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“Hidden Horrors”: Reporter Debbie Nathan on Mass Trials & Kids Separated from Parents at the Border

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Immigrants are facing mass trials and family separation at the U.S.-Mexico border, as the government implements “zero tolerance” policies directed at those trying to enter the United States. Mass trials for crossing the border, and scattered cases of family separations, have taken place since “Operation Streamline” was first introduced in 2005. But last month, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the federal government will now prosecute “100 percent of illegal southwest border crossings.” For more, we speak in Austin, Texas, with independent journalist Debbie Nathan. Her new report for The Intercept is headlined “Hidden Horrors of 'Zero Tolerance'—Mass Trials and Children Taken from Their Parents.”

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to the U.S.-Mexico border, where a reporter obtained a recording of immigrant parents who have been separated from their children. The audio is from a mass trial of dozens of immigrants in a courtroom in Brownsville, Texas. Standing shoulder to shoulder, men and women, in shackles, plead guilty to the crime of illegal entry during a mass trial. If you listen closely, you can hear the clinking of their chains as Federal Magistrate Judge Ronald Morgan asks a man if he would like to say anything before he is sentenced.

JUDGE RONALD MORGAN: Anything else you wish to say then before sentence?


JUDGE RONALD MORGAN: OK. Mr. Hernández-Rodríguez, anything you with to say before sentence?

MR. HERNÁNDEZ-RODRÍGUEZ: Sí. También sobre mi hijo ¿yo lo traigo conmigo? Aquí me lo separaron.

TRANSLATOR: Also, I was bringing my child with me, and we got separated.

JUDGE RONALD MORGAN: OK. Like I just told Mr. Hernández-López, my understanding, the way it’s supposed to work, is because you’re from a country other than Mexico, you’re going to be sent to a camp, and you’re going to be sent to a camp where your child will be allowed to join you. That’s my understanding of how it’s supposed to work. You understand that?


JUDGE RONALD MORGAN: How old is your child?


TRANSLATOR: Six years.

MR. HERNÁNDEZ-RODRÍGUEZ: Me preocupo bastante porque se me duele no saber si me van a dejar aquí a donde me van a mandar.

TRANSLATOR: I’m very worried—

JUDGE RONALD MORGAN: Yeah, I understand.

TRANSLATOR: —because they may leave him here, and then I’m going to get deported.

JUDGE RONALD MORGAN: Well, you’re supposed to be joined with your child before you are deported. I think, Mr. Hernández-López, let me just tell you, the theory is that’s going to keep you from coming to this country.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That audio of Federal Magistrate Judge Ronald Morgan’s courtroom in Brownsville, Texas, is from a report for The Intercept by Debbie Nathan headlined “Hidden Horrors of 'Zero Tolerance'—Mass Trials and Children Taken from Their Parents.” The story also features a rare photograph from inside a federal courthouse in Pecos, Texas, that shows dozens of immigrants in orange jumpsuits spread across a courtroom and filling up a jury box as they are all tried at once.

AMY GOODMAN: Mass trials for crossing the border, scattered cases of family separations, have taken place since “Operation Streamline” was first introduced in 2005. But last month, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the federal government will now prosecute, quote, “100 percent of illegal southwest border crossings.”

ATTORNEY GENERAL JEFF SESSIONS: I have put in place a zero-tolerance policy for illegal entry on our Southwest border. If you cross the border unlawfully, then we will prosecute you. It’s that simple. If you smuggle illegal aliens across our border, then we will prosecute you. If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you, and that child may be separated from you, as required by law.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more on this new policy, how it’s unfolding, we go to Austin, Texas, where we’re joined by Debbie Nathan, independent journalist, usually based in Brownsville, Texas, on the Mexico border. Her new report for The Intercept, “Hidden Horrors of 'Zero Tolerance'—Mass Trials and Children Taken from Their Parents.” She’s been on the ground reporting on what she calls “zero tolerance factories.”

Describe what you saw, Debbie.

DEBBIE NATHAN: I’ve been to several of these trials. I’ve been in Brownsville, Laredo and El Paso. And what you see is somewhere between 20 and 40-something people, all triple-shackled, not to each other but individually, their hands in handcuffs chained to their waists, and their feet shackled. And they clunk and clang into court. I mean, there’s this clanging sound of chains. And they go through these mass processes in less than an hour, usually. And they often—they are instructed to answer in groups or answer en masse. So you’ll hear like 40 people being asked a question, and they’ll say, ”,” all at once, or they’ll say, “No.” And it’s just—it’s really uncanny. It’s shocking. It doesn’t feel like due process. One after one after one after one after one, with only one lawyer, they plead guilty: ”Culpable,” ”culpable,” ”culpable,” ”culpable.” I mean, it’s just—it just feels like something out—I mean, the photo itself, added to the sounds, really makes you think of something like Abu Ghraib, except that it’s completely legal in this country now to do this to people. It’s just quite shocking to see.

And, you know, very few people go to see it, which I think is another reason why it’s happening on the border and with so little oversight. I’ve had trouble getting into courtrooms. I go to get into the federal building, and I’m told, “No, the judge said that the courtroom is too crowded. Nobody can go in except for Border Patrol agents and lawyers.” And I’ve had to argue to get in, even after I’ve said I was a reporter. So, people don’t see these proceedings. And people are afraid to argue, actually. So, the fact that this photo was taken is actually very remarkable. The defense bar that I spoke with in that area—that’s the Western District of Texas—said that they think that it was a marshall who took it. Somebody inside the court secretly took it, probably. And my experience, hanging around these courtrooms and talking to people and even having a little bit of whistleblower effect, is that there are a lot of people inside these courtrooms or inside these courthouses who are not comfortable with what’s going on. In fact, if you can—if we were able to continue to listen to the judge in that tape, he even starts to feel real anxiety, expresses anxiety about the fact that maybe it’s not true that people are being reunited in these camps—

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Debbie, if we can, let’s go—

DEBBIE NATHAN: —as he calls them, with their children, which is not true. And he actually goes on—

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Debbie, if we can—

DEBBIE NATHAN: —to say to the assistant U.S. attorney, “If this is not true, if you’re not reuniting these children, then we can imagine the hell that’s being created.” So, the judge—I mean, there are so many people who are not comfortable with what’s going on.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, if we can, let’s go to the audio recording you obtained from the Brownsville, Texas, courtroom of Federal Magistrate Judge Ronald Morgan, as he’s presiding over the mass trial of these folks who were apprehended at the border. This was in late April, and this begins with Judge Morgan offering another defendant the chance to address him before she was sentenced.

JUDGE RONALD MORGAN: Ms. Díaz-Castro, anything you’d like to say before sentencing?

MS. DÍAZ-CASTRO: En el mismo caso de ellos, de mi hija, sólo que no me la separaron, pero me dijeron que sí me la van a quitar.

TRANSLATOR: The same case as theirs, only they haven’t separated me from my daughter, but they told me they were going to take her away.

JUDGE RONALD MORGAN: Well, let’s hope they don’t. You and your daughter, you should be joined together. Let me just ask, Ms. D’Andrea, my understanding is, is that when there is parent and child, the parent and child are supposed to be joined before they are separated and sent home. Is that correct?

MS. D’ANDREA: That’s what I’ve heard, Your Honor, as well.

JUDGE RONALD MORGAN: I’ll tell you what: If it’s not, then there are a lot of folks have some answering to do, because what you’ve done, in effect, by separating these children is you’re putting them someplace without their parent. You can imagine there’s a hell, and that’s probably what it looks like. You’d best confirm that’s the case. You’d best make sure that’s the case.

MS. D’ANDREA: Yes, Your Honor.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Again, that was Federal Magistrate Judge Ronald Morgan speaking in his Brownsville, Texas, courtroom in late April, in this audio that Debbie Nathan obtained for her report in The Intercept. Debbie, this whole issue of lawyers, one lawyer representing 30, 40, 50 people? Obviously, they can’t have much in terms of individual information about that particular person on what might have driven them to try to cross the border to begin with.

DEBBIE NATHAN: Yeah. What I’ve heard is that they’re getting somewhere between seven and 10 minutes of counsel right before the proceedings. And, you know, I’ve talked to public defenders who try very, very hard to get information that would be helpful to the—to the—I was going to say “client,” but to the defendant, for example, who really make an effort to find out whether they crossed with their children and whether they have a claim, a credible fear claim, that would allow them to, later in the process, claim asylum. But it seems so inconsistent. Like I was in court in El Paso last week, and there were 60 defendants, and they were split into 20—into three groups of 20. And so, each group of 20 had a lawyer. And I interviewed one lawyer who told me that, of his 20, not one of them had been separated from a child, and not one of them had an asylum claim or a credible fear claim. So, then, in the third group, I was able to interview the attorney, who spoke Spanish, unlike the first one, and seemed very concerned about the immigration issues. And he told me that, of the 20 that I saw him representing, 10 of them had been separated from a total of 15 children, including one woman who was separated from three children. And, you know, he obtained that information by just really speaking with these people. So, you get the feeling that the legal representation, as short as it is, as few minutes as it is, also depends on whether the lawyers even care, you know, to find out what’s going on.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, in also where you are, where you usually work, in Brownsville, Oregon Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley was barred from entering a detention center, which was an old Walmart—it’s a detention center for immigrant children—just Sunday, after traveling to the center to see firsthand the Trump administration’s practice of separating immigrant children from their parents. He tweeted, “I was barred entry. Asked repeatedly to speak to a supervisor—he finally came out and said he can’t tell us anything. Police were called on us. Children should never be ripped from their families & held in secretive detention centers,” he tweeted. Federal authorities reportedly separating at least 600 immigrant children from their parents last month, sparking widespread outrage and international condemnation. Even a U.S. senator is being escorted away by police, not allowed to go into the old Walmart where children are being held, that we are paying for, Debbie.

DEBBIE NATHAN: Yeah, I wasn’t surprised. It was, you know, sort of the same experience, only in spades, of what I’ve had when I’ve tried to go into court. It seems like everybody is just being treated like some bum that knocks on the door, you know, like, “What are you doing here? And, you know, we’re going to call the cops on you.” I mean, it was, in a way, shocking to see him treated that way. I saw the video yesterday. But it wasn’t surprising to me. Nobody can get in there.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Debbie, I want to turn to an interview you did with migrants you met in Mexico, just across the border from El Paso. This clip, from a video you posted on Twitter this weekend, begins with you asking the migrants if they tried to cross the bridge to the United States at that port of entry.

DEBBIE NATHAN: [translated] Did you try to cross the bridge?

CHICO: [translated] Yes. We want to cross the bridge, but they do not allow us.

DEBBIE NATHAN: [translated] What happened when you tried to cross?

CHICO: [translated] We wanted to seek help, to enter the U.S.

DEBBIE NATHAN: [translated] What’s your name?

CHICO: [translated] My name is Chico.

MIGRANT 1: [translated] We want to enter the United States because we want to find a job. We have debts. We owe a lot, because we are far from our country.

DEBBIE NATHAN: [translated] What will happen to you if—do you fear violence there?

MIGRANT 2: [translated] Yes, of course. If we do not pay our debts, the money we owe, they will threaten or kill us.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: So, Debbie, could you explain? These are the U.S. agents crossing—are they crossing into Mexico before even the border crossings point that the migrants would try to get through?

DEBBIE NATHAN: So, traditionally, you go to the port of entry, and you—which is this big building at the bottom, you know, in Brownsville. It’s the big curved bridge. You go to the bottom of the bridge to the U.S. side, to the port of entry, and you tell the agents that want to request asylum. And that is your legal right. You’re in the United States at that point, and you request asylum.

So, what’s been happening up and down the border is—and this has been going on probably for at least a year and a half, that I’m aware of, anyway—is that they’re putting agents up at the top of the bridge, because, you know, there’s sort of an invisible line, which is often marked with a plaque, but there’s a line dividing the United States and Mexico. So, they want—what the government wants at this point is for people not to be able to step into the United States at that invisible line, because then they can’t apply for asylum. And so they’ve got these agents at the top of the bridge, and they’re standing there. And they’re asking everybody who they’re suspicious about—you know, and suspicious of not—you know, of maybe they’re going to apply for asylum, but asking people for their documents. And then they won’t let people go into the United States. So, I mean, it’s almost like they’re not even in Mexico. Technically, they’re in Mexico, but they’re like six inches from the United States. And that’s illegal. I mean, that’s against American law, and it’s against international law. But that’s what’s happening up and down the border. And that’s what I observed when I was in El Paso last week.

And I interviewed those people who had been turned back. They had already been turned back about three times and told, “Oh, come back like—come back at 10:00 tonight, or come back at 6:00 in the morning. We don’t have room for you now.” So they were camped out in front of a bathroom at the bottom of the bridge, which is the Mexico side. And, you know, again, incredibly upsetting to see them really looking hungry and looking exhausted and weeping and telling me that they have, multiple times, tried to get in, get past these agents, and that they were not able to.

AMY GOODMAN: Debbie Nathan, you also have a new report out for The Intercept that’s headlined “Border Patrol Continues to Exaggerate Danger to Agents to Justify Violence Against Immigrants.” I want to ask you about this and how it relates to the Border Patrol officer who just shot dead, shot through the head, the 19-year old indigenous Guatemalan woman Claudia Gómez, killing her, this in Rio Bravo, Texas. Video of the aftermath of the killing shows Border Patrol agents sealing off the scene and detaining at least two people. The agents first claimed the officer fired in self-defense after officers were attacked by blunt objects. The family of Claudia Gómez González said she set off for a better life in the United States despite what they had heard about tougher policies towards undocumented immigrants under Donald Trump. This is Gómez’s mother, Lidia González.

LIDIA GONZÁLEZ VÁSQUEZ: [translated] “I’m going to achieve something,” she said. “I’ll earn money for my studies,” she said. But, unfortunately, she was unable to do that. Immigration killed my little girl. My little baby! No, no, no. She didn’t go to steal, She’s just gone, my baby. That’s how it is. I just want justice for my girl, because it’s not fair for them to do this. Now, if people are able to help me retrieve my baby’s body as soon as possible, that’s what I want. We can’t do anything else now. She’s dead. She’s dead.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Debbie Nathan, if you can talk about Border Patrol continuing to exaggerate the danger to agents to justify violence against immigrants, this horrific story about the shooting death of Claudia?

DEBBIE NATHAN: Yeah. A few months ago, I started investigating the claims the Border Patrol has been making for about, oh, the past several months, that it’s a very dangerous job and that their assault statistics were way, way up from last year. And I got data from the Border Patrol which showed that, in fact, assaults were down and injuries are down, but they were using this accounting method—they were counting in this very strange, unconventional way. And, for example, what I was told from law enforcement people is that, you know, police and law enforcement officials usually—like, if somebody is assaulted, that’s considered one assault. I mean, somebody could throw seven rocks at you, and that would be—and you’re one agent, so that’s counted as one assault. But the Border Patrol was—or still is, I guess—multiplying the number of agents assaulted—and, by the way, an assault doesn’t necessarily cause an injury, and in most cases with the Border Patrol it doesn’t—but multiplying the number of agents assaulted by the number of perpetrators and the number of weapons. So, the example that they gave me was six agents assaulted by seven perpetrators who used a water bottle, a rock and a tree branch. So, when you multiply and multiply and multiply, you get 126 assaults. Conventionally, that would be counted as six assaults. And remember that, actually, the spokesperson did not respond when I asked if any of the agents had been hurt. So, what I found out, as I continued and did the second report, was that injuries are down, according to other methods that you can look at, objective methods to look at injuries in the Border Patrol.

And the way that this relates to the young woman who was killed is that she was actually killed about a mile from a case that I’m aware of where a very tiny Guatemalan, who looks to me like he was a teenager, was running from Border Patrol agents, I guess in the same way that the woman in this group was running a year later. He was running, and there was a melee that ensued, in which he was accused of assaulting a Border Patrol agent. But he elected to go to trial, or he was put on trial, and he was acquitted. And it was explained to me by the public defenders in the Southern District that their assumption was that the jury just took a look at the size difference between these two people. The agent was this pretty big, burly guy, and the immigrant looked like a little pencil. I mean, he was just this tiny, frail—he probably weighed a hundred pounds, and the agent probably weighed at least 160. So, they just figured that—oh, and plus the immigrant had blood on his ear. His ear was all banged up. And the agent had, I think, like a sprained elbow. So, he was acquitted. But what was interesting to me was that that will go into—that incident, whatever it was about and for which he was acquitted, will go into the statistics as an assault.

And what’s also very telling to me is that if you listen to the Border Patrol sort of talking to itself, the Border Patrol Council, which is their union, has a podcast, which is sponsored by Breitbart, where the hosts sit there and they talk about—you know, they’re very anti-immigrant and very sort of feeling sorry for themselves. There’s one particular podcast, that anybody can listen to, where they say, “You know, we’ve just had enough of these assaults, and we should be allowed to respond. We should be allowed to use more force. And we should be allowed to”—

AMY GOODMAN: Debbie, we have five seconds.

DEBBIE NATHAN: Mm-hmm. “And we should basically be allowed to beat people up.” That’s what they say.

AMY GOODMAN: Debbie Nathan, we want to thank you for being with us. Thank you for all your work on the border, as you work from Brownsville, Texas, on the Mexico border. We’ll link to your pieces in The Intercept, “Hidden Horrors of 'Zero Tolerance'—Mass Trials and Children Taken from Their Parents,” as well as the piece you just did, “Border Patrol Continues to Exaggerate Danger to Agents to Justify Violence Against Immigrants.”

When we come back, the Supreme Court ruling in favor of a Colorado baker who refused to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple, citing his religious opposition. Stay with us.

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