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Immigration: A Border State Perspective

ComNet19 Keynote

Wherever you live, headlines and debates about America’s immigration policies have probably drawn your attention. At #ComNet19, we invited a group of remarkable Texans who are working on, grappling with + reporting on the issue to share their perspective:

John Burnett of NPR led a discussion with Bob Moore, El Paso Editor, Zenén Jaimes Perez, Texas Civil Rights Project, and Sheriff Sally Hernandez, Travis County Sheriff’s Office on immigration from a border State perspective.

Below, watch the video, listen to the podcast or read the transcript.




John Burnett: Good morning, everybody, I’m the Southwest correspondent for NPR based in Austin. I’m a full-time immigration correspondent and cover the borderlands, so this is the sea I swim in, and I know most of these characters here.

To the immediate left, this is Bob Moore. He was a former longtime editor of the El Paso Times. Actually, my editor at NPR used to be his reporter, and he’s now a stringer for Texas Monthly and The Washington Post. To his left is Sheriff Sally Hernandez, here, of Travis County. And then Zenén Perez, who works for the Texas Civil Rights Project that does a lot of very gutsy work on the border with lots of different issues that he’ll tell you about.

We are living in an extraordinary moment. A lot of us have been involved in immigration issues for a long time. We’ve never seen this much attention to this issue before.

Gallup recently polled. Twenty-seven percent of respondents said immigration is the most important problem in the country, the highest number ever. We have seen the president using immigration as perhaps his biggest issue for re-election. The Democrats are using immigration as a club to use on the administration to push back.

It’s become almost a civil rights issue now.

We see protests around the country. We see people speaking out constantly, extremely passionately, about this, driven by these images of young detainees in Border Patrol, very harsh facilities, and these terrible reports of the conditions in Mexico where many of the immigrants are waiting for their day in court now.

In Texas … how many native Texans out there? All right. Not many.

Well, this is the epicenter of the immigration story. We have more miles of border; we have more detention centers; we have the highest number of crossings; we have our own Border Patrol. The Texas legislature has recently refunded $800 million for the highway department to go down and backstop the Border Patrol, so this is the issue for Texas as well.

So, let me go ahead and jump to our panelists now. Because they have such diverse experiences with immigration, I just want to start off with you, sheriff. Austin is a welcoming community. It used to be called a sanctuary city, but there is something called Senate Bill 4, which was passed in 2017, which did away with that. So, Sheriff Hernandez has been wrestling with the issue of sanctuary cities and ICE detainers and what you do when the federal government comes and says, “We want your prisoners.” So, I’m going to let her take it from here.

Sally Hernandez: Good morning, everyone, and welcome to Texas.

Well, first of all, I took office January 1, 2017. I knew that the immigration issue was going to stir up somewhat of a dust storm. I had no idea it was going to stir up a tsunami. Senate Bill 4 really addressed ICE detainers, which are requests. They’re from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which is a federal agency. Senate Bill 4 … detainers are not warrants; they’re not based on probable cause, and they’re not signed by a magistrate. So, what Senate Bill 4 did was mandate that law enforcement agencies enforce those detainers, or honor them.

So, when I took office, there was a time, about eight months, that we chose not to honor those ICE detainers. We allowed people who were here undocumented to bond out. We proved three pretty important things. We proved that when you request that Immigration bring a warrant, they do. We started a discussion about what ICE detainers were—that they were requests, and they were not warrants. But more importantly, we proved that people that are here undocumented, given the chance to bond out, appeared in court at the same rate as US citizens. It was really important.

But some of the things that came out of Senate Bill 4 … I believe that they fast-tracked the issue and brought this law into effect. They used fear to do that. I mean, the headlines were all over the place about how we were going to be allowing rapists and murderers to run the street, and it was really amped up. That helped fast-track that bill.

But the other side of the coin is what it did to our immigrant community, and the fear that was communicated there, which has kept them from coming to us, law enforcement, when they’re a victim or they’re a witness of crime. It’s made it harder to cooperate with the immigrant community and for them to cooperate with us. It destroyed a lot of trust. So, it’s had a major impact here in Texas with our relationships with the immigrant community.

John Burnett: And Austin was the focal point of this. The legislature loves to sort of pummel Austin under the best of circumstances, but this was a case where Travis County became the poster child for what they considered an abuse of sanctuary, the concept. And at one point, didn’t the law say they were going to jail you, they were going to penalize you, if you continued this?

Sally Hernandez: Yeah. In preparing for this panel, my PIO and I, we looked over some of the headlines. Oh my gosh! “Sheriff Sally Hernandez going to be arrested. She’s letting out rapists and murderers.” It was just all, again, rhetoric that generated fear. None of it was true. I mean, they kept saying that I was violating the law, but truly, with it being a federal request, we were not in violation of the law. And so, yeah, they were going to arrest me, they were going to put me in jail, and I run the jail, and I was not put in jail. Just so you know.

John Burnett: All right. Zenén, you have been in the fight for immigrant rights for more than a decade now, and suddenly we find ourselves at the epicenter of this enormous emotional national debate. Talk about some of the work you do.

Zenén J. Perez: Yeah. So, hi, everyone, and good morning. I don’t think Sheriff Hernandez takes enough credit for her leadership in basically pushing forward a lot of the things that the community has been asking for. I grew up in Texas in a mixed-status family. My parents were undocumented. I grew up here in Austin in Travis County, and I grew up with the feeling of, “We don’t talk to police, we don’t talk to government, because that might put us at risk.”

So, I remember the day that Sheriff [Hernandez] really pushed forward the policy. I think it was the day of inauguration. And so, the headlines about Trump’s conversation at the inauguration and then what was happening in Travis County … you really saw diversions of what was happening. I’m an advocate. I have spent many, many years working on immigration, and I think I was in the weird position of defending law enforcement, which doesn’t happen a lot.

But I think part of the work that we’ve been doing at the Texas Civil Rights Project has been immigration in Texas, but really we’ve been focused at the border and, more specifically, in the Rio Grande Valley, which is the very tip, the bottom of Texas where 1.2 million folks live in poor counties. That’s actually, for us, been really the epicenter of immigration, including El Paso, because of the hundreds of thousands of apprehensions that have been happening. That’s where most of them are happening. That’s where most of the crossings are happening. So, I really wanted to focus on what happened last year where we were kind of thrown into a situation where, in April, then–Attorney General Jeff Sessions said that they were going to have a zero-tolerance policy. You might have seen the news with Secretary Castro talking about ending the criminalization of immigrants.

So, what this concept is, is that we understood that the federal courts at the border were going to be used as basically conviction machines—that we’re going to bring people in, apprehend them, and send them to federal court to get charges for 1325 and 1326, which is what we hear at the debates now. We knew that that was going to be a problem because that was the justification that was used for separating parents from a child.

So, in May, we really saw that amped up where I was in the McAllen courtroom, and McAllen, Texas, is a city at the border. Every day in the federal court on the seventh and eighth floor in the tallest building in McAllen … it’s called Bentsen Tower. That’s where the federal court is. We would see the GEO trucks. GEO is a private immigration detention company that would bring in people from the Border Patrol processing centers to the federal court, take them up the elevator, and we would have rooms of 100 people waiting for prosecution.

Still, to this day, but at the time, we had a partnership with the federal public defender who allowed us to go in right before any of the court proceedings happened. The public defender, Azalea Aleman, in Spanish would say, “Quién vino con un niño?” “Who came with a child? Who was separated?” We would have around 30 people raise their hands. In that time, me and my team and the other attorneys that we work with basically had around 10 to 20 minutes to try to talk to every single person who raised their hand on the side of the courtroom. When I talk about the courtroom, it was folks that had just crossed maybe a couple days before. They had just been removed from their child, and they had handcuffs as well as cuffs on their feet.

So, I would have to speak to someone and say, “When did you cross? Who apprehended you?” “Cuándo cruzó?” Were they wearing green? Were they wearing blue? How many children did you come with? What country? What is your name? What is their name?”

Then, afterwards, folks were crying the whole time as I was trying to speak to them. I had to get them to sign a form basically in handcuffs. So, I remember speaking with mothers who, handcuffed like this, would try to sign a paper to basically give us the authority to try to go find their children. That continued for weeks and weeks and weeks until we got the injunction, but unfortunately, we’re still facing that.

Even though the cameras are now gone and the public attention is now gone, the community in the Rio Grande Valley and all across the border are still dealing with the ramifications of this as well as the outcry that I’m sure Bob will speak more about because this is still happening.

John Burnett: And just keep the mic for a second, Zenén. So, we know that the policy was ended when the president got so much international and national pressure a year ago in the summer. Are family separations still going on at the border and under what guise?

Zenén J. Perez: Yes. In different ways. So, we still see families that are separated because of prosecutions. Unfortunately, the law only recognizes biological parents separated from their biological children, but my family and I know many families across the world—it’s more than that. So, if I am talking to a grandmother who effectively raised a child since she was born, and they try to come and reunify with a parent here who might be in Austin and Houston, the grandmother does not fall under the injunction that the ACLU achieved last year. So, they would still be separated. For us, that’s a family separation, but the law doesn’t count it. And more in the last couple of months, what we’ve seen is these kinds of separations being pushed from the border, which is already difficult for people to pay attention to, to actually the other side into Mexico, through the Remain in Mexico program, which is basically separating families and sending them to more violence.

John Burnett: Mm-hmm. Bob, you are chronicling immigration from far-west Texas in El Paso, which was one of the hot spots of illegal crossing and of some of the administration’s most aggressive policies and, recently, was the site of a mass murder by a white supremacist, which has traumatized your community. You talk about some of the things that come across your desk.

Bob Moore: So, the last 18 months … I’ll just give you a quick summary. Starting with zero tolerance in April and the beginnings of family separation about a month later. It turns out, as they begin separating families, the Department of Homeland Security announces, “Oh, by the way. We’ve been pilot testing this in El Paso the previous year.”

And when activists had come forward in 2017 saying, “Hey, the government’s separating parents from their children here in El Paso,” the government said, “No. Not us.” So, then, they admitted in May that they had been separating families in El Paso for almost a year at that point.

In late May, we began to see the implementation of what was known as the metering policy, which blocked asylum seekers from their legal right to approach a port of entry. In early June, we saw the creation of a child detention tent center in a little town called Tornillo in El Paso that would eventually hold 6,200 children, many of them for months at a time. In late June, we saw the end of family separation. Then, the chaotic reunification attempts. We learned that many of the parents who’d been separated from their children had been deported back to their home countries without their children.

In early October, we began to see this surge of Central American families arriving. That built over time. On December 7, we learned that a little girl named Jackeline Caal had died in Border Patrol custody. The government tried to keep that a secret. I was able, working with some NGOs, to expose that. Then, on Christmas Eve, a second child died in the El Paso Border Patrol sector, a boy named Felipe, who was 8 years old. Jackeline was 7. Over the succeeding few months, we had five children, total, die in the custody of customs and border protection on the border after a decade of having no children die in CBP custody. They were cramming these kids in incredibly inhumane conditions. Flu was running rampant. Kids were dying.

In February, President Trump came to El Paso to campaign for completion of his border wall. This was right after the government shutdown over the wall, so just as you have this huge influx of people coming into the country, Trump stops paying the Border Patrol for several weeks as part of this.

So, we have Trump come. We have this incredible surge continue to go into El Paso and the Rio Grande Valley. There’s this huge demonization of this flow where these people are being portrayed in certain political circles and certain media circles as an invasion, all of this war-like language, all of this dehumanizing language coming up, much of it emanating from the White House.

Then, to cap it all off, on August 3, a man from Allen, Texas, who is amped up by this political rhetoric and heard the border described as being invaded, did what you would do when you are being invaded. He grabbed an AK-47. He drove 10 hours to El Paso, walked into a Walmart that was filled with about 1,500 people on a Saturday morning, many who had crossed over from Mexico to shop, mostly Americans who were there to do some back-to-school shopping or senior citizens who had just gotten their Social Security check the day before. He began walking through the parking lot and into the store and just targeted people who looked Hispanic. He murdered 22 people, wounded 24 others. Right before he walked into the store, he had posted this manifesto, using much of the same language that the president has used.

It was an incredibly devastating blow to my community and one that we’re still coming to grips with. The fear in El Paso, and I think any Hispanic community right now, is palpable because people of Hispanic descent are being targeted, literally targeted, by this rhetoric that’s being used falsely to describe immigration. I’ve been out there. I’ve seen who’s coming across. It’s mostly families fleeing incredibly desperate situations, whether it’s poverty or violence. This is not an invading army. These are truly desperate people, but the political rhetoric has portrayed them as enemies. I was not surprised by what happened on August 3—maybe a little bit surprised by the magnitude—but what happened was an entirely predictable outcome of the political rhetoric in this country right now.

John Burnett: And this is a really great segue into the next question I have for these folks. That is about the narrative that we use for immigration. You all are in the communications business. Words matter a great deal, especially in this debate. Words have been weaponized.

Just for starters, I mean, as journalists, there is this great dispute over what are you going to call people who come to the country without documentation? On Fox News, they’re illegal aliens, and within the documentation of Homeland Security, they’re illegal aliens. Our preferred term is unauthorized immigrants. There’s also undocumented immigrants. These are all very loaded terms now. We get tons of mail when we stray to using another word.

Is this an invasion by dangerous rapists and gang members, or are these people who are fleeing their countries and coming to the United States asking for protection? I mean, there’s just two dramatically different narratives of what’s going on here, and all you have to do is switch channels and you can see them. It really matters. As journalists, we find that a lot of times, we wish more consumers would pay attention to our stories and sort of get the full story, but the media has been polarized as well. So, it’s really become a problem. I’ve been a journalist for a long time. I’ve never seen us so polarized over language like this.

So, I wanted to ask, actually starting with you, Zenén, how does language come into play in what you do, and is there a way for a single narrative on immigration that doesn’t drive people apart but rather brings the country together?

Zenén J. Perez: Yeah, so I’m going to speak to this as an advocate and not as a journalist because that’s my job and that’s where I come from. I started in this fight when I was in high school in 2006, 2007, when the first Bush immigration bill was coming out, and we saw the first mass waves of, basically, immigrants coming to the streets for the first time to self-advocate.

I remember walking out of my high school. That was the one time I almost got suspended from school because in my lunchroom, there were people who were directly affected but were finally for the first time seeing their community advocating for themselves.

In the history of immigration, I would argue that it’s not actually that different from what we’ve seen from the Chinese Exclusion Act, with the Yellow Peril and the invasion of Chinese immigrants into the West Coast all the way to the braceros, to the wetbacks, to all of the terms that have been used to talk about immigration. There is a historic narrative that cuts across through all of this. It’s about dehumanization.

I think the story to tell is about how communities are finally fighting back to own that narrative. Yes, I get frustrated when journalists and news articles still say illegal immigrants. We had to have a whole fight from our community to basically force media to speak differently about the way our community is, and that was a long-to-fight battle. We are going to push that because, to me, it’s not just about trying to find the middle. I believe that our side, my side, is here to win the human dignity of people. That relates to how we speak about them.

So, I am going to fight back when these terms are used. I’m going to criticize media, I’m going to criticize government, and I’m going to push for that dignity of my community at every step of the way. That’s my role, and that’s the narrative and the arc that I’m going to push for in the next coming years.

John Burnett: Great. Sheriff.

Sally Hernandez: So, I’m going to come from a standpoint of a very caring law enforcement agency that cares about all victims no matter what community they live in or what the color of their skin is. I believe that the communication has become so difficult for law enforcement and the immigrant communities. We’re having to figure out how to communicate effectively now with these communities. Words aren’t enough. We really are having to rebuild and build trust in the communities, and we’re having to explore different ways. We’re having to build relationships with people that they trust, like pastors or the Spanish media or even the Mexican Consulate—anything that we can do to reach out.

We had a town hall meeting, and it was brought to our attention that they really don’t even understand what a town hall meeting is. So, we’re really having to think outside of the box and develop ways to communicate because …

I was told a story right when I was running for office. An immigration attorney came to me and said, “I had a man come to me, and he was trying to get citizenship. And so, I asked him, ‘Have you ever been a victim of crime?’ He said, ‘Yes, I have.'” And he [the attorney] said, “Well, tell me this story.” And he [the man] said, “I was beat up and robbed and shoved in the back of my car, the trunk was closed, and it was pushed into the lake.” When it hit the lake, thank God, the trunk popped open. The man swam to shore.

So, the immigration attorney said, “Did you call and report it to the police?” He said no. When he was asked why, he said that he feared the police more than he feared the attackers. This is what we’re up against. So, we’re having to address it.

I mean, when the immigrant community hears ICE raids, deportation, governor, president, and all it does … it generates fear. What we want them to hear is safety, not status. We want you to run to us, not run away from us. So, we’re struggling with that. We’re open to our advocate friends and our journalist friends and everybody else to help us with that.

Bob Moore: Zenén mentioned a key word, I think, and that’s dehumanization. So much of the language around immigration is deliberately dehumanizing. I think we have to understand that.

Recently in the media, we’ve seen the resuscitation of a phrase I absolutely hate, which is “catch and release.” That’s a phrase that began in certain political and media circles. For those of you who fish, you know where that term comes from. It’s a phrase that’s designed to talk about releasing fish back after you catch them. We’ve allowed that phrase to be applied to people. And I think we have to remind ourselves constantly that what we are talking about here is people—whether they’re accused of a crime, whether they’re merely facing a civil offense leading to their deportation, they’re still human beings. That gets lost, deliberately so, in a lot of the conversations.

I spent a lot of time with Border Patrol agents, and when you hear them talking about the people they’ve apprehended, the one word you will never hear is people. They will refer to the people in their custody as one of two things: aliens or bodies. They’ll say, “Hey, bring those bodies over here,” and perhaps you need, as an agent in those cases, a way to sort of dissociate yourself from what’s going on, but if we lose sight of the fact that these are human beings, we wind up with precisely what happened in El Paso on August 3. That shooting was the result of dehumanization of an entire population.

John Burnett: So, we know that a majority of people who responded to polls disapprove of the way the administration is treating people who come to the border for protection, but in our last question, I want to talk a little about some possible solutions because, really, the polarization over this issue is unsustainable it’s gotten so bad.

So, I want to turn the issue around, and from your all’s unique perspective, first of all, do you think the immigration system is broken? How so, and what do you think some of the solutions should be to get back to a workable system? Actually, why don’t we start with you, Bob, and work that way?

Bob Moore: It comes as no surprise to anybody that the immigration system is broken. It clearly is. It’s important to understand that the United States is far from alone in this. What’s happening at the US–Mexico border is a very small part of a global mass migration that’s driven in large part by income inequality and the resulting violence that comes with that. Our asylum system, globally, is still rooted in a post-World War II construct that met the needs of that time, but right now, that system doesn’t work anymore for a variety of reasons.

One issue like climate change is probably the easiest example. Climate change is one of the largest displacers of human beings right now, but none of those people who are displaced by climate change meet the current global standard of an asylee, so we have to begin addressing this more than just as the US versus Latin America construct. It’s a much bigger issue than that. Obviously, our political system right now in the United States is not capable of reaching any compromises on immigration, but I think as voters, we have to continue to push for it. That’s the only way it’s going to happen.

Right now, it’s not in the best interest of either major political party to solve this issue because they get a lot of mileage out of the divisions around this issue, whether it’s funding or votes.

The last thing I’ll point out is we’ve talked a lot about Trump’s policies. The Democratic response to that is “we’re against that,” but when you dig deeper, there’s very little concrete policy provisions that the Democrats are outlining here other than to say, “Don’t take children from their mothers.” There’s a courageous stance for you, but there really is no deeper policy the Democrats can rally around.

So, if one side has no policy proposals, which is really what describes the Democrats for the last 20 or 30 years, you allow the other side to set the terms for the debate. The Republicans have been masterful about that, and the Democrats are not going to compromise on the Republican terms. So, until Democratic leadership comes up with an actual concrete plan that members of Congress can rally around, there is no real path forward.

John Burnett: I’m going to follow up on what Bob said. It’s a really good point that in America, we tend to think that our problems are our problems and are as unique and special as we are. Yet, the immigration issue and people flooding across borders of developing countries is, if any of us paid attention to the news, an enormous global problem. Whether you live in Hungary or Italy or Spain or Germany or Britain with Brexit, how to deal with this contemporary flow of migrants, whether from Syria or from sub-Saharan Africa, is huge. They’re looking at these ships, these terrible crafts that are out on the Mediterranean that are sinking, and Italy has criminalized rescues of immigrants out there. These are tremendously divisive issues in Europe as well.

So, we are part of this wave that in some ways … what’s happening in the United States because of the bully pulpit of the leader of the free world … what we do enormously influences the debate. I was just in Spain two weeks ago, and Trump cast a large shadow there as well. Sally.

Sally Hernandez: Well, I definitely believe that the federal immigration system is broken. I believe that we need to come together, and we need to collaborate and try to talk about this. I will tell you that when I took office, I thought, by changing my policy, it would stimulate a conversation, but because of the political impact that it has, it didn’t. In fact, all I got from it was a tweet and not a dialogue or a communication, but I think that if we … we have to fix it, and we have to work toward better communicating with each other because what it does is it falls on the backs of local law enforcement, and it makes what we do even more difficult. So, I think we need to do a lot more, but I will admit I don’t have all the answers.

Zenén J. Perez: Yeah. And speaking to the local issue, yes, I think the answer to the first question is yes, it’s broken. I think we still rely too often on solutions coming from the federal government as, yes, that’s where we need to go, but there’s a lot more that needs to happen locally. I think when we think about the national myth of the United States or the national sort of epic and story that we tell ourselves as a nation of immigrants … yet, when we look at how we handle immigration in the country, we put it under a department called the Department of Homeland Security, which already tells you something about how we see immigration.

So, we divide immigration between the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice and the Department of State, but when we look at other countries that also have a similar mythos—Canada, Australia, and other places like this—they have cabinet-level offices about integration of new Canadians, new Australians, and they’re not perfect, of course. Australia had its own problems with their own horrendous detention system, but they have a different framework for how we think about immigration that’s not just about a security thing or a homeland security thing. And so that means something for folks that are trying to integrate into the community.

So, one of the things that I think is positive, while we can push in DC for things to happen, is there are things that cities are taking action on all across the country. In Texas, we’re a little bit behind, but Dallas just started their Office on New Americans two years ago. Houston has their office that has the largest capacity in Texas. Austin is about to hire one staff member to do this in our Equity Office, but when we look at New York, when we look at Los Angeles and Chicago, all of these cities have taken it upon themselves to think about these things in a way of economic development, education, language access, and public safety.

I believe, I truly believe, that if we can start with that groundswell, and everyone here can go to your city and say, “What is my city doing to properly integrate my community into this civic life?” then, from there, we can start the conversation and actually propose a model for DC and for the country for the long term, because I do not believe that we are at a place to even start having this conversation at the national stage. If we start having it now, we might think about citizenship for maybe 2 million people and another $30 billion for border wall security, and that’s not the conversation we need to be having.

So, go back to your city. I hope that Austin does even more work to try to do this immigrant integration and that cities all over the country really start seeing this as something that they’re responsible for and not throwing their hands up and leaving it to the federal government.

John Burnett: I want to follow up on something, Zenén. This morning on NPR, we had Julian Castro, who’s running for the Democratic nomination. He was sitting in one of my favorite restaurants, Mi Tierra in San Antonio, talking to our reporter. So, Julian has proposed an idea to decriminalize crossing the border without authorization. They also used this 1325 and 1326, these US codes, to prosecute individuals who cross the border illegally, but they didn’t separate families. That’s a mistruth that you hear from the administration, but doesn’t the United States have the obligation to have consequences, even a federal misdemeanor, which is still a criminal charge against someone who comes across our border without papers, rather than Julian’s idea, which is to make it a civil violation? Just explore that for me.

Zenén J. Perez: No. I don’t think so. And here’s the thing. This is a question about morality and humanity and also resources. During the Obama administration, 50% of federal prosecutions under the Department of Justice, 50% of all federal prosecutions, were related to immigration-related crimes. That means that we’re not prosecuting CEOs who are stealing. That means we’re not actually going after people who are actually committing crimes that are affecting a wide array of folks. Under the Trump administration, that number of federal prosecutions under the Department of Justice have ratcheted up to … I believe it’s 74%. Seventy-four percent of all federal prosecutions in this country from the Department of Justice are for immigration-related crimes. Who are they prosecuting? They are prosecuting a grandmother who is trying to come with her 2-year-old granddaughter to come and escape violence because they’re going to threaten to rape her granddaughter when she’s older.

From the moral standpoint, we do not have the right to prosecute people, and also, under international statutes, of international norms, we should not be prosecuting people seeking safety. That is the basic tenet of asylum and refugee law.

Separately, this is a question of resources. Do we want the Department of Justice, the federal agency tasked with representing us in court, to be prosecuting these folks and spending resources, time, and attention doing that? We have dozens of federal prosecutors coming from DC to McAllen to all the border courtrooms along the border whose sole job is to prosecute these individuals. That’s what we’re doing with our courtroom, and we do not have the right to do that.

Bob Moore: And the vast majority of those cases are misdemeanors too.

Zenén J. Perez: Misdemeanors.

John Burnett: Right. I want you to know he did not feed me that question. He was just ready to pounce.

Zenén J. Perez: I’m very angry about this whole system, and I’m very traumatized by it, and I’m not even directly affected by this anymore. My family was able to go through the system after 25 years. My father was deported. My mom got her citizenship. I still have to deal with this crap every day when I speak to a grandmother, a mother who’s telling me that they’re suffering, all of these things. We’re still dealing with it, and we have to think of a new framework or else we’re going to get stuck in this same crap over and over again, and we’re not going to break the cycle.

John Burnett: So, hopefully, that has woken people up even more so that you’ll throw some questions through our panel here. There’s probably a microphone that’s being passed around or not.

Audience: Hi. Hi, good morning. Thank you for your presentations. They were very impassioned and helping us understand these issues.

One question related to language and words. My impression is there’s been a conflation of the word refugee and immigrant in a lot of this discussion. To what degree would it be helpful to clarify and distinguish those two terms in dealing with all of these things, or is that even possible to untangle at this point?

Bob Moore: From a journalist perspective, all words have meanings, and refugee, especially in an international law context, has a very specific meaning that’s different from asylee, for example, and it’s different from immigrant. I think, as journalists and professional communicators, we have to use each word for what it means. It can be difficult, and especially as a journalist, in many cases, you don’t know what the status of that individual is. So, you have to be very careful, and I think we’ve wound up using migrant as this is sort of catchall phrase to describe somebody who’s in the process of moving from one country to another, but it is very important, I think, to understand what the distinctions are between refugees, asylees, and immigrants.

John Burnett: And at NPR, we can’t use refugees unless it describes someone who is fleeing civil conflict or a natural disaster. Otherwise, we defer to migrant.

Zenén J. Perez: I think it’s part of what Bob was saying that the legal framework we have for these things doesn’t really reflect the reality of what people are going through right now because those legal terms of asylum seekers, someone who presents themselves here, a refugee, someone who’s designated as a refugee by a UN agency—all of those things are now kind of blurring together, and there’s different reasons for why people are coming now that aren’t necessarily fitting the categories that were created. I think the Refugee Convention was in 1946, so it doesn’t really work anymore.

Cathleen F.: Oh, hi. Yeah. Hi. Good morning. I’m Cathleen Farrell from the National Immigration Forum, and I’m here with my colleague, Emily Chow. Thank you all very, very much for your work.

What is the narrative that is going to get this unstuck in the American consciousness? Because we work tirelessly trying to appeal to Middle America to get the narrative out there, to talk about the economy, security, culture change, and to address those fears. Immigration is incredibly complex. The president uses it as the proxy for national security and “people come in and take jobs,” etcetera, etcetera. What is that narrative that can appeal to somebody in the heartland to talk about this? I mean, Bob, you detailed so well the events leading up to El Paso, to the massacre. I mean, that’s spot on.

Bob Moore: Just, the simple answer to that question is to humanize this conversation. Stephen Miller, who kind of directs the White House efforts in this area has been brilliant, quite frankly. The message he sent out is that we have to change this conversation from the plight of migrants to the threat to this country. The administration has done a masterful job of that, in part because Democrats are afraid of their own shadow and afraid of being labeled as open-border advocates.

Veronica Escobar, who’s the congresswoman from El Paso, has been having important conversations lately with her colleagues trying to change some of the dialogue about that and especially around the border wall. Her colleagues will tell her, “Well, we can’t come out against a border wall because the border wall polls really well.” She’ll tell them, “It polls really well because nobody’s ever presented the other voice on this.”

So, I think short answer is to humanize this, to remind ourselves that this debate, at its root, is about people, and it’s about life and death decisions for many people. It doesn’t mean we can’t have a robust debate about immigration laws and who we should accept into this country and how many, but it has to start with that human focus.

John Burnett: And I think also it’s incumbent on journalists to continue to fall back on the facts because the fact are incontrovertible. You’re entitled to your opinion. You’re not entitled to your own set of facts. In El Paso, Lt. Governor Dan Patrick went there and said that, “Were it not for the border wall, it would be the most dangerous city, and there would be bodies hanging from overpasses.” Well, that was easily disproved.

Bob Moore: It’s a lie, I mean, because there was a point in history not too long ago when we didn’t have a wall in El Paso. El Paso’s crime rate for decades now has been among the lowest in the country, and not to quote my fellow El Pasoan Beto O’Rourke, but he’s right. It’s because we’re a community of immigrants, not in spite of being a community of immigrants. As the sheriff can tell you, immigrants for a variety of reasons commit crimes at much lower rates than native-born American citizens.

John Burnett: And these are social science studies, which have proven this. There’s now been many studies, across the country about, in terms of the criminality of immigrants. So, I just think just relentlessly reporting that, that’s all we can do as journalists and try to avoid the shrillness.

Let’s go to another question.

Sally Hernandez: Can I just say one thing? I just want to say that we allow them to define what safety is, and our communities are not safer by treating our immigrant communities bad.

John Burnett: This coming from the sheriff.

Melissa C.: Hi. I’m Melissa Daar Carvajal with the Silicon Valley Community Foundation. I’m curious if … first of all, I’d love to point out that, boy, I wish those facts worked as well as we hoped. So, is business taking any positions? Is there any role for business? Is it helpful? Are they silent? I mean, what’s happening in your area with that voice?

Bob Moore: Yeah. Business has long played a role in the immigration debate, but I think it comes across as sounding mercenary. We need a labor force. We need workers. I think that again disconnects from the humanity a little bit, and it’s incontrovertible that the demographic trends in this country show that we need more immigrants to refresh ourselves, and part of that is for economic reasons, but immigration is not just an economic issue. Immigration enriches us in so many other ways. So, I think business absolutely has to lead on this. I think they need to change their point of view more from just the economic advantages to a more holistic approach.

Audience: Do we have anything in El Paso, where you are or [inaudible 00:52:02]? Is there any voice there?

Bob Moore: To some degree, but again, people are afraid of taking sides, and I think a lot of business leaders are intimidated from engaging in what they rightfully see as a very partisan debate that, if you come out in favor of a particular immigration policy, you might alienate half your customer base, so there’s not a lot of courage on display.

Zenén J. Perez: Yes, I think that that’s right. And in 2017, during SB4 … and I don’t think we’ve talked about how contentious it was where there was just a lot of accusations about what was happening and a lot of falsehoods. I believe the governor tweeted about the sheriff and a lot of falsehoods. What ended up happening there is that there was an effort  to create a replication of what had worked with the bathroom bill to get a coalition of businesses to kind of stand up and talk about the impact of SB4 for them. We thought that would work. We thought that business leaders taking a stand, especially in the state where there’s an idea that Republican leadership will listen to business leadership, would have worked. I do think that there’s more to be done there. I think it’s something to explore, but it’s not as strong in Texas as I think it should be considering the benefits that businesses have derived from immigrants and the immigrant community.

John Burnett: And also, because of the aggressiveness of ICE workplace enforcement, I think some businesses are worried that as soon as they stick their head up, they’re going to invite a raid on their workplace, which could happen.

Sally Hernandez: Yeah. I was just going to add. During Senate Bill 4, there were a number of people that went and addressed this issue, and businesspeople were among them, along with faith-based people. There were a lot of people that came out but were not listened to.

Emily C.: Good morning. Emily Chow from the National Immigration Forum as well. My question is for you, Sheriff Hernandez, about how maybe you or your agency is showing leadership for other law enforcement agencies and how they can welcome immigrants in their communities and how they can explain to the public that there is a right way to work with ICE and that sanctuary communities are not violating those laws.

Sally Hernandez: We’re learning, I might add, but we’re just trying to be an example. We’re trying to put best practices in place and show the value of our immigrant communities and be a voice and talk about it.

Bob Moore: I will point out that I think Sheriff Hernandez and the other urban law enforcement leaders in Texas have been among the leaders in trying to change some of this conversation, especially around safety in communities. It’s a little bit different in the rural areas of Texas perhaps, but in the major cities, law enforcement has spoken with a unanimous voice about the importance of immigrant communities feeling safe and not just for themselves but for the health of the broader community.

Lyda V.: Good morning. I’m Lyda Vanegas. My organization is Mary’s Center, a community health center in Washington, DC. We started 31 years ago to serve 200 women coming from the border because they were fleeing war and poverty and all this.

Thirty-one years later, we have achieved so much. We serve 54,000 people—70% of them are Latinos, and others are from 50 different countries, but we feel that if we look back from where we started to where we are today, it seems like we’re in the same place because our families are having the same fear. They don’t want to apply for WIC, they don’t want to apply for Medicaid, and on and on.

And so, now, President Trump wants to build a detention center in Washington, DC, just to replicate what’s happening on the border. I’m sure you know about this. We’re trying to support the mayor and other organizations in opposing this because they never asked organizations like us, “Can you come with us and help support him?” They just want to show that they want to help these kids in Washington, DC, because there’s more help there.

But I’m going to say my question would be to you, Zenén. It’s challenging for us to get people to understand that this is not a good idea. Isn’t that because they’re in Washington, DC, and there’s more philanthropies wanting to help these families and, “Oh, we’ll be close to them. We can bring in diapers. We can do so many things for them.” No. Those kids need their parents. So, you’ve been an advocate, Zenén.

So, help me, as communications director of this organization, create the best message to advocate for this and make government understand that we don’t want more detention centers. We want families to be with their kids.

Zenén J. Perez: Are you sayin that they’re trying to build an ORR facility like the Office of Refugee Resettlement facility there for unaccompanied children or …

Lyda V.: Yeah. That’s what it is.

Zenén J. Perez: So, I think one thing you might consider as you’re in Texas is the city of Houston actually had the same fight a couple of months ago where there was a plan to build another ORR facility within the city of Houston for the exact same reasons.

I think this debate is where it gets even more confusing because the ORR facility is actually run by a different department in the federal agency, but one of the things that the Houston community did was really pose a question to the city leadership and say, “Is this the value of what Houston is?” If folks aren’t familiar with Houston, it’s the most diverse city in the country. The vast majority of the population traces its background to an immigrant heritage, not just from Latin America but from almost every part of the world. They had, I think … that the beauty of what they did in Houston is that they really framed it in terms of the values of the city being an immigrant-friendly city—which, I lived in DC for a while, and DC has the same sort of idea of itself and really posing that as a values question for the city instead of just for the detention facility, so that way you’re putting an existential conversation [out there] about what you value as a community and what you need to push forward. That opens the conversation to other avenues that might even take you beyond this one specific fight.

John Burnett: So, I want to thank you all for coming to this panel. Fantastic, panelists. And I just would urge you that you all are the change agent. Go and pay attention to these desperately important matters. Pay attention to language. Talk to people about it. Make sure that it matters in your life. Write letters to members of Congress, but this is one of the pre-eminent challenges we have before the country right now. So, it’s a real honor to be able to explore these with you. Thank you for coming.


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