PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — A Broken Immigration System

Nothing about the current immigration crisis in our country is simple or easy.

After one day as part of the Abriendo Fronteras/Opening Borders delegation, spending six days in El Paso, Texas, and Juarez, Mexico, exploring issues related to immigration, that is my greatest take away.

Our morning began early, at 6 am. The group of 16 — which includes our two leaders, Vicki Schmidt and Father Bob, of the Columban Mission Center where we are staying, as well as Bishop Terry Brandt, who is leading this delegation — gathered for prayer and reflection. We are all essentially seeking what it means for us to respond to the call to be faithful during these troubled times.

My hope, with what I write in the next six days as the official “group blogger,” is to report on what I saw, heard and experienced, so that those who read will have a glimpse of actual “facts on the ground’ when so much of what we hear is spin.

We discovered quickly, however, that trying to get away from facts and not spin is easier said than done.

Our first stop, appropriately, was the border, the border fence to be exact, constructed in the urban area of El Paso in 2008. We met at the area that used to be Fort Bliss before it relocated, with two Border Patrol officers who spoke to our group. We are fortunate that El Paso is the only sector of the U.S. Border Patrol that agrees to meet and speak with groups that visit.

The two officers started by talking about the fence, which is not new or high-tech, but works effectively as a tool for them in enforcement in an urban area, since what preceded it was a chain-link fence that was easy for bandits to scale. In rural environments, they rely on an X-style blockade that prevents cars from crossing over, and with the other tools that they use, including cameras and tech equipment, they are able to effectively fulfill their mission.

They shared how their jobs have changed over the past 10 years. Ten years ago, most of the people they apprehended were bandits, men with criminal backgrounds who were here to wreak havoc and flee to the other side of the border. Ninety-eight percent of the undocumented people they deported were Mexicans, and the ones who were deported were tagged because of criminal activity and moral turpitude.

Today they said 98 percent of the people they apprehend are coming from Central America, largely families with children and unaccompanied minors. Among them are individuals who are refugees from the climate change crisis because the farms that have been in their families for five or six generations are dry and barren due to drought conditions. Many are also fleeing concerns because of gang violence or threats from corrupt governments or police. Often there are mothers with daughters who they fear will be raped and taken as sex slaves for the gang or unaccompanied young boys who either flee or are forced to join the gang.

These guards assured us that they are human beings who want to be kind to those they stop, even as they enforce the rule of law. They donate clothing their children have outgrown or that they no longer use to provide warmth to those who arrive after the long walk ill prepared for the weather and freezing.

The agents shared how the changes in the job have had a profound effect on them. In the past, they used to simply process people, but now they spend a good 75 percent off their job in the hospitals, transporting sick kids, taking care of people who are in a desperate situation. In 2018, they processed 32,000 people. This year that number has ballooned to 180,000, many who are families with children who present themselves for asylum.

The vast majority of the stories are legitimate, and in the past, most would have been released to relatives to await their asylum hearing. They would bus or fly to their relatives and be assigned to one of the immigtation courts that span the country. But now, almost everyone they stop is being put in detention centers, where they need to stay or else return to Mexico to await a hearing. On a rare occasion they do find people like a man wanted for a sexual felony who had a child with him. He was likely a sex trafficker, and they made it clear that when they makes these kinds of stops, it makes a lot of the pain and heartache worth it.

The story of one of the Border Patrol officers fascinated me. His family came in without documents and they were able to get amnesty, which was provided from 1986 to January 2001 to immigrants who had been living in the U.S. and had not committed any crimes and had a clean record, if they paid a $1,000 fine. He was a living example of the positive change that could occur if such a possibility existed for so many living in the shadows today, a law-abiding, tax-paying contributing member of society.

After a visit to a museum where there was an exhibition of art that children in a detention center created called “Encaged Hearts,” with displays that showed pictures of the culture they left behind but held in their hearts, we headed to Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services, where Anna Hay spoke to us.

Anna, a lawyer, shared with us the complexity of the immigration system. I have to admit, I thought I had some grasp of immigration before she started to talk and by the end, my head ached. To say that the system is complex is an understatement. Even for those who work with it day in and day out, it is at times almost if not impossible to navigate.

The biggest takeaways for me is that when people say, “I am fine with legal immigration, but they should wait in line to take their turn,” is that for many that means waiting for over 30 years. She showed us a list of when they are processing people waiting for asylum and their countries, and the list included both Russia and the Soviet Union. I raised my hand to clarify the confusion, but there was not no confusion. In 2018, they were still processing claims from people who came in seeking asylum from the former Soviet Union. That is how broken the system is.

So when we tell people to “wait their turn,” I will now envision the young Honduran woman who was apprehended by the female Border Patrol officer, Sarah, after she finished speaking with us. Kevin Wallevand, the reporter with our delegation, did a ride along with the officers, and they picked up this woman, standing by the side of the road, her clothes wet and muddy from crossing the river, clutching her 7-month-old old baby. She had paid money to be transported to the border but was being kept in a house in Juarez. One cannot know what transpired either in Honduras or in Juarez or during her journey, but I can’t imagine anything less than something horrific that would lead her to escape the house and cross the river clutching her baby to her breast as she presented herself for asylum in the U.S. This young woman and her baby, these are the real faces of the humanitarian crisis at the border.

Anna talked to us about the facts, like there have been 8,000 children who have been reported separated from their families at the border, a number she expects to rise, since an additional 1,500 were just added this past week and factual reports come in slowly.

She told us that unaccompanied minors can’t be sent back to their home country if a parent isn’t waiting for them and that there are 350 unaccompanied minors in area shelters but it should go up to 900 by the end of the year. In the past, they were released to relatives, but that has changed. Because of the strict rules at the shelter, there is no human contact with the care providers, so they receive no care or nurturing. They get meals, but in refugee resettlement they don’t have to provide any educational services because if they did they would become subject to the rules of protective services, giving them more rights and better treatment.

Anna shared with us just how broken the system is. The only reform made to the U.S. immigration system since 1986 was to criminalize entering the country without documents. Previously it was a civil offense. By making it a misdemeanor, politicians can refer to all those making passage outside of the border and presenting themselves for asylum as criminals. Other than that change to make it a crime, nothing has been done to the system in over 30 years.

The strongest takeaway I had from our time with Anna was how the immigration problem has become largely a money-making proposition for for-profit prisons and providers. The law that was passed to address what was happening at the border guaranteed these for profit detention centers a minimum of 39,000 beds per day to fill their centers.

The costs guaranteed for the providers are $134 per day for an adult detention centers, $319 for family detention center, and between $800 and $1,000 a day for centers for unaccompanied minors.

It doesn’t take a lot of brain power to figure out that the detention of families and those crossing the border, rather than catching and releasing those who don’t have a criminal record or outstanding warrants, as was done previously, is big business.

Follow the money and you can figure out who has a lot to gain from this $2.6 billion dollar (and rising) industry. There is a strong political lobby that encourages the U.S. to invest in these detention centers rather than allowing people to go to family members and report to immigration courts where they live.

Just imagine what a difference it would make if we invested that money in building up the countries of Central America so that people could get decent-paying jobs and there would be alternatives to the gangs. That would reduce the influx of refugees and instead of spending money detaining people in reprehensible conditions, we could be develop support for American democracy and values.

The bottom line Is that our immigration system is broken and there is a strong push to keep it broken to enrich people who benefit from detention centers. John Kelly, former Chief of Staff and the secretary of Homeland Security, recently joined the board of one such company after leaving the Trump administration. If one looks at who serves on these boards and who benefits, it is clear why there is no political will to make a change.

Want to find the reason for this crisis that has ballooned in the last few years and the roadblocks to solving it? Follow the money.

After leaving DRMS and having lunch, we drove by the memorial for the El Paso Walmart Massacre. There was a huge line of items left to honor the dead and as the day of the dead approached families were arriving to leave things. We encountered a group who had come to honor their abuella who had died.

We gathered in a circle to pray and say the names, giving voice to the victims of a man driven by hate and spouting white supremacist, anti-immigrant rhetoric. To be shocked that this happened is to fail to pay attention to what is unfolding with the dehumanizing language used by the current administration. It sowed the wind and this is reaping the whirlwind.

We returned to the mission where we are staying to hear a presentation from Molly Molloy about the violence in Mexico.

She began by reiterating what Anna had shared with us, that the detention center problem is self-created, since we used to release people until they presented themselves for asylum and they appear in the court wherever their relatives lived. So some would go to New York or San Francisco and appear there. Those immigration courts have a higher rate of acceptance of asylum, some as high as 85 percent, whereas 2 percent are accepted at El Paso.

She detailed the situation with the private prison corporations providing asylum, making money and letting people essentially rot in cell-like dorms that were filled with snakes, scorpions, rats and other vermin. The prison industrial complex at its very worst.

She went on to describe the violent situation in Mexico, particularly Juarez, where the murder rate is more than four times greater than anywhere in the U.S. It has come down from a height around 2010 but has spiked in the past few years as cartels battle for control and power, especially with the rise in opportunities for trafficking. As asylum seekers are forced to return to Mexico to wait, where they know no one, instead of going to family in the U.S., they become easy targets. She told us 20 people were killed just the previous weekend.

She shared stories of massacres in drug treatment facilities where everyone was mowed down by assault weapons and random violence that killed bystanders. The accompanying photos were gut-wrenching. Real people and real grieving families. Not statistics.

The stories she shared were made real, like the story we heard from the undocumented immigrants who prepared our amazing evening meal. The wife’s son had seen a murder and he reported it to the police. The police tipped the cartel off and they came and shot up the family home, killing her brother, sister-in-law and cousin and leaving her full of bullets. She went to the hospital in Juarez and then was transported to the U.S. with a short term visa due to an infection. When the time came for them to return, they didn’t qualify for a humanitarian visa, so they remained in El Paso with their family without documents. They were afraid they would be targeted and killed by the cartel, and this was their only recourse.

The husband had worked in agriculture until a crack down by ICE, so now they do odd jobs and survive in the shadows.

By the end of the day as we gathered to share our thoughts about the day, I was not alone in being overwhelmed. We talked about Jacob wrestling with God and I, too, was wrestling with putting together all I learned.

Anyone who thinks this is easy doesn’t get it, but I hope to spend the next few days learning and sharing more, so we won’t forget those in the shadows and help develop a system that allows us to have more success stories like the Border Patrol officer who benefitted from amnesty. Our country is better off if people are paying taxes, not paying our tax money to enrich corporations that detain people.

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