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Human Rights Lawyer Jennifer Harbury on How Trump Is Punishing Cartels’ Victims—Not Their Members

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A federal judge will hold a hearing today on whether to delay Tuesday’s deadline that mandated the reunification of all children under the age of 5 whom the Trump administration separated from their parents at the border. The Trump administration is claiming it needs more time to match children with their parents, including at least 19 parents who have already been deported. The American Civil Liberties Union says less than half of separated children under the age of 5 will be reunited by the Tuesday deadline. As Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy crackdown continues, we speak with human rights lawyer Jennifer Harbury about how U.S. foreign policy has led to the violence that Central Americans are fleeing, and what happens when people follow the U.S. government’s instructions and attempt to apply for political asylum at a legal port of entry. Jennifer Harbury has lived in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas for more than 40 years. She works with people fleeing violence in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, and has been active in the response to the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy.

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

AMY GOODMAN: As we continue to look at President Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy at the U.S. border, we turn now to Texas-based human rights lawyer Jennifer Harbury, who’s lived in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas for more than 40 years. Her husband, Efraín Bámaca Velásquez, a Mayan comandante, was disappeared after he was captured by the Guatemalan army in the ’80s. After a long protest campaign, Harbury found U.S. involvement in the murder and cover-up of her husband. Now she continues to work with people fleeing violence in Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, who have come to the United States seeking asylum, and makes connections between U.S. foreign policy and people seeking political asylum in Central America.

We spoke just a week ago in Brownsville, Texas, when I met with her right there along the border. I started by asking her what happens when people follow the U.S. government’s instructions and attempt to apply for political asylum at a legal port of entry.

JENNIFER HARBURY: We’re part of various treaties on refugees, and we executed those into our own domestic laws. It’s in there. And it says the person, under 8 U.S.C. 1225, goes up to the port of entry, knocks on the door and literally says, “I’m in danger. I need to apply for asylum.” And as I said earlier, they then go to a credible fear interview and then to a detention center, initially, and they’ll be put in proceedings before an immigration judge. The way—the norm that has always been in place for either group of people, whether they went by the river or went across the bridge, is that if they’ve got perfectly good identification, they’ve never committed a crime, they’re not a threat to anyone, they’re just on the run from the cartels, and they have legal status relatives, citizen or LPR, who will take them in and sponsor them and pay all their expenses—

AMY GOODMAN: What does LPR mean?

JENNIFER HARBURY: Legal permanent resident. If they have all of that, then they have always been released. Now, since Trump came in—it had started declining even before Trump, but then it just took a bellyflop. And it’s part of the campaign of punishment, not of cartel people, but of the victims of the cartels. So if you go in and ask for asylum, pass your credible fear test, you’re detained. And the conditions are horrific. We had one woman who had had surgery to repair her pelvis, the one that was kidnapped. And they gave her such terribly—

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean, the one who was kidnapped?

JENNIFER HARBURY: I had—as I had stated in our other segment, she had gone north with her 8-year-old daughter, fleeing the cartels. And as they neared Reynosa on the border, their van was pursued. And it flipped over and crashed. Her daughter was crushed to death, 8 years old. She suffered, the mother, a terrible fracture of her pelvis, her femur, her arm, and a big gash around her throat, where she went through the windshield. It could have taken her head off. She was several months in the hospital in Reynosa, hobbled across the bridge on a walker and told, last year, “We don’t do that anymore. Go away.” She went back and was kidnapped at the foot of the bridge. All—anyone looking like a refugee is going to be kidnapped, because the cartels have figured out you’ve got someone up north that loves you and is going to go find the money. That’s what happened.

We then were able to bring her across. She applied for what’s called parole, similar to bond, and was eligible. She had eligibility for two categories: severe medical condition plus many legal relatives eager to take her, and no criminal background. Denied. She was in there for close to a year. And the surgical site began to reopen, given the terrible conditions in—

AMY GOODMAN: In her abdomen.


AMY GOODMAN: Pelvis area.

JENNIFER HARBURY: In her hip—began to open again. And that requires immediate IV antibiotics. But they gave her such low—inadequate pills for antibiotics that she became resistant to all of them. Then the infection went into her thigh bone, and she basically was going septic. After a year, they kind of threw her at me, as she was in a wheelchair in horrible pain. I was able to get her to her relatives. She’s undergone three surgeries, and they didn’t have to amputate her leg. That’s how we’re treating the victims of the cartels.

AMY GOODMAN: Wait. To understand something, Jeff Sessions, the attorney general, said domestic violence and gang violence will no longer be accepted as grounds for political asylum. So, she would not be accepted under—

JENNIFER HARBURY: That’s correct. And a woman whose case I—whose children I represent in another case—this was back from '09, but it's a very typical case, actually, and it shows you what’s going to happen now. She had an extremely abusive partner, from Reynosa. They grew up almost next door to each other.

AMY GOODMAN: And this is just over the border in Mexico.

JENNIFER HARBURY: Just over the river. And he beat her so often and then tried to burn the trailer they were living in, with her and the kids inside it, that she went to the police, got protective orders, and he got deported back to Reynosa and immediately joined the cartels. And all her relatives said, “He’s talking about how he’s going to murder you. He’s going to burn you. He’s driving around with the cartels with these heavy weapons. Don’t ever come back.”

She was stopped by police after her waitressing shift, and they said, you know, faulty brake light or something—a very typical excuse—and was immediately turned over to Border Patrol, with all of her friends screaming, “Don’t send her back! She won’t survive the week.” She was begging and crying. Before the courts were even open and before she could contact any lawyer, just at dawn, she was forced back across the bridge into Reynosa. And five days later, they found her incinerated. And her children have to live with that. There was a child that was 10, that is suicidal, off and on. And that’s our fault.

AMY GOODMAN: In the case of the woman that you describe called Laura, who was forced back—


AMY GOODMAN: We had Sarah Stillman on, who did a piece for The New Yorker about this.


AMY GOODMAN: She told the Border Patrol agent, “You are sending me straight to the slaughterhouse.” And she said that her deportation—she said to him, “My death will be on your hands.” She turned to Agent Garza and said, “When I am found dead, it will be on your conscience.”

JENNIFER HARBURY: That’s exactly what she said. And that was confirmed by two people who were deported with her. They were picked up with her in her car. They all went across the bridge together. And they all said the same thing. She was weeping and crying, desperate. You know—

AMY GOODMAN: And where was she found?

JENNIFER HARBURY: In Reynosa, in an incinerated car, just down near the river. The first—the second day, he found out she was there, and managed to—he rammed her car, because she was trying to find a coyote—

AMY GOODMAN: Her husband.

JENNIFER HARBURY: —to rush her across. And it’s $1,500 to get a—to pay the cartels for permission to cross. So her family was rounding up nickels and dimes, dollars, anything they could find. She went down to make arrangements, and he rammed her car, dragged her out of the car in front of her small child and nearly—and bit her ear off, basically. And her cousin, who is a very feisty woman, hit him with a log, and they escaped. And a few days after that, she was found unidentifiable. At first they didn’t know if the cadaver was male or female. But they all—the family immediately recognized the mark of the car. She had been strangled partially and burned. The cause of death was strangulation and burns. And she was tied to the steering wheel.

AMY GOODMAN: So, explain what you’re doing, how you’re fighting back.

JENNIFER HARBURY: Well, on many different fronts, right? For one thing, I want to make sure people make it to the door of the port of entry to ask for asylum. First they were all turned away last year. Then the American Immigration Council filed a class action, and then they stopped turning people away, you know, at least if they were with somebody else. They started doing that again just about a month ago, almost unilaterally across the United States border, just about every crossing.

In Reynosa and Roma, very close to here, something almost worse was happening. The refugee moms with their babies, and men who were terrified, and dads with their kids, came to the bridges, and they were told, “We’re full. Sit on the bridge and wait your turn.” And it’s—of course they’re full, because people are illegally being denied parole and bond once they’re taken into the system. So, some of them are in there for two years, two-and-a-half years, year and a half. And so, of course, you know, the places are full. But Border Patrol made all of those families—30 to 50 people, I counted—sit on the bridge, some of them 10 days, in Roma 16 days. It was 100 degrees out back then, and the heat factor—heat index was 108. Border Patrol agents would not let them sit in the Progreso waiting room, which holds a hundred people, is air-conditioned and has bathrooms. The people sitting on the bridge were not allowed to use the bathrooms. They had to go to a duty-free store, as long as it was open, until nightfall, and then I guess they used coffee cans. Church people, civilians from both sides of the river, we started running to those bridges with water, with Pedialyte, with Pampers, with extra clothes, trying to help them. And then, suddenly, they were gone, after Senator Merkley’s experience down here, having the police called on him because he wanted to check on the welfare of the children that were separated.

So, then what happened is Border Patrol stood at the middle of the bridge, three men across, big husky men usually, to make sure they had “papers,” quote-unquote, before they would be allowed onto the U.S. half of the bridge. And if they had entered illegally into Mexico, didn’t have transit visas, or their transit visas had been stolen, they would call Mexican immigration and make them come up the bridge, grab the people and drag them back into Mexico to either jail or deport them.

So word went out about that really fast, and everybody ran to the coyotes to get across the river. Well, kids drown all the time in the river. You know, not long ago, a woman with two small children and an infant was on one of those rafts going across, and the 3-year-old fell in, and she couldn’t save them with the baby in her arms. So she was begging the coyote to stop. He wouldn’t. The child drowned. So we’ve driven them into the arms of these ruthless traffickers. A lot of the coyotes are now in Reynosa at least, selling people to the cartels. That way they have no cost, pure profit, and they get another tip from the cartels themselves. So we force them into danger.

And if they manage to get over here, now we punish them again by taking their kids away. If they go legally across the bridge, they face long-term detention in hideous prison-like conditions. And the truth is, it’s intended to force them to give up their claims for asylum, to which they are legally entitled to hearing in front of a judge, and just say, “OK, I don’t want asylum, after all. I’m going home.” One kid that we had was 18. His eldest brother was badly murdered, axe-murdered by the local cartels. The second brother fled to the United States and was deported back and killed shortly thereafter. The 18-year-old was turned away with his parents at the bridge several times, finally got across, and, after a year in prison-like conditions, said, “I can’t take it. I’m just going to go home. I’ll just try to survive.” And he went home. Another man with a bullet hole in his stomach went home.

And that’s what this administration wants. We want to drive them home. We’ll take your kids. We’ll imprison you for years. We’ll make you sit on the bridge and die of heat stroke. Whatever we’ve got to do, we’re going to drive you home.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain to someone like the former Houston police officer that we flew on a plane with yesterday coming here to Brownsville, who was asking, “Why should these illegal immigrants be allowed into our country?”

JENNIFER HARBURY: Well, I’ve said before, reason number one, we’re all human beings. We’re supposed to take care of each other. Jordan has something like 600,000 refugees in a population of 9 million. Now, that puts us to shame. Quite apart from the moral and ethical issues and our own heritage as Americans—my father arrived at Ellis Island when he was 11. I mean, this is who we are.

Quite aside from our national identity, our government helped to create the cartels. Most of the heads of the cartels are former military intelligence leaders who were trained in the United States, armed by the United States, worked carefully with the United States during the genocide era, as documented in the United Nations Truth Commission report. And as I said earlier, President Clinton ended up issuing an apology to the people of Guatemala. But we basically created this cadre of people and worked with them ’til the end of the genocide, which left 200,000 people murdered, not killed in the crossfire, and 660 Mayan villages wiped off the map. Those people, who are—

AMY GOODMAN: And you’re just talking about in Guatemala alone.

JENNIFER HARBURY: Guatemala alone. Those people, after the war ended, were looking around for something profitable. Most of them were already in the drug trade. Colonel Alpirez, Julio Roberto Alpirez, who was my husband—one of my husband’s torturers, was being paid for the information he gave about Everardo while he was torturing him. He got $44,000 from the CIA at a remote jungle base not long after a specific torture session. After the disclosures happened, he was flown to the United States, despite the fact that he was not eligible for any kind of visa, and lived with his entire family for 10 years not far from the CIA.

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From CIA-Backed Wars to Cartel Violence: Inside the Roots of the Refugee Crisis in Central America

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