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.

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.

Bringing Policy Priorities to Capitol Hill: LGBT Latinos

Posted on 05/13/2016 @ 12:45 AM

Tags: blog, Advocacy

By: Mark Salay, LULAC National Communications Intern

In light of recent anti-LGBT laws sweeping the South, representatives from leading civil rights and public policy organizations convened on Capitol Hill last week to discuss the legislative priorities for LGBT Latinos, a population estimated to be around 1.4 million people.

The panel hosted by LULAC spotlighted the new public policy priorities of the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda (NHLA), a coalition of 40 Latino advocacy organizations that investigates some of the most pressing concerns of the Latino community and recommends policy solutions that will have a lasting impact on Latinos, including LGBT Latinos. The panel featured policy discussions on the anti-LGBT laws in Mississippi and North Carolina and reproductive rights with representatives from the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, True Colors Fund, National Center for Transgender Equality, and the National LGBTQ Taskforce.

Just as African Americans and Latinos were once forced to use segregated bathrooms, a new war on the right to use public facilities is now being waged against transgender people. Joanna Cifredo of the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) spoke on laws passed within the last two months in the South known as “bathroom bills”, which deny people the right to use bathrooms that correspond to their gender identity.

In Mississippi, an anti-LGBT law set to take effect in July allows organizations and businesses to deny services based on religious grounds. The law passed right after the North Carolina state legislature passed their own “bathroom bill”, HB 2. More than 50 people were arrested at the North Carolina state house in protest of the anti-transgender law. The Department of Justice has also sued the state for violating Title VII and Title IX of the Civil Rights Act — which prohibits discrimination in the workplace and in federally funded programs such as public schools — and for violating the Violence Against Women Act.

Supporters of the “bathroom bills” reason that women will be at risk of “sexual predators” posing as women; however, Cifredo said this conversation is not about bathrooms, but about a greater movement of policing bodies and limiting trans people from participating in public life.

“It is a fear tactic we’ve seen time and time again of certain politicians preying upon the ignorance of their constituency and feeding them fear of a marginalized population that they know little about,” Cifredo said.

The NCTE, the Human Rights Campaign, and the American Civil Liberties Union say no evidence supports the claim that women have experienced violence at the hands of transgender people in bathrooms. On the contrary, studies show transgender people are the ones most vulnerable to discrimination and violence when forced to use bathrooms that do not match their gender.

A reported seventy percent of transgender people in Washington D.C. say that they have been denied access and have experienced verbal harassment, or physical assault in public restrooms, according to the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law. Another study by the Journal of Homosexuality found nearly half of trans college students attempted suicide when denied bathroom access, a number that increases when students were of color or of lower income.

As panelist Sergio Lopez, Field Manager of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, pointed out, the Constitution has been a double-edged sword for advancing and limiting religious freedom because of how the First Amendment and Equal Protection Clause can conflict with one another.

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) passed by Congress in 1993 also protects people’s practice of religion and has been used to preserve the rights of religious minorities, such as Muslims and Native Americans. However, a recent report by the Leadership Conference Education Fund, the research and education branch of the Leadership Conference, says the policy is being used by people and businesses to justify discrimination against the LGBT community and violates the Constitution.

“We feel that folks who are fighting for these liberties sometimes pervert that use in order to discriminate against other people,” Lopez said. “They’ve used that argument to discriminate against immigration, women, and people with disabilities.”

Zsea Beaumonis, a fellow at the National LGBTQ Taskforce, advocated for passing three policies to ensure LGBT and reproductive justice including the EACH Woman Act, Equality Act, and the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act.

The EACH Woman Act is based on protecting women’s reproductive rights, an issue that has been intensely contested in light of efforts to defund Planned Parenthood and the Supreme Court’s pending trial regarding the constitutionality of Texas’s HB 2 law, which has closed more than half of abortion clinics in the second largest state in the country; only 10 remain open to treat women seeking abortion.

Although the Equality Act and the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act address eliminating discrimination against the LGBT community and are distinct from the EACH Woman Act, Beaumonis said these issues need to be looked at from a communal lense, “We do see these as intersectional, interconnected issues for the LGBT community and the Latino community within our family.”

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.

The Rise of the 'School-to-Deportation Pipeline'

Posted on 05/04/2016 @ 12:45 AM

Tags: blog, Advocacy


Photo Credit: Nick Ut/AP

By: Mark Salay, LULAC National Communications Intern

A recent series of immigration raids has left undocumented Latino youth in Georgia and North Carolina afraid to leave their homes as communities fear that former safe havens such as schools and educational facilities are now high-risks areas for arrests and deportation.

While the Obama administration has tried to provide protection from deportation in the form of DAPA and DACA to immigrants who have resided in the U.S. for an extended period, it has turned a blind eye to extensive raids against recent arrivals–teens who are adults in age only and seeking refuge from Central America’s ongoing humanitarian crisis.

The raids carried out by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arrested and detained 336 migrant youths. Most of those detained came in an unprecedented wave of 66,000 unaccompanied minors detained in 2014 who fled violence in their home countries of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. Even though ICE directed its officers to steer clear of targeting schools, churches, and other “sensitive locations” during the raids, the evidence tells a different story. In Georgia and North Carolina–both states with emerging Latino populations–stories have surfaced reporting that ICE is not following orders.

In North Carolina, a 19-year-old student who came to the U.S. to escape being killed by gang members in his native El Salvador was taken away at a bus stop going to school. The New York Times reported on an 18-year-old in Georgia who was deported while on his way to school earlier this month despite facing threats from a local Salvadoran gang.

Central America is struggling to stop drug trafficking and violence in its Northern Triangle region. El Salvador is the murder capital of the world with a death every hour because drug cartels and gangs have taken over nearly every aspect of civilian life, while Honduras and Guatemala suffer from the same conditions to a lesser extent.

President Obama said in 2014 that immigration detainment efforts would focus on immigrants with a criminal background, but ICE has been left unchecked. Unfortunately, this is having traumatic consequences for youth seized during these raids, and many face a disturbing potential scenario: death by deportation upon arrival in their home countries.

The Department of Homeland Security’s month-long campaign known as Operation Border Guardian, began in late January to crack down and curb southwest border crossing that spiked in 2014 and which saw an uptick again in late 2015.

The DHS said it would only target unaccompanied minors who crossed the border, have turned 18 years of age, and have not been granted asylum. Many of these unaccompanied youth, however, were already at a disadvantage in court proceedings because the U.S. government is not responsible for providing them with an attorney, leaving the minors–many with limited English-speaking abilities–without any legal help at their side.

ICE chose not to release the number of arrests of its raids by state, but by city field offices instead. The Atlanta field office responsible for Georgia and the Carolinas seized 127 individuals, more than one-third of all those apprehended in raids since the January enforcement period began.

These arrests have had alarming consequences on those students facing similar situations who fear going to school in the morning and potentially never coming back. One high school in Durham, NC saw attendance drop by 20 percent after one immigration raid detained a 19-year-old Honduran on his way to school. As Thinkprogress.org reported, teachers from Durham and Charlotte have noticed increased absences, dropouts, and students purposely trying to get suspended so they can stay home and be with friends and family.

In response to student arrests in North Carolina, the Raleigh School District issued a resolution opposing ICE’s actions, citing humanitarian principles, ICE’s policy not to target sensitive locations, and reiterating the students’ statuses as low priority for deportation.

The situation has developed into a humanitarian crisis for this administration. The Guardian reported 83 cases of death by deportation since January 2014, 45 in El Salvador, 35 in Honduras, and three in Guatemala. Of 16,077 women from the Northern Triangle and Mexico interviewed by U.S. asylum officers in 2015, 82 percent of them had a “credible fear of persecution or torture.”

As it stands now, more than 85 percent of mothers and children show up to immigration proceedings without legal assistance, a huge problem considering that Central American families with no counsel were allowed to stay in the country only 2.3 percent of the time. Meanwhile, when they are able to receive legal help, they are 14 times less likely not to be deported.

The 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution entitles all people to due process of law, regardless of legal status. Rather than deportation, the better alternative is to protect these children’s right to seek asylum by providing access to legal assistance and information. The administration must dedicate itself to addressing why these children are leaving and not play politics with the lives of harmless immigrants trying to escape violence.

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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