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This Congressmember Camped in the Cold to Escort an Asylum-Seeking Honduran Mother Across Border

StoryDecember 21, 2018
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Nearly a month after a photo of a Honduran mother and her small children fleeing tear gas fired by U.S. Border Patrol captivated the nation, 39-year-old Maria Meza was finally admitted into the U.S. with her five children on Monday. Their asylum request is now being processed. But this came only after California Congressmembers Jimmy Gomez and Nanette Barragán intervened on behalf of Meza’s family, camping out overnight with them on the U.S. side of the border near the Otay Mesa Port of Entry between Tijuana and San Diego. We speak with Congressmember Nanette Barragán, who just returned from the U.S.-Mexico border.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. Nearly a month after a photo of a Honduran mother and her small kids fleeing tear gas fired by U.S. Border Patrol captivated the nation, 39-year-old Maria Meza was finally admitted into the United States this week with her five children, and their asylum request is now being processed. But this came only after California Congressmembers Jimmy Gomez and Nanette Barragán intervened on her behalf, camping out with Meza’s family and other migrants on the U.S. side of the border near the Otay Mesa Port of Entry between Tijuana and San Diego, surrounded by metal barriers and border guards in riot gear. The lawmakers were at the border to investigate claims the Trump administration is rejecting asylum seekers at official ports of entry, violating international and national law.

California Congressmember Nanette Barragán joins us now from Washington, D.C. She’s a member of the House Committee on Homeland Security, just back from the border.

Congressmember Barragán, thanks so much for being with us. Describe what you did this past Monday.

REP. NANETTE BARRAGÁN: Well, I went down to Otay Mesa, which is a port of entry down in Mexico, with one of my colleagues. We were asked to go down to observe as Maria was going to cross and present herself for asylum.

AMY GOODMAN: So, explain exactly what you did. Democracy Now! was recently on the border. We saw people for hours, for days, not being let into the U.S. You did something incredible. Somehow you got Maria and her family over the line, into the U.S., which is still before the border guards.

REP. NANETTE BARRAGÁN: Well, it was an interesting thing to see at Otay Mesa. What happens is, the U.S.-Mexico line actually occurs before you get to a CBP border agent. And so, we were able to walk right up to the agent, which crossed over into U.S. territory, where her lawyers were ahead of her and said, “We want to present our client for asylum.” Now, while they were talking to the CBP officer, Maria, her children, along with eight unaccompanied minors and another male, were able to just walk onto U.S. soil. And so, it was an interesting thing, because you had a CBP officer about—I’m going to guess, about seven feet into U.S. territory.

AMY GOODMAN: So, explain what you’re demanding now—not only for Maria. We just got the news that the U.S. is going to send immigrants who are asylum seekers back to Mexico while they wait, which could take weeks, months—what—years?

REP. NANETTE BARRAGÁN: Yeah, it’s a very dangerous policy to have people waiting in Mexico. If you go down there and you take a look at the conditions, it’s not very—I’m sorry, it’s not very sanitary. But not only that, people are being searched out. In this case, Maria actually had some of the right-wingers were trying to find her. They had to hide her and her family. They had to move her. You can just imagine what it’s like. We are also hearing the reports of the two young teenagers that were killed there. It’s not a situation where you want to put people who are fleeing violence to stay in a place where there is violence and still putting them in danger.

AMY GOODMAN: So, investigations of—right now there’s a 5-month-old who’s in the hospital, who is being held by ICE in the freezing cold, what they call “iceboxes.” And then you have the horror of the story of Jakelin, the 7-year-old indigenous Guatemalan girl who died in Border Patrol custody. What are you demanding on the Homeland Security Committee in terms of investigations of all of this, Nanette?

REP. NANETTE BARRAGÁN: Well, we certainly want to investigate the circumstance of what happened. Now, let me tell you, just being at the border with Maria and her children and seeing how CBP responded, I can actually understand now why we are hearing more and more reports of children being ill, of children dying. In our situation, you had Customs and Border Protection officers sitting right there, allowing 3- and 4-year-old children waiting hours on end—in Maria’s case, nine hours—in the cold, on the cement. They could go nowhere to eat. They couldn’t even get up to go to the bathroom, because if they left this little patch of U.S. soil, Mexican immigration officials and police were on the Mexico line just waiting for them. And so, to see the disregard that some of the officers and CBP had for migrants was just disturbing to see and hear. We even had a CBP officer who was talking out loud about how terrible migrants were, how they were coming to commit crime. And so, if they have this attitude, they really aren’t going to have any regard for human life and their dignity.

Now, let me tell you, there are good CBP agents. I represent a port of entry. But there are bad apples, and that’s a real issue. So we want to make sure that there is an investigation on what happens. We want to make sure it doesn’t happen again. In the case of Jakelin, we want to also make sure that we put in standards and procedures so that there’s a real medical screening. What I understand happened in Jakelin’s case, it could be something as simple as them asking, “Is everybody OK?” That is not what you need to do so that you can make sure that children are OK.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask you to stay with us so we can do Part 2 of this discussion.

REP. NANETTE BARRAGÁN: Had they done that screening with Jakelin, I believe they would have seen that she was not well, and would have got medical attention much sooner. My colleague, Dr. Raul Ruiz, who is—

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there, but we will do Part 2 and post it online at democracynow.org. Thanks so much, Congressmember Nanette Barragán, just back from the U.S.-Mexico border.

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