According to ICE and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, federal officials bussed hundreds of undocumented immigrants from south Texas to Arizona because of a surge of illegal immigrants on the south Texas border. Cyndi Whitmore, volunteer with the Phoenix Restoration Project, Laura Ilardo, co-founder of No More Deaths and Regina Jefferies, immigration attorney with Guerrero Jefferies Law Group, discuss why this happened and what is being done to help people being brought to our state.
José Cárdenas: Thank you for joining us. Hundreds of undocumented immigrants detained as far away as Texas, loaded up on buses and dropped off here in the valley. According to ICE and U.S. customs and border protection, Federal officials bussed hundreds of undocumented immigrants from south Texas to Arizona, many of them from Central America. ICE says a recent surge in undocumented immigrants on the south Texas border is why they were sent here for help processing paperwork. Here tonight to talk about this is Cyndi Whitmore, a volunteer with the Phoenix restoration project. Laura Ilardo, co-founder of the group No More Deaths. And Regina Jefferies, a Phoenix immigration attorney with Guerrero Jefferies law group. Thank you all for joining us on "Horizonte." I think what I want to focus on during the segment is dispelling a lot of myths, having talked to you all off camera. And first, Regina, tell us what's going on right now. Why are we getting all these people coming from Texas to Arizona?
Regina Jefferies: What you are seeing is, we are having unaccompanied minor children. Individuals essentially crossing the border into Texas. And what's happened is customs and border protection and immigration and customs enforcement don't have the capacity in Texas to deal with the increase in numbers of people crossing. And so what's happened is, instead of trying to find places in Texas or to detain these families in Texas, what's been happening is that ice has been transferring individuals to Arizona where there's greater capacity. There's greater capacity to process individuals because Arizona previously had been the Gateway for, the largest number of migrants coming to the U.S. so the resources were focused here.
José Cárdenas: So number one, is the suggestion that somehow this is a political retaliation by the Obama administration against the Brewer administration?
Regina Jefferies: Absolutely not. If you look at the facts, I mean, they tell a different story. The issue really is that there's not a capacity to handle this influx in Texas. And so what custom and boarder protection is doing is the humane thing in trying to get people to a place where they can be reunited with family or placed with the office of refugee resettlement in the case of unaccompanied minor children.
José Cárdenas: Cyndi, in terms of impact, your group was one of the first that was impacted because you were dealing with the families that were coming in. Tell us what's going on there.
Cyndi Whitmore: We were definitely caught off-guard. We weren't prepared to provide direct aid to families. But I think within hours we had recovered. We received a phenomenal response from the Phoenix community, and my response and anybody who would insinuate it was a burden on our community clearly it was not. We had ample resources to share. I had more donations than I knew what to do with. We couldn't even store them all.
José Cárdenas: What were you doing for the people?
Cyndi Whitmore: We were providing, our primary goal is to provide phone support, help people make contact with their loved ones so they can make travel arrangements. Most of the time when people are released at a greyhound station they don't have confirmation numbers for bus tickets. Unless they have a phone to make a phone call, then, they are kind of stuck at greyhound. And that's the work that we have been doing at the greyhound for the last two years.
Laura Ilardo: Laura, I realize your group is focused more on the perils of crossing the desert - what is happening to those people what is happening about that and we want to talk about that later in the segment but talk to us about the unaccompanied minors which is a group distinct from the one Cyndi just talked about.
I think what we are seeing, within our organization, within the volunteers that we see when we provide the direct aid to the migrants in the desert, the perils that we find with unaccompanied minors are the risk of abuse is high. They are crossing the desert, very dangerous trek for anyone, let alone a young child or a teenager. Most of those that are coming across we worry about them, whether they are being trafficked or sexual abuse by others within the group or from others in the desert. So those are some of the concerns we have with some of the unaccompanied minors coming through.
José Cárdenas: Regina, one of the myths I understand it is the suggestion people are just being dumped in Arizona and nothing is being done to either process them with respect to the immigration system or even to attend to their basic needs. What's actually going on in.
Regina Jefferies: That's right. There has been a lot of talk about people just being sent out into the world. In reality what's happening is that at least in the case of the adults, the families that have been coming in, all of these individuals are in removal proceedings. Same thing goes for the unaccompanied minor children who are being processed through Nogales. They are all being placed in a removal proceeding so they can go in front of an immigration judge and make their case. Many people might have a claim to asylum. Some of the children might have claims to special immigrant juvenile status. Some of these different types of reliefs that are sometimes available but many may not. They are being put into a legal process. So it's not just that people are being released willingly.
José Cárdenas: As I understand it some of them actually have a legal status that would permit them to remain here because of the country they are from.
Regina Jefferies: So in particular with Honduras, there's something called temporary protected status. But you have to meet certain criteria in order to be able to have temporary protective status from Honduras. That's not really what's happening for the individuals that are coming over. Some of the individuals are being paroled into the United States. It's called humanitarian parole so that they can So they believe essentially be released to attend removal proceedings. So that they are not having to be detained. So essentially what customs and border protection is doing they are trying to take the humane route here and release families, not detained children, and parents, and allow them to stay with family members, you know, in the U.S. while they are going through a removal or deportation proceeding.
José Cárdenas: Laura, you talked a moment ago about the risks and dangers of crossing the border. Yet why would people run those risks? As I understand it the problem is what's going on in their home countries.
Laura Ilardo: Yes, absolutely. We are talking about the central Americans specifically, the violence level of violence within their country is so great that they are -- they would rather risk the small chance of something happen in the journey to the U.S. versus sure death or harm in, or poverty in their country.
José Cárdenas: What kind of dangers are they facing.
Laura Ilardo: In the desert?
José Cárdenas: In their home countries.
Laura Ilardo: They are facing extreme poverty. The situation is awful. Most of them are living, very, very poor conditions where they can barely feed themselves or feed their children. Unemployment is huge, and, of course, the violence or gang violence, drug violence, gun violence.
José Cárdenas: As I understand el Salvador that has the highest murder rate of any country that's not at war?
Laura Ilardo: In Honduras.
José Cárdenas: That's part of the motivation for people coming here. Cyndi, the demographics, the suggestion is that the unaccompanied minors are babies or four or five years old and I know there's some of those but it's actually an older age group, isn't it?
Cyndi Whitmore: It is. There are, and I have spoken with consular officials who have gained entrance to the children's officials and they have indicated there are a few children around six years of age but the vast majority of these children are 14 to 17 years old and one of things we have to keep in mind culturally that a 14 to 17-year-old is not really considered a child in some of these countries.
José Cárdenas: And in terms of predictability of what's happened, I know the press has reported there was a huge upsurge and I understand that is true to a certain degree. But you have indicated it wasn't entirely unforeseen.
Cyndi Whitmore: No, it's not. We have seen that these numbers have been increasing for a while. It's been known that the violence is increasing, that the poverty is not getting better. Yes there was definitely a surge but it wasn't completely unpredictable that we were going to see families and, you know, youth trying to make this journey because the conditions are just so terrible that people are having to take greater and greater risks just to survive.
José Cárdenas: Regina, on the process questions that we touched on earlier, some of these people are being released, and they are given effectively court appearance dates. Or at least they have to check in. What happens if they don't?
Regina Jefferies: Well, if you don't appear in court and you are given a hearing date, you are essentially deported in your absence. So if somebody doesn't show up to court, then an order of removal will be entered against them, and if they're found in the U.S., then, they will be removed.
José Cárdenas: And speaking of deportation, that's not what's happening to the people who are processed right now. Is it?
Regina Jefferies: No. A lot of what we are hearing is the unaccompanied minor children being processed and specifically in the Nogales area, the Nogales facility. And what's happening is those children are actually meeting with a Department of Human health and human services and being screened by different agencies and many of them will be placed with office of refugee resettlement for housing during their removal proceedings, during their time in the U.S., or if they can be placed with family members who are in the U.S., they will be placed with family members.
José Cárdenas: Now, going back to one question you touched on at the very beginning, Arizona is a choice location for the Federal authorities because we have some capacity. But surely there must be other places further east, for example, where these people could go. Why are they coming to Arizona?
Regina Jefferies: I think that immediately, though, because what's happening is there is this huge upsurge. I think what's happening is custom and border protection is trying to figure out the fastest and the best way to deal with this huge increase in numbers. And Arizona is, happens to be one place where there is that capacity that they can send individuals for processing. However, after processing they may not stay in Arizona. They will likely be sent out to different parts of the U.S. where they might have family members in Oklahoma that they will be sent out to Oklahoma to stay with family members. Or to Boston. There are any number of places they could end up. They are not necessarily all going to stay in Arizona.
José Cárdenas: Cyndi, how quickly were the people, the families who came to the greyhound bus stations, how quickly were they sent on to other places where they might find family members?
Cyndi Whitmore: Our goal was to get these individuals first medically stable. They had recently been in the desert and been held in very inadequate conditions in Texas. So we were seeing severe dehydration. Kids with asthma that were released that didn't have their inhalers returned to them. As soon as we get people medically stable it was our goal to get them on their way as quickly as possible to -- I am not aware of any of the families that our organization provided aid to in, during those days that stayed in Arizona. None of them were looking to stay here. They were all very anxious to be reunited with loved ones in other parts of the country.
José Cárdenas: And after those 10 days, the first days of the program, have you had any more families coming through?
Cyndi Whitmore: We haven't seen any new families released at the Phoenix greyhound since Thursday.
José Cárdenas: Laura, one of the things we have talked about is what seems to be some improvements in the way that the Federal government is dealing with immigrants, both in terms of crossing the border and, Regina, I want to come back to you on some of this. But there was a recent change in internal affairs for costums and border protection. Tell us about that.
Laura Ilardo: I can't give you specifics on why he was released of his duties. It was a CVP internal affairs director, James Tomchak. What I can say is one of the things that No More Deaths has done is monitor the U.S. involvement in the border. And we had released a report in 2011, the culture of cruelty report which has shown systemic abuse by border patrol agents of migrants. Countless, countless stories of migrants being horribly abused and violated by border patrol agents, where the response by border patrol was that it was an individual border patrol agent who did these, it was not a systemic problem. I think what happened this week is the real recognition that there has been some systemic abuse and no accountability for any of these, many of these incidents. Twenty-two immigrants were, have been killed or murdered by border patrol agents with very little accountability. No arrests and no -- none of them have been sent to trial.
José Cárdenas: And then recently there was a discussion about a new change in new support policies?
Laura Ilardo: That I am not aware of. There has been a discussion of change of use of force. The CVP did not respond by putting out a policy change. They did not react by creating any sort of a change of policy. It's still like business as usual.
José Cárdenas: Regina, though, in that regard, you have seen some improvement in terms of how the Federal government, ice, and so forth, is dealing with this current situation.
Regina Jefferies: I think that if you look at, for example, enforcement and removal operations, certain parts of customs and border protection, I think what we have seen over the last couple of years really is an increase in discretion. So more, a greater ability for officials to look at an individual's circumstances. So in the past where you may have had a mother with a small child who is a single mother detained for six to eight months in immigration detention center, with no one really to care for her child, those are the kinds of things that we are seeing more flexibility on with enforcement operations. Ice and custom and border protection, they are much more able to take into account an individual's circumstances.
José Cárdenas: Some improvement in how things are going but still a lot more to do I take it would be the consensus?
Cyndi Whitmore: Definitely.
José Cárdenas: Thank you all for joining us on "Horizonte" to talk about this very important and controversial topic. But I hope we have cleared up some of the misunderstanding.
Cyndi Whitmore: Thank you.
Cyndi Whitmore:Volunteer, Phoenix Restoration Project; Laura Ilardo:Co-Founder, No More Deaths; Regina Jefferies:Immigration Attorney, Guerrero Jefferies Law Group;