AUSTIN (KXAN) – The U.S. Department of Justice is suing the state of Texas, saying the state’s new redistricting maps deny and dilute votes from people of color.
The DOJ says Texas’ new maps purposely violate Section 2 of the federal Voting Rights Act based on certain voters’ race and/or minority group — also known as “vote dilution.”
In a press conference Monday, U.S. Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta pointed to Texas’ two new congressional districts specifically. The state gained two seats due to its population growth from the 2010 to 2020 U.S. Census. Texas grew by nearly 4 million residents, with an estimated 95% of that growth due to Latino and Black residents.
“…Texas has designed both of those new seats to have white voting majorities,” she said. “The congressional plan also deliberately reconfigured a west Texas district to eliminate the opportunity for Latino voters to elect a representative of their choice.”
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton took to Twitter to criticize the lawsuit, calling it a “preposterous attempt to sway democracy.”
The Texas primary election is scheduled for March 1, but some say it could be put on hold because of the federal lawsuit.
U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, said he’s fought against Texas redistricting before and supports the DOJ’s challenge.
He doesn’t believe any map changes would dramatically affect the newly-created district he is running for, Congressional District 37.
“This district is mainly the city of Austin, Westlake and Rollingwood,” Doggett said.
He said CD 37 is the area he represented before previous redistricting-related legislative and court actions changed his boundaries.
“And now, the district I serve today stretches from north of 183 and I-35, to the very south side of San Antonio. So often, I find myself needing to be at events in both San Antonio and Austin at the same time,” Doggett said of CD 35, which also now has new boundaries under Texas’ new maps.
He said one change he’s concerned about that might come out of the legal battle is pausing the March primary.
“I hope that doesn’t happen, because it moves us off the traditional day, and it usually means fewer people participate,” Doggett said.
The lawsuit asks the court to stop Texas from holding elections under these maps and to make new redistricting plans.
Richard Pineda, University of Texas at El Paso political science professor, said it’s one of the few things the DOJ can try to do right now: delay the primaries or use existing district maps.
“This is one of the important questions when it comes to these kinds of lawsuits, which is the timeliness of how quickly you can get a federal judge to intervene,” Pineda explained.
Pineda said changing maps will be a lot trickier once the primaries start.
“The state is making these changes that’s affected the U.S. congressional districts, but this has also affected municipalities that have redrawn lines for municipal seats like county commissioner districts and also city council seats,” he said. “So it throws a huge wrench into the works to try to stop all these things or try to move against them.”
“But if there’s any entity that has the power to — the Department of Justice,” Pineda added.
Pineda said the next legal steps are to wait for additional filings and for the court to decide a venue and assign a judge to the case.
KXAN reached out to a few of the state lawmakers who supported Texas’ newly redistricted maps. They either did not respond or were not available for an interview.
In October, state Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, defended the new maps during a debate on the Senate floor.
Huffman led the redistricting process in the Senate and said she took the Voting Rights Act into consideration, which is now one of the bases of the Justice Department’s new lawsuit.
“While these maps were drafted blind to race, it is wrong to say that race was wholly ignored in my end-to-end process. I’m committed to giving due regard to all factors relevant to legal compliance, including compliance with section two of the Voting Rights Act,” she said.
‘Joy for Texas’ – Former radio journalist joins race for governor
The Democratic primary for Texas governor gained another candidate Wednesday: former public radio journalist Joy Diaz.
Diaz released a video Tuesday explaining why she’s entering the race for the state’s top elected position, saying three issues are top of mind for her campaign. Those include the border, public education and state preparedness.
“Our current leadership has forgotten that their mission is to serve us,” she said in her video announcement. “Yes, conventional wisdom may say that it’s unlikely for an average person — even a qualified one, even one with expertise, even one with a huge heart — to become the next governor of this great state, but Texans don’t solely rely on conventional wisdom. We believe in miracles.”
Diaz’s voice may sound familiar to many Texans since she worked for KUT in Austin and would often guest host the statewide “Texas Standard” radio news program. The public radio station announced in November that Diaz would leave to run for public office, but at that time she did not disclose which position she would seek.
According to her video announcement, Diaz suggested a COVID-19 infection that sickened her and her young son before they could get vaccinated ultimately inspired her to leave her career as a journalist and instead seek office.
“I remember the panic of not being able to breathe,” she said. “I also remember thinking that if I lived, because so many have died, that if I lived, I would live a life of public service.”
She joins the Democratic gubernatorial field alongside Beto O’Rourke, a candidate who’s casting a large shadow with widespread name recognition and fundraising firepower. The former El Paso Congressman announced his own campaign for governor in November and raised $2 million within the first 24 hours. However, recent polling has shown O’Rourke trailing Gov. Greg Abbott in head-to-head matchups.
A Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday showed Abbott with a 15-point lead over the former El Paso congressman. That said, Josh Blank, Research Director for the Texas Politics Project, said O’Rourke remains the most viable candidate for Democrats.
“Beto starts the race in a much stronger position than most democratic candidates have in the past few decades,” Blank told KXAN. “He has widespread name ID and he’s going to be able to raise money.”
Diaz highlighted her professional experience as a journalist and a public school teacher as key to being able to handle various issues the state faces. If she became governor, she specifically said she would install an educator as the head of the Texas Education Agency.
“That could help improve our schools dramatically, and right now we don’t have that,” she said.
In addition to her time reporting on the border, Diaz also cited her childhood spent crossing it with a father who worked as a missionary in Mexico to help inform her decision-making.
“When we look at the border, you should know I’m not one of those people who conveniently parachutes themselves on the border on election season,” Diaz said.
A third candidate in the Democratic primary announced Wednesday she had withdrawn her name. Deirdre Gilbert, who runs a non-profit in the Houston area, said she will now run as an independent.
Honduran family’s harrowing journey to Texas
Carolina Carranza Silva’s journey to the United States began nearly 30 months ago when she left her home in southern Honduras with her common-law husband, Jose Escobar, and her 2-year-old daughter Emily.
The journey that began in July of 2019 would entail unfathomable hardship, including being kidnapped twice, running out of money and living in a muddy, snake-infested encampment on the Mexican shores of the Rio Grande. The journey also coincided with one of the most controversial and consequential periods of U.S. immigration policies in recent history.
Once they finally made it to the Texas border and tried to claim asylum, they were among the first families deported back to Mexico from South Texas under the Trump administration’s “Remain in Mexico” program, formally called the Migrant Protection Protocols program, or MPP.
It is a controversial policy that was restarted again this week under the Biden administration.
“There were many reasons we had to leave,” Carolina, 24, a political activist in Honduras, told Border Report in Spanish. “People were disappearing. If they got arrested, they would just disappear. They would throw you in jail if you protested.”
For over three months, the family was homeless in the migrant encampment on the banks of the Rio Grande in the dangerous Mexican border town of Matamoros, alongside hundreds of others from Central America and Mexico. All were remanded south of the border to wait out their U.S. immigration court proceedings.
It was in this Matamoros encampment — the largest refugee camp along the 2,000-mile-long U.S.-Mexico border — that Border Report first met the family just days after they arrived in August 2019.
They were living at the base of the Gateway International Bridge that leads to Brownsville, Texas: scared, penniless and confused, living in one foreign culture a stone’s throw away from another foreign land they longed to enter.
For the past two years, they allowed Border Report to chronicle their travails, including their eventual release north of the border.
While we could not independently verify exactly what has happened to the family, this is what they have shared. They said they hope their story will warn other migrants of the dangers, and to let the American public know what they suffered under MPP.
They also want the Biden administration to find a way to permanently end the program, which was restarted on Monday in El Paso after the Supreme Court ruled it must be reimplemented. The program had been halted by Homeland Security officials when President Joe Biden took office, but a lawsuit by the states of Texas and Missouri forced the reboot.
The family’s hometown of Choluteca, on the southern border of Honduras, is 1,700 miles from South Texas, but their journey north was even longer because they took circuitous bus routes to avoid checkpoints in Mexico.
The family traveled easily through Guatemala without a permit, they said. But once they entered Mexico, they were forced to walk or hitchhike most of the way to the border with the United States.
Jose carried little Emily on his shoulders so she didn’t get cactus spikes on her arms and legs. They stopped at gas stations and hitchhiked rides. They bought fruit and water daily as they moved closer to their destination.
It was an uneventful but tiring journey until they got near the Mexican border state of Tamaulipas, where they said they were kidnapped twice.
At a gas station in San Fernando, Mexico, a young woman offered them a ride and then took them to a two-story house in the mountains where they were held for seven days on the top floor and only fed bread.
They said seven other migrants also were held hostage at the house.
They were forced to call their families in Honduras for ransom. Jose’s mother paid $1,000 for their release. But they remained captive until the Gulf Cartel stormed the house a week into their captivity — looking for the other migrants — and took them, as well, they said.
Eventually, they made it to the border near Reynosa, Mexico, south of McAllen, Texas, but they said they were held for six days in the woods — outside the violent city that is controlled by warring drug cartels — until a coyote, or human smuggler, allowed them to cross the Rio Grande one night in early August 2019.
That night, they boarded a raft and crossed the mighty river, which Mexicans and many of the locals call the Rio Bravo because of its fierce undertow, and they entered South Texas near the town of Hidalgo.
They climbed the muddy banks and walked until they found a group of 250 migrants. They all walked together to find a Border Patrol agent to claim asylum.
“We knew that if we came as a family, we’d be safe,” Carolina said in Spanish. “We were just all walking and the kids were with us.”
Donald Trump was president at the time. And, what they didn’t know was his administration had just begun a drastic new immigration policy of returning asylum-seekers back to Mexico under MPP.
MPP started in January 2019 in El Paso and was brought to South Texas in mid-July without warning. Suddenly, migrant advocates reported seeing fewer migrants being released to U.S. shelters.
When Carolina’s family encountered the Border Patrol, they had no idea about this new immigration policy. They thought they would be released and allowed to travel within the United States once processed by U.S. Customs and Border Protection authorities in South Texas.
But that didn’t happen.
They were held for three days in a CBP processing center that is reportedly kept so cold that migrants have collectively nicknamed it the “hielera” or icebox. Carolina thought this would be the worst they would have to endure. She prayed they would be released and she could join relatives in Houston.
“It was awful. We didn’t know whether it was night or day,” she said. “We were in a large room with women and children sleeping on the floor.”
Carolina waited for the day when she would be asked to explain her fear of returning to Honduras. She said she practiced what she would say during her credible fear interview, a part of the U.S. asylum process where federal officials ask each asylum seeker to explain why they fear returning to their home country. Political persecution is a valid reason for migrants to stay in the United States until an immigration judge decides whether they can be classified as refugees and stay in this country.
She said she was prepared to explain how she had been involved in local politics. How she backed the opposing presidential candidate. How she had won a seat on the city council in 2017, only to have the ruling party refuse to step down so she never assumed the role. And, she was prepared to explain how, after the daughter of another political activist was murdered, they decided to migrate north, fearful Emily would be next.
Instead, after three days, the family said they were given an ultimatum: Be deported back to Honduras, or go over the river to Mexico to wait during their asylum proceedings.
Migrants granted asylum at higher rate under Biden administration, new data shows
They chose Mexico, not knowing that at the time there were nearly 1 million backlogged U.S. immigration cases, or that each immigration case, on average, takes three years. They also didn’t know how many months they’d wait in Matamoros, living homeless with hundreds of other migrant families.
Border Report first met Carolina, Jose and Emily on Aug. 22, 2019. It was over 100 degrees and they were sitting on a spit of concrete in a city plaza with another family from Honduras. They had been there for 10 days and they hadn’t gotten a tent yet.
They had no money and the adults were given one bottle of water per day, which they shared with Emily. They were given seven diapers to last for two weeks.
Emily, then a toddler, was growing thin from lack of food and water. Her parents didn’t sleep at night, fearful that she would be kidnapped.
They initially bathed in the dirty Rio Grande. But they soon avoided those waters as they watched the carcasses of cows and horses, and even human bodies, float down the polluted river that separates the two countries.
At night, Jose and his new Honduran friend, Fernando Montoya, took turns guarding their families inside their two small, blue tents that were provided by U.S. charities. There were reports of women being sexually assaulted or forced into prostitution. Some mornings, families found children missing from tents.
Emily made friends with the other children. They played with old shoes and trash as if they were balls. The women washed clothes in the filthy river and hung them to dry on fences and in trees.
The camp soon grew to over 1,000 people, and city officials, led by the wife of the mayor of Matamoros, tried to dismantle it one day and force all the children on a bus headed south.
Jose and Carolina hid Emily that day and didn’t let her out of their tent. They trusted few people themselves, but Carolina still volunteered to welcome hundreds of new migrants who showed up at the camp each day.
On Oct. 7, 2019, then-Democratic presidential hopeful Julian Castro visited the camp. Carolina held Emily up high to get a glimpse of the former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under the Obama administration. She didn’t know who he was but told Border Report, “It’s good for him to come and to see us as a group because we don’t think people know what we’re going through here.”
After his hour-long tour of the camp, Castro called MPP “a disaster” and said he saw “people living in squalor.”
Most afternoons, the family napped on the banks of the international river under towering ash trees and gazed at the other shore, hoping that any day they would be called by the Department of Homeland Security and be allowed to claim asylum in the United States.
But, days turned into weeks. Weeks turned into months.
The blazing sun, snakes and, later, a freeze and flood took their toll on them.
Finally, in late November 2019, just as they said they were about to give up, they were granted humanitarian parole because Carolina was now pregnant. They crossed into Brownsville two days before Thanksgiving and hopped on a bus to Houston.
They consider themselves among the lucky ones.
Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a research organization out of Syracuse University, says 71,000 migrants were placed into MPP during the Trump administration and sent back to northern Mexican border towns.
Only 3,000 were granted humanitarian parole, which allows them to legally reside in the United States and await their fate in backlogged immigration courts.
Today, they are safe in an apartment in Houston, but the psychological trauma of living on the streets has also taken its toll.
“Now I have a bed, a roof. I have television, telephone,” Carolina said. “We practically lived in the streets before. The sun, the rain, the wind was horrible.”
Despite their current comforts, they remain haunted by the memories of what they endured. Even their 1-year-old baby girl, Isabella, who was conceived in the Matamoros camp and born in Houston, reminds them of a past they say they cannot shake.
Sister Norma Pimentel, a globally-renowned Catholic nun who is executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, helped oversee volunteer operations at the camp in Matamoros. She told Border Report recently that MPP is a policy that inflicted emotional and physical trauma on thousands of migrants, like Carolina’s family.
“My experience from MPP, all I saw was a lot of human suffering on the other side of the border. People were exposed to so much suffering. It’s not fair. It’s not correct. It’s not morally correct,” Pimentel said.
Texas and Missouri sue Biden administration to reinstate ‘Remain in Mexico’ policy
The federal lawsuit brought by the governors of Texas and Missouri to reinstate MPP claims the program reduced incentives for those with “weak” asylum cases from trying to cross into the United States.
“Prior to the MPP, individuals passing through Mexico could enter the United States, raise asylum claims, expect to be released into the United States in violation of statutory requirements mandating their detention, and stay in the U.S. for years pending the resolution of their claims—even though most were ultimately rejected in court. MPP changed the incentives for economic migrants with weak asylum claims, and therefore reduced the flow of aliens—including aliens who are victims of human trafficking—to the southern border,” according to the lawsuit that was filed in April.
In August, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to block a federal court ruling ordering the program to be restarted. And although Homeland Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas on Oct. 29 issued a memo promising to terminate MPP, the administration acquiesced, saying it must follow the court’s order.
“I was so grateful that this new administration lifted that and stopped it and I just feel terrible that we’re going back to that because I certainly hope that we don’t see again what we saw before — the conditions that families found themselves in Mexico waiting,” Pimentel told Border Report on Dec. 2 when the administration announced it was restarting the program. “Such terrible conditions we saw there with the families and what they had to endure.”
A family’s struggles in America ahead of immigration court hearings
Had it not been for the generosity of volunteer groups from South Texas, Carolina Carranza Silva and her family say they would not have survived the nearly four months they lived in a migrant encampment in Matamoros, Mexico.
Hopeful for a better life in the United States and planning to seek asylum in South Texas, Carolina, her common-law husband Jose Escobar, and their daughter Emily, were among the first to be returned to Mexico in August 2019 under the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols program, or MPP.ADVERTISING
The controversial program — which forces migrants to remain in Mexico throughout their U.S. immigration court proceedings — was restarted by the Biden administration this week after being ordered to do so by the U.S. Supreme Court.
To explore the impact of these policies, Border Report has followed this Honduran family for two years. And while we could not independently verify what happened to them, this is what they have shared on their journey to America, and their life after MPP.
At the migrant camp in Matamoros, Mexico, Carolina’s family, along with thousands of other asylum-seeking refugees, was given a tent, daily meals and free legal advice. There was even a “store” located within the camp where they received free items, all supplied by local volunteers from both sides of the border.
“We had nothing. They took care of us,” Carolina, 24, told Border Report recently as the family recounted their two-year odyssey from the time they left Honduras, through two kidnappings in Mexico, their months in the Matamoros camp, and their life now just outside Houston.
They said volunteer organizations — like Team Brownsville, Angry Tias & Abuelas, Global Response Management (GRM), Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, and the Sidewalk School for Children Asylum Seekers — made living in the camp bearable.
But, all they wanted was to be allowed to live in America.
Their opportunity finally came in late November after Carolina discovered she was pregnant. Medical staff with GRM confirmed the pregnancy and the next time the family appeared in immigration court in Brownsville, they presented the paperwork to a judge.
Three weeks later, on Nov. 26, 2019, they were granted humanitarian parole in the United States.
Without returning to the camp to gather their meager belongings or even to say goodbye to the other families they had befriended there, they exited a back room at the immigration tent court and U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials processed and issued them travel paperwork.
They then walked out onto the streets of Brownsville, Texas, and for the first time in nearly four months, they were free to roam in the country they had longed to call home for so long.
Entering the United States was a moment they had waited months in the squalid camp to experience, but when the time finally came, they said they felt lost and overwhelmed.
They saw a sign that lifted their spirits and quickened their steps.
“We entered a little park and saw the sign that said ‘Welcome to the United States’ and we were very emotional and we started to walk faster and crossed the street to the bus station. It took only 10 minutes,” she said in Spanish from her new apartment in Houston where the family lives now.
They arrived at the bus station empty-handed and purchased three one-way tickets to Houston to join Carolina’s family.
But before they boarded, volunteers from Team Brownsville handed them each a backpack. Carolina said they were overwhelmed by the generosity and amazed as they opened the backpacks during the bus ride to find so many travel items, snacks and even toys for 2-year-old Emily.
Months of living homeless had taken its toll on pregnant Carolina. She was malnourished and could not hold down any food or liquids. The bus ride was excruciating for her, she said. She vomited blood. They spent their first night in Houston at an emergency room where Carolina was given fluids and prenatal vitamins. Once stabilized, she was released with a $1,500 bill the family said they could not pay.
That was the first of many unexpected costs and surprises their new life in America would bring to the young family.
They soon discovered that being 350 miles away from the camp — and its resources and network of migrant advocacy groups — life would be very different from what they had imagined. They would have to maneuver the complicated U.S. immigration court system on their own. And, they would have to contend with U.S. laws forbidding new asylum-seekers from working or driving, both things some migrants do anyway in order to make a living.
Carolina had operated a successful hair salon from their home in Honduras. Her father was a police officer and the family was middle class. But, in Houston, they found themselves with no money, alone and scared.
Jose, who had been a barber in Honduras, would work as a roofer and travel for weeks and months to jobs in other parts of Texas and the country. He later found work as a cleaner.
Carolina would stay for weeks sequestered in the sparsely-furnished apartment, afraid to venture out, she said. She would often text and call other migrants still living at the camp, or those who had also been paroled into the United States and were legally living in other cities as they waited for their immigration court proceedings.
“Ispend my days all the time in here. I’m afraid someone will take us,” she said as we visited the family in Houston in February 2020, the first time we had seen them since their release.
The new baby was due in the summer, and Carolina still had trouble holding down food. She and Jose often fretted about money and were haunted by memories of being kidnapped in Mexico. They said someone had been sending threatening phone messages to Jose and they feared the family was being targeted again.
Their days and nights in the camp terrorized Carolina’s thoughts and had her living like a hermit in the two-bedroom apartment they shared with relatives during that first year of their release.
Her reaction isn’t that surprising, given what they had been through, medical experts told Border Report.
“The process of MPP — we’ve seen the humanitarian effects on that pretty acutely from the medical perspective. People are asked to stay in areas in Mexico where they are vulnerable to assault, vulnerable to kidnapping, sexual assault, on top of just being homeless and exposed to the elements, on top of food insecurity and medical insecurity,” said Andrea Leiner, an emergency medicine practitioner with GRM who for months supplied free medical service for migrants at the Matamoros camp.
“Most of our patients that we saw were fleeing for their lives. They were not able to return home. So, not having a path forward, not able to return home left them in a place where they didn’t have food, water, sanitation, housing — none of that was present. That made them very vulnerable to crime,” said Leiner, who also is chief communications officer for GRM.
In the camp, “the luxury of being able to go home and lock your doors is a luxury no one lived with,” Leiner said.
Trauma like that, Leiner said, does not easily go away.
“Everyone thinks asylum-seekers cross and that’s it. That is not it by far. They’re just beginning. The only thing they get is to wait for their U.S. trials in this country. They are starting from the bottom to the top and they are having a very difficult time, especially if you don’t have any support,” said Felicia Rangel-Samponaro, co-director of the Sidewalk School for Children Asylum Seekers, a nonprofit that provided free schooling for children living the Matamoros camp.
“In the Matamoros camp, you had a lot of NGOs bringing food every day, clothing, shoes and you also had Americans crossing bringing a lot of things for the asylum-seekers,” Rangel-Samponaro said.
But, once they are released into the interior, they have to go hunting for resources or know where to look. Many families, like Carolina’s, become overwhelmed and sometimes lost.
Emily would cry when her father left for jobs, sometimes gone for months.
She consoled herself by looking at photos of her former tent home in Matamoros, or by lining up all her toys in a row on the floor. Her favorite toy is a doll she brought from that camp that has pen marks on its face.
Emily was among hundreds of children who lived in the Matamoros migrant camp, which eventually swelled to around 4,000 migrants before the coronavirus pandemic struck.
Babies were born in the camp. Some people died in the camp after trying to swim across the river. Some children were even sent alone by their parents across the Gateway International Bridge to claim asylum in Brownsville, knowing federal officials would not turn away unaccompanied kids.
“We must have a more humane, more respectful policy to human life than MPP,” Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, told Border Report on Aug. 25, the day after the U.S. Supreme Court refused to block a lower court’s injunction ordering MPP be restarted.
Although President Joe Biden halted MPP when he took office, the administration was forced by the courts to reinstate the policy after Texas and Missouri brought a federal lawsuit ordering that the policy be resumed.
The April lawsuit brought by Texas and Missouri calls MPP vital to weeding out meritless asylum claims and preventing a flow of migrants from illegally crossing the Southwest border.
“This migrant surge has inflicted serious costs on Texas as organized crime and drug cartels prey on migrant communities and children through human trafficking, violence, extortion, sexual assault, and exploitation. These crimes directly affect Texas and its border communities, especially given Texas’s strong focus on combating human trafficking both at the border and throughout the State. The additional costs of housing, educating, and providing healthcare and other social services for trafficking victims or illegal aliens further burden Texas and its taxpayers,” according to the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas in Amarillo.
Pimentel’s organization helped oversee the nonprofits that helped the migrants in Matamoros and organized the safe passage — from Matamoros, Reynosa and Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, into South Texas — for over a thousand migrants when the Biden administration first ended MPP, which allowed hundreds of families to be legally paroled into the United States starting in February.
Now Pimentel and other migrant aid workers hope that the asylum-seekers who are sent back to Mexico under the MPP reboot will be more safely housed in shelters, and not in open-air camps.
“I’m concerned for families. I’m concerned for people who will be sent back to wait in Mexico for their asylum hearings as it was previously. It is wrong,” Pimentel told Border Report last week. “To avoid people being returned to an unsafe space, which is the border towns like Reynosa and Matamoros.”
“MPP was really difficult for many reasons. Having people stuck in these cities on the border, on the Mexican side, you’re exposing them to cartels,” Rangel-Samponaro said. “Besides the dangers of the cartels, a lot of people didn’t have work permits. So they were stuck in these encampments, living outside in the woods where you are exposed to the elements 24 hours a day.”
“We saw people sleeping on the ground. Women and children being raped, extorted by the cartel, by the same government that they were in. Not being fed. It was just very inhumane,” said Cindy Candia, a volunteer with the group Angry Tias & Abuelas, based in Harlingen, Texas.
In Texas, DHS officials plan to hold tent courts in Laredo and Brownsville for migrants put in MPP. These are the same facilities that were used during the Trump administration. Additional courts will be operated in San Diego and El Paso, Texas.
Migrants are to be sent back to Mexico via seven ports of entry, including San Diego and Calexico in California; Nogales, Arizona; and El Paso, Laredo, Brownsville and Eagle Pass, Texas.
EXCLUSIVE: Construction underway on ‘Remain in Mexico’ court facility in Laredo
Before MPP was reimplemented, however, Mexico voiced several concerns. And U.S. officials had to promise that migrants sent back to Mexico would have shorter wait times, and access to legal counsel.
Mexican officials are especially concerned with the 1.45 million backlogged U.S. immigration cases and have said migrants’ cases must be resolved within six months otherwise they cannot stay south of the U.S. border.
Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a research organization from Syracuse University that tracks all U.S. immigration court cases, reports that 71,000 migrants were placed into MPP from January 2019 until January 2021.
“The Migrant Protection Protocols have been controversial from the beginning because they raise significant questions about the security of migrants along the U.S. Mexico border, as well as the United States’ legal obligations to asylum-seekers under national and international law,” said Austin Kocher, a TRAC researcher.
Further adding to the backlog in cases is the coronavirus pandemic, which brought to a halt all in-court proceedings and put many cases, like Carolina’s family’s case, on hold for months.
“With the pandemic, many immigration courts ended or paused in-person hearings,” Kocher told Border Report. “Tens of thousands of hearings were canceled very quickly and those hearings eventually have to be rescheduled. So all those cases are being rescheduled in immigration courts across the country.”
Carolina’s family’s first court hearing since their release had been set for April 2020 in Houston, but it was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. They returned to court on March 3, 2021, for a makeup session but that also was canceled. Their next hearing is now set for Feb. 16, 2022, in Houston.
As courts begin to resume hearings, the family, like thousands of other migrants, are now faced with new court obligations, challenges and fears. When we last visited them in September, Carolina was fretting over whether they will show up for their court date next year.
It’s unclear whether they have even properly filed the asylum paperwork because they don’t have a lawyer.
“Individuals who arrive at our border and seek asylum oftentimes think falsely that is applying for asylum — going up to a Border Patrol agent and asking to seek asylum. But under U.S. law, you still have to fill out a form in English and submit it to an immigration judge,” said Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy council at the American Immigration Council. ”So for many people after arriving in the United States there is a long process of finding a lawyer and getting the application filed and then waiting for the judge to actually hear the application and make a decision.”
The family says they can’t afford an immigration lawyer. For months they were convinced if they showed up with their new 1-year-old American-born daughter, Isabella, they would be granted permanent parole on the path to U.S. citizenship.
Immigration experts say the process is complicated. While their applications are pending, migrants also must comply with restrictive laws forbidding them from working for at least 150 days before they can apply for a work permit.
“For many people, this means they have to rely on the kindness of strangers or the support of friends and family. Some individuals are forced to work under the table because they have no other way to feed themselves and their families,” Reichlin-Melnick told Border Report recently.
Jose has worked as a roofer and is now working as a cleaner without a U.S. work permit, Carolina said.
If caught, he could be deported, migrant advocates told Border Report.
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas promised the Biden administration will hold the line on new arrivals and they will not allow those without proper cause to enter the United States.
U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat from Laredo who is vice chairman of the House Homeland Security Appropriations Committee, says the bar for proving the need to be allowed into the United States during immigration proceedings is exceedingly high. He says the great majority will be rejected and our immigration policy going forward needs to address that.
“Keep this in mind, that if you have 100 people, 88% to 90% will be rejected. So why are we letting in 100% when we should only be allowing 10-12% at the max to come? This is our country. This is our sovereignty. We need to do what we need to do to provide security,” Cuellar said in October as he gave Border Report a tour of the new MPP immigration courts that were being built in Laredo near two international bridges that connect to Nuevo Laredo, Mexico.
The tent court facilities in Laredo and Brownsville cost $14.1 million to rebuild and will cost $10.5 million per month to operate, according to the Oct. 14 court declaration by Blas Nuñez-Neto, DHS acting assistant secretary for border and immigration policy.
Now, as Carolina’s next court date approaches, she has new fears.
A friend from Honduras who showed up for his case in September was deported, leaving the wife in the United States with two small children, she said. That has made them very concerned over whether they should show up for their hearing.
“Now I’m afraid because they could take my husband and then I’d be alone here with my two daughters,” she said. “I am afraid this will happen to me.”
“The truth is nobody understands what is happening totally,” she said in Spanish. “I don’t have a lawyer and I’m afraid.”
Her friend had paid a lawyer $2,000 for each family member, Carolina said.
“We don’t have that money,” she said. “I’m afraid for my court date and that they will deport my husband.”
If they don’t appear in court, they all face the possibility that they could be ordered deported.
“If individuals do not show up for their hearing immigration judges can, and often do, enter an in-absentia removal order, which means that the individual has been ordered deported even though they aren’t physically in the courtroom and that deportation order will essentially hang over that person’s head until they resolve it,” said Kocher, the TRAC researcher.
That could mean if a migrant is stopped for a speeding ticket, or a business they are working in gets raided by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, then they could be picked up and deported immediately.
“This is a very personal and very scary experience for a lot of people to go through and people are forced into a situation where they feel they have to make really consequential and very difficult decisions,” Kocher said.
He added that a 2015 UCLA study of immigration cases found “having an immigration attorney is one of the best, if not the best, predictor in terms of case outcomes.”
Immigration lawyers help migrants weave pertinent legal details about their cases, and the TRAC study shows help them have a greater chance of winning permanent parole.
“It’s very difficult to make that case in court if one doesn’t have an attorney because immigration law is incredibly complicated. It’s very nuanced,” Kocher said.
TRAC also found migrants who are allowed to wait in the United States were over seven times more likely to find a lawyer to represent them than asylum-seekers forced to remain in Mexico.
Charlene D’Cruz, a lawyer with the nonprofit organization Lawyers for Good Government, has worked with asylum-seekers in northern Mexico since 2019 and tried to help pair Carolina with a pro-bono lawyer when they arrived in Houston. Her organization enlists a network of immigration lawyers throughout the country who offer their services for free to help asylum-seekers.
But even with D’Cruz’s help, Carolina said she didn’t understand the questions the lawyers asked her, and she isn’t sure what is required of her. Furthermore, she has been required to submit all court documents translated into English by certified translators and multiple copies, which she says is expensive and difficult, especially as she tries to get paperwork from police in Honduras.
Carolina, who was involved in politics in Honduras, says she has statements from the police in Honduras but says that paperwork hasn’t been accepted by U.S. immigration courts. She says the paperwork shows the threat her family would be in if they return.
She worries that without that supporting paperwork that her case won’t hold up and she and Emily and Jose could be deported.
“What would then happen to Isabella?” she asks.
The last time Border Report visited Carolina and her family on Sept. 2, she appeared much happier and better adjusted to life in America.
They have moved and are now in their own two-bedroom apartment. They have a kitchen table, king-sized bed, dresser, nightstand, walk-in closet and several kitchen amenities.
Emily, now 4, is much taller, always smiling and can count, somewhat, in English. She attends a nearby preschool that Carolina walks her to every morning and picks her up from every afternoon with baby Isabella in tow.
All children in the United States are entitled to an education, regardless of their immigration status.
Carolina also receives food stamps for Isabella, their U.S.-born daughter.
Carolina says she is no longer afraid to venture out. She walks to the supermarket and the park with her daughters. And enjoys cooking in their larger apartment.
“We are very happy and thanks to God,” she said in Spanish.
Her father died in June in Honduras and she was unable to return for the funeral. She still misses her mother and brother in Honduras. But, she is beginning to assimilate into American society and has made some friends.
As to whether they will attend court — it is a decision she has yet to make.
“It is a decision that is very difficult,” she said, adding “we will see.”