For the past 25 years, a humanitarian crisis has been quietly raging at the United States–Mexico border. Beginning in 1994, the U.S. implemented a policy of “prevention through deterrence” to stymie the flow of undocumented immigrants at traditional ports of entry. The thought was that by pushing migratory routes into harsher desert terrain, where temperatures can exceed 100 degrees, the number of people attempting to cross the border illegally would drop. But the policy didn’t work as expected, and instead had an unintended consequence: mass death. In 2000, migrant deaths started to spike, jumping 34 percent from the year prior, according to U.S. Border Patrol. All told, an estimated 10,000 undocumented immigrants have died on the treacherous journey since 1994. When news of these deaths started making headlines in the late 1990s, inventor and scientist John Hunter decided to take action. In 2000, he founded a nonprofit, called Water Station. “I just get sick and tired of people dying out here and all this yapping going on, and no one’s doing jack,” Hunter says. Based in Escondido, California, Water Station was one of the earliest organized humanitarian efforts along the border. Hunter and his wife, Laura, lead a team of volunteers in building “water stations,” or 50-gallon drums filled with jugs of water, which are strategically placed in the Imperial Valley Desert where deaths have been recorded. Now 18 years into its mission, Water Station maintains about 125 stations throughout the deserts of eastern California. Watch the video above to see how the Hunters’ work is helping to save lives in the harsh deserts along the border.
This video is the first in a four-part multimedia series, “Aid at the Border,” that explores the impact of humanitarian efforts along the US-Mexico border.
Christina Fialho was in law school with hopes of becoming an immigration attorney, when a friend’s father disappeared into the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) system. Later, they found out he’d been deported to Mexico. “To this day, she and her father are separated,” Fialho says.
After the incident, Fialho, whose great-grandfather, grandparents and dad all emigrated from the Azores, an autonomous region of Portugal, made it her mission to learn more about what’s often an opaque and isolating process for undocumented immigrants and their loved ones. Once detained, “They can hire pro bono attorneys or pay for a private attorney, but 84 percent of people in immigration detention are not represented, because there is no right to a court-appointed attorney,” she says. Many can’t even afford to place costly calls to family members on the outside.
So Fialho, along with social justice advocate Christina Mansfield, cofounded Detention Dialogues in 2010, the first visitation program for immigrant detainees in California.
Bolstered by success of their joint effort, the two Christinas expanded their reach by building and coordinating a national network of visitation programs. In 2012, they launched Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement — or CIVIC for short — a national nonprofit that works to abolish detention centers by monitoring human rights abuses and offering alternates to the current system. The watchdog organization also advocates for legislative changes, such as limiting ICE’s expansion of detention centers, and it operates a free, confidential hotline for detainees to connect with family and to report any abuses. On average, CIVIC volunteers process around 14,000 calls a month from all 210 of the country’s immigration detention centers.
“The mere act of a visitation is great, but turning that into a tool for advocacy was really where we saw the potential for systemic change,” says Erica Lock, director of fellowship programs at Echoing Green, a nonprofit that helped Fialho and Mansfield launch CIVIC.
DEATH AND ABUSE IN DETENTION
The myriad issues facing immigrants in detention — including substandard medical care, prolonged imprisonment and poor nutrition — are stark, and they’re only getting worse. Since ICE was created in 2003, there have been more than 175 confirmed deaths in detention centers nationwide. Since October 2016, 11 immigrants have died while in custody, the highest number since 2011.
Between January 2010 and July 2016, there were 33,126 complaints of sexual or physical abuse in immigration detention facilities, with just 1.7 percent of those complaints leading to an investigation by the federal government. “If we can educate the public and our legislators about how our tax dollars go to perpetrating human and civil rights abuses, that’s one step toward change,” Fialho says. “The second is providing alternatives to [detention centers].”
The alternatives championed by CIVIC work similarly to refugee resettlement programs, says Fialho, in which a nonprofit typically steps in to help immigrants obtain housing, a social security card and, if necessary, legal support. “Individuals may spend weeks, months or even years in detention centers,” says Fialho. “We’ve been working to get those people released and provide them with support.”
CIVIC’s efforts have been “critically important” in helping detainees feel less isolated, supporting their legal cases and advocating on their behalf, says Victoria Lopez, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU’s National Prison Project. She also sees potential for change through the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), a bipartisan law passed in 2003 and standardized by the Department of Homeland Security in 2014 to prevent, detect and respond to sexual abuse and assault at its detention centers.
The hope, says Lopez, is that CIVIC’s “recent efforts in telling the stories and collecting information about sexual assaults will have an impact on how the implementation of PREA moves forward.”
STATEWIDE SUCCESS DRIVES NATIONAL EFFORTS
This past summer CIVIC, along with the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, successfully advocated for the inclusion of a provision in a California budget bill that limits ICE’s expansion of detention centers in the state. It’s the first law of its kind in the country, and it bars all new contracts between local municipalities and ICE for the next 10 years. CIVIC also co-sponsored the Dignity Not Detention Act, recently signed into law by California Gov. Jerry Brown, that freezes the growth of for-profit immigrant detention centers — another first in the U.S.
“Our budget bill stopped the spread of immigration detention facilities run by county jails in California,” Fialho says, noting that 70 percent of people detained in the state and nationwide are held in for-profit facilities.
Increasingly, Fialho has her sights on shaping policy at the national level. Her team has already began filing federal civil rights complaints, including one that alleges rising sexual abuse inside the centers and another that claims detainees at one California facility are frequently denied visits from attorneys and family members.
Fialho and CIVIC have also consulted on a federal budget amendment to stop immigrant detention expansion nationwide and are co-sponsors of a new bill introduced in October called the Dignity for Detained Immigrants Act, which builds upon the organization’s achievements in California. “We’ve been able to push for policy change,” says Fialho. “That’s been really powerful.”
One word described Luis Aponte’s experience living as an undocumented immigrant in the United States: helpless.
“Not [being] able to drive, not being able to travel or those things. Those things really wear you down,” says Aponte, a 40-year-old project manager for a parking company in Jersey City, N.J. “While I was here without documents, my father passed away, and I was unable to go and see him. Things like that — that makes you sad.”
After marrying a U.S. citizen, Aponte spent thousands of dollars trying to become one himself. He visited multiple immigration lawyers, but the bureaucracy — and the hefty price tag — of the American immigration system made it seem like an opportunity out of reach.
Aponte’s experience isn’t unique. Millions of undocumented immigrants and those with expired temporary visas live in this country because the process of becoming an American citizen can take decades and cost tens of thousands of dollars. It’s this flawed system that inspired a Canadian to create a tech workaround that eliminates the minutiae of immigration law and makes it simpler (and cheaper) for migrants to achieve U.S. citizenship.
“I started looking into the process, Googling around, trying to figure it out, and after a couple of hours of banging my head against the wall, I gave up and started looking into hiring an immigration lawyer … but it cost me thousands of dollars,” says Jeremy Peskin, co-founder of Borderwise, a digital platform that drastically reduces the time required to fill out immigration forms — from hours to just 10 minutes — by turning the mounds of paperwork into a simple survey.
Since its launch in 2016, Borderwise has helped hundreds of immigrants begin the application process.
For years, Peskin tried to gain citizenship, holding employment on what he describes as an “alphabet soup” of work visas. After marrying his wife (a American citizen), he confronted the problems of the immigration system face-to-face.
“I sat with my immigration lawyer in his office, and we started discussing my case. And I could see as he sort of walked through a decision tree that he had spent years learning to figure out exactly which documents and forms were required to compile my application because there’s potentially over 12 different forms, over 40 pages of paper work,” Peskin says. “I realized that if we could have an expert design a piece of software, we could use technology to dramatically streamline the process of preparing these applications.”
Working to bring his idea of the American Dream to fruition, Peskin enlisted the help of his own immigration attorney, James Pittman, who at first was hesitant of the idea.
“Immigration law is way too complex for that,” Pittman recalls saying. “There’s [sic] just too many exceptions. No matter how much you program a software, you can never duplicate a human being in all of the complexity and nuance.”
Peskin and Pittman looked to machine-learning technology to solve for the intricacies, complications and problem solving that immigration lawyers typically handle.
The result? A two-pronged platform: one portion used by immigrants themselves who want to become a citizen through family sponsorship; the other, a cloud-based version used by law firms. Both streamline immigration paperwork, while also giving those applying for citizenship more insight into how the process works.
By eliminating much of the work typically performed by attorneys, Borderwise has made the entire process more affordable.
“The lowest an immigration lawyer would ever charge for a family-based green card application is $2,000, and frequently, they would charge $5,000,” Peskin says. “The median income for an immigrant in the U.S. is $40,000. So for many just preparing a green card application, it’s close to 10 percent of their annual wages.”
Borderwise charges just $500 — almost 90 percent less than traditional methods.
Aponte, who used Borderwise, says the platform was simple, cheap and easy. What’s more, the process evoked strong emotions about his father, who passed away in Aponte’s home country of Colombia.
“I’m 100 percent sure he would have been super happy … with my wife and my beautiful family,” he says. “He would have been extremely happy.” The 2017 AllStars program is produced in partnership with Comcast NBCUniversal and celebrates social entrepreneurs who are powering solutions with innovative technology. Visit NationSwell.com/AllStars from Oct. 2 to Nov. 2 to vote for your favorite AllStar. The winner will receive the AllStar Award, a $10,000 grant to help further his or her work advocating for change.
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