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Speakers discuss humanitarian and legal plights of migrants
September 25, 2019
The first time Cat Yuracka visited McAllen’s Ursula Detention Center in the summer of 2018, she had to fight every instinct she had as a grandmother while watching buses filled with migrant children enter through the compound’s chain-linked fence.
“Everything in me made me want to rush in,” Yuracka said. “And I really had to talk myself down. I had to tell myself, ‘That’s not going to help anybody, for you to go to jail.’”
Instead, the retiree-turned-activist refused to look away, returning not just to Ursula, but later serving as a witness at Tornillo tent city, Carrizo Springs detention center and the Homestead detention center in Florida.
It was a series of experiences Yuracka shared as the guest speaker for the event, “An Evening of Learning and Sharing,” organized by local activist Maureen Mayfield and held Sept. 11 at the Best Western Executive Plus Residency in Annaville.
The event also featured a presentation of local activists’ Carol Lowe and S. Diane Gudmunson’s trip to the Catholic Charities Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen. In addition, there was a roundtable discussion featuring Yuracka, Justice For Our Neighbors (JFON) attorney Anacletus Gyinia, Eduardo Canales of the South Texas Human Rights Center, and two representatives for the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES): community organizer Beatriz Alvarado and attorney Juan Gomez-Rodriguez.
For Mayfield, the idea for the event came following a meeting with fellow progressives where issues surrounding immigrant rights were wrestled with.
“I looked at the situation and I could see that there were various organizations who were working, but not talking to each other,” Mayfield said. “And I think there’s a need for that, particularly in this community. There’s more influence in numbers.”
Two prevailing themes characterized discussion throughout the night, namely the plight of migrants and their children in detention facilities and the challenges faced by immigration attorneys dealing with an overburdened system. The themes found intersection at several points, one being advocates’ desire to get migrants out of detention quicker but running up against changes brought about in the legal system under the Trump Administration.
One such concern involves the institution of quotas on immigration judges in April of 2018, announced by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions. According to NPR, judges would be required to clear 700 cases a year and have fewer than 15% of their decisions overturned on appeal in order to achieve a “satisfactory” rating.
For Gyinia, the decision is just one example of how the system is broken.
“They are rolling people out like it is a manufacturing plant,” Gyinia said. “You can’t do that. Lawyers are trying as best as possible and, in fact, there’s a lot of good news at every turn he (Trump) is stopped. But whenever we’re able to stop him at every turn, we clog up the system even further. And the confusion just continues. … The bottom line is, they (immigrants) are not getting due process. That’s the bottom line at the end of the day.”
In response to the influx of migrants from Central America in 2018, the Trump Administration instituted the “zero tolerance” immigration enforcement policy which, according to the Congressional Research Service, resulted in the Department of Justice prosecuting “all adult aliens apprehended crossing the border illegally, with no exception for asylum seekers or those with minor children.”
Detaining adults in federal criminal facilities where children are not permitted resulted in what became known as the practice of family separation. Minors separated from parents could be treated as “unaccompanied” and transferred to separate care and custody facilities through the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement.
The Tornillo compound, sometimes referred to as a “tent city,” was one such facility erected to house unaccompanied minors before the Trump Administration formally ended the policy in June 2018. According to the Texas Tribune, the facility hit a peak of 2,800 before it was eventually closed in January of this year.
It was through the Facebook page “Witness: Tornillo” that Yuracka first learned about the efforts of the activist Joshua Rubin to bring in advocates to protest outside the detention facilities. After organizing others to make the trip, she joined the efforts.
“In Tornillo, I only saw one child,” Yuracka said. “And that was one face in a darkened bus. It just ripped me up.”
Despite bleak assessments from the speakers, all offered solutions for attendees to pursue either through voting, donating to organizations like RAICES and JFON, becoming a foster parent, or researching the Flores Agreement, which prevents the government from detaining children in immigration custody for more than 20 days.
“Sometimes we get this thing in our stomach that something feels wrong, but we can’t put our finger on what it is,” Gomez-Rodriguez said, “then you can actually go step-by-step to see all the things that are being done wrong instead of just telling somebody, ‘Oh, it’s bad.’”
For TAMU-CC senior History major Harley Mathews, the sharing of such solutions provided an important element for an event that benefitted from a variety of experiences and expertise.
“Having two people with personal narratives, and three people that represent law was impressive,” Mathews said. “It wasn’t one-sided. it wasn’t just the narrative storytelling. … It was that, along with tactile tools to go along with it.”
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