TIME Spain

Surreal Scene of Migrants Atop Spanish Border Fence

A golfer hits a tee shot as African migrants sit atop a border fence during an attempt to cross into Spanish territories between Morocco and Spain's north African enclave of Melilla
A golfer swings as African migrants sit atop a fence during an attempt to cross from Morocco into the Spanish enclave of Melilla on Oct. 22, 2014. José Palazón—Reuters

The fence is often the scene of would-be border-jumpers aiming to reach Europe

Among the top issues this year for European countries along the Mediterranean has been how to handle the flow of migrants from Africa and the Middle East who seek a better life within their borders. Tens of thousands of refugees and migrants journeyed across perilous routes throughout the year, and in thousands of cases met death before land. Others have attempted to cross into one of the two Spanish enclaves, Melilla and Ceuta, that border Morocco.

The latter scene played out again on Oct. 22, and was captured in a picture at the border fence surrounding Melilla that later went viral online. Eleven men are seen sitting atop the fence as a police officer approaches — and as two women play golf below. One is in mid-swing while the other is turned toward the group.

José Palazón, an activist with a migrant-rights group, spotted the men above the golf course and thought it was “a good moment to take a photo that was a bit more symbolic,” he told El Pais. “The photo reflects the situation really well — the differences that exist here and all the ugliness that is happening here.”

Spain’s interior ministry said about 200 people tried to scale the fence that day, according to the Associated Press. About 20 successfully crossed, while another 70 stayed on top of the fence for hours.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: October 10

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. With U.S. support, El Salvador is using community policing to address skyrocketing gang crime.

By Jude Joffe-Block in Fronteras

2. A new tool designed to flag bogus stories online might help combat rampant misinformation.

By Alexis Sobel Fitts in the Columbia Journalism Review

3. A multimillion dollar new high rise in Los Angeles exclusively for the city’s sick and vulnerable homeless residents reflects a powerful truth: we can’t ignore poverty away.

By Gale Holland in the Los Angeles Times

4. The CDC is using mobile phone data to track and stop Ebola in West Africa.

By Aliya Sternstein in NextGov

5. “Education is the most important right. When we get education, then we can bring change in our society.”

By Malala Yousafzai addressing the Aspen Ideas Festival

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: October 9

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. Like Pakistan, Turkey nurtured a militant movement next door. Will ISIS enter Turkey as the Taliban made a new home in Pakistan?

By Michael M. Tanchum and Halil M. Karaveli in New York Times

2. Look homeward: America should form a new North American partnership with Canada and Mexico to tackle global challenges.

By Nicholas Burns in the Boston Globe

3. Protestors in Hong Kong and around the world can bypass government censorship with “mesh networks.”

By Gareth Tyson in the Conversation

4. Early childhood development can dramatically change a child’s life and future. Massively scaling up investment in youth could close the income and skills gaps, and accomplish much more.

By the Brookings Institution

5. Rural America has the nation’s fastest rising child poverty rate. To overcome it, we must confront the weaknesses in our economic recovery.

By the Rural Family Economic Success Action Network

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Culture

When Immigration Isn’t a One-Way Street

Immigration stamp
David Franklin—Getty Images

My great grandfather came to California from China to work on the railroads, and my family has been back and forth ever since

When my great grandfather made his way from China to the United States in the 1920s, I doubt he ever imagined his grandchildren and great grandchildren would make their way back. California was a land of opportunity, where he spent the rest of his life.

I am also a Chinese-American immigrant, but I have a much more fluid identity than my great grandfather. I have a foot in each country, and I have a life where being American and being Chinese are no longer exclusive.

My family’s American journey started when my great grandpa came to this country by way of Angel Island, the Ellis Island of the West. Emigrants from China before my great grandpa had named San Francisco “Gold Mountain” — both for the literal gold in its hills and its metaphorical power. But gold wasn’t the only draw. Tens of thousands of men from China had come to work on the railroads since the 1860s. That’s what drew my great grandpa to California. He came alone, leaving his wife and children back in Guangdong province in southern China.

My grandpa was just 1 at the time. I don’t know if great grandpa had hoped to bring the entire family over, but great grandmother died young and the railroads were no place for young children. So grandpa stayed in Jiangmen, where he later married and raised my mother and her four siblings. Mom tells happy stories of a simple childhood, playing with sticks and beads for fun, even though the country was in a state of constant upheaval as a result of the Japanese occupation and then the Chinese Civil War, which resulted in the formation of the People’s Republic of China. In the late 1960s, around the start of the Cultural Revolution — the most intense of the purges by Mao Zedong’s followers of those deemed traditionalists and “capitalist roaders” — grandpa brought the family to Oakland to join his father, who had become a carpenter. My grandpa’s family was not specifically targeted, but the tension in the air was palpable. The U.S. had loosened its immigration laws by then, allowing families to reunite.

For my grandpa and grandma, this was a land of refuge and stability. Grandpa worked as a kitchen helper at Dave’s Coffee Shop, and Grandma worked in a garment factory. I remember she had a stash of designer labels like Jordache, and would sew them into our sweaters, which made the back of our necks itchy. Grandpa and grandma did not have grand ambitions, and just wanted their children to have food on the table and a roof over their heads. They believed that as long as their family had a peaceful life, they would be content.

Mom was 16 when she arrived and attended Oakland Tech High School, where she worked hard on her English and went to UC Berkeley, at the height of 60s counterculture and student activism. Mom lived in a co-op and has hilarious tales of flushing her roommate’s joints down the toilet because she didn’t like the smell of the smoke, as well as theories on the lasting effects of tear gas on the nervous system, having been exposed to it as a matter of course between classes. She met Dad at a Chinese student group on campus in the early 1970s.

My dad was born at the end of the Second World War in Nanchang, by the Yangtze River in southeast China, but his father moved his family to Hong Kong and set up Hong Kong’s first evening newspaper. Dad came to the U.S. for college, as did most of his siblings. At the time, the children of well-to-do families were often sent to the West for university.

Mom and Dad moved our family between Hong Kong and California a number of times. I was born in Hong Kong, because my parents had moved back to help with the family newspaper when Dad’s father passed suddenly. They returned to the California to set up an import-export business, and had my sister. In the mid 1980s, their business brought our family back to Hong Kong.

Wherever we were, my parents carried with them the American ideal that merit trumped connections. I was raised with the belief that we could make it on our own. As long as we worked hard, harder than everyone else, we would eventually get ours. The “Tortoise and the Hare” was our bedtime story. And my parents’ hope for my sister and me was that we would find stable jobs as engineers or scientists. It was never a directive, but rather conveyed through tales of humanity majors working the gas pump.

We both studied science in college — I followed in my parents’ footsteps at Berkeley and my sister at MIT. I majored in material science and engineering. Even though I had spent a significant amount of time in Oakland as a child, there were still plenty of things I didn’t understand, like how to order a sandwich without grassy weeds in it (alfalfa sprouts). Or when it was appropriate to wear tie-dye. After the O.J. Simpson verdict was read, I found it strange that newscasters would ask people on the street how the trial made them ‘feel’; even stranger that viewers might actually care. The news in Hong Kong at the time would have reported what happened, and left it at that.

Going to college at Berkeley changed the course of my life. I threw myself into experiencing what it meant to be a student at UC Berkeley in the early 1990s. From the Naked Guy nude-ins to the student sit-ins over the abolishing of affirmative action, there was plenty of opportunity to witness the digestive and generative power of American culture. It was mind-blowing to see how my peers valued the ability to break down old conventions, and create new cultural norms.

I realized that I was willing to move forward without the safety net that was so important to previous generations of my family. For me, America promised personal freedom and mobility. I changed my major from engineering to American Studies. Maybe I could become part of this culture in a way my parents and their parents were not able to. My thesis examined high-tech American marketing, a topic that let me combine my understanding of science with my interest in how mass communications shaped societal values.

After graduating in the late 1990s, I went to work at Saatchi & Saatchi, the advertising agency. But when the dot-com bust came with the new millennium, I surveyed my options. I decided to move back to China, which I thought of as home, too, only to find myself being treated as an American-born Chinese, even though I was born there.

A company I co-founded supplied industrial equipment in Shenzhen. We had a board member who liked to bring me to industry events because of the way I spoke Cantonese, my mother tongue, and Mandarin. My American-accented Chinese was a minor novelty, and lent him a certain kind of prestige at the time for having a Western-educated employee. Even after years of living in Shenzhen, where many different dialects are spoken, my accent revealed my years away from the Mother Country. It also invited the pejorative moniker juk sing — a Chinese person raised in Western culture, who belonged to neither. But for me, what was important was that I could navigate both, at will.

I returned to San Francisco in 2009 for love, and, as the region’s economy has rebounded, I co-founded Ready State, the advertising agency I run today. And, since then, the call of Silicon Valley has brought back many of my peers, who had also moved abroad the decade before. We’re U.S. nationals who now move freely between two countries.

We didn’t stop being immigrants when my great grandfather came to America, but we members of the later generations can thank him and the others for giving us the courage to leap, and the determination to land. I’m part of a generation of Asian immigrants who have a much wider world to live in.

Steven Wong is the Chief Operating Officer at Ready State, a digital marketing agency based in Silicon Valley. He wrote this for What It Means to Be American, a national conversation hosted by the Smithsonian and Zocalo Public Square.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Immigration

Asylum in America: A High-Stakes Struggle for Border Crossing Kids

At dusk in Los Angeles, Maria, 15, waits for word on her plea for asylum from extortion and gang threats in El Salvador. Alexis Kenyon—Center for Public Integrity

The children fleeing violence in Central America are desperate, but are they refugees?

 

This story was published by The Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative news organization in Washington, D.C.

While other kids enjoyed summer break, a teenager with more on her mind slipped into her only dressy jacket and traveled south to Anaheim, to a nondescript building housing the local office of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Lithe and athletic, the girl knew she’d be less than a mile from Disneyland, “the happiest place on Earth.” But for Maria, a pseudonym, fun was a luxury she couldn’t afford that day in June.

At the tender age of 15, she faced an interview to plead, essentially, for her life — to ask for refuge from violence so chilling her family thought it better to smuggle her to the United States in the spring of 2013.

“Two years ago a friend of mine died in a very cold-blooded way. She died cut to pieces. My best friend,” Maria said in Spanish, beginning to recount what she told a U.S. asylum officer.

As she recalled the story again, Maria’s soft voice trembled, and tears spilled down her cheeks.

She said police in El Salvador asked her to identify body parts pulled from a bag dumped in a river. She recognized a birthmark on her friend’s leg. She said she also witnessed a boy shot and dragged off, after a soccer game—a boy later found hanged. And before she fled, Maria said, she’d been asking her father, a U.S. truck driver, for more and more money so she could pay murderous MS-13 gangsters $60 a month to leave her alone.

“I was traumatized,” Maria sobbed. “I still am from seeing that body split apart. That dismembered head. Those arms. … As time went by, I didn’t want to go out, or eat, or do anything. The only thing I wanted to do was to die. I told myself that the same thing could happen to me.”

After the 90-minute interview, the asylum officer told Maria she might know the outcome of her request in two weeks. More than three months later, after starting 11th grade this fall at an L.A. public high school, she was still waiting for an answer.

A test for U.S. asylum

In coming months, the American asylum system’s treatment of young people like Maria will be tested as never before — on U.S. soil and in Central America as well.

The challenge to the system’s integrity and humanitarian obligations follows an 88 percent increase in “unaccompanied minors” seized at the border this year. More than 66,000 kids traveling without parents were apprehended by the Border Patrol between October 2013 and the end of August.

News footage showed minors from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala simply walking up to agents to be taken in. Now a record number are expected to apply for asylum based on gang persecution, a basis for refugee status that’s becoming more common— and is a highly debated area of law.

The White House on Sept. 30 also approved a plan to allow a limited number of minors to apply for refugee status—the equivalent of asylum—from inside those three Central American countries if their parents are in U.S. with legal status, including, potentially, parents with temporary legal status.

The plan echoes in-country refugee screenings in the past inside Haiti and Vietnam. But just like Maria, who crossed the border illegally in 2013, children in home countries will face eligibility requirements for asylum refugee status that go beyond experiencing fear.

The asylum application system for minors on U.S. territory has been designed, over time, to be deliberative and compassionate, yet it is by no means a sure thing for kids like Maria.

In the court of U.S. public opinion, some have already reacted with unvarnished hostility to the flood of teens and preteens and their claims to be seeking a haven from relentless violence. “They’re going to be sucking us dry,” Cape Cod resident Mary Woodruff said, as Boston’s WBUR radio taped public debate over a proposal to shelter detained kids at a National Guard base in the popular vacation region.

Yet the public writ large seems to be conflicted. Fifty-two percent of respondents in an Associated Press-GfK opinion poll in late July said children claiming to be fleeing gang violence shouldn’t be treated as refugees in need of asylum. Yet a survey by the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute the same month found 69 percent support for allowing minors to stay if U.S. authorities decided it was unsafe for them to be deported.

Unaccompanied minors have an indisputable right to request an immigration hearing and seek asylum, but immigration skeptics want these kids to be treated more like adults who are subjected to rapid “credible fear” tests that can lead to their “expedited deportation.” Refugee rights advocates, meanwhile, are trying to make sure these kids — who have no right to appointed counsel — have help from attorneys.

As federal officials rush to prioritize resolution of minors’ applications, members of Congress are aggressively attacking the current asylum system as well as children’s claims they actually face mortal threats. Meanwhile, pro bono lawyers are struggling to document horrors some teens have faced — while line-level asylum officers face decisions about matters children tell them could mean life or death.

Truth about terror not enough

To win asylum, or refugee status, even children have to go beyond simply proving that they’re being truthful about terrifying experiences.

“While age should be taken into account in making the persecution determination,” says an asylum officers’ training guide, “not all harm to a child, including physical mistreatment and detention, constitutes persecution.”

For her asylum hearing in late June, Maria wore a dark jacket and pants because she wanted to convey respect. Alexis Kenyon—Center for Public Integrity

The Department of Homeland Security declined a request to speak with an active asylum officer. But Christopher Manny, a former asylum officer in Chicago and Miami, explained the constraints of the law.

“As traumatic as it is seeing your friend or family member executed by a gang for refusing recruitment or refusing an extortion demand,” Manny said, “generally speaking that would not be considered grounds for a refugee definition.”

Officers must also be convinced, Manny said, that children’s suffering had a “nexus,” or was rooted in a persecutor’s intent to harm them because of one or more of five reasons: religious or political persuasion, race, nationality or because they belong to an identifiable “social group” that’s persecuted and unprotected.

Since minors, like adults, have no right to the appointment of counsel in deportation or asylum proceedings, they largely depend on nonprofit and pro bono attorneys who often need crash courses from colleagues because they’ve never studied asylum law.

State bar associations have put out calls for members to volunteer — beginning with initial appearances the kids make before immigration judges. Kids are also showing up for help at advocacy groups like Los Angeles’ Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project, Chicago’s National Immigrant Justice Center and Washington D.C.’s Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, among others.

Kids in Need of Defense, a nonprofit in the nation’s capital, is scrambling to match Central American minors with counsel from a pool of 8,000 potential pro bono lawyers nationwide that the group has developed at law firms, corporations and law schools.

In September, as part of the budget process, Congress rejected a White House request for $64 million to hire more immigration judges to clear backlogs that delay cases for years and to provide other legal support, including $15 million in direct representation for kids.

The Justice Department, though, is pressing ahead with $1.8 million in grants to groups to bolster legal representation for kids under 16. The Department of Health and Human Services, which runs shelters for the minors, announced in late September that it’s providing $9 million in grants for two years to fund nonprofit legal aid groups that provide counsel.

It’s unclear exactly how many kids will get counsel, but it can clearly make a difference. A recent analysis of a decade’s worth of immigration court records showed that 43 percent of about 100,000 juveniles in the courts had counsel. About half of those kids were ultimately allowed to stay for various reasons, asylum among them. Only one in 10 without counsel was successful, according to researchers at Syracuse University.

“An attorney is so, so central,” said Lisa Frydman, managing director of the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies at the University of California Hastings College of the Law.

“How does a child begin to understand what kinds of evidence they have to put together,” Frydman said, “or begin to understand what the definition of a refugee even means?”

Comprehending the intricacies of the law is just one challenge; lawyers also face the daunting task of figuring out how to gather statements and relevant evidence from foreign countries where people are often terrified to hand over records.

Under current federal law — laws some in Congress now want changed — minors who arrive on their own must be released from Border Patrol custody and placed in shelters within 72 hours. They receive basic child-friendly legal briefings. And if they are from “non-contiguous” countries, like those in Central America, they must be given a date to appear before an immigration judge before they can be deported.

If a child decides to seek asylum, immigration judges transfer their cases for judgment to the U.S. Asylum Office system, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security.

If asylum officers don’t subsequently find children eligible for asylum, their cases return to immigration courts, where they can again argue for asylum in a hearing that can be more adversarial, with a government attorney cross-examining them.

Sorting it out

As images of minors crossing the border began to dominate news programs and talk shows, the issue quickly morphed into a political football laced with confusing accusations and misleading statistics.

Between October and the end of June, more than 1,500 asylum requests were filed by unaccompanied minors. They added up to only 4 percent of all asylum applications nationally during that time. But minors’ requests did more than double in less than a year. By the end of June, about 2,180 cases — including Maria’s, in Anaheim — were pending resolution nationwide, according to data provided by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

During the first nine months of the 2014 fiscal year, 65 percent of kids interviewed by asylum officers were granted refuge — a rate criticized as excessive in a widely covered press release issued in July by House of Representatives Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican who opposes federal expenditures on counsel for unaccompanied minors. He declined to comment further.

Goodlatte’s July release alleged that too many kids were being rushed to undeserving asylum status on the basis of “proven or possible fraud,” citing an internal report from the Department of Homeland Security.

What the release didn’t say was that the overall numbers of kids approved during that time frame was modest: just 108 minors.

About 60 other cases were sent to immigration judges for what amounts to an appeal. Thirty-eight additional cases were closed for reasons that included failure to appear. Only two of the 108 minors approved were new arrivals who came in during the nine-month time frame; the rest were kids who had arrived earlier.

U.S. government reports on brutal gangs

In that recent nine-month period, some 90 percent of the kids interviewed by asylum officers were represented by counsel. On average, up to now, most minors have taken more than 300 days to file formal application forms. Because kids are kids, and are frightened, lawyers say, it can take weeks, even months, to fully understand what happened to them.

Asylum officers attempt to resolve cases within a few months of receiving an application. Kids’ lawyers say the process is accelerating now that the Department of Homeland Security, the umbrella agency handling border and immigration matters, has made minors’ cases a priority.

To help frame minors’ stories, lawyers say they routinely submit, with applications, U.S. government reports acknowledging the pervasive, brutal control organized-crime rings now exert in Central America.

In 2012, the U.S. Treasury Department designated the notorious MS-13 gang — which Maria said preyed on her — as a “transnational crime organization” involved in global narcotics smuggling and other crimes. A U.S. State Department report also warned in 2006 that kids as young as 8 were targets for gang recruitment, extortion and retaliation in some countries.

Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala have some of the highest per capita murder rates in the world.

A Congressional Research Service paper issued in July took note of a United Nations survey of about 400 Central American minors in U.S. custody in the fall of 2013. About half said they had experienced “serious harm or threats by organized criminal groups or state actors,” references to gangs and to corrupt police.

But these claims are controversial. San Diego-area GOP Rep. Darrell Issa, chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, downplayed the role of gang violence in creating the recent surge among children.

“What you’re seeing is a flood of illegals coming here prepped to say whatever they need to say to get to stay here because the President of the United States has told them, in no uncertain terms: If they get here, he won’t enforce the law,” Issa said at a June congressional hearing. Reports of “cheat sheets” composed by smugglers hired by parents fueled the idea that kids were making stories up.

Maria said it was her idea in 2013 to flee El Salvador, not her father’s, and she implored him to help her.

“The majority of my friends that have stayed in El Salvador are terrified. Some tolerate beatings; others, threats. Others are in the gangs now. Waiting to see when it’s their day to die,” Maria said, her voice shaking.

“It’s a country where no one can even play safely, nor think. Nothing,” she said. “The police are dominated by the gangs. You go to complain about a gangster and a little while later, they know about it.”

Lawyers have argued with mixed success that girls who face rape and servitude to notorious criminal bands in Central America constitute a persecuted social group.

They’ve also argued that kids who resist gang recruitment and face brutal retaliation are a social group, along with kids who witness crimes where police are either incapable or too corrupt to protect them from retaliation.

Lawyers for Maria at the Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project submitted a legal memo arguing that the teenager is a witness to crime who requires protection because she is vulnerable to retaliation.

Patricia Ortiz, Esperanza’s managing attorney, is confident that the kids whose cases she’s taken are truthful.

Patricia Ortiz poses for a portrait near her office win Los Angles, CA, Wednesday Oct 1,2014. (Photo by Annie Tritt)
Patricia Ortiz near her office win Los Angles, CA, Wednesday Oct 1,2014. (Photo by Annie Tritt) Annie Tritt—Center for Public Integrity

“Just because all of them are telling similar stories does not mean that they are lying,” she said. “It just means that they’re living in a country where they are not safe, and they’re in a country where they can’t walk out into the street without being afraid of being murdered or hurt or facing some kind of harm.”

Former asylum officer Manny said officers are trained to spot stories that raise suspicions. They receive bulletins if details in multiple applicants’ stories seem oddly similar.

“What to look for,” he said of children, “is basically the consistency of their testimony, whether they seem like they believe it or whether they seem to be speaking vicariously through someone else.”

Gang refusal a reason for asylum?

The outcome of a case may also depend on how higher-level federal courts have ruled on asylum cases.

In 2012, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, based in Richmond, Virginia, upheld an immigration board’s denial of an asylum claim based on arguments that young Honduran males who had refused to join a gang — and reported harassment to police — were a distinct persecuted group.

Opposition to gangs and resisting recruitment is too much of an “amorphous characteristic,” the court said, for determining group membership.

But in 2013, the Ninth Circuit, based in San Francisco, reversed an asylum denial for a young girl based on arguments she lacked status within an obviously persecuted social group.

The case involved a 12-year-old who had testified in open court in El Salvador that she saw gang members assault her father and heard shots that killed him. She also said she was threatened for testifying and fled to the United States.

Her case had previously reached the Board of Immigration Appeals, the BIA, the highest review body within the immigration system. The BIA rejected the argument the girl, as a witness to crime, met the threshold of “social visibility” needed for a social group argument.

The Ninth Circuit disagreed, finding that witnesses to crimes were a distinct social group, even if they were not visible to “the naked eye.”

In Chicago this summer, lawyers for a 15-year-old from Guatemala framed his asylum bid by describing him as a member of two social groups: minors who resist gang recruitment and kids who are witnesses to crime.

Francisco, as he asked to be called, came north more than a year ago and was interviewed by an asylum officer in August. His voice still sounds like a young boy’s.

In detail, Francisco recounted what he told an asylum officer. Gangsters gave him and a friend messages warning them to join up, or die. Francisco’s friend mocked the gangsters, who were also children, when he tossed a written message he’d been given to the ground. His friend was shot in an ambush on the street that sent Francisco running for his life. “I saw a bullet hit near me,” he said.

Francisco said he spoke to a police detective at his friend’s wake, and he and his mother tried to shield themselves from reprisal by moving. But Francisco said hoods younger than he found them, and his father in Chicago, fearing his son would be killed, arranged to have him smuggled up to the United States.

The asylum officer asked Francisco details about various parts of his story, and showed particular interest in his interactions with the detective and concerns about retaliation, the boy’s lawyers said.

The social group “rubric” is one of “the most common types of asylum claims nowadays — and it’s also one of the most complex,” said Ashley Huebner, managing attorney of the National Immigrant Justice Center’s Immigrant Children’s Protection Project, which represents Francisco.

Huebner said she can’t imagine minors without lawyers trying to sort out what parts of their story are more relevant than others. Former asylum officer Manny agreed. “An attorney’s brief can shed light on a lot of things that may not be expressed clearly by the child.”

Huebner said she doesn’t expect an answer on Francisco’s request for months.

Lawyers’ quests to find documents

Gladis Molina, a nonprofit attorney in Phoenix, Arizona, said she feels an awesome responsibility taking on kids’ cases. But she says she’s also had to turn away kids whose stories simply don’t meet the threshold for asylum or some other type of relief from deportation.

A first-generation Salvadoran-American, Molina, 34, manages the children’s program for the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Program. Her father left El Salvador during its bloody civil war in the 1980s and received amnesty in 1986, during the Reagan administration.

She warns her clients that they must expect “for their story to be turned upside, downside, inward and outward because you get asked so many details.”

Some kids’ stories are so horrible, Molina said, she weeps as she listens. She’s also had agonized clients call her in the middle of night and say, “Lawyer, I don’t feel like living anymore. Life is just not worth living. I’m not happy. I feel lonely.”

Molina recently prepared a complex case on behalf of a Salvadoran girl, who was 17 when she filed her application. She recently turned 18. In mid-September she underwent an interview with an asylum officer for 2 ½ hours.

The girl claims she was raped by a gangster in what may have been an initiation rite. The girl’s mother, who lived in Fresno, California, is now deceased. The young woman came north to join relatives, was detained and is now terrified to return to El Salvador because the alleged rape was reported to child-welfare services. The rapist is in jail, but like many behind bars in El Salvador, the girl says, he has the ability to order a hit on her.

Up until the girl’s interview, Molina was trying to get child-welfare records from El Salvador to bolster her argument that the girl qualifies as a member of a social group — women exploited by gangs — who would face deadly retaliation if deported.

“I want those records,” Molina said.

Molina and another attorney called and emailed a child-welfare administrator and were told the girl would need to give someone in El Salvador power of attorney to release the records. Molina tried her own family connections as well to see if she could get someone on the ground to get the documents.

“I remembered that a cousin of mine knew a doctor whose wife worked for the government agency that oversees real estate taxation,” Molina said. “So I sent her an email and said, ‘I’m an American attorney. You don’t know me, but my cousin knows your husband. Can you please help me get these documents?’ ”

If her client is rejected by the asylum officer and has to go on to an immigration court hearing, Molina said, she intends to redouble efforts to get the records.

Asylum officers will not reject a child’s claim solely because adults failed to generate documentation of abuses. But officers can ask to see certain documents, and lawyers must provide a reason, in writing, why records could not be obtained.

If you can obtain them, Molina said, records can show that a child’s terrible story is “in fact what happened and not something that she’s just conveniently recounting in America to avoid deportation.”

“An unbelievable story”

In 2009, Damion Robinson was just two years out of the University of California at Los Angeles’ law school and a young L.A. business attorney when his firm took on an asylum case, pro bono, that required extraordinary effort — and money — to pursue, and ultimately win in November 2010. Robinson led the effort, and among the key pieces of evidence he chased down was a trove of records related to a Guatemalan girl’s story of sustained abuse at the hands of a local crime boss.

Damion Robinson poses for a portrait near his office in Los Angeles, CA, Wednesday Oct 1,2014. (Photo by Annie Tritt)
Damion Robinson near his office in Los Angeles on Oct 1, 2014. Annie Tritt—Center for Public Integrity

Robinson got involved when Kids In Need of Defense, or KIND, approached the firm he worked for at the time, Sullivan & Cromwell LLP. The firm enthusiastically embraced the case as a pro bono service, Robinson said.

Today, at 31, Robinson handles clients that run the gamut from start-up companies to Fortune 500 firms at Van Vleck Turner & Zaller, also in L.A. He’s eager to represent another minor.

“It was hard to say no, frankly,” the Seattle native said when he began to gather facts about the Guatemalan for what turned out to be a nearly 18-month case.

A Spanish-speaking female assistant helped Robinson slowly unravel the history of the girl, who was living with a relative in L.A. after release from a shelter. At times, Robinson would have to leave the room to let the girl first disclose privately to the woman assistant details of being repeatedly raped, held captive, giving birth at 14, held captive again and beaten and threatened with weapons.

“Her story was unbelievable in a way,” Robinson said. “It was just something I couldn’t even imagine happening …. There was a long, long history of sexual assault and violence, physical violence, against her that was just horrifying.”

The girl said she was first kidnapped by an older man when she was 12 years old. She said the man ran a gang with impunity in a small city. Robinson was amazed to learn that the girl’s mother had persistently filed criminal and civil complaints and obtained restraining orders that local justice officials did not enforce.

The girl’s mother finally sent her daughter out of Guatemala with a smuggler to remove her from the clutches of the man.

A tale that initially felt like it might be exaggerated became vividly real after Robinson and others labored four months to track down copies of the civil and criminal complaints and restraining orders.

“In the U.S., you would just call the clerk and have them send over the court records,” Robinson said, spreading on a table copies of documents in Spanish emblazoned with official stamps.

It was a struggle, he said, with some hired hands demanding exorbitant rates — and then failing to come through. His firm eventually spent at least $9,000 locating and hiring various law groups and services in Guatemala that work to retrieve documents from archives and agencies.

His teen client, he said, “wouldn’t have been able to pay to have that happen. And I think it was pretty instrumental to our case to have those records and have that proof, rather just being her word about what happened.”

And Robinson ultimately went even further.

At the suggestion of Kids In Need of Defense, he contacted Patrick Atkinson, an American who works with exploited minors in Guatemala. Eventually Atkinson, who runs a children’s welfare group called God’s Child, flew up on his own dime for the girl’s hearing in 2010.

Robinson’s client turned 18 after filing for asylum. At that time, the assigned asylum officer said the law didn’t grandfather her into the asylum office as a minor — it would now — so her case was sent back to a judge.

She ended up having a trial-like hearing, testifying for more than two hours with a government attorney opposing her claim for asylum. At one point, Robinson said, the government lawyer argued that the restraining orders showed law enforcement was capable of protecting the girl back in Guatemala.

Atkinson, the expert witness, said he testified at the hearing because he was convinced the gangster would have seized the girl immediately had she been deported back and killed her with impunity.

“The mother did a number of reports about rape, about assault, about domestic violence, and the police reports are there,” Atkinson said. But it’s common, he said, for authorities to be frightened into doing nothing.

“There’s different ways of blackmailing the judges and the police,” he said. “Fear is by far the most powerful.”

That’s the kind of scenario that frightens the Salvadoran girl Maria and her father, who asked to be called Miguel.

Miguel has lived and worked legally in the United States since 2001. That’s when natural disasters that devastated Central America led to the U.S. government to grant temporary protected status, still in effect today, to undocumented immigrants from the region: about 212,000 Salvadorans and 64,000 Hondurans.

Miguel speaks fluent English now and has a good job driving long-distance trucks. His temporary legal status provides stability. But it’s officially temporary. And it didn’t allow him to rescue Maria from El Salvador by sponsoring her to come here legally.

Miguel felt Maria was at risk for being killed in El Salvador, and he feared the local thugs extorting her would demand ever-increasing payments until he simply couldn’t afford it.

So he scraped together $7,500 with help from family and paid it to a smuggler to get Maria out. He didn’t intend for her to get caught. But he was overjoyed when a Border Patrol agent called and said she was in custody after a harrowing raft ride over the river in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley.

Maria spent months in a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services-run shelter in Houston, Texas, after her detention. Then she was transferred to a foster family in Los Angeles while federal officials vetted Miguel.

Now father and daughter live together in a South Central Los Angeles bungalow, where they’re getting to know each other. He always had a long-distance relationship with her but left when she was an infant. Maria’s mom is in El Salvador. Miguel has a new wife and a young son in Los Angeles.

To strengthen Maria’s asylum claim, attorneys were able to persuade teachers and a pastor in El Salvador to provide written statements about her character and history. Lawyers also submitted a news article about her friend’s killing, and United Nations and U.S. government reports about dangers in El Salvador.

“Gang intimidation and violence against witnesses contributed to a climate of impunity from criminal prosecution,” said the State Department’s 2013 El Salvador Human Rights Report.

Lawyers were also hoping to submit Maria’s murdered friend’s death certificate. But when Miguel persuaded a relative in El Salvador to approach the dead girl’s father to obtain the confidential report, the father declined.

“He said, ‘No, I can’t help you guys because I have more kids in my house, and I don’t want them to get killed like my daughter,’ ” Miguel said.

Miguel said he doesn’t fault the father for refusing to help.

Dissolving into tears, Miguel said, “I can’t even imagine how he is suffering now or the kind of life he is living because he’s afraid for his other kids and knowing he cannot search for justice for his daughter.”

The Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project has turned away other Central American minors who’ve asked if for help in obtaining asylum. The attorneys won’t take on cases they don’t believe have merit, managing lawyer Patricia Ortiz said. But their work is exploding, with more than 60 cases involving minors seeking asylum.

The responsibility, Ortiz, 30, said, “is a little bit terrifying.”

Copyright 2014 The Center for Public Integrity

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TIME 2014 Election

GOP Ad Claims ISIS Plot to Attack U.S. Via ‘Arizona’s Backyard’

But national security officials have repeatedly refuted the claim in National Republican Congressional Committee ad

The National Republican Congressional Committee ad opens with grainy footage of black flags and fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) holding rifles on military vehicles. “Evil forces around the world want to harm Americans every day,” an ominous voiceover states. “Their entry into our country? Through Arizona’s backyard.” The spot goes on to recount how Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-AZ), locked in a close re-election fight with Arizona House Speaker Andy Tobin, has voted against border security legislation, suggesting that she “leaves Arizona vulnerable.”

The claim is clear: The same terrorists targeted by U.S. bombers for destruction in Syria and Iraq are coming to the U.S. to attack the homeland through the Mexican border. Yet federal law enforcement officials have repeatedly stated that there is no active plot against the U.S. from ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria, and no intelligence to suggest incursions on the Southern border.

To make the claim, the ad relies on a Sept. 10 writeup of a congressional hearing by the conservative Washington Free Beacon in which a Department of Homeland Security official was understood as telling lawmakers that ISIS “supporters are known to be plotting ways to infiltrate the United States through the border.”

But a review of the testimony by DHS Under Secretary for Intelligence and Analysis Francis Taylor tells another story. Instead, he said, “there have been Twitter, social media exchanges among [ISIS] adherents across the globe speaking about that as a possibility.” But that is a far cry from a direct threat, and light years away from a direct plot against the homeland.

Other national security officials have since offered more detail refuting the claim. “We see no specific intelligence or evidence to suggest at present that [ISIS] is attempting to infiltrate this country though our southern border,” Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson told the House Homeland Security Committee a week after Taylor’s testimony. Matt Olsen, the outgoing director of the National Counterterrorism Center told lawmakers at the same hearing, “There have been a very small number of sympathizers with [ISIS] who have posted messages on social media about this, but we’ve seen nothing to indicate that there is any sort of operational effort or plot to infiltrate or move operatives from [ISIS] into the United States through the southern border.”

When asked about the sourcing for the ad’s claim, a spokesman for the NRCC did not back down. “ISIS presents an imminent and dangerous threat to the United States,” says Daniel Scarpinato, a NRCC spokesperson. “Anyone who doesn’t believe that having a porous border made of chicken wire is leaving our country at risk, should go explain that to people in Arizona who actually have to live with this problem and are upset that politicians like Ann Kirkpatrick are ignoring it.”

By juicing the threat of ISIS, Republicans are hoping to take advantage of global volatility and the understandable fear surrounding it for their own electoral purposes. ISIS has been used as campaign fodder since at least the summer, as the terrorist group took control of major cities in Iraq and started beheading Westerners.

In August, GOP New Mexico Senate candidate Allen Weh, a Marine veteran, attracted criticism when his campaign used a screenshot of the knife-wielding man who killed American journalist James Foley in an ad. Over the past few months, New Hampshire Republican Senate candidate Scott Brown has knocked Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) repeatedly over the spread of ISIS, using the image of a fighter carrying a black ISIS flag in one ad and President Obama’s “we don’t have a strategy yet” quote in another. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell also featured that quote in an ad, saying he was the right choice in these “serious times.”

TIME Immigration

Obama Approves Refugee Plan for Central American Kids

Women and children sit in a holding cell at a U.S. Border Patrol processing center after being detained by agents near the U.S.-Mexico border on Sept. 8, 2014 near McAllen, Texas.
Women and children sit in a holding cell at a U.S. Border Patrol processing center after being detained by agents near the U.S.-Mexico border on Sept. 8, 2014 near McAllen, Texas. John Moore—Getty Images

New plan intended to reduce the number of unaccompanied Central American children attempting to cross U.S.-Mexico border

Several thousand young Central American children will now be able to apply for refugee status in the United States, White House officials said Tuesday, after President Obama approved a plan that provides a legal path for some to join their parents north of the border.

The new program is aimed at tackling a surge of immigrant children fleeing gang violence and rape in Central America which rose to crisis levels over the summer, by giving them a way to qualify for refugee status before they begin traveling north, the New York Times reports.

More than 3,000 children crossed the Mexico-U.S. border in August, down from 10,000 in July. Officials said the new plan will further help stem the flow of immigrants by providing a legal avenue to a visa.

Critics say that many more people will apply for refugee status if they can simply do it from their home countries. But the White House emphasized it is not encouraging more immigration, and that the number of total visas granted to refugees would remain constant.

“We are establishing in-country refugee processing to provide a safe, legal and orderly alternative to the dangerous journey that children are currently undertaking to join relatives in the United States,” said Shawn Turner, a spokesman for the White House.

[NYT]

TIME 2014 midterm elections

Drugs, Minimum Wage and Gambling: Inside 2014’s $1 Billion-Plus Ballot Initiatives

Demand for marijuana edibles is pushing several Colorado manufacturers to expand their facilities or move to larger quarters.
Steve Herin, Master Grower at Incredibles, works on repotting marijuana plants in the grow facility on Wednesday, August 13, 2014 in Denver, Colorado. Kent Nishimura—Denver Post via Getty Images

Bored with the midterms? There’s a lot of (expensive) drama on the ballot that doesn’t involve candidates

The 2014 elections are shaping up to be the most expensive in history, not for electoral campaigns, but for ballot initiatives. More than $1 billion has already been spent on them, according to the National Institute of Money in State Politics. And all that money could swing some key races.

Studies have shown controversial ballot initiatives can boost turnout as much as 8% in midterm elections, which typically see lower turnout than polling during presidential elections. Since Oregon first kicked off ballot initiatives in the early 1900’s, the practice has grown steadily — that is, until this year. Despite the increase in spending, 2014 actually has the least number of total initiatives — only 155 in 41 states, down from 188 in 2012—since 1988, reflecting state efforts to limit legislating by ballot.

Some of the millions already spent were intended to keep certain measures off the ballot. In Alaska, for example, oil and gas companies spent $170 per voter to block a bid to raise oil and gas taxes. In Colorado, energy companies also spent millions to keep fracking initiatives off the ticket. Also not making the cut this year: gay marriage and a push to break California into six states that, while strange, gained a lot of attention early on.

Perhaps the main issue on ballots nationwide this cycle is marijuana. Two states — Oregon and Alaska — plus the District of Columbia have initiatives to follow Colorado and Washington in legalizing recreational marijuana. But it’s a push to make Florida the 24th state to legalize medical marijuana that could impact an electoral race. Former Democratic Florida Gov. Charlie Crist’s bid to get his old gubernatorial seat back could see a boost from the measure, as left-leaning voters tend to support marijuana reform. Crist allies have already spent $4 million on the initiative with opponents, including incumbent Florida Gov. Republican Rick Scott and Sheldon Adelson, spending $2.5 million to defeat it thus far.

Another big issue is minimum wage, with four red states—Arkansas, Alaska, Nebraska and South Dakota—considering raising the minimum wage. Since 2002, all 10 ballot initiatives to raise state minimum wages have passed, and polling shows these initiatives look like they have good shots at approval as well. The pushes could help embattled Democratic incumbent Senators Mark Pryor in Arkansas and Mark Begich in Alaska.

Colorado Sen. Mark Udall, another Democratic incumbent fighting to keep his seat, is hoping that a personhood amendment —which defines life as beginning from the moment of conception — will help him stick around. His opponent, Rep. Cory Gardner, also opposes the amendment, but has voiced support for personhood initiatives in the past, creating an opening Udall has been exploiting. North Dakota has a similar initiative on the ballot, and Tennessee has a measure that would allow the state legislature to amend the state constitution to strip out abortion rights.

However, some of the most expensive ballot issues are not national ones. In California, two initiatives — one to increase the limit of non-economic malpractice damages from $250,000 to $1.1 million and another requiring state approval of changes in insurance rates — could see as much as $100 million in combined spending to sway voters. And Oregon and Colorado have controversial initiatives mandating the labeling of certain foods that contain genetically modified organisms. Last year, companies like Pepsi, Coca Cola and Monsanto spent $22 million defeating a similar push in Washington where proponents spent $9 million trying to pass it.

Oregon also has a controversial immigration initiative that would uphold a law allowing four-year driver’s licenses for those who cannot prove legal presence in the U.S. Another big-spending item is a spate of gambling initiatives in seven states expected to draw more than $100 million, including a hard-fought initiative in Massachusetts that would repeal a 2011 law allowing gambling resorts that would halt construction on sites.

A gun rights conundrum could happen in Washington, which looks poised to pass two initiatives that countermand one another. One would require universal background checks for all guns, and another forbids more extensive background checks than those required at the federal level. Officials say such a situation has never happened before, and no one is sure what would happen if both pass. Also on guns, Alabama is also looking to become the third state after Louisiana and Missouri to pass a “fundamental right to bear arms,” making it harder to restrict firearm access.

Alabama is also seeking to become the eighth state to forbid state’s recognition of laws violating its policies, including all foreign law. This measure is a follow up to a bill introduced by state Sen. Gerald Allen last year that specifically references Sharia law.

Missouri and Connecticut are looking to joining 33 other states and the District of Columbia in early voting.

And, finally, Maine is looking to ban bear baiting, trapping or the use of dogs to hunt bears. Long live Smokey.

TIME Immigration

U.S.: Most New Immigrant Families Fail to Report

(WASHINGTON) — For nearly three months this summer, the Obama administration carefully avoided answering questions about what happened to tens of thousands of immigrant families caught illegally crossing the Mexican border and released into the United States with instructions to report back to immigration authorities.

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and others said they faced deportation. But it turns out that tens of thousands of those immigrants did not follow the government’s instructions to meet with federal immigration agents within 15 days. Instead, they have vanished into the interior of the U.S.

The Homeland Security Department privately acknowledged that about 70 percent of immigrant families failed to report as ordered. The disclosure came during a confidential meeting at its Washington headquarters with immigration advocates participating in a federal working group on detention and enforcement policies.

The Associated Press obtained an audio recording of Wednesday’s meeting and separately interviewed participants.

On the recording, the government did not specify the total number of families released into the U.S. since October. Since only a few hundred families have already been returned to their home countries and limited U.S. detention facilities can house only about 1,200 family members, the 70 percent figure suggests the government released roughly 41,000 members of immigrant families who subsequently failed to appear at federal immigration offices.

The official, who was not identified by name on the recording, also said final deportation had been ordered for at least 860 people traveling as families caught at the border since May but only 14 people had reported as ordered.

The Homeland Security Department did not dispute the authenticity of the recording.

In an emailed statement Thursday, Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Gillian Christensen said the no-show figure represented “an approximate snapshot” of cases since May. Christiansen said some people may still report to immigration court hearings, and a “significant” number of deportation cases are still pending before judges.

The AP reported in June that the administration would not say publicly how many immigrant families from Central America caught crossing into the U.S. it had released in recent months or how many of those subsequently reported back to the government after 15 days as directed. The AP noted that senior U.S. officials directly familiar with the issue, including at the Homeland Security Department and White House, had dodged the answer on at least seven occasions over two weeks, alternately saying that they did not know the figure or didn’t have it immediately at hand.

Homeland Security’s public affairs office during the same period did not answer roughly a dozen requests for the figures.

More than 66,000 immigrants traveling as families, mostly mothers and young children, have been apprehended at the border since the start of the budget year in October. Nearly 60,000 of those immigrants are from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala and cannot be immediately repatriated, so the government has been releasing them into the U.S. and telling them to report within 15 days to the nearest Immigration and Customs Enforcement offices.

Republican lawmakers have been critical of the administration’s decision to release any immigrants caught crossing the border illegally.

“With this administration’s failure to enforce our immigration laws, it is no surprise that 70 percent of the families released take their chances to stay here and don’t show up for their follow-up appointments or court dates,” House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., said.

That previously undisclosed no-show rate led in part to the government’s decision in June to open a temporary detention facility at a federal training center in Artesia, New Mexico.

A second immigration jail in Texas was later converted for families and can house about 530 people. A third such detention center will open in Texas later this year. Before the new facility in Artesia, the government had room for fewer than 100 people at its only family detention center in Pennsylvania.

Immigration advocates have complained that the new detention centers were punishing immigrants who ultimately may win lawful asylum claims to remain in the U.S. In the meeting, they also questioned whether immigration officials had clearly and properly instructed immigrants to meet with federal agents within 15 days.

The ICE official said it was necessary to detain families to ensure they didn’t vanish into the U.S. He encouraged advocacy groups to help find ways to ensure that immigrants reported to federal agents as ordered so the government could begin processing their cases, including any requests to remain in the U.S. legally.

TIME Immigration

Deputy Homeland Security Secretary: Border ‘More Secure’ Than Ever

U.S. Agents Patrol Mexico Texas Border
Women and children sit in a holding cell at a U.S. Border Patrol processing center after being detained by agents near the U.S.-Mexico border on September 8, 2014 near McAllen, Texas. John Moore—Getty Images

Alejandro Mayorkas spoke Tuesday at an event hosted by the liberal think tank NDN

The U.S. border is “more secure than it has ever been before,” Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas said Tuesday while speaking on the federal government’s response to the surge in minors crossing the country’s southern border unaccompanied.

Mayorkas, addressing a crowd at the National Press Club in Washington, said that though the number of children crossing the U.S.-Mexico border has decreased from the 300-per-day that were seen at the peak of the ongoing crisis, he would not declare the problem itself solved.

“It would be premature at best to declare a victory and say the past is behind us because we don’t know,” Mayorkas said. “What we have achieved is tremendous progress.”

More than 66,000 kids have crossed the southern U.S. border without their parents or guardians between October 2013 and the end of August, most starting from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala and making the final leg over the U.S. border in the Rio Grande Valley area. However, the number of youths making the trip has decreased dramatically in the late summer from the peak in May and June — in August, unaccompanied minor border crossings were at their lowest point since February 2013, with just over 3,100 kids apprehended that month.

Mayorkas credited that decline to various steps the U.S. government has taken to address the crisis, including expediting the processing of children apprehended at the border and working with the governments of Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala to keep kids from coming in the first place.

The issues at the border, however, are likely far from over. There have been allegations of abuse and substandard living conditions at some immigration detention centers, for example. And though the administration set aside $2 million to provide legal representation for immigrant minors, advocates say many of them still lack counsel. Immigrants do not have a legal right to a lawyer, but advocates say legal representation would help ease the strain on the courts which the influx of minors creates. And though the number of children crossing the border dropped in the hot summer months, there is a possibility for an uptick in crossings as temperatures cool down.

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