Migrants from Central America being held in El Paso by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol in March. Photo: Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters

Our border crisis

If Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua are now countries to flee, shouldn’t we know that we helped to make that happen?

Those politicians who inhabit, and every two or four or six years redecorate, the Halls of Power are co-conspirators. Rather than solve the border crisis, they take the opportunity to pontificate.

When are we going to recognize that the border crisis is our crisis and take responsibility for the crimes we committed against the people of Latin America? When is the press going to connect the dots? If Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua are now countries to flee, shouldn’t we know that we helped to make that happen?

Most recently, the tragedy at the border has been rendered undeniable by the reports of the dreadful conditions in our detention centers. Illuminated by the horrifying picture of Oscar Martínez Ramírez, 25, and his 23-month-old daughter, Angie Valeria, dead, drowned together as they tried to cross the Rio Grande.

Oscar Alberto Martinez Ramirez and Valeria Ramirez. Photo: Julia Le Duc/AP

What do I mean by “our crisis”? They fled from El Salvador seeking a better life. So rather than generalize—though there are remarkably similar stories to be told about Honduras and Guatemala—I’m going to talk about El Salvador. Because what we don’t often acknowledge explains much about why Óscar and his wife Tania Vanessa Ávalos took Angie Valeria so far from home.

For decades, Salvadorans spoke of the Fourteen Families who controlled the country. Maria Dolores Albiac’s 1998 “The Richest of the Rich in El Salvador” noted that while 500 families earned more than $10,000 a month, 3.5 million of El Salvador’s 5 million people earned less than $1 a day.

This unrelenting poverty and lack of any political or economic influence drove many to fight back, plunging El Salvador into a brutal 12-year civil war. Would you be surprised to learn that the Reagan administration chose to support those who took the best land, controlled the natural resources, (coffee, sugar cane, cotton, for example) and lived extravagant lives against the overwhelming majority of the people who lived in poverty? Then, at our School for the Americas at Fort Benning, we trained their out-of-control, corrupt armies and secret police, who returned home to break unions, punish and sometimes disappear those who protested inequality, murdering journalists. Killing American nuns and church workers (Ita Ford, Maura Clarke, Dorothy Kazel and Jean Donovan) and even the Archbishop of San Salvador, Óscar Arnulfo Romero, who preached compassion and social justice.

This 12-year civil war, an ending reign of terror and repression, killed 75,000 Salvadorans. The 1993 UN Truth Commission for El Salvador declared: “Between 1980 and 1991 … Violence was a fire which swept over the fields of El Salvador; it burst into villages, cut off roads and destroyed highways and bridges, energy sources and transmission lines; it reached the cities and entered families, sacred areas and educational centres; it struck at justice and filled the public administration with victims … Violence turned everything to death and destruction …”

Here are some of the chapter headings of their report: “Violence against opponents by agents of the State; Extrajudicial executions; Enforced disappearances; Massacres of peasants by the armed forces; Death squad assassinations; Violence against opponents by the Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional: Abductions; and Murders of Judges.”

Salvadorans looking through the Book of the Missing to find their loved ones. Photo: Eli Reed

Raymond Bonner, the former New York Times correspondent in El Salvador, wrote that the UN Truth Commission “found that more than 85 percent of the killings, kidnappings, and torture had been the work of government forces, which included paramilitaries, death squads, and army units trained by the United States.”

Later Bonner wrote: “In the early ‘80s, El Salvador was receiving more such aid than any country except for Egypt and Israel … For Reagan, El Salvador was the place to draw the line in the sand against communism.” How ironic that, now, our current Republican President embraces, even adores, Communist tyrants like Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un.

Bonner continues: “Many Americans would prefer to forget that chapter in American history; those under the age of 40 may not even be aware of it. Salvadorans haven’t forgotten, however. In El Mozote and the surrounding villages of subsistence peasants, forensic experts are still digging up bodies—of women, children, and old men who were murdered by the Salvadoran army during an operation in December 1981. It was one of the worst massacres in Latin American history … Some 1,200 men, women and children were killed during the operation. Old men were tortured. Then executed. Mothers were separated from their children. Raped. Executed. Crying, frightened children were forced into the convent. Soldiers fired through the windows. More than a hundred children died; their average age was six.”

Todd Greentree, a young political officer at the American embassy at the time, told Bonner: “The United States was complicit,” that “the massacre was carried out by the Atlacatl Battalion, which had just completed a three-month counterinsurgency training course in the United States. That training was also supposed to instill respect for human rights. The El Mozote operation was the battalion’s very first after completing the course.”

A 2018 report by the Latin America Working Group Education Fund reveals how the aftereffects of the 12-year war reverberate today: “El Salvador led the world in homicides per capita in 2015 and 2016 wresting from Honduras the infamous title it held in 2014 … Of the top countries in the world with the highest child homicide rates, in 2015, the last year available, all are in Latin America, and Honduras is number one, El Salvador number three.

“Young men and women and children are forcibly recruited by gangs. Gangs levy extortion taxes that affect everyone from tortilla sellers to taxi owners and bus drivers to those running companies, stores and restaurants; people are threatened or killed for refusing or being unable to pay. Young women and girls are affected by sexual violence and pressured to become sexual partners with gang members. Youth are killed in gang warfare and by state security forces. Many Salvadorans have to leave their homes due to violence, are internally displaced, and then may have to flee the country.”

President Trump has never acknowledged this, but there is a direct correlation between the growth of violent street gangs in El Salvador, the civil war, and our immigration policy: “The Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS-13) and Barrio 18 gangs gained their power over Salvadoran society following deportations of Salvadorans from Los Angeles and other U.S. cities, mainly teenagers and young men whose families had fled the civil war. Years of mano dura (“iron fist”) strategies by successive Salvadoran governments to fight the gangs have only hardened them, as gang members formed stronger bonds in jail and had little access to rehabilitation programs.” (Emphasis added).

Again, we have to take responsibility for policies that make things worse: “Escalated deportations of Salvadorans from Mexico and the United States are likely to aggravate the country’s problem of gang violence.”

The Trump administration’s own 2018 State Department Country Report on Human Rights Practices in El Salvador admits “Civilian authorities failed at times to maintain effective control over security forces. Human rights issues included allegations of unlawful killings of suspected gang members and others by security forces; forced disappearances by military personnel; torture by security forces; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; lack of government respect for judicial independence; widespread government corruption; violence against women and girls that was infrequently addressed by the authorities, as well as security force violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex individuals; and children engaged in the worst forms of child labor.”

Image courtesy New York Times

Hopefully, the more we acknowledge our role in the tragic history of El Salvador, the more we acknowledge and understand what life is like in El Salvador today, the more we can understand what drove Oscar Martínez Ramírez, Tania Vanessa Ávalos and Angie Valeria to travel so far to seek a better life.

The Washington Post adds context to the tragedy of the Ramírez family: “Nearly always working, he sold his motorcycle and borrowed money to move his family from El Salvador to the United States. Martínez and his wife, Tania Vanessa Ávalos, wanted to save up for a home there. They wanted safety, opportunity … ‘They wanted a better future for their girl,’ María Estela Ávalos, Vanessa’s mother, said in an interview.’

“They traveled more than 1,000 miles seeking it. Once in the United States, they planned to ask for asylum, for refuge from the violence that drives many Central American migrants from their home countries every day. But the farthest the family got was an international bridge in Matamoros, Mexico. On Sunday, they were told the bridge was closed and that they should try to cross it the next day.

“But they were desperate. Standing on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande, America looked within reach. The family waded in. Before they made it to the other side, to Brownsville, Tex., the river waters pulled Martínez and Valeria under and swept them away … Martínez and his daughter were met by twin disasters: fast-moving waters and an asylum system unprepared for the crush of Central Americans fleeing crime and poverty.”

The neighborhood where the Ramirez family lived: Photo: Daniele Volpe/New York Times

Now let’s examine what awaits those who survived the exhausting journey from El Salvador through Guatemala and Mexico to apply for asylum. The Trump administration policy is exactly what it calls itself: Zero Tolerance, making it almost impossible for immigrants to follow proper procedure—ironic considering how many times the president has told us these immigrants are criminals.

The rules are clear: “To obtain asylum through the affirmative asylum process you must be physically present in the United States. You may apply for asylum status regardless of how you arrived in the United States or your current immigration status.” You must then complete Form I-589, Application for Asylum and for Withholding of Removal and present your claim to an asylum officer or an immigration judge.”

VOX explains what is actually happening: “At San Ysidro and many of the other official crossings that line the US-Mexico border, families who have traveled thousands of miles, fleeing poverty and violence to seek asylum in the United States, have been stopped outside ports of entry before they can set foot on US soil and trigger their legal asylum rights.

Immigrants waiting in line to claim asylum. Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

“Before 2016, and in some cases as recently as six months ago, they would have had no problem and no delay. But for the last several months, the Trump administration has made a practice of limiting the number of asylum seekers allowed to enter the US each day — a policy it calls “’metering’ … telling those who do try to come legally that there’s no room for them, and ordering them to wait.”

VOX continues: “They don’t say how long the wait will be. And there’s no official way for asylum seekers to hold their spot or secure an appointment, no guarantee that they’ll ever be allowed to cross. And so asylum seekers wait, for days or weeks or (increasingly) months: sometimes in migrant shelters whose capacity has stretched to the breaking point, sometimes huddling together on bridges, sleeping on the street, in the cold, vulnerable to the violence they hoped to escape in their home countries.”

Is it surprising then that many despair and choose to break the law and cross illegally? But even when they manage to cross, so many present themselves to Border Protection agents in an attempt to begin the normal asylum process.

Immigrants surrendering to Border Patrol. Photo: Loren Elliott/Reuters

And what exactly awaits those who make it across? The promise: U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s National Standards on Transport, Escort, Detention, and Search “sets forth the first nationwide standards which govern CBP’s interaction with detained individuals.” There’s the “Non-discrimination Policy – CBP employees must treat all individuals with dignity and respect … with full respect for individual rights including equal protection under the law, due process, freedom of speech, and religion, freedom from excessive force, and freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures.”

And “Officers/Agents will consider the best interest of the juvenile at all decision points beginning at the first encounter and continuing through processing, detention, transfer, or repatriation. Officers/Agents should recognize that juveniles experience situations differently than adults … ”

But, instead lawyers and medical personnel who visited the detention center at Clint, Texas, revealed:

“Children described to us that they’ve been there for three weeks or longer. And so, immediately from that population that we were trying to triage, they were filthy dirty, there was mucus on their shirts, the shirts were dirty. We saw breast milk on the shirts. There was food on the shirts, and the pants as well. They told us that they were hungry. They told us that some of them had not showered or had not showered until the day or two days before we arrived. Many of them described that they only brushed their teeth once. This facility knew last week that we were coming. The government knew three weeks ago that we were coming.

“So, in any event, the children told us that nobody’s taking care of them, so that basically the older children are trying to take care of the younger children. The guards are asking the younger children or the older children, ‘Who wants to take care of this little boy? Who wants to take of this little girl?’ and they’ll bring in a two-year-old, a three-year-old, a four-year-old. And then the littlest kids are expected to be taken care of by the older kids, but then some of the oldest children lose interest in it, and little children get handed off to other children. And sometimes we hear about the littlest children being alone by themselves on the floor.

“Many of the children reported sleeping on the concrete floor. They are being given army blankets, those wool-type blankets that are really harsh. Most of the children said they’re being given two blankets, one to put beneath them on the floor. Some of the children are describing just being given one blanket and having to decide whether to put it under them or over them because there is air-conditioning at this facility. And so they’re having to make a choice about, Do I try to protect myself from the cement, or do I try to keep warm?”

The Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law as part of its legal action before Justice Dolly M. Gee in Jenny Lisette Flores, et al v. William Barr, Attorney General of the United States offered the testimony of pediatrician Dr. Dolly Kucio Sevier: “The conditions within which [children] are held could be compared to torture facilities. That is, extreme cold temperatures, lights on 24 hours a day, no adequate access to medical care, basic sanitation, water, or adequate food.”

They continued: “Extra clothing, medicine and supplies that the children have brought with them has been taken away … detainees testified that the officers threw away any extra clothing, medicine, and baby supplies that they brought with them … Some of the children were wet when they arrived, but they were not permitted to change clothing before being put into freezing cold holding cells … Babies are being kept in these freezing cold conditions, and some of them have only a diaper and a t-shirt to wear.”

If you doubt the testimony of the lawyers and doctors, what about the judgment of the Office of Inspector General of U.S. Customs and Border Protection itself: “During the week of May 6, 2019, we visited five Border Patrol stations and two ports of entry in the El Paso area, including greater El Paso and eastern New Mexico … and observed dangerous holding conditions at the El Paso Del Norte Processing Center (PDT) Border Patrol processing facility, located at the Paso Del Norte Bridge, that require immediate attention. Specifically, PDT does not have the capacity to hold the hundreds currently in custody safely, and has held the majority of its detainees longer than the 72 hours generally permitted under the TEDS standards …”

Office of Inspector General of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Spot Inspection, May 2019

The OIG Inspectors noted that although “the official maximum capacity at this facility per local Border Patrol personnel is 123 aliens” in fact the “total aliens in custody was 756.” Also 502, or 66% of those 756 people have been in custody more than 72 hours. 33 of them had been in custody for more than two weeks. They reported that “Cell 1 had signage for a capacity of 35 but a head count reflected around 155 actual male aliens in standing room only conditions. There was no realistic space for aliens to lie down and sleep. There was one toilet and sink unit in that cell … Cell 3 had signage for a capacity of 12 but a head count reflected around 76 actual female aliens in standing room only conditions.

The report continues: “Maintaining hygienic conditions at this facility is a challenge for Border Patrol. In many cells, we observed aliens standing on toilets because of the overcrowding to make room and gain breathing space (consequently, limiting access to sinks/toilets). Further, there were only four temporary showers at this facility. With limited access to showers and clean clothing, detainees wore soiled clothing for days or weeks …” (Emphasis added).

OIG returned again in June:

Office of the Inspector General Spot Inspection of Customs and Border Protection’s overcrowded detention center, McAllen Texas

The conditions were so bad OIG inspectors were worried about violence: “Senior managers at several facilities raised security concerns for their agents and the detainees. For example, one called the situation ‘a ticking time bomb.’ Moreover, we ended our site visit at one Border Patrol facility early because our presence was agitating an already difficult situation. Specifically, when detainees observed us, they banged on the cell windows, shouted, pressed notes to the window with their time in custody, and gestured to evidence of their time in custody (e.g., beards).” (Emphasis added).

We heard from doctors, lawyers, and officials at Customs and Border Protection. I’ll leave you with some of the personal stories of those who travelled to our country only to find themselves in cells:

“We are in a metal cage with 20 other teenagers with babies and young children. We have one mat we need to share with each other. It is very cold. We each got a mylar blanket, but it is not enough to warm up. There are benches but we cannot sleep there. Sometimes it is so crowded we cannot find a place to sleep, so they allow a few of us to sleep outside the fenced area. The lights are on all of the time. (Age 16, female)

“I’m hungry here at Clint all the time. I’m so hungry that I have woken up in the middle of the night with hunger. Sometimes I wake up from hunger at 4 a.m., sometimes at other hours. I’m too scared to ask the officials here for any more food, even though there is not enough food here for me. (Age 12, male)

“We slept on mats on the floor and gave us aluminum blankets. They took our baby’s diapers, baby formula, and all of our belongings. Our clothes were still wet and we were very cold, so we got sick … I’ve been in the US for six days and I have never been offered a shower or been able to brush my teeth. There is no soap and our clothes are dirty. They have never been washed. (Age 16, female)

“They told us that we could only have one layer of clothing, and they threw away the rest of our clothes in the garbage. (Age 16, male)

“The day we arrived, my baby became sick. She could not open her eyes and had a fever which got much worse during the day. I asked the guard for help and he told me to ‘just deal with it.’ I asked for help again, and was ignored. The third time I asked, I was crying because she was so much worse I was very worried for her. After two days, they took her to the doctor.” (Age unknown, female)

“The day after we arrived here, my baby began vomiting and having diarrhea. I asked to see a doctor and they did not take us. I asked again the next day and the guard said ‘She doesn’t have the face of a sick baby. She doesn’t need to see a doctor.’ My baby daughter has not had medicine since we first arrived. She has a very bad cough, fever and continues to vomit and have diarrhea. (Age 16, female)

“I was given a blanket and a mattress, but then, at 3:00 a.m., the guards took the blanket and mattress. My baby was left sleeping on the floor. In fact, almost every night, the guards wake us at 3:00 a.m. and take away our sleeping mattresses and blankets. They leave babies, even little babies of two or three months, sleeping on the cold floor. For me, because I am so pregnant, sleeping on the floor is very painful for my back and hips. I think the guards act this way to punish us. (Age 17, female)

“I started taking care of xxx (age 5) in the Ice Box after they separated her from her father. I did not know either of them before that. She was very upset. The workers did nothing to try to comfort her. I tried to comfort her and she has been with me ever since. XXX sleeps on a mat with me on the concrete floor. We spend all day every day in that room. There are no activities, only crying. (Age 15, female)

“I am in a room with dozens of other boys. Some have been as young as 3 or 4 years old. Some cry. Right now, there is a 12 year old who cries a lot. Others try to comfort him. One of the officers makes fun of those who cry. (Age 17, male)

“I was apprehended with my father. The immigration agents separated me from my father right away. I was very frightened and scared. I cried. I have not seen my father again… I have had a cold and cough for several days. I have not seen a doctor and I have not been given any medicine. (Age 5, male)

“They took us away from our grandmother and now we are all alone. They have not given us to our mother. We have been here for a long time. I have to take care of my little sister. She is very sad because she misses our mother and grandmother very much … We sleep on a cement bench. There are two mats in the room, but the big kids sleep on the mats so we have to sleep on the cement bench. (Age 8, male)

“At 3 AM the next day the officers told us that our grandmother would be taken away. My grandmother tried to show the officers a paper signed by my parents saying that my grandmother had been entrusted to take care of us. The officers rejected the paperwork saying that it had to signed by a judge. Then the officers took my dear grandmother away. We have not seen since that moment.” (Age 12, female)

You may have seen pictures of Congressmen and -women trying to peer over high fences to get a glimpse of what’s going on in our detention centers. Thanks to Loren Elliot of Reuters and her helicopter pilot, here’s a chance for you to see the migrant detention center in McAllen, Texas:

Migrant detention center, McAllen, Texas. Photo: Loren Elliott/Reuters

Our foreign policy. Our tax money. Our border crisis.



Report of the UN Truth Commission on El Salvador

Between A Wall and a Dangerous Place
Latin America Working Group Education Fund 2018
Between a Wall and a Dangerous Place discusses the intersection of human rights, migration, corruption, and public security in Honduras and El Salvador. The series shows how the dangers that propel children, teenagers, women, and men from those countries to seek refuge in the United States, Mexico, and elsewhere have not ended.

Time for a US Apology to El Salvador
Raymond Bonner, May 9, 2016, the Nation

America’s Role in El Salvador’s Deterioration
Raymond Bonner, Jan. 20, 2018, the Atlantic

2018 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: El Salvador
March 13, 2019

The father and daughter who drowned at the border dove into the river in desperation
Reis Thebault, Luis Velarde, Alex Horton, June 26, 2019, Washington Post

A grim border drowning underlines peril facing many migrants
Peter Orsi, Amy Guthrie, June 26, 2019, AP

‘I Didn’t Want Them to Go’: Salvadoran Family Grieves for Father and Daughter Who Drowned
Kirk Semple, June 28, 2019, New York Times

Obtaining Asylum in the United States
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services

“The US has made migrants at the border wait months to apply for asylum. Now the dam is breaking.”
Dara Lind, Nov. 28, 2018, Vox.com

More than 400 immigrants turn themselves in to Border Patrol agents in Lower Valley
Claudia Tristán, Dec. 3, 2018, KFOX14

Inside a Texas Building Where the Government Is Holding Immigrant Children
Isaac Chotiner, June 22, 2019. New Yorker

‘Some Suburb of Hell’: America’s New Concentration Camp System
Andrea Pitzer, June 21, 2019, New York Books

Jenny Lisette Flores., et al., Plaintiffs, v. William Barr, Attorney General of the United States, et al. Defendants.
Case No. CV 85-4544-DMG-AGRx

OIG Report on Site Visits

Excerpts from declarations filed in connection with the request for Temporary Restraining Order in Flores v. Barr