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Central American Asylum Seekers Bring their Case to Capitol Hill

Posted on 05/24/2016 @ 12:45 AM

Photo Credit: Associated Press

By: Mark Salay, LULAC National Communications Intern

Dozens of undocumented families from Illinois came out of the shadows Wednesday on Capitol Hill alongside Representative Luis Gutierrez (D IL-4th District) to tell the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE) to stop the new wave of immigration raids.

Amid reports that ICE is renewing efforts to deport Central American families during May and June, thirty undocumented parents and children of the Children Refugees United For Freedom Campaign (CRUFF) met with various congressional offices to share their stories and advocate for fair immigration court proceedings.

Accompanied by Representative Gutierrez, Representative Zoe Lofgren (D CA-19th District), and Representative Lucille Roybal-Allard (D CA-40th District), the families gathered next to the Capitol on Independence Avenue, chanting the rallying cry, “we want liberty” in Spanish, with the children holding American flags in their hands before telling their stories to the public.

Speaking on behalf of seven-year-old Raul, Julie Contreras of LULAC said, “When he was in Honduras he was kidnapped, he’s asking you to please make him an American.” Raul’s mother, who also accompanied the group decided to flee to the United States because gang members threatened to kill the child in Honduras. “When we first interviewed Raul he said if Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves, then President Obama can free the refugee children,” Contreras continued.

Hailing from Waukegan, IL, a city known as “Little Honduras,” the immigrant women and children are the faces of Central America’s ongoing humanitarian crisis in the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, where corruption, extortion, drug trafficking, kidnappings, and violence continue to plague the region.

The instability in the region forced many to make the dangerous journey to the United States to seek asylum, but with Secretary Jeh Johnson of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) taking an aggressive stance on border crossings, many migrants are facing the risk of deportation, and for some, certain death awaits them if deported back to their home countries.

In January, DHS ordered ICE to begin deportation raids–which ultimately detained 336 migrant youths–to counter an influx of refugees entering the country two years earlier. In 2014, as many as 66,000 migrants from the Northern Triangle countries crossed the border to seek asylum from threats of murder, rape, and forced gang recruitment.

Maryori was one of those children who made the trek that year, escaping from Honduras because gang members threatened to rape or beat her while on her way to school if she did not pay them. She would see dead bodies on her way to school or people getting beat and murdered.

Although her application for asylum has been denied and her next court appearance isn’t scheduled for another two years when she will still be 17-years-old, she wanted the chance to tell Members of Congress, including Xavier Becerra (D CA-34th District), Raul Grijalva (D AZ-3rd District), and Linda Sanchez (D CA-38th District), that unlike in Honduras, she feels safe with her mother and sisters in the United States.

She has had own life threatened already, but she is now a freshman in high school, where she is also on the honor roll.

“When I grow up I want to be a doctor and stay here with my family,” Maryori said. “We’re not criminals; we want to be here with our families because we want to be safe, and I’m really scared because I think I’m not going to be safe in [Honduras].”

Despite valid claims by Central American migrants to qualify for asylum, Secretary Johnson insists that anyone crossing the border and not granted asylum will be sent home. The result has been children and women being treated as criminals under the law. One mother spoke how a monitoring bracelet ended up shattering bones in her foot. Screws were put in, but her foot is still impaired.

“I simply came to this country to protect my children from violence and what is going on in El Salvador,” the mother said in Spanish. “We know other people are getting placed with monitoring bracelets, and I speak for all of those women because we are not criminals, simply human beings.”

A menacing threat for a majority of the asylum-seekers is the lack of access to legal counsel at court proceedings; the government is not obligated to do so, a huge problem considering 90 percent with legal counsel are granted refugee status.

“The truth is I’m scared because I do not know if I will have to return to my country,” said Freddy, a 17-year-old from Honduras who fled because his life was in danger for refusing to join a local gang. So far, he has gone through court proceedings without legal representation on three separate occasions. “It gives me fear because not having a lawyer is not having anything. You don’t have anyone to represent you.”

Representative Lofgren has proposed the Fair Day in Court for Kids Act, which would mandate the government to provide legal counsel for children and vulnerable individuals, such as victims of abuse, torture, or violence, in immigration hearings. More than 100 members of Congress support the act.

“I have a new court hearing in July, and I have a lawyer this time,” Freddy said. “Hopefully everything turns out fine.”

A statement by DHS says Johnson will take a two-day trip to El Salvador and Honduras to evaluate refugee reintegration efforts, causes of migration, and “engage with regional partners to highlight law enforcement cooperation to address violence.”

Representative Gutierrez says he hopes Johnson will listen to stories from Central Americans and establish a fair asylum process for the refugees. Representative Roybal-Allard called for more focus on a comprehensive refugee strategy that takes on better screening, legal counsel, and just due process.

“These are the kinds of policies that reflect our American values,” Roybal-Allard said, “and provide Central American families with meaningful due process and hope for safety, free of the endless violence and brutality they have endured.”

Mark Salay is the Communications Intern at the LULAC National Office in Washington, D.C. He is a senior at the University of California, Santa Barbara, majoring in communication with minors in history and professional writing, and will be graduating in the Spring of 2016.

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Congress Looks at Reforming School Nutrition Program, but Will Latino Children Make the Cut?

Posted on 05/18/2016 @ 12:45 AM

Photo Credit: Associated Press

By: Ema de la Torre, LULAC National Policy and Legislation Intern

Many families depend on The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and would agree that it is an essential component for nutrition in public schools. Eligible families apply for these services through an application process whereby they provide information regarding their household size and income. Children may also qualify to receive free or reduced-price lunch through direct certification in which schools utilize information from data from other public benefits such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Generally, children living in households with incomes below the federal poverty level qualify for free or reduced-price school meals, but not all of these children are certified to receive these benefits. Due to various errors, many needy children are not getting the access they deserve.

High error rates in the certification process of eligible children for free or reduced-price school meals have raised concern among school districts, parents, lawmakers, and the civil rights community—not all of which are valid. Some critics of the program claim that many children were “overcertified” and received free or reduced-priced meals when they were ineligible. However, these opinions are misleading as the majority of the errors were misclassifications between free and reduced-priced meals, not due to large numbers of children taking advantage of the system. In addition, the majority of errors occurred from the application process and not through direct certification, which has been found to be the most accurate method of certification. The meal application process creates many opportunities for errors to occur due to language barriers and confusing questions for those filling out the application, such as inputting one’s net pay instead of gross pay.

Another cause for error rates occurs through the verification process, in which schools are required to audit approximately 3% of all meal applications. Parents are contacted by school administrators to provide proof of their reported income in order to verify their child’s eligibility for free or reduced-priced meals. However, the verification processes has shown to cause eligible children to lose access to school meals because of parents’ failure to respond due to language barriers and working parents not having the time to provide the appropriate documentation to complete the verification process. On the other hand, parents that do respond to the audit may still see their child lose eligibility due to administrative errors. During the verification process, administrators may input data incorrectly into the system causing a child to no longer be eligible for free or reduced-priced meals.

Direct certification increases the accuracy of the school meal application process due to data reliability and reduction of paper applications school districts must review. Many districts have initiated Community Eligibility programs to reduce errors by eliminating the application and verification processes. Through this program, entire schools in low-income communities provide all meals at no charge to students. APEC study found that schools using community eligibility have lower improper payment rates.

Representative Todd Rokita recently introduced the Improving Child Nutrition and Education Act of 2016, on behalf of the House Education and Workforce Committee. Although the name suggests the legislation will improve child nutrition services, the bill includes numerous provisions of great concern. The shortcomings associated with this bill could be detrimental to low-income children, hindering them from accessing nutritious meals and potentially being kicked off the free or reduced lunch program. The bill also increases the percentage of applications that should be verified. In addition, the bill will prohibit community eligibility potentially leading to detrimental consequences for children such as losing their eligibility for free meals.

Help us ensure that Congress keeps Latino children on the school lunch program by contacting Members of Congress and urging them to oppose any bill that threatens to kick Latino children off the school lunch program.

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