Mar 03, 2016

Immigrant Families on the Border Struggle with ‘Criminal’ Tag

Reporting Texas

Gabriela Castañeda with the Border Network for Human Rights in El Paso holds photos of her family, which has been separated due to what she believes is the criminalization of immigrants. Anna Casey/Reporting Texas

Gabriela Castañeda, a mother of three, works for the Border Network for Human Rights in El Paso. Her husband Adrian Hernandez, an undocumented immigrant, was jailed following repeated attempts to cross the border to see his family. Anna Casey/Reporting Texas

EL PASO — Gabriela Castañeda remembers vividly the day Border Patrol agents took her husband away.

Police had stopped Adrian Hernandez, 35, for going five miles over the speed limit and sent him to jail. He is being held at a private prison in Big Spring, between El Paso and Dallas.

“Jail is for criminals,” Castañeda said. “My husband is not a criminal.”

Deportation and detention of undocumented family members is a pervasive fear for millions of U.S. citizens. Before Hernandez was pulled over that day in 2007, he had been deported four times following attempts to enter the United States to see his children. One of these attempts was in 2005, when he crossed the border without papers to see his newborn son, Abraham, who had heart complications. The couple’s three children, now ages 10, 11 and 12, are all U.S.-born and live in El Paso.

Hernandez, who is expected to be released in two years and deported to Mexico, is one of many undocumented immigrants arrested while trying to enter the country and labeled “criminal aliens.” According to a 2014 Human Rights Watch report, illegal entry and re-entry are the country’s most prosecuted crimes.

In November 2014, President Barack Obama introduced Deferred Action For Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA), a program to safeguard millions of undocumented parents against deportation by granting work permits. But lower courts in Texas and 25 other states challenged the program and brought the case to the Supreme Court, which will begin hearing arguments in April.

If DAPA is upheld, it could save an estimated 3.6 million parents from deportation. It’s unclear whether those protections would extend to parents like Hernandez, who have been convicted of illegal re-entry.

Human Rights Watch found that one in five people charged with illegal entry and re-entry had children who were U.S. citizens. A quarter of those who were classified as “criminal aliens” by immigration enforcement had illegal entry or re-entry as their most serious offense.

A U.S. Customs and Border Patrol vehicle passes through the streets of Segundo Barrio. Daulton Venglar/Reporting Texas

A U.S. Customs and Border Patrol vehicle passes through the streets of El Paso’s Segundo Barrio neighborhood. Daulton Venglar/Reporting Texas

Castañeda, 32, said her experience inspired her to join El Paso’s Border Network for Human Rights as a communications director. The grassroots advocacy organization educates immigrants about their rights and works with law enforcement to address perceived injustices in border communities.

Pope Francis’ recent trip to the Mexico border was an opportunity for the organization to highlight immigration reform. During a Feb. 15 press conference, families that had been separated were briefly reunited across the fence between Sunland Park, New Mexico and Juárez — some of them for the first time in decades.

“There was one woman who had gone 20 years without seeing her daughter,” Lourdes Vazquez, another Border Network for Human Rights worker in Las Cruces, New Mexico, said in her native Spanish. Seeing the families touch hands through the fence, she said, was “very emotional.”

The Migration Policy Institute, a nonprofit that studies worldwide migration, reported in January there are 4.1 million U.S. citizen children with undocumented parents. A Department of Homeland Security spokesperson in El Paso said the agency does not track the number of U.S. citizens separated from their parents as a result of deportations or detentions. According to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement reports to the Congress, 72,410 people deported that year claimed to have a child in the United States.

Immigration reform such as DAPA could help many of these families. But critics argue that American families should be the country’s priority. Ira Mehlman, of the nonprofit Federation for American Immigration Reform, advocates for stricter immigration policies. He said immigrants seek public services and educational opportunities when they come to the United States.

“You can’t be charitable with other people’s resources,” he said in a telephone interview.

When it comes to family separations due to deportations, Mehlman said it’s a matter of choice. “The people who violate laws are responsible for any violations that accrue,” he said. “Just as any other law.”

But Castañeda and her family don’t view Hernandez as a lawbreaker — they view him as a father. “We’ve been told for so long that we’re criminals that we [could] start to believe it,” Castañeda said.

Vazquez, Castañeda’s colleague at the Border Network for Human Rights, said she is a legal resident working toward citizenship. She first came to the United States in 1987 as an undocumented immigrant, picking chilies in the fields of New Mexico and then working as a housekeeper “to give my children a better life.”

“I want everyone to know that we have rights,” Vazquez said. “We pay taxes, work hard, send our kids to school.”