibly because he didn’t understand the requirement.

He probably had a case for asylum, according to Godinez. Tino Lopez and his wife claimed they had been threatened by gun-wielding supporters of a mayoral candidate they had opposed in Guatemala, and said they feared for their lives. Juarez has since been granted a work permit in her asylum case on the same grounds, and has been told by her attorney that she’ll likely prevail.

Tino Lopez’s death triggered a criminal investigation by the Nebraska State Patrol and a grand jury proceeding, both required by Nebraska law following inmate deaths. The grand jury determined no crime was committed in his death. But an ICE review concluded that the Hall County Jail, which currently houses some 80 immigrant detainees, violated a number of ICE federal detention standards on medical care, and took other questionable actions that concern the agency.

All told, the documents raise questions about the jail’s ability to properly care for medically vulnerable detainees.

“The first [seizure] should have prompted a high level of concern and attention,” said Dr. Marc Stern, a correctional health-care expert. “And if the first one didn’t, the second one should have.”

In recent years ICE has come under fire for alleged substandard medical care in detention centers and in county jails. In a Human Rights Watch report released earlier this year, two physicians who reviewed 18 ICE detainee deaths found that poor care probably contributed to seven of them.

At the Hall County Jail, as in many ICE detention facilities, health care is provided by a for-profit contractor. Advanced Correctional Healthcare, based in Peoria, Illinois, serves over 250 jails and prisons in 17 Midwestern and Southern states and, on its website, states the company is saving thousands of dollars for local governments. But in the past 12 years, more than 150 inmates or their families have filed suit against the company and the local jails it serves, alleging they were hurt or their loved one killed as a result of poor care from ACH. Three wrongful death suits have been lodged in federal court against the company in the past six months alone.

                                                              Image of Moises Tino Lopez’s mug shot by Define Urban.

ACH nurses began caring for Tino Lopez when he suffered a sudden seizure after about two weeks in jail. A nurse practitioner prescribed Tylenol and an anti-seizure drug, and noted that Tino Lopez should see a neurologist. Eight days later, he was taken to a lab for a CT scan, which revealed a possible abnormality but not the cause of his seizure.

The lab recommended a follow-up MRI to check for possible brain lesions, but ICE found the jail took no action to order the test, and never arranged for him to consult with a specialist.

After his seizure, jail documents show, Tino Lopez’s headaches continued. He complained of vision issues and told his wife that the anti-seizure medication was making him sicker. He was placed in solitary confinement after arguing with a fellow inmate and reported to a guard that the inmate had pushed him. Such disputes don’t warrant disciplinary segregation, according to the jail’s handbook. On September 16, Tino Lopez began refusing his medication altogether, even though nurses had switched to a different drug the day before. He was warned that refusing his meds could result in another seizure or even death. It’s unclear whether Tino Lopez, who spoke only Spanish and K’iche, understood the warnings or could adequately and openly explain his symptoms to jail nurses.

The grand jury testimony revealed that jail nurses simply continued to offer Tino Lopez the second medication to no avail, and the ICE review noted that they failed to notify their supervising nurse practitioner of his refusals. Three days after he stopped taking his meds, an officer found Tino Lopez unconscious and seizing in his cell. This second time, he was weaker and slower to come to. He had vomited after his seizure and again as officers attempted to walk him to a first-floor cell. He was so unsteady that officers carried him down the stairs to his new bunk.

In the minutes that followed this second seizure, jail nurse Angela Barcenas, a licensed practical nurse, considered sending him to a hospital. She consulted with Tammy Bader, the nurse practitioner who oversaw health care at the jail from her Omaha office and in weekly visits. Bader approved the hospital visit. But after Barcenas reviewed Tino Lopez’s medication refusals, she consulted Bader again. “She’s like, ‘That’s probably why he’s having seizures. We need to monitor him,’” Barcenas told the grand jury.

“The first [seizure] should have prompted a high level of concern and attention,” commented Dr. Marc Stern, a correctional health-care expert who formerly served as health services director for Washington state’s Department of Corrections. “And if the first one didn’t, the second one should have.” Stern, who consulted on Human Rights Watch’s ICE report, noted that seizure can be a sign of something more serious — even potentially fatal — caused by trauma, aneurysm or infection.

But Barcenas opted not to send Tino Lopez to the hospital. It’s unclear why she decided to keep him in his cell, but shortly afterward met with him a final time and, with a fellow inmate interpreting, Tino Lopez agreed to take his medicine later that evening.

About four hours after Tino Lopez’s second seizure, however, corrections officer Steven Greenland found him lying face down on his mat. Believing he was asleep, Greenland went to check on other inmates, but realized something was amiss and knocked on the detainee’s window moments later. There was no reply. Nor did Tino Lopez respond when Greenland entered the cell and shook him. “I tried rolling him over on his side and that’s when I noticed his face was blue and then all the vomit . . . came out of his mouth,” Greenland told the grand jury. Tino Lopez had no pulse and wasn’t breathing. Greenland radioed for help, and he and other officers began CPR, brought oxygen and the jail’s defibrillator.

“I know these people were doing everything they could to save his life. Unfortunately that wasn’t to be.”

No one knows exactly when Tino Lopez’s final seizure began – another officer had checked his cell 15 minutes before Greenland found him unconscious. But, had he not been in solitary in violation of jail policy, fellow inmates could have called for help at the moment he began seizing, said former Hall County Jail sergeant Debb Rea, who retired in 2015 after 30 years. Rea sued the Hall County Department of Corrections in 2016, alleging she’d been pushed out, in part, because she’d complained about unwarranted use of solitary confinement.

The ICE report found no justification for placing Tino Lopez in solitary.

A six-minute delay also occurred in calling 911. Jail policy is to call 911 immediately, according to Hall County Department of Corrections director Todd Bahensky. “We act as quickly as we can,” he said. “I know the officers here and I watched them giving CPR and I know these people were doing everything they could to save his life. Unfortunately that wasn’t to be.”

This story touches on some of the same issues that have appeared in other detention-death cases, especially regarding translation protocols for non-English speakers, delays in providing needed care and inadequate medical staffing.

ICE’s review noted that its findings “should not be construed in any way as indicating the deficiency contributed to the death of the detainee.”

But ICE reviewers document a series of missteps that call into question whether Tino Lopez’s life could have been saved if he’d received proper care.

The jail didn’t use qualified Spanish interpreters. Instead, they relied upon guards, a fellow inmate and even Google Translate to communicate with Tino Lopez.

ICE’s review found the detention center’s nearly exclusive use of LPNs supervised by a nurse practitioner who is available by phone, but present just one to three hours per week, falls short of the requirement that its medical staff be “large enough to perform basic exams and treatments for all detainees.”

The reviewers noted that Tino Lopez was warned of the consequences of refusing his medicine, but because of the language barrier, they wrote, “it remains unclear if Tino understood the potential consequences of non-compliance.” ICE inspectors, who interviewed jail and hospital staff, found that Tino Lopez, whose first language was K’iche, spoke no English and limited Spanish.

But the Hall County Jail didn’t even use qualified Spanish interpreters. Instead, they relied upon guards, a fellow inmate and even Google Translate to communicate with Tino Lopez.

“It’s grossly inadequate,” said Dr. Marc Stern, who reviewed parts of the grand jury transcript and exhibits. “It’s totally in violation of ICE detention standards, HIPAA [the medical privacy law] and it’s just wrong.”

Todd Bahensky said that officers or medical staff felt they could get information from Tino Lopez without using professional interpreters.

Interpreting snafus can cause big misunderstandings, said Cynthia Peinado, who offers classes for fellow medical interpreters in Nashville, Tennessee. She recalled that a surgeon with whom she had worked expressed pride in her use of Google Translate — until she learned that the app had instructed her patient to pour salad dressing on a wound, instead of re-applying a bandage.

The ICE report further found that medical staff failed to properly monitor Tino Lopez after deciding not to send him to the hospital and did not properly document many of its actions. It didn’t give Tino Lopez an adequate medical exam or ask him questions about any history of seizure, and it doesn’t have a written seizure protocol.

Tino Lopez’s death also poses questions about the care that detainees receive across the country, said Victoria Lopez, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU National Prison Project.

“We should be paying attention to each of these deaths because they bring up problems and deficiencies in this sprawling system,” noted Lopez, who reviewed some of the documents in Tino Lopez’s case. “It raises questions about continuing to fund this detention system and the need to continue detaining so many people.”

An ICE spokesman declined to comment for this article in time for publication. Officials at Advanced Correctional Healthcare did not return phone calls requesting comment.

Petrona Juarez Tino, Tino Lopez’s wife, now works at the local meat packing-plant and plans to rebuild her life in Nebraska. She said she has to stay strong and keep going for her daughter, and she wants answers about what happened to her husband. “He was still young,” she said.

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Deadly Detention

Deadly Detention: Why Are Immigrants Dying in ICE Custody?

Capital & Main has launched a new investigative project examining detention deaths, just as ICE signals a move toward even less openness than it has previously displayed.

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Robin Urevich




Illustration by Define Urban.

Inspectors found that detainees in some  centers are illegally strip-searched, housed in filthy conditions and segregated or placed in solitary confinement for trivial reasons.

Since 2016, 23 men and women have died inside Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers. They came from 15 countries in Latin America, Asia, Europe, the Middle East and the Caribbean, and ranged in age from 23 to 65. The detainees included Osmar Gonzalez Gadba, a Nicaraguan national who hanged himself in his cell at the Adelanto Detention Facility near San Bernardino; a Panamanian named Jean Jimenez Joseph, who also committed suicide, in Georgia’s Stewart Detention Center; and Moises Tino Lopez, a young Guatemalan who died of “cardiac arrest” in a Nebraska jail. They were not prisoners serving criminal sentences, but immigrants who existed in a legal twilight without the freedom to leave their places of incarceration — in at least one case, because the detainee couldn’t afford the cost of bail.

Read “The Lonely Death of Moises Tino Lopez”

Capital & Main has launched a new project, Deadly Detention, to give names and faces to these 23 dead, and to explain how they met such sad fates in the country most had come to in search of better lives. It is a counterweight to ICE’s secrecy and comes as the Trump administration expands an already sprawling detention system to accommodate the growing number of immigrants caught up in its deportation surge. (In September and October of this year, the Department of Homeland Security issued notices to potential bidders that it was interested in establishing new detention centers near Chicago, Detroit, St. Paul, Salt Lake City and one in South Texas that would hold some 1,000 detainees.)

We have petitioned for detailed information about each detainee death since 2016 under the federal Freedom of Information Act. ICE publicly released 13 of these detainee death reviews this month. Although far from conclusive, the reviews aim a rare spotlight on poor and often delayed care at the nation’s nearly 250 detention centers and county jails that house immigration detainees, many of which are in remote locations and largely hidden from public view.

Capital & Main has dug deeply into how and why these and other deaths occurred, whether or how they could be prevented, who is responsible and how the system can function more humanely.

This project begins as ICE signals a move toward even less openness than it has previously displayed. The agency has received preliminary approval from the National Archive and Record Administration to destroy records of detainee deaths and in-custody sexual assaults after 20 years, and solitary confinement documents after just three years.

At the same time, the plight of some detainees has recently attracted high-level attention: Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) has called for an investigation into conditions for immigrant detainees at Contra Costa’s West  County Detention Facility in Richmond, where they have reportedly been denied permission to use bathrooms. The DHS’s Inspector General conducted unannounced inspections at five detention centers and released a report this month that finds that detainees in four of them are illegally subject to strip searches, housed in filthy conditions without adequate water for bathing, and placed in solitary confinement or segregation for trivial reasons.

The Inspector General also discovered that medical care was delayed and detainees weren’t provided competent interpreters. (The IG visited the Hudson County Jail in New Jersey, Otero County Processing Center in New Mexico, Santa Ana City Jail in Orange County, California — which no longer houses ICE detainees — and Stewart Detention Center in Georgia. The IG had previously visited and reported on a number of abuses at the Theo Lacy Facility, also in Orange County.)

In the meantime, detainees continue to die, often far from family or friends. Their official obituaries — terse news releases written by government clerks following each death — are heavy on the details of individual criminal records and far less instructive about the detainees as people, or the circumstances surrounding their passing. Beginning today, we will fill in the gaps and shadows, and later, with the help of an interactive map, will provide thorough investigations of detainees’ lives and deaths. In those endeavors, any help from readers would be welcome. If you’d like to share information, please contact us at, using “Deadly Detention” in the subject line.

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Immigrant Detainees Speak of Abuses

Asylum seekers in America are often treated like criminals — mandatorily imprisoned in isolated immigration detention centers after turning themselves in to immigration officials at the border.

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Vivian Rothstein




“They look at you like trash,” said a former detainee who had been a hunger striker at the Adelanto Detention Center.

Last month 100 people from states as diverse as New York, Texas, Maryland, Kansas, Florida, New Hampshire, Nevada and Illinois met in a Malibu retreat center to plot nothing less than the end of the U.S. immigration detention system. Brought together by CIVIC (Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement), participants included interfaith activists, immigration lawyers, recently released asylum seekers and academics, nearly all of whom were women. Meeting for three days in scorching heat, they discussed how to effectively challenge the system of incarceration and deportation that is now part of our nation’s immigration infrastructure.

Many Americans, myself included, are the children, grandchildren or other descendants of people who came to the U.S. to escape religious persecution, starvation, tyranny or political violence. We would not be alive were it not for America’s past immigration policies. Current asylum seekers are often treated like criminals, mandatorily imprisoned in isolated immigration detention centers after turning themselves in to immigration officials at the border. Many face bail requirements as high as $250,000 and sometimes more to get out, and often endure life-threatening conditions while incarcerated.

“They look at you like trash,” Emmanuel, a former detainee, told conference attendees. He and another speaker, Isaac Lopez, had been hunger strikers who were recently freed on bond from the Adelanto Detention Center near Victorville, California after advocacy on his behalf by a coalition of immigrant rights organizations. Among nine Central Americans (who were later joined by over 20 Haitian asylum seekers), Isaac participated in the hunger strike to dramatize the lack of medical attention, spoiled food and the provision of used, dirty underwear to the detainees. Once the hunger strike began, said Lopez, the strikers were subject to pepper spray, solitary confinement and other abuses.

CIVIC supports a network of volunteer-run visitation programs to America’s 210 detention facilities, whose inmates usually have no legal representation or contact with the outside world. The group also organizes stakeholder inspection tours and runs a national hotline through which detainees can report abuses experienced in the system. A pen-pal program and the sharing of stories of those finally released after months or years of incarceration also help get the word out that these facilities exist, supported by taxpayer money.

CIVIC’S volunteer network conducts over 54,000 visits to detention facilities each year. Workshop presenter Paula Kahn of CIVIC and CODEPINK suggested that the goal of volunteers is to be “radical accomplices.” Rather than “impose our own conclusions about conditions inside the detention facility,” Kahn emphasized that “people are experts on their own experiences” and the job of visitors is to understand their lived experience in detention.

Other workshops discussed recruiting and retaining volunteers, monitoring conditions for detainees, getting their personal stories out to the broader community, raising funds for bail and post-release support. Once released from detention, asylum seekers are often prohibited from working yet have to find a place to live and continue to pursue their asylum requests through the immigration court system.

As a result of CIVIC’s work in collecting data on conditions in California’s immigrant detention centers, the state legislature this year passed the first bill in the country to put a moratorium on the expansion of future immigration centers in California and to give the state attorney general the power to monitor the facilities for the next decade.

A closing session run by CIVIC founders Christina Mansfield and Christina Fialho asked retreat attendees to visualize a time when the 210 detention centers across the U.S. are closed and, instead, non-profit organizations are funded to provide housing and support services for those in the asylum pipeline.

The U.S. immigration detention system is the largest in the world and influences the infrastructure of detention systems in other countries, Fialho and Mansfield explained. By changing the ways immigrants are treated here, the U.S. can be part of an international movement to reshape state responses to asylum seekers by welcoming migrants rather than imprisoning them.

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Culture & Media

The Art of the Border: Searching for Kikito

Co-published by The American Prospect
Kikito, an enormous photograph of a 1-year-old child, pasted onto plywood sheets, stands 65 feet high on Mexico’s side of the border. Viewed from the U.S., he is a giant black-and-white toddler, his chubby hands appearing to grip the top of the border wall as he looks over it, into the mysterious United States.

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David Bacon




A man on the Mexican side of the border wall between Mexico and the U.S. looks through the bars, where the wall runs into the Pacific Ocean.

All Photographs by David Bacon

A French artist’s colossal installation on Mexico’s side of the border may make the invisible visible, but other subjects carry a sharper critical edge and pose deeper questions.

Co-published by The American Prospect

For almost an hour Laura, Moises and I drove through the dusty neighborhoods of Tecate, looking for Kikito. Tecate is a small border city in the dry hills of Baja California. It’s famous for a huge brewery, although today most workers find jobs in local maquiladoras.

When we asked for directions, a couple of people had heard of Kikito, but couldn’t tell us where he was. Most didn’t know who we were talking about.

We figured that if we kept driving along the border fence we’d find him. In these neighborhoods the second stories of large comfortable homes, mostly built in the 1940s and ’50s, rise above adobe walls enclosing their courtyards. But unlike downtown, with its colorful bustle, there was no street life on the hot streets here, hardly anyone on the sidewalk.

Finally we passed the one man who could surely tell us how to find Kikito — the cable guy. He even volunteered to lead us in his van part of the way. Using his directions, we bumped along a dirt road next to the border fence, up and down a couple of hills where the city fades into scrubland. Then we found Kikito.

He was much larger than I’d imagined.

The "Kikito" art installation at the U.S. Mexico border wall, created by French artist JR. Laura Velasco stands on a little hill near the structure, giving an idea of its huge size.The “Kikito” art installation at the U.S.-Mexico border wall, created by French artist JR. Laura Velasco stands on a little hill near the structure, giving an idea of its huge size.

Kikito is an enormous photograph of a 1-year-old child, pasted onto plywood sheets. The assemblage is mounted on a huge, complex metal scaffold, 65 feet high, much like what painters erect to embrace the buildings they work on. Kikito’s scaffolding, however, doesn’t embrace anything. Instead, it pushes the enormous photograph towards, and above, the border wall’s severe vertical iron bars.

The structure is so big that to bring the photo into position, part of the hillside had to be excavated, and a hole dug deep into the ravine at the bottom. I felt like Dorothy going behind the curtain to confront the Wizard as he manically pulls levers to present his fierce, disembodied face to the world. Like the Wizard’s, you can only see Kikito’s visage the right way from the other side of the curtain — in this case, the metal fence separating Tecate from the U.S.

Virtually every family has a member or friend who’s crossed to the U.S., where over nine percent of the country’s population now lives.

Viewed from the U.S. side, Kikito becomes a giant black-and-white toddler, his chubby hands appearing to grip the top of the border wall as he looks over it, into the mysterious United States. He has a slight smile.

If we’d been on the U.S. side, driving east from San Diego, we could have followed the directions Kikito’s creator, the French artist JR, posted on his website. There you can even see JR’s photograph of two U.S. Border Patrol agents staring at the baby. Apparently they often help visitors find the right spot.

We now have 20,000 Border Patrol agents, whose parked vans dot the desert all along the border wall from California to Texas, as they wait to grab someone trying to cross. Helping visitors find Kikito must provide a welcome break in the tedium of watching and waiting, and sweating in vans on shadeless hills, where the temperature climbs to 105 degrees and above.

The "Kikito" art installation at the U.S. Mexico border wall, created by French artist JR. Laura Velasco stands on a little hill near the structure, giving an idea of its huge size.At this spot along the border wall between Mexico and the U.S., Border Patrol agents fired through the wall and killed Ramsés Barron-Torrés. His portrait and a cross are on the wall of the building in Mexico below, where he fell. Agents say they were justified in shooting because people were throwing stones at them, but the street is far below and there is little danger that a stone could even pass through the iron bars at such a distance.

It’s obvious that Kikito’s audience is located in the U.S. “The piece is best viewed from the U.S. side of the border,” JR’s website explains. In fact, the optical effect can only be seen from that side — Mexicans standing in Tecate, where it’s actually located, can’t see it the right way. JR says Kikito is looking “playfully,” but then admits, “Kikito and his family cannot cross the border to see the artwork from the ideal vantage point.”

I took a photo of Laura on a nearby hummock, just to give an idea of the structure’s immense scale. She seems diminutive next to it. In her classes at the Colegio de la Frontera Norte (COLEF) in Tijuana, and in her books and research about the migration of Mexico’s indigenous people to Baja California and eventually to the U.S., Laura Velasco is hardly dispassionate. She advocates for migrants, and has no love for the wall and its unsubtle messages of “Keep Out!” and “Stay in Mexico!”

 “We are the invisible people. In this life, no one counts for less than a deported Mexican.”

That’s one reason she liked Kikito. “He shows us to be human beings,” she said, looking up at his half smile. “That’s a good message for people in the U.S. And he does it without shouting, just by being who he is.” If people in Mexico can’t see him properly, she thinks, they’re not the ones who need to get the message anyway.

When the installation went up, President Trump had just issued his threat to terminate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA ) program, withdrawing the legal status of 800,000 young people brought by their parents to the U.S. without visas as children. Many of those youth — the Dreamers — saw a baby looking over the border wall as a symbol of their own humanity in the face of fear and possible deportation.

Yet my visceral reaction, as I looked down the hillside at this immense toddler, was more skeptical. In a desert where hundreds of people die every year of thirst and exhaustion, trying to dodge Border Patrol agents, trekking on foot across the wall in the intense heat, is it enough to simply say, “Immigrants are human beings”? Why such a soft message in such a harsh context?

HOLTVILLE, CA - 4DECEMBER10 - Migrants found dead on the border between the U.S. and Mexico, in the area of the Imperial Valley and Colorado River, are buried in a potters field graveyard in Holtville. The identities of many are not known, and are buried as "John Doe" or "Jane Doe." Immigrant rights and religious activists have made crosses for many of the graves, most of which say "No Olvidados" or "Not Forgotten." About 450 bodies are buried here. Copyright David BaconMigrants found dead on the border between the U.S. and Mexico, in the area of the Imperial Valley and Colorado River, are buried in a potters field graveyard in Holtville. The identities of many are not known, and are buried as “John Doe” or “Jane Doe.” Immigrant-rights and religious activists have made crosses for many of the graves, most of which say “No Olvidados,” or “Not Forgotten.” 

The wall, and the border militarization of which it is a part, is exacting a terrible cost. It’s paid by uprooted Oaxacan farmers needing work and money to send home, by parents and children desperate to reunite families fractured by earlier migrations, by Honduran refugees fleeing violence. When many die crossing the desert (232 in the first seven months of 2017), they’re buried in the Holtville cemetery, 89 miles east of Kikito in the Imperial Valley.

Successive U.S. administrations have beefed up the Border Patrol’s numbers, built multiple walls, handed out contracts for high-tech surveillance devices, detained hundreds of thousands of people in for-profit detention centers and then deported them. It’s a big media story, and produces a fascination with the border among U.S. photographers and artists, who then create photodocumentaries and art projects currently popular in the mainstream media. The border sells, in other words. Kikito is part of a growing genre.

Richard Misrach, a well-known photographer, produced a large book of photographs, Border Cantos, which shows the absurdity of a wall of iron bars that suddenly stops at a golf course, allowing real estate agents to play through. He communicates an atmosphere of violence in images of spent shells on the range where Border Patrol agents practice shooting, and the possibility of death from thirst in images of flags signaling the water cans left by immigration activists and Good Samaritans along the migrant trails. But like Kikito, his audience is in the U.S. The photographs, almost all without people, look at the border wall from the northern side.

Some projects are less documentary. In the New Yorker, writer Jonathan Blitzer recounts how Magnum photographer Carolyn Drake “set out for the U.S.-Mexico border just after Donald Trump won the Presidency.”

“Where is Drake taking us?” Blitzer asks. “This is an American project, she told me. She’s less concerned with who’s crossing to or from Mexico than she is with who’s already on the American side, living alongside the border as though wedged between two worlds.”

TIJUANA, BAJA CALIFORNIA NORTE, MEXICO - 9SEPTEMBER14 - Luisa, a homeless woman, collects cans and plastic from garbage dumpsters, near the Tijuana River, in downtown Tijuana, not far from the U.S. Mexico border. Copyright David BaconLuisa, a homeless woman, collects cans and plastic from garbage dumpsters, near the Tijuana River, in downtown Tijuana, just south of the U.S.-Mexico border.

The New Yorker labeled Drake’s work “Haunted Photographs of America’s Borderlands,” a phrase that signals that we’re only looking at the border from the U.S. side.  “Our obsession with the border has a lot of fantasy involved,” Drake explained to Blitzer. ”You’re searching for something, but it’s not really there.” Her 22 photographs on the magazine’s website are all taken in the U.S. — Mexicans only exist once they’ve arrived in the north.

“When did this contemporary diaspora become a ‘fantasy’?” asks Don Bartletti, who in his years at the Los Angeles Times probably took more photographs of the border than any other U.S. photographer. “The border is certainly clearly defined for millions of people searching for something better on the other side.”

Another New Yorker writer, Alexandra Schwartz, calls JR “a magician who conjures people onto walls.” She notes that he’s done other photographic projects on the same scale, pasting black-and-white portraits of immigrants onto buildings and walls in Europe and elsewhere. He too got his impetus from Trump. “When Trump started to talk a lot about a wall along the Mexican border, one day I woke up and I saw a kid looking over the wall,” JR told Schwartz. “We know that a 1-year-old doesn’t have a political vision, or any political point of view. He doesn’t see walls as we see them.”

I’m sure JR doesn’t see Mexicans as 1-year-olds. But the way the border is objectified and used can make people in Mexico suspicious about how people on the other side of the wall see them, when they see them at all.

“The subject of the border is profitable for artists,” Enrique Botello, a photographer in Ensenada and founder of Galería 184, told me. “I think most U.S. photographers don’t understand the price we’re paying on the border, in terms of the number of people dying. They’re motivated mainly by self-interest because the subject of the border is easy to sell. A lot of photographers only want to come and take pictures without being very critical — just exploit the subject.”

A fter looking at Kikito, we drove over to Tecate’s new municipal art center for the presentation of a book about California farmworkers, published jointly by COLEF in Tijuana and the University of California Press in Oakland. Afterwards we went to drink wine at a local restaurant with friends — poets and artists.

06A memorial at the border fence for those who have died trying to cross.

“Kikito means nothing to me,” announced Francisco Morales, Baja California’s celebrated poet and activist. (See his poems that follow this article.) His partner, Rocio Hoffmann Silva, is a portrait painter. Between them, they live project to project, book to book, and often have a hard time putting together the income to pay the bills. “I look at the resources needed to create Kikito, and think about what we could use them for here,” she said. “There’s so much available in the U.S. When we want to create art that looks at our lives here, support is hard to find.”

Oscar Contreras, a sociologist at COLEF born in Tecate, thought Kikito didn’t have to make an overt political statement. “It can exist in its own right,” he argued, “and we can appreciate it or not based on how well it communicates its aesthetic ideas.” Kikito, however, and photographs of the wall and the “borderlands” are created as social documents, not just art abstracted from reality. That’s the basis for their media popularity — why photographers and artists get the funding needed to create them. “If they’re measured against social reality, I think that’s fair,” he added. “After all, can Kikito exist without the wall?”

Morales isn’t angry at Kikito in particular, but like many of his colleagues believes Tijuana’s vibrant culture is ignored in U.S. media coverage of the border. Mexican artists create their own art about the migration experience, because it is such a fundamental aspect of Mexican life. Virtually every family has a member or friend who’s crossed to the U.S., where over nine percent of the country’s population now lives. One famous work mounted crosses on the border wall’s metal plates, where it runs along the road past the Tijuana airport. Gallon jugs symbolizing the water carried by border crossers were stacked against it, each with the name of someone whose body had been found in the desert.

At the ironically-named Friendship Park (Parque de la Amistad) in Playas de Tijuana, the graffiti on the wall’s bars is itself an art project. The wall, both there and on the fence leading to Mexicali’s crossing gate, has become a venue for photographers and artists. Their art is sharp, critiquing mass deportations and the hard lives of migrants on the other side. And these works can only be shown on the Mexican side — the Border Patrol will not allow art installations on the side they control.

Much of the Mexican art about the border focuses on the wall and its human cost, but photographers like Botello also insist that the coverage has to include the roots of migration. “The problem of the border is bilateral,” he says. “U.S. policy toward the border is becoming very radicalized, causing the death of so many migrants. But the problem of the border is also that of the countries exporting those migrants.”

07 (1)A worker is deported back into Mexico at the border gate in Mexicali, under the stare of a Border Patrol agent.

To Enrique Botello, the problem of Kikito is that he is too distant, both from the deaths at the border and from the reasons people risk it — what they are migrating from. “JR says that he has no political position!” he exclaims. “His interest isn’t in making a commitment, just in his art.”
Bartletti is angrier. “Many photographers who parachute in to the U.S.-Mexico border portray its cultural anthropology as simple theater,” he argues. “‘The Border’ has become a convenient stage, with little documentary evidence of the causes and consequences of migration for survival. But it’s probably good for their bottom line.”

Art or photography can help change the world, if it arises from the political commitment and involvement of the artist and photographer. “We should strengthen solidarity on all the borders of the world,” Botello urges, “so that that someday all those borders will disappear.” Therefore photography projects, he believes, should be produced in cooperation across the border, in active solidarity.

While there are few examples of this today, it is an idea with historical precedent. In the 1930s and ’40s Mexican muralists Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros and José Clemente Orozco came to the U.S. and created radical murals that were cultural weapons of that era in movements for social change. They inspired a generation of radical U.S. painters in the process. Rivera’s Rockefeller Center mural, “Man at the Crossroads,” was viewed as so dangerous that its patron, Nelson Rockefeller, had it demolished. Tina Modotti, born in Italy and raised in San Francisco, and Mariana Yampolsky, born in Chicago, created photographs that became part of the revolutionary cultural upsurge in Mexico from the 1920s to the 1950s.

In making Kikito, a Mexican child visible to the United States, JR has created a border-focused project. But if part of its purpose was to make the invisible visible, other subjects carry a sharper critical edge, and pose deeper questions about the reality people experience on the border. What happens, for instance, to those pushed back through the gate in the border wall, once they’re deported from the U.S.?
Today scores of young people live in the concrete channel built to contain the floods of the Tijuana River, which runs through the middle of the city near the border between Mexico and the U.S. Like the Los Angeles river channel, it is mostly a featureless cement expanse, but in Tijuana it is filled with deportees with no money and no homes.

Juan Manuel Barragan Corona, recently expelled from the U.S. and living in the river bottom, has a wife and two teenage children in Las Vegas. “We are the invisible people,” he says. “In this life, no one counts for less than a deported Mexican.”

TIJUANA, BAJA CALIFORNIA NORTE, MEXICO - 28SEPTEMBER17 - Juan Manuel Barragan Corona and his friend, who did not want to give his name, are homeless men who live in the Tijuana River, which runs in a concrete flood control channel through the middle of the city toward the Pacific Ocean, near the border between Mexico and the U.S. Barragan was recently deported from the U.S., where he has a wife and two teenage children in Las Vegas. Copyright David BaconJuan Manuel Barragan Corona, left, and his friend are homeless men who live in the Tijuana River flood control channel. Many deported homeless people live in the concrete river bed.

Two poems from San Ysidro Zone, by Francisco Morales
Translated by Iliana Hernández Partida

Warm coffee
words had left me dry
the hate helicopter flies again
looking for migrants through the wired.

Warm coffee
at the crackling corner of hunger
a patched tunnel
fears and mastiffs are after feeble dogs.

The coffee and the chipping bowl got cold
without tenderness…

Ah, these men! :
How many fences they build!
how much misery
for so many nomadic skeletons!

More common than shadows and noise
a wall rises upon us.

That humidity scented wall
does not scream nor crackles
no groans come from it.

It cuts maliciously
the Psalms history that we traced
our elucubrations fiercely built
roughed up.

like a coastline without sowings
or a private lilies swamp.

The silence wall.

The seed growing missing a life seed
along the sunset working as a watchman
and the stubborn eyes browsing
from the chiaroscuro grid.

The seven vigils bitch
giving birth to new sarcasms.

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Exiles on Main Street: Refugees Find Hope in California

Co-published by International Business Times
As the one-year anniversary of Donald Trump’s presidential victory approaches, writer Sasha Abramsky reports on the effect of one of Trump’s major efforts, the blocking of Muslim immigrants and refugees from entering the United States, and on how California is helping the refugees.

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Sasha Abramsky




The Abd el Qader family, Kurdish refugees from Syria, leaving Turkey for America. (Photo:  Khalid Eid)

 As the one-year anniversary of Donald Trump’s presidential victory approaches, Sasha Abramsky examines how refugees in California, as well as state and private relief agencies, are coping with  Trump’s refugee policies.

Co-published by International Business Times

Living in Oakland, scrabbling for work, the young Syrian photojournalist tries to put his life back together. It’s hard. Fearing that he would be forced to fight in the government army, or that he would be harmed because of his photographs of the war, he had left his parents in his home country for Turkey – which is why, fearing reprisal against them, he doesn’t want his name published in this article – smuggling out a cache of photographs documenting atrocities carried out by government forces.

Years of exile followed in Turkey, where he would score a photography job here, another there. The young man waited years for his refugee paperwork to be processed, sharing an apartment with his brother while trying to build the daily routines of a new life. Finally, sponsored by a war photographer in California whom he knew, he secured admission into the United States, arriving shortly before President Trump’s temporary ban on new-refugee admissions kicked in.

After spending years in limbo, the refugee suddenly found things moving absurdly fast. He was given only 10 days notice of his flight to the United States: 10 days to conclude the the relationship he was involved in, to sublet his apartment, to finish the jobs he was doing, to sell or pack or give away all of his possessions.

“I was in a relationship – I should just tell her I will disappear?” he asks. “It gives me a sadness. This is the one I love; I don’t know when I will see her again in life. I don’t know when I will see my parents again. I’m saying goodbye to my brother. Just took one bag. Left everything.”

Pastor Kirt Lewis of World Relief:
“Refugee resettlement will increasingly be limited to blue and purple states.”

“I’m already broken inside,” he avers, his emotional rawness painfully clear in every word he enunciates. “I need nice people around. People in California welcome refugees. It’s not easy, to be honest, but it’s my new life. I’m doing my best, but sometimes I feel very tired. Three days ago, I was in the ER. Anxiety. My room is dark, it’s in the basement. I feel far away from everyone and everything. I don’t want to be a victim, but sometimes you feel alone.”

The Syrian photographer is part of the latest, and perhaps for now, the last wave of refugees to come to America after escaping violence. There have, over the past half century, been Southeast Asians, following the Vietnam War; Central Americans fleeing juntas and war; refugees from Iran and the Soviet Union in the 1980s; refugees from Iraq, the former Soviet Union and the Balkans in the 1990s; from African civil wars in the early 2000s; from the slew of post-9/11 Middle Eastern conflicts. Now, all of that human movement is, under the implementation of the new restrictions, grinding to a halt.

A Syrian refugee camp. (Photo: Khalid Eid)A Syrian refugee camp. (Photo: Khalid Eid)

After Trump signed his initial executive order barring refugees in January, resettlement agencies reported incoming families being turned back at airports overseas or held in U.S. airports upon arrival. Turmoil reigned as those refugees previously authorized to come to America to escape political or religious persecution in Iraq, Syria and Iran were blocked from flying here. Many had already sold everything they owned, canceled their housing leases, quit college, etc. — all in anticipation of their move to the United States. Now, suddenly, they were left in limbo.

“I was in San Diego [at] our annual meeting,” Yvette Khani, a caseworker supervisor at the International Rescue Committee’s Glendale office, recalls of the day the IRC heard that the refugee ban was about to kick in. Khani, an Armenian Christian who left Iran as a refugee in 1995, and who has worked for the IRC since 1997, sits in her small office — on one wall of which is pinned a poster of Albert Einstein, who founded the IRC to help Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, emblazoned with the words, “Refugees Welcome.”

“They pulled me out,” Khani continues, recalling her colleagues’ reaction to the unfolding events. And, she continues, they “told me 125 of our clients were supposed to depart January 27th from Iran to Vienna — and told me to call their relatives and tell them not to leave Iran.”

This is a story of contrasts: Of the pain and heartache, the confusion and the delays, faced by refugees caught in the chaos of the Trump administration’s policy changes, and of the opportunities, and the more welcoming spirit that await them if and when they arrive in California.

Despite the occasional anti-refugee protest, no state in the country accepts more refugees than California. Between 2011 and 2016, more than 36,000 settled here, according to the state’s Department of Social Services. Nearly 8,000 arrived in 2016 alone – as did thousands more Special Immigrant Visa holders — people from countries such as Afghanistan, who helped America during military operations and who are not, technically, refugees, but who can utilize refugee services once they arrive. The latter are concentrated in Sacramento, the Bay Area, Los Angeles, Orange County, San Diego, Santa Clara and a few towns throughout the Central Valley. Sacramento County alone, to where nearly half of the SIVs in the state have come, resettled about 3,300 refugees and Special Immigrant Visa holders in 2016. So far, in 2017, the IRC has resettled another 1,700 or so SIV holders, mostly Afghans, in Sacramento.

The Abd El Qader family waitied two and a half years for permission to emigrate to the U.S. (Photo: Khalid Eid)The Abd El Qader family waited two and a half years for permission to emigrate to the U.S. (Photo: Khalid Eid)

The state has, by and large, opened its heart and pocketbook. Earlier this year, Governor Jerry Brown signed into law a bill, authored by Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, that gives schools $10 million over three years to help refugee children in their new educational environment; he also signed Assembly Bill 343, giving SIVs the right to apply, upon arrival, for in-state tuition at community colleges. A state advisory council, made up of refugee resettlement agencies, community groups and members of the Department of Social Services, meets on a regular basis, as do several Refugee Forums around the Golden State.

The federal government, has, historically, also been fairly generous, setting in place a number of programs designed both to bring in refugees from certain countries, and also to help with the resettlement/acculturation process once they arrive. These days, however, Trump’s America is aggressively slamming its doors to them. Trump imposed a “temporary” ban on the entire non-SIV refugee program, severely restricting the granting of visas to people from a number of Middle Eastern countries, and implementing a Catch-22 of “extreme vetting” procedures – on top of the extraordinarily rigorous, three-year process that already existed prior to Donald Trump’s election — clearly designed to slow to a trickle the migration and visitation from other countries.

In California, even as much of the country turns its back on strangers fleeing war zones, refugee organizations report a surge in the number of community residents volunteering time and donating resources to help the new arrivals.

“This was a nonpartisan, noncontroversial issue up till the last two years,” says Pastor Kirt Lewis of World Relief Sacramento, which resettled over 1,500 refugees in Sacramento County last year. Then, as Trump ratcheted up his anti-refugee rhetoric, support for resettlement in many states plummeted. “If a lie is repeated enough times, a lot of people will buy it. The Midwest and many Southern states have politically become a hostile environment to refugees.”

“It has been,” he added, “an unpredictable, chaotic environment for those of us who believe this is a matter of character for the kind of country we aspire to be.”

Refugee resettlement agencies fear that Trump’s September presidential determination on refugees, which dramatically lowered the total number of refugees admitted yearly to 45,000 – it peaked under Obama at more than 110,000 — also imposes limitations based both on their nationalities and their “values.”

“We see a lot of risks and threats right now,” says New York-based Anna Greene, senior policy and advocacy director for U.S. programs at the IRC. Greene worries about processing requirements “made so onerous, to get through it really could grind [things] to a halt,” and about a “cherry-picking” of refugees designed to exclude people of certain religious and national backgrounds.

But in California, even as much of the country turns its back on strangers fleeing war zones, refugee organizations report a surge in the number of community residents volunteering time and donating resources to help the new arrivals. Every time Trump tries to hurt this vulnerable population, Californians respond by increasing their assistance. “You drop everything,” says Jose Serrano of World Relief, of the scramble to help incoming refugees after the chaos unleashed by Trump’s initial ban. “You don’t have time for lunch, dinner. You just problem-solve.”

IRC volunteers, such as Sarah Ferguson, a former caterer in Sacramento who now works full time on what she calls a “kindness campaign” –- based around a nonprofit organization that now has hundreds of local volunteers — have gotten involved in cultural orientations with refugees, in family support services, in little things like showing new arrivals around their neighborhoods, and in big things like helping them enroll children in school. “We have furnished hundreds of homes” for newly arrived refugees,” Ferguson says of her team. “We have done community events where we put out halal food, bring in entertainment. It’s a beautiful feeling. We were all immigrants once. For my family it was my grandparents. We were all once these people in one way or another.”

For World Relief’s Kirt Lewis, in the long-run this community generosity towards vulnerable new arrivals likely means that California, which has nurtured a huge, and effective, refugee resettlement infrastructure over the years – from job training to comprehensive medical screening — will end up housing a greater proportion of the total number of refugees who enter America. “You’ll see resettlement move away from the smaller and mid-sized communities. Refugee resettlement will increasingly be limited to blue and purple states.”

Soccer Diplomacy: Refugee children of the Little Brushstrokes League. (Photo: Ed Trenner)Soccer Diplomacy: Refugee children of the Little Brushstrokes program. (Photo: Ed Trenner)

Out back of the Sarah McGarvin Intermediate School, in the small Orange County city of Westminster, a couple of dozen boys and girls ranging in age from first graders up to teenagers are kicking a soccer ball around, their bicycles parked to one side of the pitch. It’s late summer, and the last day of the Little Brushstrokes soccer camp, which was put together for these refugee children by World Relief staffers and a number of local volunteers. Several days a week, sandwiched between the tennis and basketball courts, they have played soccer, speaking to each other in a mixture of pidgin English, Arabic, Farsi, Pashto. Several of the children are Syrian – part of the last batch of refugees to get into the country before the Supreme Court allowed the refugee ban to take effect this past June. Others are Afghan, Iraqi, Iranian and from a number of other Middle Eastern countries. Some of the girls wear hijabs in a slew of different colors.

The parents of many of these kids work at an assembly plant for medical equipment in nearby Irvine; others work local security jobs; others still are employed by restaurants. Many of the parents speak almost no English; increasingly, as their children pick up their new language, they lean on these children to translate for them and to help them navigate the complexities of life in the new world.

Once the children finish playing soccer, they will traipse over to the shaded copse just next to the main school building, where, sitting in a grassy area bordered by tissue paper hung from tall pine trees, they will eat slices of cheese pizza and chocolate cookies, washed down by Gatorade, while each are given medals for their participation in the summer program.

Photo: Ed TrennerPhoto: Ed Trenner

For 11-year-old twins Maher and Farah, Syrian refugees from a middle-class, business-owning family who spent five years in Egypt before recently being admitted into the U.S. with their parents and grandparents, the program has been a perfect way to begin their new lives in America. “We played soccer. We made friends,” explains Farah, a shy young girl who likes science and sports. She wants to continue soccer after the summer, once they start their new school, playing as a goalkeeper. Her brother, a Barcelona fan who idolizes the Argentinian superstar Lionel Messi, wants to be a striker.

Amidst the nastiness of Trump’s anti-refugee stance, California’s politicians and residents have remained steadfast in their commitment to welcome refugees.

To celebrate their new lives in California, the twins’ parents and grandparents threw them a surprise birthday party earlier that month. Their mother, Hanan, cooked traditional Syrian food — stuffed grape leaves, chicken wraps, shish barak, tabbouleh – as well as cookies, cake and ice cream. To make their environs look more festive, they hung red and white balloons along the walls of their new apartment.

The party was captured on a cellphone video by Hanan and her husband, Bilal: Maher dressed in a tuxedo, his sister in a white party dress. Their pride shines through loud — that all-encompassing pride that most all parents, be they Syrian or American, have in their growing children.

When one talks to the family, however, a more enduring sadness emerges from the temporary joy of the birthday. During the Syrian fighting the twins’ parents’ and grandparents’ homes were destroyed, and their businesses ransacked after they refused to allow militias to use their factory supply chain to smuggle weapons. Eventually they had to flee with pretty much only the clothes on their backs.

“I smile in pain and hurt,” the grandmother, Amera, says softly, sitting at a picnic table near the soccer grounds, a three-minute walk from the little apartment they now live in. “I left my house, my belongings, everything. My life there. Daughters, relatives. I am still in very bad pain. Always, I am upset. I remember every day.”

Photo: Ed TrennerPhoto: Ed Trenner

Now, in California, the grandparents are trying to pick up the pieces of their lives at an age when many of their peers are retired, to begin all over again. It’s an awesome challenge for them, and for their working-age children. “We are surprised by a lot of things,” says Amera’s daughter, Hanan. “Financial problems. Getting a job is hard. Learning English. We feel insecure after the new regulations in America; we don’t feel safe. Maybe one day the president comes to us and says, ‘Leave.’ Or doesn’t give us a green card. Then there is no place to go. This is our fear.”

Their stories are by no means unique. Talk to refugees, or special immigrant visa holders, and one hears both tales of heartbreak and a remarkable ability to endure, to start anew, to navigate new pathways.

No matter how much local refugee resettlement organizations want to help these newcomers, they remain largely at the mercy of state and federal policies. And as Trump’s team has both imposed a temporary halt to non-SIV refugee flows, and proposed a long-term cap of 50,000 admissions per year, so one relief agency after another has had to close its idled resettlement offices.

In 2016, for example, World Relief’s Garden Grove office resettled 250 refugees. This year, before the ban kicked in, it resettled 145, and has been told by the organization’s Baltimore headquarters that, even if the ban is lifted it won’t be able to take any more refugees in 2017, because of the numbers cap. Over the last few months, World Relief has shuttered five offices around the country – in Tennessee, Idaho, Florida, Ohio and Maryland.

In 2016, the Glendale office of the International Rescue Committee resettled 1,097; this year it has resettled 668 and doesn’t anticipate being able to bring many more in during the remainder of the year. This year, in the Los Angeles area, three out of eight resettlement offices run by the several organizations working with refugees have closed. Martin Zogg, the director of the IRC’s Glendale office, fears this trend will only accelerate. He envisages “a dramatic contraction” in the number of agencies working with refugees, and a corresponding “reduction in the ability to serve refugees.”

And yet, amidst the nastiness of Trump’s anti-immigrant and anti-refugee stance, California’s politicians and residents have remained remarkably steadfast in their commitment to help and to welcome new arrivals. “That sends a very powerful message to Washington,” argues the IRC’s Anna Greene. “California and other states can do a lot by signaling welcome.”

Karen Ferguson, executive director of IRC’s Northern California chapter, agrees. “California is just continuing to be as positive a place in the midst of this very negative rhetoric as possible. You feel it every day here. I am so proud of this state. We all should be.”

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California Game Changers

California Game Changers: Leveling the Field in Immigration Court

Co-published by International Business Times

More than 600,000 immigrants are battling deportation or fighting for asylum in American immigration courts — nearly 20 percent of them live in California. Fewer than 40 percent of these are represented by an attorney, including children as young as 3.

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Robin Urevich




Illustration: Nicolás Zúñiga

Immigration law is often compared to the tax code in its complexity, but the government doesn’t provide attorneys for those who can’t afford them, as it does in criminal matters.

Co-published by International Business Times

 On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Cambodian refugee Chea Phov appeared before immigration judge Arlene Dorfman in downtown Los Angeles dressed in a crisp, white shirt and white jeans, and looking much older than his 40 years. He brought his sister and elderly mother to court for support, but he told Dorfman there was one person he couldn’t find: an attorney to represent him.

“I don’t understand how to fight my case. I barely passed high school,” Phov told Capital & Main. “I believe representing myself is unjust.”

Phov is not alone.

See Other Stories in This Series

More than 600,000 immigrants are currently battling deportation or fighting for asylum in immigration courts across the country. Nearly 20 percent of them live in California.

Operated by the U.S. Department of Justice, the courts decide whether those who are accused of violating immigration law should be permitted to remain in the country.

Some of those arguing their cases are survivors of domestic violence or torture in their homelands. Others are legal residents with longstanding family and community ties to the United States who have committed crimes, some of them minor and decades in the past. These cases carry far-reaching consequences. Deportation can mean permanent separation from a spouse, children and community, or, if repatriated to their country of origin, persecution, torture or worse.

A 2010 report by the American Bar Association noted that the lack of legal representation was found to be the single biggest determinant of success in immigration court asylum cases. Immigration law is often compared to the tax code in its complexity, but the government doesn’t provide attorneys for those who can’t afford them, as it does in criminal matters. Fewer than 40 percent of those arguing cases in immigration court are represented by an attorney, including children as young as 3, as well as men and women who can’t read or write, or who don’t speak English.

Phov argues that he faces deportation because of a big mistake, but said he can’t make his case for a second chance without legal help. He fled Cambodia with his family, came to the United States when he was 8 and settled in Long Beach. In his early 20s, he said, he drove a getaway car in a robbery and did 13 years in state prison. He denied being one of the bad hombres that politicians from Donald Trump to Jerry Brown contend should be shipped back to where they came from. Phov said he’s been crime-free for four and a half years and has rededicated his life to his Buddhist faith. He said his entire family is in the U.S.; a return to Cambodia would cut him off from everyone he knows, and damage his fragile mental health. He claims to suffer from depression, racing thoughts and bipolar disorder, but has benefited from medication.

“If they send me to Cambodia, I won’t get my meds.”

Seven years ago, the American Bar Association recommended the federal government establish a sort of public defender system of appointed attorneys for indigent immigrants like Chea Phov. However, Washington has taken no action.

Now, in the face of federal inaction, calls for so-called universal representation in immigration court have grown louder. Last year, the California Coalition for Universal Representation (CCUR), which is made up of nearly two dozen civil rights and immigrant rights groups, called for the state to establish its own free legal representation system for immigration defenses.

The odds are overwhelming against those who are sitting in immigration detention

without lawyers.

“Our society no longer questions the moral and constitutional duty to provide attorneys for individuals in criminal proceedings,” the group’s 2016 report, “California’s Due Process Crisis,” noted. “Given the similarity both in form and in severity of the potential consequences, the moral imperative here is equally clear.”

It’s also an issue for California’s social services system, the report claims. Deportations take parents away from their homes, which means more kids in foster care, greater mental health and medical needs, and housing and food insecurity for more families.

The coalition points to New York City, which in 2014 became the first in the country to offer free representation for all indigent residents, as well as for New Yorkers detained in neighboring New Jersey who face deportation. Meanwhile, this year California lawmakers have allocated $45 million to fund legal representation in immigration court, while the Trump administration’s deportation push has spurred Los Angeles, San Francisco, Atlanta, Chicago, Austin and Washington, DC to consider programs similar to New York City’s.

A study by the American Immigration Council last year further found that detained immigrants were twice as likely to win their cases if they had attorneys. Those who weren’t detained were five times more likely to prevail. Among children, the differences are even starker. Also in 2016, the National Immigrant Justice Center reported that 73 percent of those who have representation are allowed to stay in the U.S., while only 15 percent of unrepresented children are allowed to remain here.

“Immigration law is so difficult and so complex,” said Patricia Ortiz, program director at Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project in Los Angeles. “To expect someone to do it on their own is pretty ridiculous.”

Ortiz said it’s so hard for people to understand the system that some show up for her organization’s legal orientation meetings unaware that they’ve already been ordered deported.

To help people find counsel, the courts distribute lists of nonprofits like Esperanza, which is run by Catholic Charities. Some 20 such groups provide free and low-cost representation around the state, but demand for services far outstrips capacity, said Robert Foss, division attorney at the International Institute of Los Angeles, a Lincoln Heights nonprofit that helps immigrants settle into new lives in the United States.

“The intake is often overwhelming,” Foss said. “You do a legal triage, you find the most humanitarian or egregious cases. Our formula is cases that most need our help and maybe have a chance to win. It’s tricky and it means saying no to a lot of people.”

In Los Angeles and San Francisco, more than two-thirds of those in immigration proceedings are represented. But if you live in Atlanta or Kansas City, your chances of finding a lawyer are less than 50-50.

The odds are overwhelming against those who are sitting in immigration detention.

Detainees in Adelanto, the massive high desert lock-up near San Bernardino, California, have only a 13 percent chance of securing attorney representation, while those in San Diego fared only slightly better, with a 17 percent chance, the American Immigration Council study found.

At its core, the debate is about justice, with universal representation supporters and opponents at odds over just what is fair.

Using 2015 figures, the CCUR report argues the state of California could level the playing field with an outlay of $37 million to cover legal defense for the 7,400 Californians who were unrepresented in immigration court that year. The figures are likely larger this year, because of the record number of cases in the courts. The group’s report notes that the state could recoup its investment in the form of decreased foster care costs, lower mental and medical care expenses for traumatized families and millions spent by businesses to hire and train replacement workers for those lost to deportation.

However, the economic case for a federal universal representation program is even stronger. A 2014 study commissioned by the New York City Bar Association and conducted by John Montgomery, a former member of President Bill Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisors, found that universal representation would cost about $208 million nationally, but the cost would be offset by a savings of about the same amount —$204 to $208 million—in detention and related costs.

At its core, however, the debate is about justice, with universal representation supporters and opponents at odds over just what is fair.

Take a person who steals a bag of chips, said Jeremy McKinney, an attorney and secretary of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, who practices in North Carolina. The man gets a free lawyer. However, McKinney noted, a person in deportation proceedings may risk return to a war-torn or authoritarian country where he could be killed. “There is something that is not just about that,” McKinney, said. “Maybe we need to look at extending those protections to people who face permanent exile from our country.”

But Chapman University law professor and constitutional law scholar John Eastman disagrees.

“If that’s the argument, why not provide mandatory taxpayer-funded representation in family court?” he said, noting that the stakes are high there, too, as they are in other areas of civil law.

“You open the door here and there’s all sorts of other claimants that are equally sympathetic. You pay for someone illegal – why not pay for me in my landlord-tenant dispute or my divorce?” Eastman said.

Still, Eastman said his objection is to making immigration defense a constitutional right, as it is in criminal cases. He said he wouldn’t necessarily oppose Congress appropriating funds for that purpose.

(Kenneth Gardner, a spokesman for the Executive Office for Immigration Review, a branch of the U.S. Department of Justice, which runs the courts, wrote in an email that his agency declines to comment on calls for universal representation.)

Still, a 2013 court victory shows that a system of free appointed counsel for those who can’t afford it can work in immigration court, said American Civil Liberties Union attorney Ahilan Arulanantham. Seven years ago, Arulanantham, who was named a MacArthur fellow last year, filed suit on behalf of José Antonio Franco-González and Guillermo Gomez-Sanchez; both men were stuck indefinitely in immigration detention because they couldn’t afford to hire attorneys, and judges had decided neither man could competently represent himself. The case won class action status and in 2013 a U.S. District Court judge ordered free legal counsel for some individuals with intellectual disabilities and severe mental health issues.

“The Franco injunction shows that it’s feasible to run a program of appointed legal representation for people facing deportations,” Arulanantham said.

The District Court ruling originally only applied to California, Arizona and Washington. But the government has voluntarily established a nationwide program, Arulanantham said.

“At bottom, it reflects the judgment that people with serious mental disorders can’t get a fair hearing without competent legal representation, which isn’t particularly shocking.”

Now the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals is considering a request for rehearing in another of Arulanantham’s cases involving undocumented children between 3 and 17, in which, he argued, children are unsurprisingly outgunned in immigration court. They are generally unable to identify their rights to relief from deportation or do the legal research necessary to support their claims, much less argue against a trained government prosecutor in court. Arulanantham noted that while free legal services for immigrant children have expanded in recent years, some kids are still left to fend for themselves in court.

The effort to expand due process rights in immigration court is likely to continue moving slowly. Meanwhile local and state programs that help fund immigration defense don’t cover everyone who needs help. A large-scale federal program is all but impossible to imagine in the current presidential administration, said Avideh Moussavian of the National Immigration Law Center. But she added that the current patchwork of efforts could one day pave the way for a much larger reform.

“I think that like many things,” Moussavian said, “it often takes the cumulative effect of local measures to create the tipping point from an advocacy perspective for there to be federal action.”

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