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The complex situation at the U.S.-Mexico border

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[Deacon Timothy Donohue of Holy Family Parish, West Roxbury made a trip to the U.S.-Mexico border city of Brownsville, Texas June 24-26 to see first-hand and raise awareness of the experience of immigrants and asylum seekers at the border. The following is among his observations of the situation there.]

As Ofelia stood in line on the International Bridge on Monday morning waiting for the next customs agent, she was exhausted from her journey and in great fear for her life. The lives of her two boys, ages 2 and 4, were at stake. When she got her chance, she told her story to the agent. She had worked for the cartel and now that she was at the border seeking asylum, she and her boys would now be executed unless they got across the border to safety. She was telling her story hoping that the truth would save her boys, even if it meant that she would go to jail. "Take my boys and keep them safe and I will answer your questions."

The immigration issue is complicated. The Border Patrol agent who explained this woman's story was tearfully sad because the story is not uncommon, and the agent had two children the same age. Here are some of the issues that explain the effects that "Zero Tolerance" has caused within an already confusing process that involves many different U.S. Government agencies working together to handle an overwhelming number of asylum seekers. Change will require discussion and debate. Inflamed rhetoric will impede the ability to find solutions. Solutions are needed that most importantly will respect the human dignity of these people who have made the decision to leave everything behind.

This new policy of separating children traveling with their parents is not simple. Some argue that it is done for the protection of the children themselves. The recent uproar among the public has created the political pressure and court decisions that appear to modify this separation policy, but a long-term solution is needed. Above all, the human dignity of these individuals must be respected and protected. Any changes to legislation will require a deeper understanding of the current issues and laws in enough depth to allow discussion and debate and clarity.

Current United States Immigration Policy allows adults and children to come to any of its 328 Ports of Entry and request asylum. The United States is bound by the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, also known as the 1951 Refugee Convention. There are other U.S. laws that cover quotas and regulations to secure the borders and control the flow of visitors and asylum seekers.

In the Brownsville Diocese, there are several ports of entry to cross into the United States. The volume of asylum seekers and the staffing at the ports of entry determine the wait time to get through the border from Mexico. Homeland Security Border Custom Officials are in charge. On June 25, the wait for Ofelia was over 24 hours.

The largest number of travelers are coming from the "Northern Triangle" of Central America: Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. These asylum seekers have been on their journey for well over 6 weeks and have spent between $8,000 to $10,000 in fees and bribes. These people are fleeing unsafe conditions caused by a breakdown in law enforcement due to drug gang violence creating the highest homicide rates in the world.

On the 1,000 mile journey, they have braved colds and infections, robbery, rape -- and some have been killed. Once they have gotten this close, they grow impatient. They have run out of diapers; the babies are dehydrated. They have no more food, they might be sick and they are desperate and afraid. The cartels have significant influence along the border, creating a greater sense of urgency. No one wants to wait in line for another day or two. Their alternative is to cross the river out of sight of the Customs and Border Agents.

Crossing into the United States through the Port of Entry is the lawful place to request asylum. The law entitles those seeking asylum to "due process" under our Constitution, which in this case is the right to have a court hear their case for asylum. These asylum seekers are held in an immigration detention center for processing. In Mcallen that would be the Ursula Detention Center. However, in recent months, the flood of people has overwhelmed the capacity to manage the asylum seekers. For the most part, the children are held in the same facility as their father or mother or uncle or aunt. Since there are many adults in the "cells" with 20 or so other adults, the children are kept in a different area within the 77,000 square foot building with children of their own age and gender. There is an area where mothers and babies are kept together. The population on June 25 was 760 members of families and 150 unaccompanied children. The goal is to get people processed through the facility within 24 to 48 hours, not to exceed 72 hours. Once the travelers have been screened for prior crimes and other violations and had their opportunity to ask for asylum, they are then given a court date near the city where they are traveling to join relatives. They are fitted with an electronic ankle bracelet and dropped off by Border Patrol at the local bus stations with their meager belongings.

Under the new "Zero Tolerance" policy crossing at any other place (in Brownsville it would be crossing the Rio Grande River ) is a criminal misdemeanor. When the asylum seekers are apprehended by Border Patrol, they are taken to the processing center where they are prosecuted before a Federal Magistrate Court and most face denial of their asylum request and face expedited deportation. According to a public defender, the majority of these people, having been denied their opportunity for asylum against more rigorous criteria, now facing six months in prison are offered a three-day time-served sentence for their plea of guilt and expedited deportation.

While going through these court proceedings, the new policy requires their children are transferred to Health and Human Services' Office of Refugee Resettlement and placed in a shelter such as Southwest Key Programs' Nueva Esperanza. The coordination of custody for individuals changes from Immigrations Customs Enforcement (ICE), to Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), to Border Patrol, to Health and Human Services and within HHS, the Office of Refugee Resettlement.

Everyone entering the United States, through the Port of Entry or illegally by crossing the river, is interviewed, and their names are screened through criminal databases to search for prior criminal activity. If an asylum seeker has a record, he or she is immediately deported.

In summary, under "Zero Tolerance," if the children are brought across the border illegally, they are separated from the adult -- perhaps their parent -- and transferred to a government-contracted shelter. These shelters are managed by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) Shelter. ORR is a department with Health and Human Services and they currently contract for space in 100 shelters across the country.

This is just a simple review of a complicated process. Children can be separated for several reasons, some of which are for their own protection. The Ursula Detention Center has processed about 100,000 adults and children so far this year. Further complicating the processing of these refugees is the fact that 44 percent of the illegal narcotics coming into the United States come through this border area. This important issue deserves our attention and discussion so that the rights of every adult and child is respected.

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