Thursday, April 17, 2014

Hidalgo County approves qualifications of attorney to examine drainage contract

The Monitor
April 16, 2014
by Jacob Fisher

EDINBURG — The Hidalgo County drainage board on Tuesday sidestepped an obstacle to investigating an 8-year-old contract with the county drainage director’s corporation, circumventing the District Attorney’s Office and outlining the board’s preferred qualifications for a private attorney to work on the case.

Board members spent almost 15 minutes of a 30-minute meeting debating whether the move was necessary or prudent. In the end, after a closed-door session, they elected to approve an outline of qualifications. The move stopped short of committing the board to actually hire an attorney.
“We just want to make sure that everything was done with respect to what was agreed upon,” Precinct 4 Commissioner Joseph Palacios said in a Wednesday interview.
Last month, the board assigned civil attorneys in the DA’s Office looked into the matter, but reported late last week to County Judge Ramon Garcia that they saw a potential conflict of interest if they continued to investigate and asked to be taken off the case.
“Initially, we wanted to use in-house counsel,” Palacios said. But both the DA’s office and the Atlas and Hall law firm — the firm that advises the county and signed off on the 2006 contract — had potential conflicts of interest.
“So the only option based on the water code that we have is to go through a bidding process,” Palacios added.
Garcia shone a spotlight on the contract early this year after the contract between the drainage board and Integ Corp. came up for renewal. Garcia objected to Integ receiving a 1.5 percent commission from a hybrid border wall and Rio Grande levee system project that was not originally part of the county’s master drainage plan and was largely paid for with federal dollars.
“At that time, when they gave them that contract, nobody was even thinking about border wall, nobody was even thinking about levees,” Garcia said.
Drainage District Manager Godfrey Garza is the president of Integ.
“Integ did not just sit there and just go out there and get a check for no reason,” he said. “This project cost 200 and some-odd million dollars. There was zero overruns on this project, and that has a lot to do with the team effort of everybody working on the project getting it done.”
Integ earned $3.73 million in commission from the project.
Some members of the board raised concerns that litigating the 8-year-old and already-paid contract would be more trouble than it’s worth.
“How much is it going to cost us?” Precinct 3 Commissioner Joe Flores asked at one point during Tuesday’s meeting, referring to the hiring of an attorney.
“I’m not sure how much, but we’ve already spent $3,700,000 that I don’t think we should have spent,” Garcia replied. “But that’s something for somebody else to determine.”
The board is asking an attorney:
>> Be licensed in the State of Texas.
>> Have 20 or more years of experience with extensive knowledge in contract law/litigation.
>> Provide an estimate of time they’d need to work on the case.
>> Provide a more detailed report to board of directors within 30 days after engagement.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Emergency calls in cross-border shooting released

KVOA News 4 Tucson
March 14, 2014
by Lupita Murillo and Michel Marizco

NOGALES - The family of a Mexican teen shot by U.S. Border Patrol agents after he allegedly threw rocks at agents over the Nogales border wall in October 2012 released the audio recordings of three phone calls made to Mexico's emergency phone system the night of the shooting.

The recordings illustrate a frantic series of events that led to the death of José Antonio Elena Rodriguez, 16, that night. The FBI, which is investigating the shooting death, has declined comment citing the ongoing investigation.

The agency typically does not discuss open investigations and has given no details of the case. U.S. Customs and Border Protection Office of Internal Affairs responded to the shooting incident that October 10 night, but has also declined to comment.

Isidro Alvarado is a Mexican security guard who says he was walking about 20 feet behind José Antonio when two people ran past him. That's when the shots rang out. He ran from the incident and called Mexico's 0-6-0, modeled on the 9-1-1 system in the U.S.

"They are shooting with a firearm. It appears to be an agent of the Border Patrol," he told the dispatcher. "Send patrols urgently. Urgently!"

Interviewed last Sunday in Nogales, Sonora, Alvarado said he saw the hands of two people reach through the bars that separate the two countries and open fire. "Two hands. The shots entered from two places," he said.

Alvarado and José Antonio's mother, Araceli Rodriguez, say U.S. investigators interviewed them at the Dennis DeConcini port of entry last summer.

In another call to 0-6-0 that night, a Border Patrol agent called in to report that someone may be hurt on Mexico's side of the border.

"I'm calling to report there were gunshots along the border line in Whiskey Number 3 and apparently there is someone hurt on the Mexican side," the agent told the dispatcher.

Whiskey Number 3 is a law enforcement designation for a graph of the area shared by law enforcement on both sides of the border. The shooting occurred about four blocks west from the DeConcini port of entry.

"About how many people are in the area?" the dispatcher asked him.

"On the Mexican side, I couldn't tell you. On our side, there are about five," the agent said.
"Are you alright?" the dispatcher asked the agent.


"Listen, and what were they doing? Were they damaging the border wall or something?" the dispatcher asked.

"They were throwing rocks."

"About how many shots did they fire?" she asked.

"How many shots were fired, do we know" the agent asked someone in English.

"Right now, I couldn't tell you," he tells the dispatcher.

"But there were various?" the dispatcher asked him.


Luis Parra is a lawyer in Arizona representing the dead teen's family.

"That recording is a valuable piece of information," he said. "It's basically a call, from witnesses, civilian witnesses, and it's also a call from the Border Patrol themselves recognizing that there were five officers at the scene and there were various bullets fired that evening."

José Antonio's family has said the dead teenager was not involved in the rock-throwing against the agents.

The incident began about 11:15 p.m. Border Patrol agents and Nogales, Ariz., police responded to a 9-1-1 call of suspicious men wearing camouflage pants and sweatshirts on International Street.

According to a Nogales Police Department report obtained by the News 4 Tucson Investigators, Officer Quinardo Garcia spotted two men matching the description and carrying bundles of marijuana strapped to their bodies.

They jumped the border wall and ran toward a residential area. Garcia chased the two men and called for backup, yelling at the men to stop. He lost sight of the two men and a Border Patrol agent joined him in the search.

At that point, Garcia wrote in his report, he heard fellow Nogales police officer John Zuniga alert that there were rocks being thrown over the border wall.

"Shortly after, I heard a loud noise, which I identified immediately as a gunshot, and following after, several more gunshots," he wrote in his report.

Officer Zuniga initially believed the gunshots may have come from Mexico. Garcia emerged from the area and met with Zuniga and Border Patrol agents "where I learned that a male subject that [sic] had been throwing rocks at agents from Mexico. The male subject had been shot by one of the U.S. Border Patrol agents," he wrote.

Garcia also noted that there were many medium sized rocks scattered around where the agents and officers had parked their vehicles.

An autopsy conducted by investigators in Nogales, Sonora, determined José Antonio was shot 11 times, mostly in the back, the shoulder blades and the back of the neck and head.

The case is one of at least 8 cases since 2010 where Border Patrol agents shot and killed someone the agency alleged was throwing rocks at agents. Many of those cases remain under investigation. Last week, Border Patrol Chief Michael Fisher, under pressure from Congress and critics, released the Border Patrol's Use of Force policy and made public a directive to agents.

"Agents shall not discharge firearms in response to thrown or hurled projectiles unless the agent has a reasonable belief, based on the totality of circumstances, to include the nature and size of the projectiles, that the subject of such force poses an imminent danger of death or serious injury," he wrote in the directive.

Art del Cueto, president of the Border Patrol's Tucson union, Local 2544, called that directive vague. "We never pull our guns unless we are in danger, anyway," he said after the directive was released. "What are agents supposed to do? Retreat? That's not an option."

Araceli Rodriguez, José Antonio's mother, says Fisher's directive has changed nothing.

"It's the same as it's ever been. It simply reminded agents of what they are supposed to be doing in the first place," Rodriguez said.

Hoping for Asylum, Migrants Strain U.S. Border

New York Times
April 10, 2014
by Julia Preston

HIDALGO, Tex. — Border Patrol agents in olive uniforms stood in broad daylight on the banks of the Rio Grande, while on the Mexican side smugglers pulled up in vans and unloaded illegal migrants.
The agents were clearly visible on that recent afternoon, but the migrants were undeterred. Mainly women and children, 45 in all, they crossed the narrow river on the smugglers’ rafts, scrambled up the bluff and turned themselves in, signaling a growing challenge for the immigration authorities.
After six years of steep declines across the Southwest, illegal crossings have soared in South Texas while remaining low elsewhere. The Border Patrol made more than 90,700 apprehensions in the Rio Grande Valley in the past six months, a 69 percent increase over last year.
The migrants are no longer primarily Mexican laborers. Instead they are Central Americans, including many families with small children and youngsters without their parents, who risk a danger-filled journey across Mexico. Driven out by deepening poverty but also by rampant gang violence, increasing numbers of migrants caught here seek asylum, setting off lengthy legal procedures to determine whether they qualify.
The new migrant flow, largely from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, is straining resources and confounding Obama administration security strategies that work effectively in other regions. It is further complicating President Obama’s uphill push on immigration, fueling Republican arguments for more border security before any overhaul.
With detention facilities, asylum offices and immigration courts overwhelmed, enough migrants have been released temporarily in the United States that back home in Central America people have heard that those who make it to American soil have a good chance of staying.
“Word has gotten out that we’re giving people permission and walking them out the door,” said Chris Cabrera, a Border Patrol agent who is vice president of the local of the National Border Patrol Council, the agents’ union. “So they’re coming across in droves.”
In Mexican border cities like Reynosa, just across the river, migrants have become easy prey for Mexican drug cartels that have seized control of the human smuggling business, heightening perils for illegal crossers and security risks for the United States.
At the Rio Grande that afternoon, the smugglers calculatedly sent the migrants across at a point where the water is too shallow for Border Patrol boats that might have turned them back safely at the midriver boundary between the United States and Mexico.
A Border Patrol chief, Raul Ortiz, watched in frustration from a helicopter overhead. “Somebody probably told them they’re going to get released,” he said. As agents booked them, the migrants waited quietly: a Guatemalan mother carrying a toddler with a baby bottle, another with an infant wrapped in blankets.
A 9-year-old girl said she was traveling by herself, hoping to rejoin her mother and two brothers in Louisiana. But she did not know where in Louisiana they were. After a two-week journey from Honduras, her only connection to them was one telephone number on a scrap of paper.
A Honduran woman said the group had followed the instructions of the Mexican smugglers. “They just told us to cross and start walking,” she said.
Other migrants were trying to elude the Border Patrol, and within the hour Chief Ortiz saw his interdiction efforts working according to plan. A short way upriver in deeper water, agents radioed that they had turned back a raft with eight “bodies.”
Moments later a surveillance blimp cruising nearby detected people lying under dense brush. As the helicopter swooped low, the pilot spotted sneakers at the base of the trees. Agents on the ground flushed out nine migrants, all men.
“Technology, air operations, ground units, that’s the complete package,” Chief Ortiz said.
The new migrants head for South Texas because it is the shortest distance from Central America. Many young people ride across Mexico on top of freight trains, jumping off in Reynosa.
The Rio Grande twists and winds, and those who make it across can quickly hide in sugar cane fields and orchards. In many places it is a short sprint to shopping malls and suburban streets where smugglers pick up migrants to continue north.
Border Patrol officials said apprehensions were higher partly because they were catching many more of the illegal crossers. About 3,000 agents in the Rio Grande Valley — 495 new this year — patrol in helicopters and boats, on all-terrain vehicles and horseback. Drones and aerostat blimps are watching from the sky. Under a new strategy, border agencies are working with federal drug agents, the F.B.I. and Texas police to break up Mexican smuggling organizations by prosecuting operatives on this side of the border.
But whereas Mexicans can be swiftly returned by the Border Patrol, migrants from noncontiguous countries must be formally deported and flown home by other agencies. Even though federal flights are leaving South Texas every day, Central Americans are often detained longer.
Women with children are detained separately. But because the nearest facility for “family units” is in Pennsylvania, families apprehended in the Rio Grande Valley are likely to be released while their cases proceed, a senior deportations official said.
Minors without parents are turned over to the Department of Health and Human Services, which holds them in shelters that provide medical care and schooling and tries to send them to relatives in the United States. The authorities here are expecting 35,000 unaccompanied minors this year, triple the number two years ago.
Under asylum law, border agents are required to ask migrants if they are afraid of returning to their countries. If the answer is yes, migrants must be detained until an immigration officer interviews them to determine if the fear is credible. If the officer concludes it is, the migrant can petition for asylum. An immigration judge will decide whether there is a “well-founded fear of persecution” based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion or “membership in a particular social group.”
Immigration officials said they had set the bar intentionally low for the initial “credible fear” test, to avoid turning away a foreigner in danger. In 2013, 85 percent of fear claims were found to be credible, according to federal figures.
As more Central Americans have come, fear claims have spiked, more than doubling in 2013 to 36,026 from 13,931 in 2012.
The chances have not improved much to win asylum in the end, however. In 2012, immigration courts approved 34 percent of asylum petitions from migrants facing deportation — 2,888 cases nationwide. Many Central Americans say they are fleeing extortion or forced recruitment by criminal gangs. But immigration courts have rarely recognized those threats as grounds for asylum.
Yet because of immense backlogs in the courts — with the average wait for a hearing currently at about 19 months — claiming fear of return has allowed some Central Americans to prolong their time in the United States.
Detention beds fill up, and migrants deemed to present no security risk are released under supervision, officials said, with their next court hearing often more than a year away.
At their now teeming front-line stations along the river, Border Patrol officials readily admit they are not set up to hold migrants for long. Agents and migrants alike refer to the cells there as “hieleras” — freezers.
In cinder-block rooms with concrete benches and a toilet in the corner, there are no chairs, beds, showers or hot food. On a recent day, migrants caked in river mud were packed shoulder to shoulder, many on the floor, trying to warm up in space blankets the Border Patrol provides. Some held their fingers to their lips to signal hunger.
But agents said they have accelerated their work so more migrants are deported directly from Border Patrol stations in as little as two days. Officials said few migrants — only 4 percent — claim fear of returning when they are with the Border Patrol.
Rather, migrants are claiming fear after they are sent to longer-term detention centers like Port Isabel, leading officials to suspect they have been coached by other detainees.
But lawyers for asylum seekers said migrants frequently report that Border Patrol agents never asked them about their concerns, or that they were too exhausted or intimidated to express them in the hours after being caught.
“A lot of times these people had very real, legitimate fears,” said Kimi Jackson, director of the South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project, known as ProBAR. “But it seems to them they were not asked the questions by the Border Patrol in the type of situation where they could talk freely.”
Lawyers said officials had started to make it far harder for migrants to win release by requiring many more to post bond, with rates rising to as high as $10,000.
That news had not reached migrants at a shelter run by nuns in Reynosa. Several said they were heading to the United States to seek “asilo.” They could say truthfully they were afraid to go home.
Luis Fernando Herrera Perdomo, 19, said he fled Honduras after gang members shot and killed a brother who was sleeping in the bed next to his.
A 29-year-old former soldier from El Salvador, who asked to be identified only as Jesús, said he left his wife and three children to escape a gang that came gunning for him because he arrested some of its members while in the army.
In Reynosa, the dangers had only multiplied. José Rubén Hernández, 32, said he had been kidnapped for two weeks while Mexican smugglers extorted $10,000 in ransom from his frantic family in Honduras.
“We are a gold mine for the cartels,” he said.
Other migrants had been imprisoned in a smugglers’ stash house until Mexican military troops stormed it to free them. Two Hondurans who had just arrived at the shelter displayed new bruises, saying they had been beaten that morning in a rail yard by smugglers associated with the Zetas, a brutal Mexican cartel.
But the migrants still intended to hire new smugglers and try to cross. “I’m still alive and I have faith in God, so I will try to make it over to the other side,” Mr. Herrera said.
Chief Ortiz said agents were speeding deportations to change the message reaching Central America.
“It cost the migrant an awful lot of money and time and effort to get here,” he said. “If I send somebody back to Guatemala or Honduras, chances are they’re going to sit there and say, ‘You know what, I don’t think I’m going to try this again.’ ”
“The word may get out,” he said

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Local professor uses settlement for scholarships

Brownsville Herald
April 10, 2014
by Melissa Montoya

A battle waged against the federal government has paid off for Eloisa G. Tamez, a professor at the University of Texas at Brownsville.

One of Brownsville’s most vocal opponents to the border fence, Tamez took the federal government to task when it tried to condemn her land to build a swath of border fence there.

The federal government is expected to pay Tamez $56,000 for the land it took from her, according to court documents. Tamez said she will be establishing a scholarship for students at the university with a portion of her settlement.

The scholarship fund launches on May 3, her parent’s 80th wedding anniversary. Her parents are deceased, but Tamez said she wanted to honor them this way because, even though they left school at an early age, they were strong proponents of education.

“The reason this is important to me and for the community to know and everyone else to know, including the federal government, is that land was taken from me by the government — land that had been part of the outcome of how my mother and my father and grandparents before them carved a life for us because they were farmers,” Tamez said.

The scholarship fund ensures her parents will be remembered and makes a good situation out of a bad one. The scholarships are for graduate nursing students where Tamez teaches as an associate professor in the College of Nursing.

Tamez is one of a group of people who fought the seizure of their land for the fence. She said the government was reluctant to give information on why the border fence needed to be built.

“It was almost like we weren’t worth receiving an explanation,” Tamez said. “We are supposed to be quiet about it. I wanted to know why... That’s what education does for you; it helps you to verbalize.”

The land in dispute was .026 acres along the Rio Grande Valley. Tamez and her family have lived on the land since 1767 when a Spanish land grant gifted them the property. The litigation had been pending since 2008.

The protracted legal battle was worth it, Tamez said.

“I told them you can take my land, you can build a walk across it, but you’re not going to take my voice,” Tamez said.

Tamez is still uncertain how much money will go into the scholarship fund, but it needs to reach $20,000 in order for it to be ready for distribution. She said she hopes students will benefit from what was a bad situation.

“This converts something negative into a positive outcome for this community,” Tamez said.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Migrant dies after falling from border fence

Nogales International
April 2, 2014
by Jonathan Clark

A 41-year-old man from El Salvador died this week after falling from the border fence in Nogales.
According to a statement from the U.S. Border Patrol, agents responded at approximately 5 a.m. on Sunday to a suspect attempting to illegally enter the United States.

“The subject, a Salvadoran male, attempted to return to Mexico and fell off the international boundary fence,” the statement said. “Medical services were rendered to the subject, who subsequently passed away from his injuries."

In an emailed statement, Gerry Castro, EMS division chief at the Nogales Fire Department, said paramedics arrived at the dead end of Short Street and found the man unconscious, approximately 18 feet from the fence on a surface described as “cement/rocky ground.” Border Patrol agents said he had been there approximately 15 minutes.

The man was suffering “obvious trauma to head and face and blood was present to those areas,” Castro said, adding that “some deformity” was noted on the victim’s right hand.

After starting CPR, the NPD crew took the victim to Holy Cross Hospital, where he was pronounced dead shortly after arrival.

José Joaquín Chacón, the Salvadoran consul in Arizona, said an autopsy performed in Pima County showed that the man died of head trauma.

“Surely, the young man lost his balance and ended up hitting his head on the ground,” he said.

Another Salvadoran who was with the victim at the time was subsequently picked up by the Border Patrol, Chacón said, and he was allowed to interview the witness on Monday. The man confirmed that the two migrants had arrived at the border together, and that his companion had fallen while trying to climb the fence.

“It wasn’t, for example, an unfortunate case in which a Border Patrol agent was involved in firing a gun, or that there was an injury from a firearm or anything like that,” Chacón said. “There’s nothing like that.”

Consular officials have located the victim’s sister in California and a brother in El Salvador, but since the family members haven’t yet made a positive ID from the autopsy records, Chacón said, the consulate can’t release the man’s name.

However, he did say the man was from the coastal state, or “departamento,” of Usulatan, and consular records show that he had twice been deported from the United States.

“It’s one more tragedy in that the youth and people from our countries, in search of the American Dream, come and often find death,” he said.

Mass held nearby

The man fell from the fence a few hundred feet from the spot where Catholic bishops from across the county held a mass Tuesday to remember deceased migrants and call for Congress to enact immigration reform.

Chacón noted the coincidence.

“Yesterday, they were celebrating a mass precisely for the people who have died, and this Salvadoran died, by chance, on Sunday,” he said.

In 2011, the Border Patrol replaced the 10-foot-high landing mat fence that ran through Nogales with a stronger barrier measuring up to 30 feet tall. Since then, emergency personnel from the Nogales Fire Department have treated a number of fence-jumpers for broken ankles, legs and hips. In February 2012, a 44-year-old man from Oaxaca, Mexico died after falling from the fence on the west side of town and suffering head and neck injuries.

Last year, Border Patrol officials in Nogales floated the idea of hanging razor wire on the U.S. side of the fence, approximately 10 feet above ground, in hopes that it would discourage jumpers. However, the plan was scuttled after it was met with outcry in the community.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

At Nogales' steel border fence, bishops celebrate Mass for both sides

Los Angeles Times
April 1, 2014
by Cindy Carcamo

NOGALES, Ariz.—It had been years since Maria Miranda of Tucson attended Catholic Mass with her son Jorge Lopez.

Tuesday they finally did. But they were separated by the U.S.-Mexico border fence in southern Arizona.

"I'm just a couple of bars, a couple steps away from her," the 35-year-old said he told himself.

"There's a fence but it's the same ground."

At one point Lopez even forgot he was on the Mexican side. He forgot about his banishment from the U.S. He forgot about how immigration officials, he says, denied him an extension to his green card and finally caught up with him at work three years ago and deported him.

Lopez was one of an estimated 300 people who gathered at the border fence in Nogales to attend a transnational Mass led by Cardinal Seán O’Malley of Boston and bishops from across the West and Southwest, including Eusebio Elizondo, auxiliary bishop of Seattle; Gerald F. Kicanas, bishop of Tucson; Mark Seitz, bishop of El Paso; and Oscar Cantu, bishop of Las Cruces, N.M.

The Mass to celebrate the lives of those who have died crossing the U.S.-Mexico border is an attempt by the Catholic Church to call on President Obama to use his executive powers to limit deportations of people who are in the country illegally.

The move comes at a time when an immigration overhaul is at a standstill and thousands of people have died while crossing the Sonoran desert in Arizona.

The border fence, the backdrop for the outdoor Mass, became the center of attention when O'Malley and the bishops gave Communion to people gathered on the Mexican side, as hands reached through the gaps in the steel slats.

In the last few years, the Catholic Church has become increasingly vocal about immigrant rights — preaching from the pulpit about immigration reform as an "ethical and moral imperative."

Late last month, Bishop Elizondo, who also is chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on Migration, wrote to Department of Homeland Security officials asking them to limit deportations.

O’Malley, who took a weeklong tour of the southern Arizona border with several bishops from the Southwest, said he was inspired and emboldened by Pope Francis, who visited Lampedusa, Italy, last year to pray for people who died trying to migrate to Europe by boat.

During Tuesday's Mass, O’Malley and the bishops laid a wreath at the border wall in Nogales and called for Catholics to remember those who have died.

"We know the border is lined with unmarked graves," O'Malley said. "They call them illegal aliens. We are here to say they are not forgotten. They are our neighbors. Our brothers. Our sisters. … You cannot love God without loving your neighbor.",0,4292997.story#axzz2xn3LcHrz