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Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

By Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Los Angeles Times

HARLINGEN, Texas — They come from Central America with slips of paper sewn into their pockets bearing names they are sometimes too young to spell. Parents send them with Bibles, rosaries and small wooden crosses in their backpacks.

The flood of undocumented immigrants has slowed compared with five years ago — likely due to tighter border enforcement and the economic downturn in the U.S. — but in its place is a new immigration surge even more confounding: children and teenagers traveling through the rugged border lands into south Texas, lured by the promise of safety. Up to 120 unaccompanied youths are arriving each day, officials say, a number that has tripled over the last five years and that by some estimates could soon reach 60,000 a year.

The southeastern edge of Texas has become the busiest border crossing in the country for these wandering youths, most of whom are adolescents, though some are as young as 5 or 6. Last year, U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents apprehended more than 21,000 minors traveling without families on a roughly 315-mile stretch of the Rio Grande that runs west from Harlingen to the south of Laredo. That was more than half the total of 38,833 detained nationwide.

Changes in U.S. policy to expand legal residence opportunities in the U.S. for undocumented youth, along with job prospects, may have led some families to send younger family members on the journey north.

But immigrant advocates say most are fleeing in fear. More than 90 percent of the youngsters detained are from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — countries where violence, particularly drug cartel and gang violence, has spurred an exodus for all ages.

Relatives may pay smugglers to bring the children north at a cost of $3,000 to $10,000, said Aryah Somers, a lawyer who has worked with migrant youth and who worked on a report on the issue for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees. Some were left behind by parents who immigrated illegally to the U.S. to find work, she said, and their journey often involves traveling by themselves, often atop trains.

The young immigrants tell harrowing stories of being abused before and during their journeys, according to Susan Terrio, an anthropology professor at Georgetown University who interviewed 40 of the youths.

“They witnessed or survived robberies and fell victim to brutal attacks and sexual assaults. They outran or hid from federal police and border patrol agents. They struggled with hunger, illness and exposure to the elements and saw fellow migrants lose limbs or die while jumping on or off cargo trains,” Terrio said.

One Honduran youth she interviewed suffered abuse at the hands of his stepfather before he fled; he lived on the street, then was kidnapped by the Zetas cartel after reaching Mexico, she said. He witnessed gang rapes and assassinations before escaping.

A 13-year-old Salvadoran girl was also kidnapped by a Mexican gang, then trafficked for sex and forced to transport drugs for two years before she escaped across the border. Because she had been drugged and starved in captivity, the girl was disoriented, suffered memory lapses and was only able to tell her story to a clinician after six months in detention, Terrio said.

“It’s very clear to us they are coming because of violence and protection issues in their home countries,” said Michelle Brane, director of the Migrant Rights and Justice Program at the Women’s Refugee Commission in New York. “It’s not about necessarily a pull factor in the U.S.”

Brian Portillo Hernandez, 17, was one of several youths who appeared in a courtroom here in the border city of Harlingen earlier this month after being apprehended by U.S. border authorities. The youth said he fled El Salvador last year at the urging of his parents after being threatened by gangs at school. He had been allowed to join his aunt in Independence, Mo., after being detained, but traveled back to court on the advice of the attorney his family hired to handle his immigration case.

“His mother wanted him to come here because she feared for his safety. She wanted him to come here for a better life,” said Portillo’s aunt, Marguerita Hernandez, 51.

Elizabeth Kennedy, a researcher at San Diego State University who works with migrant youths and their families in El Salvador, said many youths have already tried to flee worsening gang violence at home, switching schools and cities and seeking help from police and other government agencies. Increasingly powerful gangs find them, however, and act with impunity, she said.

Parents tell her they must weigh the risks of sending a child north against the violence at home. “They know it’s a dangerous journey, but they also don’t want their child to die or not get an education,” Kennedy said.

Nearly three-quarters of the youths apprehended are male, according to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Immigrant advocates say they see more young children crossing, as well as more girls. Last year, 24 percent of the youths were under age 14.

While the phenomenon of unaccompanied minor immigrants has been going on for years, the surge over the past three years has been so rapid, that U.S. officials have been scrambling to find housing and medical care for the young immigrants. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican, has criticized the Obama administration for failing to immediately return them, a policy he says encourages more to cross.

“Aside from being part of an obvious humanitarian crisis, these unaccompanied illegal minors have left the federal government scrambling to triage the results of its failed border security and immigration policies,” Perry said in a letter to the White House in 2012.

The number of unaccompanied young migrants nearly doubled in the last three years, overwhelming local shelters and filling local immigration courts.

“The current immigration system was designed for adults. It was never designed with children in mind,” said Maria Woltjen, director of the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights with offices in Chicago and Harlingen.

Officials initially opened a huge makeshift shelter at a San Antonio military base and more than tripled the number of shelter beds.

Now, the process calls for U.S. Customs and Border Protection to turn over unaccompanied youths within 72 hours to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which places them in shelters while attempting to locate family or other sponsors with whom they can live while their immigration cases are being adjudicated. (Youths from Mexico are often returned to their home country immediately if they have no credible fear of persecution, are not trafficking risks and are considered capable of making independent decisions, agency officials said.)

In most cases, officials say, youths are transferred out of shelters and into homes within about a month.

The agency screens all placements, conducting background checks and fingerprinting would-be guardians. It works with Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to conduct home studies for about 10 percent of youths, those considered most at risk — for instance, a child who is disabled, or who has been abused or trafficked in the past. Such youths also receive some follow-up services, although the agencies involved would like to do more.

To speed placements, last year the Office of Refugee Resettlement stopped fingerprinting certain parents and legal guardians who had no documented safety risks and were not caring for at-risk children. An agency spokesperson said that they have hired additional staff and that the reduced screening only applies to a small subset of cases, and does not include children who raise concerns for case managers, federal field specialists, or third-party reviewers.

But some advocates complain that officials are placing youths in homes without adequate follow-up.

“It’s not like they’re a foster care system where there’s monitoring after the fact,” said Kimi Jackson, project managing attorney at the South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project in Harlingen, which represents many of the youth in immigration court.

Kennedy, the San Diego State researcher, has stayed in touch with several immigrant youths placed with family and sponsors. Two were unable to find English as a second language high school classes, dropped out of school and went to work. Another moved from her guardian’s home to stay with her mother, a gang member.

“More follow-up would be good,” Kennedy said. “Not just to ensure they’re in a good setting, but to ensure they’re getting services.”

Photo:”xomiele” via Flickr

Many Democrats are getting nervous about the upcoming presidential election. Ominous, extensively reported articles by two of the best in the business—the New Yorker's Jeffrey Toobin and The Atlantic's Barton Gellman—outline Boss Trump's plot to keep control of the White House in 2021 no matter how the American people vote.
Trump is hardly making a secret of it. He's pointedly refused to commit to "a peaceful transfer of power."

"Well, we're going to have to see what happens," is how he answered the question. He added that after we "get rid of the ballots"—presumably mail-in ballots he's been whining about for weeks--"there won't be a transfer, frankly. There'll be a continuation."

Of course, Trump himself has always voted by mail, but then brazen hypocrisy is his standard operating mode. If you haven't noticed, he also lies a lot. Without prevaricating, boasting, and bitching, he'd be mute. And even then, he'd still have Twitter. He recently tweeted that the winner "may NEVER BE ACCURATELY DETERMINED" because mail-in ballots make it a "RIGGED ELECTION in waiting."
Gellman gets this part exactly right in The Atlantic: "Let us not hedge about one thing. Donald Trump may win or lose, but he will never concede. Not under any circumstance. Not during the Interregnum and not afterward. If compelled in the end to vacate his office, Trump will insist from exile, as long as he draws breath, that the contest was rigged.
"Trump's invincible commitment to this stance will be the most important fact about the coming Interregnum. It will deform the proceedings from beginning to end. We have not experienced anything like it before."
No, we haven't. However, it's important to remember that Trump makes threats and promises almost daily that never happen. Remember that gigantic border wall Mexico was going to pay for? Trump has built exactly five miles of the fool thing, leaving roughly two thousand to go.
His brilliant cheaper, better health care plan? Non-existent.
On Labor Day, Boss Trump boasted of his unparalleled success in strong-arming Japan into building new auto-manufacturing plants. "They're being built in Ohio, they're being built in South Carolina, North Carolina, they're being built all over and expanded at a level that we've never seen before."
Not a word of that is true. Two new plants, one German, another Swedish have opened in South Carolina, but construction began before Trump took office. Auto industry investment during Barack Obama's second term far exceeded Trump's. His version is sheer make-believe.
But back to the GOP scheme to steal the election.
First, it's clear that even Trump understands that he has virtually no chance of winning the national popular vote. He's been polling in the low 40s, with no sign of change. To have any chance of prevailing in the Electoral College, he's got to do the electoral equivalent of drawing to an inside straight all over again—winning a half-dozen so-called battleground states where he defeated Hillary Clinton in 2016 by the narrowest of margins.
At this writing, that looks highly unlikely. The latest polling in must-win Pennsylvania, for example, shows Trump trailing Joe Biden by nine points. That's a landslide. Trump's down ten in Wisconsin, eight in Michigan. And so on.
So spare me the screeching emails in ALL CAPS, OK? Polls were actually quite accurate in 2016. Trump narrowly defeated the odds. It can happen. But he's in far worse shape this time. Furthermore, early voting turnout is very high, with Democrats outnumbering Republicans two to one.
Hence, The Atlantic reports, "Trump's state and national legal teams are already laying the groundwork for post-election maneuvers that would circumvent the results of the vote count in battleground states."
The plan is clear. Because more Democrats than Republicans are choosing mail-in voting during the COVID pandemic, Trump hopes to prevent those ballots from being counted. Assuming he'll have a narrow "swing state" lead on election night, he'll declare victory and start filing lawsuits. "The red mirage," some Democrats call it.
"As a result," Toobin writes, "the aftermath of the 2020 election has the potential to make 2000 look like a mere skirmish." With Trump in the White House urging armed militias to take to the street.
Mail-in votes take a long time to count. Things could definitely get crazy.
True, but filing a lawsuit to halt a Florida recount was one thing. Filing suits against a half dozen states to prevent votes from being counted at all is quite another. Public reaction would be strong. Also, winning such lawsuits requires serious evidence of fraud. Trumpian bluster ain't evidence.
The Atlantic reports that GOP-controlled state legislatures are thinking about sending Trumpist delegations to the Electoral College regardless of the popular vote winner—theoretically constitutional but currently illegal.
Fat chance. If that's the best they've got, they've got nothing.
Anyway, here's the answer: Vote early, and in person*.

[Editor's note: In some states, receiving an absentee ballot means that a voter can no longer vote in person* or may have to surrender the absentee ballot, including the envelope in which it arrived, at their polling place. Please check with your local election authorities.]