Friday, June 15, 2018

Court Watch Material

We have a citizens’ group here in Brownsville that with the support of the ACLUTx is organizing people to go into federal magistrate’s court to observe the proceedings that have targeted Central American refugees and especially those who are being separated from their families.

It is a powerful tool in the service of some of the most vulnerable people in our midst. The few of us who have had the good fortune to be in the court have noticed how the presence of “outsiders” has an impact on the judge’s behavior, supports the public defenders to do a better job, and, allows us to serve as witnesses to this barbarity.

I would so like to put you on our roster of volunteers; please let me know which day (days!) you are available. Please sign up here:

Important materials:
What to watch for in court (click here)
How to record what you see (click here)

What is needed:
The court observer would need to be able to be present in the Brownsville Federal Magistrate’s Court (2nd floor, Vela Federal Courthouse, 600 East Harrison, Brownsville) or in the McAllen Magistrate’s Court 1701 U.S. 83 Business #1011, McAllen, TX 78501) by 10am (or, if going in the afternoon, by 1:30pm).

The observer would need to stay until the end of the proceedings. Court can run two hours or longer, but, typically, in Brownsville, they are over by noon. The most important part of the hearing is at the end, when the judge asks the immigrants if they might have anything to say–thus the need to try and stay until the end.

The observer would need to capture the names of the defendants as well as their case numbers. Since you will hear these at least three times, the acoustics can be challenging and there are many names. But the names are crucial for noting which defendant, at the end of the hearing, made a comment, didn’t speak Spanish, had particular issues (on crutches, distressed, etc).

The observer would need to report back (to Michael Seifert) what was seen during the time in court as soon as possible, although in the way that best suits the observer (an email, a voicemail, a phone call). The information is critical to the fight to stop this process.

What else to know:
Best to come with a friend! The court is astonishingly difficult. Note taking is a challenge, as well.

Wear business dress. Women are not allowed into court with sleeveless outfits (the court makes those rules); no shorts or tennis shoes.

You need to have a photo id and you will need to leave your cell phone and electronics in the car.

When you go into the court, there is a security post. They will ask you why you are there, you can tell them that you are there to observe the magistrate’s court.

Once through the security check, in Brownsville you go to the second floor (in McAllen, to the 8th floor). Go to the judge’s court–either Torteya or Morgan in Brownsville (I will let you know the day of the hearing) or Hacker or Ormsby in McAllen.

If you are not allowed into the court:
The Marshalls who guard the court may tell you that there is no room and that you cannot go in. You could ask, “Is there someone I can speak to about being denied entry to a public court hearing? How do I speak to the clerk (of the court)?” They have heard this many times, and they will tell you where to go. 

Please take the time to register a complaint with the clerk (“it is the public’s right to be in these courtrooms”). They may or may not let you in. Please let me know how this plays out.

Observations: What you see during the court proceedings are so important: please take the time to write up your observations, record them on your phone, or give me a call.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

The Wild Horse Desert

Eddie Canales runs the South Texas Human Rights Center in Falfurrias, Texas. His office is about 75 miles north of McAllen, just up the street from the Brooks County Court House and a few minutes drive from the enormous checkpoint that the border patrol operates along highway 281. 

For those who are unaware, much like in eastern European countries before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the United States has operated internal checkpoints for decades. The checkpoints in south Texas are located about eighty miles north of Brownsville and McAllen. Everyone traveling along the two highways that lead out of the region is subjected to the same scrutiny as if they were entering into the country for the first time. It is an unnerving experience for the uninitiated—in the middle of America, an armed federal agent pulls the traveller over and insists that she prove her innocence, that she has a right to be here. 

Immigrants for whom obtaining permission to be here is nigh upon impossible must therefore escape detection at least twice—once upon crossing the Rio Grande, and, once more, going north. Many of them take their chances and try crossing around the checkpoints by heading out into the desert that surrounds the checkpoints. The journey is dangerous; many people—hundreds, it is estimated— have died out in the scrubland that blankets Eddie’s home county.

The checkpoints are the reason Eddie created his Human Rights’ Center. He has a rough job. He maintains dozens of water stations spread out across this area formerly known as the Wild Horse desert, and he has advocated for years to the federal government on behalf of these folks, arguing for a more humane immigration policy, for shutting down the checkpoints, for having the border patrol do more to save the lives of those lost in the desert.

During a visit with him back in February, he talked about the recent discovery of the bodies of a group of migrants. “It had gotten really cold, and we found these individuals who apparently didn’t know how to huddle up together (to share their warmth). They all died. Then, not long afterwards, we found this other group that knew how to huddle up. They survived.”

Life lessons can be found anywhere, of course, but for those paying attention, the Wild Horse Desert offers them up in spades. 

As a measure of the desperation of the migrant: not only is the traverse around the check point complicated by heat (or cold), a lack of water (you simply cannot carry the amount of water that you need to survive), the thorns, the rattlesnakes, the scorpions, but the migrant is walking sand—sand that is loose, deep, and  seemingly designed by some demon to wear a person out. These details are well known by those thinking about making the trip. They know of the risk, they know that people disappear and die while making the journey, and yet they feel that they must take this chance. Something dire indeed is driving people to make this trek.

As a measure of the courage, the generosity and the strength of many who have joined Eddie’s work: exhuming and identifying bodies so that families can have at least the peace of knowing the finality of their loved ones, an exhausting task that pits good-hearted people against hard-headed bureaucracies ranging from our own federal government (which refuses to facilitate the identification of victims between Eddie and the families) to a county coroner who, seemingly maliciously, sits on DNA testing results for months at a time. 

As a measure of just how casually cruel people can be: the water stations are regularly vandalized (this is not specific to south Texas. This video clip shows border patrol agents doing this in Arizona, a particularly chilling rationale for that behavior).

As a measure of the loss of our sensibility as human beings: that we have spent billions of dollars on “securing the border” when the vast, overwhelming majority of the people crossing into the USA are families (moms and dads and their children) who surrender to the first border patrol agent they encounter, and who are seeking asylum. Those who do try to avoid apprehension by the border patrol, and who end up wandering in the desert have names and mothers and children and best friends. Some of the ones that I have known (who made it across the desert alive) played  shortstop for their local baseball team, others taught Sunday school, and yet others were hired out to serenade mothers on Mothers’ Day. 

Eddie knows many of those who did not make it through the desert. He would not have recognized them in real life, as he only saw their remains. But mixed in those remains could be a small purse with some photos in them, giving a hint of the family that awaits news of them, somewhere south of the US. He might find a  prayer card helping the unlucky individual invoke the help of St. Toribio, or a small notebook with phone numbers. Whether or not there is much physical evidence left of the individual, he does know that this was someone who was a son or a father or a best friend.

The Rio Grande Valley Border Patrol Sector Chief Manuel Padilla has a long-standing relationship with Eddie, and Eddie seems somewhat encouraged by the conversation. But the political change in Washington and the continued dehumanization of the immigrant makes any sort of meaningful change a very long-term project.

In the meantime, Eddie and his volunteers will continue to stumble upon someone who, perhaps, did not have someone else to huddle up with, or who just needed some water, and, lacking that, died, alone, and unnecessarily, north of the American border. 

(To help with the mission of the South Texas Human Rights’ Center, go to their website by clicking here).

Sunday, April 15, 2018


Saints of God, come to his/her aid!
Come to meet him/her angels of the Lord!
Receive his/her soul; and present him/her to God the Most High.
May Christ, who called you, take you to himself; may angels bring you into the arms of Abraham. Receive his/her soul: and present him/her to God the Most High.

Eternal rest grant unto him/her, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him/her;
present him/her to God the Most High.

Let us pray: Into your hands, Father of mercies, we commend our brother/sister, in the sure and certain hope that, together with all who have died in Christ, he/she will rise with him on the last day. We give you thanks for the blessings which you have bestowed upon N.N. in this life: they are signs to us of your goodness and of our fellowship with the saints in Christ. Merciful Lord, turn toward us and listen to our prayers: open the gates of paradise to your servant and help us who remain to comfort one another with assurances of faith, until we all meet in Christ and are with you and with our brother/sister for ever.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Sr Norma at the Vatican

Pimentel represents U.S. at Vatican event
from the Brownsville Herald, September 28, 2017

McALLEN — Sister Norma Pimentel, who spearheaded local immigrant relief efforts, represented the United States during a ceremony Wednesday at the Vatican,wherePopeFrancis encouraged followers to listen to the stories of migrants and refugees from across the globe in order to break down barriers of fear and suspicion.

Pimentel, director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, has garnered international recognition for her work with Central American immigrants who flooded South Texas, beginning in 2014.

Her relief efforts at the Humanitarian Respite Center at Sacred Heart — where tens of thousands of immigrants sought refuge after federal authorities released them into the community — previously caught the attention of the Pope. He addressed her personally during a virtual papal audience hosted by ABC News in 2015.

Most recently, however, the Vatican reached out and invited her and Brenda Nettles Riojas, communications director for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brownsville, to attend the launch of a two year campaign called “Share the Journey.”

The initiative, spearheaded by the Vatican’s Caritas charity, aims to build bridges of understanding and hospitality toward the displaced.

“It’s definitely an amazing honor to be recognized and be picked among many people doing such wonderful work,” Pimentel said about the invitation Wednesday.

She spoke to The Monitor from Rome via phone just hours after she participated in the ceremony, which drew a crowd of about 60,000 people.

The local nun was the only woman invited to participate in a four-person panel and a news conference held after the launch, Nettles Riojas said.

“The reason why the Valley made a big impact, for the most part, is because the Valley is a place of immigrants and they understand,” Pimentel said about the Vatican’s views on the region. “We support each other because we feel it’s something we must do.”

Nettles Riojas said some of the attendees could not believe how welcoming the region had been when faced with a humanitarian crisis a couple of years ago.

“I think it speaks to the work that Sister Norma oversees and the work of all the people of the Rio Grande Valley,” the communications director said.

Pope Francis meets a group of migrants Wednesday during his weekly general audience at the Vatican.


Friday, September 22, 2017

Immigration citations

John Burnett:

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

The Future of Access to Health Care

Location: (COG) LRGVDC Ken Jones Conference Room, 301 W Railroad-Bldg  B
Weslaco, TX
Date: Friday, July 28, 2017
Time: noon

Anne Dunkelberg, associate Director for the Center for Public Policy Priorities in Austin, Texas, will address “Access to Health Care: Federal and State Updates and the Challenges Ahead.”

At a critical moment in the nation’s consideration of the future of health care, the Rio Grande Valley Equal Voice Network is pleased to host a conversation with Anne Dunkelberg, a national leader in the discourse around access to health care.

Anne Dunkelberg is one of the state's leading experts in policy and budget issues relating to health care access. In 2007, she was named Consumer Advocate of the Year by Families USA in Washington, D.C. Before coming to the Center, she served as Program Director for Acute Care in the Texas Medicaid Director's Office and spent six years with the Texas Research League, where she authored numerous reports on Texas health and human services issues and tracked state health and human services budget issues. She earned dual degrees from The University of Texas at Austin—a Bachelor of Arts (Plan II), magna cum laude, in 1979 and a Master of Public Affairs from the LBJ School of Public Affairs in 1988.

More information and for interviews:
Michael Seifert at (956) 459-6827
Ann Williams Cass at (956) 533-6637

Sunday, July 9, 2017

SB4: Show Me Your Papers

SB4: Show Me Your Papers Bill

On May 7th, Texas’ Governor signed SB 4 into law. SB 4 effectively creates federal immigration agents out of city, county and college police. Police departments that refuse to cooperate will be criminally prosecuted.

1.     SB4 is currently scheduled to go into effect on September 1, 2017.
2.     SB4 does NOT apply to k-12 school campus police or security at clinics.
3.     There is misinformation already about the law in the community.
4.     Although Hidalgo County police agencies signed off on an editorial letter claiming that “nothing will change” because of the law, in fact, many of these same officers expressed grave concerns over the effects of the bill on their relationship with mixed-immigration status communities, and thus, their ability to protect and defend the community.

The RGV community is under a triple assault even before this becomes law: an exponential increase in border patrol, ICE, and state trooper presence, a national campaign that has focused fears upon the southern border, and a renewed, recent and extraordinary increase in violence in Tamaulipas. Our children are being raised in a community in which a family member being treated as “suspicious” is becoming normalized.

Reports of children being frightened by the political environment is widespread.

The RGV as a region does not enjoy the same legal resources for our community as in other parts of the nation.

To community organizations it appears that many of our institutions (schools, churches, businesses) and even our elected officials are not informed about SB4 and are unclear about a resident’s (documented or not) basic civil and legal rights.

1. The bill makes Texas less safe by forcing local police to act as federal immigration agents. SB4 will therefore harm public safety, as we rely on all members of our community — regardless of race, religion or national origin — to report crimes. We cannot drive crime victims and witnesses into the shadows without undermining local public safety.  Our communities need to trust the police; our police need the community to trust them.

2. SB 4 includes a “Show us your papers” provision that will lead to racial profiling
This new law promotes racial profiling based on appearance, background, language and accent that will affect U.S. citizens and immigrants alike — in a state where 38.8% of the population is of Hispanic origin, according to the U.S. Census.

3. SB4 takes authority away from local law enforcement.
 Texas communities each have unique public safety and law enforcement needs that should not be undermined by state, unfunded mandates as authored in Senate Bill 4.

4. SB 4 forces cities, counties, campus police to carry out the responsibilities of the federal government. SB4 forces cities, counties and even university campus police to act as immigration agents o a daily basis. Importantly, our federal laws mandates that the federal government is responsible for enforcing immigration laws.

On May 7th, Texas’ Governor, Greg Abbott, signed SB 4 into law. SB 4 is the most discriminatory  piece of anti-immigrant legislation in the United States. SB 4 is currently scheduled to go into effect in September 2017. The bill makes Texas less safe by encouraging racial profiling and forcing local police to act as federal immigration agents.
SB 4 is a grave threat to immigrant families and multi-cultural communities across Texas.

South Texas Civil Rights’ Project and MALDEF have filed  lawsuits against that state on the following grounds:
1.     SB4 discriminates against Latinos, Mexicans, Mexican-Americans, Hispanics, and people of color in general, and immigrants of all backgrounds.
2.     SB4 does not give adequate notice about how it is to be implemented.
3.     SB4 is likely to result in unlawful arrests when no probable cause exists.
4.     Civil immigration laws are the competence of federal immigration authorities, not local law enforcement agencies.
5.     SB4 seeks to punish elected officials and law enforcement leaders for making certain public statements regarding their policies.
6.     SB 4 violates the Texas Constitution because it tells local law enforcement agencies, including university police, how to run their departments and forces them to enforce federal civil immigration laws.