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McALLEN, RGV – The safety of Central American immigrants heading to the United States has worsened, says a Texas RioGrande Legal Aid attorney.

On Wednesday, author and civil rights activist Jennifer K. Harbury hosted a presentation titled “From Central America to the U.S. Border: A Human Rights Nightmare,” at South Texas College’s 12th Annual Human Trafficking Conference.

In her presentation, TRLA’s Harbury discussed a recent increase in violence towards Central American immigrants, both as they attempt to cross into the U.S and in Mexico when they try to return home.

Jennifer K. Harbury

“Right now, gangs are going after all refugees,” Harbury said, citing, as an example, the ransacking of 20 deported refugees at a bus station in Nuevo Laredo.

“It used to be people paying to cross the river, but now they (coyotes) are asking them (deportees) to pay up because they know they have families in the north that, of course, when told, ‘we’re going to kill your son,’ will get the money for them. Now, anybody in the area is getting picked up and held hostage.”

Harbury said it is a problem that the Amercian public is not aware of because the abuses are happening in Mexico to refugees who are being denied entry into the U.S. at the border.

“It’s a huge problem right now. We don’t care about those abuses and we need to fix that,” she said “We can’t just send people across (back to Mexico), it kills people.”

Harbury was not complimentary towards Border Patrol.

“Border Patrol has assumed, all across the border with Mexico, including California, that somehow those of us on this side will never find out about those types of abuses because those people get sent straight back and it’s so dangerous over there that very few of us are going over there.”

When arriving north, immigrants have only two choices, Harbury said. Either they cross the river or turn themselves in to Border Patrol and ask for asylum.

However, she said the river is now controlled by cartels and crossing fees are up to 2,000 U.S. dollars. The alternative option, if they cannot pay, is to work for the cartel, Harbury said.

On the other hand, if an immigrant asks for asylum at the border, Harbury said that under the law enforcement officers must and shall turn them over, or refer them for an interview by an asylum officer. That is their right,” Harbury said.

But instead, she said, immigrants are often turned away.

This was the case for a Guatemalan woman, who according to Harbury, when asking for asylum at the border for the first time, was told to “go away.” The woman was then kidnapped after turning back into Mexico.

Harbury said the woman and her eight-year-old daughter had initially fled Guatemala after gang members asked her boss, in the restaurant she worked at, for money and threatened to have employees killed if she did not pay.

In her journey, Harbury said the woman lost her daughter when the van they traveled in was captured by a gang on the outskirts of Monterrey.

In an attempt to seek asylum, Harbury said the Guatemalan obtained a “credible fear interview,” but that it took Harbury’s presence to get the woman the assistance needed.

According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS), Credible Fear Interviews are conducted by Asylum officers when a person subject to expedited removal expresses an intention to apply for asylum.

The individual must express fear of persecution or torture, or fear of return to the country of origin.

“The law says that if you’re in danger of being tortured or persecuted back home you cannot be deported, you’re getting a political asylum or withholding a deportation,” Harbury further explained.

This is not the first case in which Harbury has had to help refugees obtain asylum.
She gave another example where a family had been turned away six times.

Harbury said the family had received responses from law enforcement to “get lost, or we will call Mexican authorities to come get you.” Another time they were told, “there is no room (in detention centers), return in a couple of hours.”

“There are international treaties on this and it’s on our domestic statute. It’s clear as a bell, but what is actually happening to these people?” Harbury asked.

In her closing remarks, Harbury addressed the public and said this is the “true face” of what is happening to refugees in their attempt to seek help at the border and when deported to Mexico.

“This is what we’re doing, this is the true face of what we’re doing so the question is, what are we going to do about it? It’s our country.”

Sister Norma Pimentel

On Thursday, the second day of STC’s Human Trafficking Conference, Sister Norma Pimentel from Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, discussed with the audience the mission of Sacred Heart’s Respite Center, which began in 2014.

During a panel discussion titled, “Migrant Rights in South Texas: Community Organizations’ Response to the Plight of Migrants,” Pimentel shared refugees’ stories and the recent decrease in arrivals of immigrants from Central America. Pimentel said the number of immigrants coming to Sacred Heart Respite Center had dropped from around 400 to five a day.

Presently, a majority of refugees are sent to detention centers overseen by Border Patrol, Pimentel explained.

In an interview with the Rio Grande Guardian, Pimentel said that although arrivals at Sacred Heart have decreased, plans to open a second refugee facility will continue.

“Whether the numbers go up or down, to some extent there is always a need for a facility that can respond in a humanitarian way,” Sister Pimentel said.

“We have decided we are going to move forward and continue to address whatever the need is here on our border.”

Sister Pimentel said the Catholic Church also wants to continue protecting these families.

“We want the immigrants to know that the church cares about them and we have to keep being a voice for them in Washington and their communities and that they will always find that protection and solidarity with the church.”

In her final statement, Pimentel defended refugees. “They are not criminals just for crossing over,” she said, encouraging the Rio Grande Valley public to help.

“We must not be indifferent to this human suffering, we must not just pull back and say they are criminals because they are not criminals just because they are immigrants,” Pimentel said. “They are people and we must never forget that it is our responsibility to do something to shelter them and make sure that they are not afraid because ‘no estan solos’ (they are not alone).”

Austin visit

Prior to her presence at the conference, Sister Pimentel visited the Austin Capitol on Wednesday, April 5.

She was invited by state Rep. R.D. ‘Bobby’ Guerra of McAllen to lead the morning invocation in the Texas House of Representatives.

In a press release, Guerra said: “Sister Norma helped restore human dignity to the most vulnerable and brought forth a revolution of tenderness which is so essential in times of such strife. It was my distinct privilege to have her lead this legislative body in a power prayer that hopefully reminded all the Representatives that we all share one mutual goal, and that is to care for all people especially the most vulnerable in our midst.”

Zika Virus

Meanwhile, Rep. Guerra was also in the news this week for passing an amendment to the state budget that provided more money for Zika prevention and testing. The amendment takes $25,000 from Gov. Greg Abbott’s tourism department and moves it to healthcare.

Guerra said: “As we head into the summer months and the height of mosquito season, it is imperative that we are being proactive and not reactive in how to tackle the Zika virus. South Texas is on the front lines of combating this virus, and I am proud to work with my colleagues to secure the necessary funding to ensure the people of South Texas have the adequate resources needed. As a Member of the House Public Health Committee, I know firsthand the devastation that this virus can bring to individuals, families and the community. This is why I filed and passed an amendment to the state budget to secure these vital funds.”