House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi concluded her whirlwind trip in El Paso early Wednesday morning with a press conference that included some of the Borderland’s biggest immigration advocates.
Pelosi arrived in town late Tuesday night and attended a private event for Democratic nominee for Congressional District 16, Veronica Escobar. Early Wednesday she met again with Escobar, Fernando Garcia with Border Network for Human Rights (BNHR), Linda Rivas with Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, Melissa Lopez with Diocesan Migrant Refugee Services (DMRS), Ruben Garcia with Annunciation House and local immigration attorney Carlos Spector in a closed-door meeting to address specific immigration policies.
“The barbaric issue happening at our southern border challenges the consciousness of America,” Pelosi said.
During the closed-door meeting, Ruben Garcia made it a point to note to Pelosi that “words weigh a ton. When we use them, we must have sensitivity to how they are heard in the immigrant community as well as in the rest of the country, Pelosi said.
The immediate step border leaders proposed included stopping the persecution of immigrants, stopping the separation of families, reformation – not abolishment – of ICE, and a change in the expedited removal process that they say has “created criminalization of the immigrant community.”
Spector noted that a second illegal entry by some migrants seeking to reunite with family left behind in the United States automatically means the immigrant has a criminal record and ultimately causes years-long separation for many families who were otherwise attempting to seek a legal path to citizenship.
From the podium, Pelosi suggested holding House Committee Hearings in El Paso and along the border to consult with the advocates and attorneys on the ground. However, when asked for a timeline for the committee hearings to begin, Pelosi responded it’s “not going to happen with this Republican Congress.”
The problem is bigger than policy though. According to Antonio Williams, a private immigration attorney, most immigrants and asylum seekers are not receiving legal representation or due process in court.
“The clients must always find representation on their own. For those who can’t afford an attorney, they often go without because non-profits have limited resources and are very selective over the type of cases they accept,” Williams said.
DMRS, for example, is the sole organization contracted by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), but they do not accept asylum cases because of the religious posture of the Catholic Church, according to Williams.
This leaves many who are seeking legal asylum, including gay couples who were terrorized in their home country, to fend for themselves in the U.S. legal system.
While policy remained the main topic of today’s press conference, a stark reality remains for many immigrants who are seeking legal protection under immigration asylum guidelines. “Getting bonds for asylum seekers who enter without permission remains a challenge for us with the immigration judges in El Paso,” said Williams. “The issue arises from Attorney General Jeff Session’s decisions to make it harder for the people including domestic violence victims or those being terrorized by gangs to qualify for asylum.
Pelosi echoed this sentiment when asked about the administrative process given to U.S. District Judges. “There’s a lot of discretion left to the court,” Pelosi said. The issue comes from the fact that Immigration Court judges fall under the executive branch and not the judicial, which means they are at the mercy of the Attorney General’s direct rulings.
“The AG stopped Immigration Judges from granting administrative closure, which was often used for humanitarian purposes,” Williams said.
All immigration advocates suggested that the current immigration law is complex and often unclear. BHNR told the media that administrative checks for CBP, ICE and border Patrol are needed with an oversight commission and community liaison.
The muddied immigration process remains influx, whether in the court or within ICE policy. Williams said ICE continues to separate families who arrive with children and two parents who do not have proper documentation of their marriage.
The policy, he said,” disproportionally affects indigenous asylum seekers who are often marginalized because they don’t speak Spanish and don’t have the resources to formalize their marriages with their own government.”
“Most policies are made without consulting leaders along the border,” Fernando Garcia with BNHR said. “I feel positive about the dialog that was opened with Leader Pelosi.”
Author: Andra Litton – Special to the El Paso Herald-Post