TIME Mexico

Mexican Federal Police Take Over Towns After Students’ Disappearance

MEXICO-CRIME-STUDENTS-MISSING
Members of the Mexican federal police are seen in a street in Teloloapan, Mexico, on Oct. 19, 2014 Ronaldo Schemidt—AFP/Getty Images

A security official alleges there are links between gangs and local law enforcement

Federal police in Mexico have taken over 12 towns in the state of Guerrero after authorities learned of possible connections between local law enforcement and organized crime.

National Security Commissioner Monte Alejandro Rubido said at a Sunday press conference that the links were uncovered during an investigation into the disappearance of 43 students in the town of Iguala last month, Bloomberg News reports.

Earlier this month, Guerrero prosecutor Iñaky Blanco said that the gang Guerreros Unidos had worked with area police and killed 17 of the missing students. Mass graves were discovered in the area in early October, but remains in the first grave didn’t belong to any of the missing students.

More than four dozen people, including members of Iguala police and various alleged gang members, have been detained on suspicion of kidnapping the missing students.

[Bloomberg News]

TIME Education

More of America’s Foreign College Students Should Come From Mexico

Graduates throwing caps in air
Getty Images

Andrés Martinez is editorial director of Zócalo Public Square, for which he writes the Trade Winds column.

Even though it is our neighbor, our second-largest trading partner, and home to almost 120 million people

My Mexican father applied to colleges in the United States in the late 1940s, and was offered scholarships by the University of Arizona and Western Reserve (now Case Western Reserve) in Cleveland. His father sat him down and drew a line from west to east across a map of the United States and said: “Below this line, they don’t like Mexicans.” It was a fateful moment, all but ensuring Dad would return to Mexico upon graduation. He did not like the cold. He would have loved Tucson.

Dad did enjoy his studies in Cleveland, and got a lot out of the experience, notwithstanding his nearly flunking music composition (not long ago I stumbled across a copy of his transcript). His was a classic liberal arts education, blending economics, history, and literature. Upon graduation, he returned to Mexico, got a job, and enrolled in an evening law school. He went on to have a successful business career, much of which involved connecting Mexico to the United States and (though not as a conscious matter) spreading American values to those who worked with him.

A fascinating new Brookings report on the foreign student population of the United States made me think of Dad’s experience, and what he and the United States got out of the deal. As Neil G. Ruiz, the author of the report, put it over the phone, migrant students build bridges between societies, and over time those bridges carry a lot of economic activity. This means that the United States is, in many cases, educating the future leaders of the world, particularly the future leaders of emerging nations. We currently take in about a fifth of all students worldwide who cross borders to study, though these students still make up less than 4 percent of the entire student population in the U.S.

Ruiz and his team looked not only at countries of origin for the 1,153,459 foreign students enrolled in higher education programs between 2008 and 2012, but their cities of origin and the metropolitan areas they cluster in within the U.S. So, for instance, the data compiled by Brookings shows there were 7,109 students (F-1 visa holders) from Seoul studying in the Los Angeles area during that four-year period. Looking into the future, it’s hard to imagine a more binding tie between the two cities than the presence of all those Korean students in Los Angeles, and their connection to the city long after they graduate.

It isn’t surprising that Asia dominates the census of foreign students in the United States, although I was stunned by just how much. China alone sent 284,173 students in that period. The top 20 hometowns of all foreign students in the United States are in Asia. Saudi Arabia and other oil-rich Gulf states boast the fastest-growing contingent of students. Shockingly, the city of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, alone sent more students (17,361) than did the entire country of Mexico (17,171).

Mexico, ranked ninth among countries sending students here, is vastly underrepresented among foreign students when you consider that it is our neighbor, our second-largest trading partner, and home to almost 120 million people. The fact that the country lags behind cities like Riyadh and Taipei in the numbers of students it sends to American universities shows that Mexico and the United States remain “distant neighbors” in some ways, as Alan Riding termed the relationship in his book of that title three decades ago.

It also shows that money talks. In addition to having many families able to pay the high cost of tuition abroad, countries like China and Saudi Arabia offer lavish scholarships to promising kids. The U.S. has a strategic need to attract more students from Mexico and other countries who don’t have this kind of financial backing. But American universities prefer to see foreign students as a profit center. Texas has long been a welcome exception to the rule, offering Mexican nationals with financial need in-state tuition at public universities as a matter of policy. Meanwhile, the Obama administration and its Mexican counterpart have announced initiatives to increase the flow of students across the border to 100,000 in coming years, but the question of who pays for all those students remains an open one.

Our policy discussions about foreign students in this country also disproportionately focus on students focusing on science and technology. Lawmakers, analysts, and businesses are all advocating the creation of an easier path for those pursuing advanced STEM degrees to stay and work here once they obtain their degrees. There is widespread support, echoed by the Brookings report, for a law that would automatically grant these graduates a green card.

That makes a great deal of sense, but we shouldn’t take too utilitarian a view of foreign students in this country, writing off those incapable of writing code or finding their way around a lab. Yes, we want to be the world’s innovation hub, attracting the best and brightest to our great research universities. But we also benefit from having students come here from all over the world to learn our history, as well as our democratic and capitalist values.

And that’s true even—maybe especially so—if they go back home because it was too cold in Cleveland.

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 Mexico

Mexico Protesters Torch Local Government Headquarters

MEXICO-CRIME-STUDENTS-MISSING-PROTEST
A man stares at the blazing government headquarters in Chilpancingo, in Mexico's Guerrero state, on Oct. 13, 2014, after protesters set it on fire during demonstrations demanding the return of the 43 students still missing since an attack by rogue officers earlier this month Yuri Cortez—AFP/Getty Images

Enraged teachers and students demand the return of 43 students who disappeared after a gang-connected police attack on Sept. 26

Protesters looted and burned part of the government headquarters in Mexico’s Guerrero state during demonstrations demanding the return of 43 students who have been missing since a gang-connected police attack a few weeks ago.

No injuries were reported as the invading group of teachers and students allowed workers to leave before torching the complex, but five teachers and two police officers have been wounded in previous clashes between protesters and police, Agence France-Presse reports.

The 43 students have been missing since municipal police fired at their buses on Sept. 26. Authorities say they are waiting for DNA results from several mass graves that have since been discovered. The city’s mayor, his wife and the police chief have evaded questioning in a case that has enraged the Mexican public and brought tens of thousands on the streets.

“Starting tomorrow [Tuesday], we will increase our actions and radicalize our movement if the governor does not give information about the students’ whereabouts by midnight [Monday],” Ramos Reyes, leader of the CETEG teachers’ union, told AFP.

[AFP]

TIME Mexico

The Apparent Massacre of Dozens of Students Exposes the Corruption at the Heart of Mexico

Parents of the 43 missing students meet at the teachers rural college in Ayotzinapa, in Guerrero state, Mexico, Oct. 5, 2014.
Parents of the 43 missing students meet at the teachers rural college in Ayotzinapa, in Guerrero state, Mexico, Oct. 5, 2014. Adriana Zehbrauskas—Polaris

The disappearance and presumed killings of scores of students has led to protests against the Mexican government—and drug cartels

The young father’s corpse was left on the street of the southern Mexican town of Iguala with his eyes gouged out and flesh ripped off almost to the skull—a technique typical of the cartel murders that have become too common in this country. But unlike many victims of Mexico’s ongoing drug wars, he was no gang member, police officer or journalist. The body belonged to a 19-year old trainee teacher who had been preparing to participate in a march to commemorate a notorious massacre of Mexican students by the military and police in 1968. Instead of making it to that demonstration, though, the young man found himself the victim of a what will be a new atrocity date on Mexico’s bloody calendar.

The murder, which occurred on the night of Sept. 26 or morning of Sept. 27, was part of a brutal attack on student teachers by corrupt police officers and drug cartel assassins that has provoked protests across the nation. During the violence, at least six students and passersby were killed and another 43 students disappeared, with many last seen being bundled into police cars. Soldiers and federal agents have taken over the city of Iguala and have arrested more than 30 officers and alleged gunmen from a cartel called the Guerreros Unidos or Warriors United. They have also discovered a series of mass graves: on Oct. 4, they found 28 charred bodies and on Thursday night they discovered another four pits where they are unearthing more corpses. Agents are conducting DNA tests to see if the bodies belong to the students.

The atrocities have triggered national outrage and presented the biggest security-related challenge yet for Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto. Taking power in 2012, Pena Nieto promised to reduce the tens of thousands of cartel killings and modernize a sluggish economy. He has overseen the arrests of major drug lords like Joaquin “Chapo” Guzman, nabbed in February and Vicente Carrillo Fuentes, alias “The Viceroy,” who was detained on Thursday. But while the total number of homicides declined by 15% in his first year in office, parts of Mexico—such as Guerrero state, where Iguala sits—still suffer some of the highest murder rates in the world. There were 2,087 murders last year in Guerrero, a state of 3.4 million people, giving it a rate of 61 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants.

On Oct. 6, Pena Nieto swore the students would receive justice and ordered a major federal operation in response. “This is infuriating, painful and unacceptable,” he said in a televised address to the nation. But human rights groups and family members accused him of being slow to respond to the tragedy, allowing some of the possible perpetrators to escape. Iguala mayor Jose Luis Arbaca fled town more than four days after the shootings and disappearances. It later emerged that Mexico’s intelligence service had a file linking him to the Warriors United cartel. The mayor’s brother-in-law was arrested this week for involvement in the killings. “Very slow, Pena Nieto, very slow,” said Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director of Human Rights Watch. “This issue could have been cleared if the federal government had immediately taken responsibility for these students.”

However, the atrocities are also devastating to the opposition Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD. (Pena Nieto is a member of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which dominated Mexican politics for most of the 20th century.) Arbaca was a PRD member, and the party’s leader went to the city on Oct. 7 to personally apologize to residents. The governor of Guerrero state is also in the PRD and there have been calls for his resignation. The governor has denied the killing was his fault and called for a referendum on whether he should stay in power. Furthermore, when PRD founder Cuauhtemoc Cardenas joined a protest over the killings in Mexico City on Oct. 8 he was booed and had bottles thrown at him.

The march into Mexico City’s central plaza was joined by tens of thousands of people and was headed by family members of the victims. “I won’t rest until I have my son back,” Mario Cesar Gonzalez, father of 21-year old disappeared student Cesar, told TIME. “This is a problem of corrupt police and politicians working with drug cartels. I am going to fight until we discover the truth of what happened. I don’t care if they kill me. Nothing matters to me except my son.” Most of the disappeared students were the children of poor farmers and workers and went to a university for rural school teachers near Iguala.

Protesters also demonstrated in dozens of other cities across Mexico. In jungle-covered Chiapas state, thousands of the Zapatista rebels who rose up for indigenous rights in 1994 marched in silence in solidarity with the teachers. “Your pain is our pain,” said one banner. In Guerrero state itself, thousands blockaded major highways and shouted outside government buildings.

The killings brought back to the surface another problem that Pena Nieto’s government has been grappling with: vigilante groups that have risen to fight cartels. A Guerrero vigilante militia that operates in villages where many of the students come from has gone to Iguala, promising justice for the students. A local guerrilla group called the Revolutionary Army of Insurgent People said it will form a brigade to attack the Warriors United cartel. ” [We will] confront the political military aspects of this new front of the Mexican narco state,” says a masked man on a video message posted online as he stands besides photos of revolutionaries Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa.

The actual motives behind the attack on the students remain murky. About 120 students went into Iguala and had absconded with three buses from the Iguala station, which they wanted to take to the march in Mexico City. Students across Mexico often commandeer buses for their marches, a practice that is largely tolerated by the authorities. It was also reported by Mexican media that the students had disturbed a public event, angering city officials linked to the cartels, while the gangs might have believed the students were invading their turf.

One student who survived the attack said he wasn’t sure why the cartel and police went after them. “It came as a complete shock and surprise. We were relaxed and heading out of town, when suddenly there were bullets being fired from all directions,” said Alejandro, 19, who asked his surname not be used in case of reprisals. “I feel lucky that I am alive. But I think all the time about my companions who were taken. I don’t know what they could been through or how much pain they could have suffered. This makes me very sad and very angry.” Pena Nieto—and the rest of Mexico’s power brokers—should beware of that anger.

TIME Mexico

Authorities Find More Graves at Site of Presumed Mexico Student Massacre

Federal police atop a vehicle stand guard near clandestine graves at Pueblo Viejo
Federal police atop a vehicle stand guard near clandestine graves at Pueblo Viejo, in the outskirts of Iguala, southern Mexican state of Guerrero Oct. 9, 2014. Henry Romero—Reuters

Police have discovered a total of 28 bodies on the outskirts of Iguala

Authorities have found four more graves containing burned human remains at a site where officials believe dozens of missing students were murdered by gang members and police, Reuters reports.

Forty-three students went missing in the violence-plagued state of Guerrero on Sept. 26. Since then authorities have found a total of 28 bodies in 10 graves on the outskirts of Iguala, a town within the same region. Iguala Mayor Jose Luis Abarca, his wife and the local head of security have gone missing. Attorney General Jesus Murillo said Thursday that they do not yet know the motive for the suspected massacre of the teachers and students who went missing and that the search for Abarca and the other fugitives is underway. Meanwhile, police are testing the bodies using DNA from family members of the missing.

Thousands of protestors marched through Mexico City on Wednesday, demanding answers. President Enrique Pena Nieto vowed on Monday that whoever murdered the students will be brought to justice. Twenty-two police have already been arrested in connection with the incident, and four more people have been detained in connection with the case.

[Reuters]

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 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 Mexico

Newly Discovered Mass Grave Linked to Missing Mexican Students

A soldier guards an area where a mass grave was found, in Colonia las Parotas on the outskirts of Iguala, in Guerrero
A soldier guards an area where a mass grave was found, in Colonia las Parotas on the outskirts of Iguala, in Guerrero, Mexico on Oct. 4, 2014. Jorge Dan Lopez—Reuters

But an official says it would be "irresponsible" to identify the bodies as the missing students

A mass grave with an unconfirmed number of bodies was discovered in a part of Mexico near to where 43 college students were abducted, authorities announced Saturday night.

Guerrero State Attorney General Iñaky Blanco said there was a connection between the burial site and the students’ disappearance from a teachers’ college the previous weekend, the Wall Street Journal reports. However, Blanco said it would be “irresponsible” without DNA tests to confirm that the bodies were the missing students.

Mexico’s Proceso, citing anonymous sources, reported that 20 bodies had been discovered. The Associated Press reports that six pits had been discovered but did not report a body count.

The students disappeared after clashing with police during a protest that turned violent. Officials have detained 30 people, including 22 police officers, in the case. Blanco said that a local criminal organization, Los Guerreros Unidos, was connected with the violence and the disappearances.

Close to 100,000 Mexicans have been killed or gone missing in drug-related violence since 2006, when former President Felipe Calderon ordered the country’s military to reclaim parts of the country under the influence of drug cartels.

[WSJ]

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: October 3

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

1. With 3D printing, prosthetic technology is poised to change millions of lives.

By Tom McKay in Mic

2. Dysfunctional oversight of the Department of Homeland Security undermines its mission.

By Daniel Kaniewski in The Hill

3. The web isn’t killing newspapers. Print readership has been in decline for 20 years.

By Whet Moser in Chicago Magazine

4. Skyrocketing drug traffic has deeply affected life on Indian reservations at the US-Mexico border.

By Shannon Mizzi in Wilson Quarterly

5. With Chinese elites joining the movement, the protests in Hong Kong could yield a partial win.

By Zack Beauchamp in Vox

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.

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