Archive for the ‘Latin America’ Category

Saying Goodbye to Dianna Ortiz

February 22, 2021

Dianna Ortiz, an American nun, was working with Indigenous people when she was abducted, tortured and raped by the Guatemalan military. Her fight to see justice done uncovered the US complicity with the Guatemalan genocide. She became an important part of the campaign against the practice of torture and for the healing of survivors. She directed TASSC – Torture Abolition and Survivor Support Coalition.

In 2012, at the Program for Torture Victims, we honored her as a Human Rights Hero. We learned today that she died this week, in hospice, much too young at 62.

Thinking of her made me remember: I was in Guatemala about a decade before she was, briefly staying at a guesthouse where military officers stationed in the village also took meals. We ate family-style. I was talking about the school for Indigenous youth where I’d been living in Mexico. The table fell silent till one of the men said, “Señorita, you must not talk about this. It’s all very good for Mexico, but in this country, if you teach an Indian to read, the Army will kill you.”

Rest in peace, Sister Dianna.

Coming in September

February 21, 2021

I’m busy correcting proofs for Out of Place, coming out this Fall from Fomite Press. The novel, centered around a research institute in the Mojave Desert, looks at the human consequences of the security state as international scientists (whose storylines take us to Mexico, India, Iran, Pakistan, the Horn of Africa, and Turkey) fall under suspicion in the aftermath of 9/11.

Questioning the Border Emergency, or Que Pasa in Tijuana?

February 28, 2019

I’ve been out-of-touch, and here’s why:

After my week in Tijuana volunteering with Al Otro Lado’s Border Rights Project, urgent questions continue to roil my mind. Come along with me and see if you have answers. Then I’ll walk you through a typical day.

Who thought it would be a good idea to block asylum-seekers from approaching the US/Mexico border at Chaparral?

Why would the US need a barrier of concrete or steel when Mexican officials and US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers form a human wall with their bodies and with lies (such as There’s no such thing as asylum or The US is now full and no one else can come in or You can only apply at certain hours and on certain days), with new (illegal) regulations such as No unaccompanied minors will be admitted?

All that is illegal of course. If you’re fleeing persecution and you fear violence in your home country, you have an absolute legal right under US and international law to present yourself at a port-of-entry (or elsewhere on US soil) and ask for the protection of asylum. That does not mean asylum will be granted. You are simply entitled to a “credible fear hearing”, a first step in the process, in which you must convince an official you have grounds for asylum and a significant possibility of its being granted in immigration court.

Who decided that desperate people should put their names on a list (an illegal practice), and wait for weeks or months to be called.

How come they are housed in distant shelters in territory controlled by organized crime?

Is it reasonable that, to find out if their numbers are called, they have to travel 2-3 hours by bus to reach the waiting area?

By what arbitrary means does CBP determine “capacity” for the day, so that sometimes 20 people will be transferred by van to Tijuana’s older port-of-entry at San Ysidro, CA, and sometimes 40 and sometimes none?

I didn’t see an invasion. I saw a cruelly devised and intentional bottleneck.

I saw the injustice done to the people of Tijuana (and all of Mexico) as they are forced to cope with the chaos and desperate need caused by the US government. How can that be fair?

What happens after that van ride? Maybe that’s what shocked me most.

Whose idea was it that those finally allowed to present themselves get sent for days to la hielera—the icebox—holding cells where the temperature is kept down to 45oF? It must have taken a very special mind that decided to strip migrants (including babies) of all their outerwear, leaving only a single article of clothing on their vulnerable bodies before hustling them into the icebox.

Who thought they could do this with impunity and no fear of ever being charged with crimes against humanity?

If I hadn’t gone to Tijuana, I would not have known about Chaparral or how Al Otro Lado volunteers show up at 7:00 AM with blankets or towels to create makeshift dressing rooms. Migrants get a chance to change their clothes—or receive new warm clothes from the volunteers—so that the warmest sweater, fleece-lined pants, whatever will protect them most in la hielera, is closest to the skin and will not be confiscated. Volunteers also provide Sharpies so parents can write their contact information on the children’s skin in case of separation. (Yes, the illegal kidnapping of children from their parents is still happening.)

If I hadn’t gone to Tijuana I would have relied on the NY Times where I read on the front page an article suggesting Mr. Trump’s hard line has been successful in deterring migrants. The article cited the approximately 1,000 migrants who’ve received work permits to stay in Mexico. In fact, these permits—humanitarian visas—simply guarantee that for one year the migrants will not be deported back to their home countries and can earn money while they await the chance to present themselves to a US official. The news also reports that there are fewer migrants in Mexico and they must have given up and returned home. If only. Migrants are being disappeared. Some are abducted. Some are hunted down by the very people who caused them to flee their countries—and who regularly threaten Al Otro Lado volunteers with death unless we turn over the clients or give information about their whereabouts. The office phones are now unplugged because while the threats keep coming by other means, at least no one has to listen to them all. The more visible volunteers also face regular harassment from both Mexican and US border guards.

Al Otro Lado knows of at least one case in which a truck pulled up at a migrant shelter offering a day’s paid labor. Men eagerly clambered aboard. They had no idea they had just delivered themselves into the hands of organized crime. They were taken, as reported later by an escaping survivor, to the site of a massacre. He came back to tell the story. The others were never seen or heard from again.

I never felt unsafe in Tijuana. For migrants, sheltered in the most dangerous neighborhoods and with targets on their backs, it’s another story. That’s why Al Otro Lado has joined in the lawsuit to block one of Trump’s latest outrages: people who pass the credible fear interview are being sent back to Mexico to wait there for their full hearing before an immigration judge which may take weeks, months, or even years to schedule.

Since November, the Border Rights Project has assisted thousands of migrants from at least 37 countries. My own experience was with people from Cameroon, El Salvador, Ghana, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, and Nicaragua. All this is accomplished with only a single staff person, who is dedicated these days to litigation. All day-to-day operations are in the hands of volunteers as the Border Rights Project currently receives no grants or foundation support and has to rely on individual donations. During my stay, we received orientation from a volunteer who’d been on-the-job for 89 consecutive days.

It was easy enough for me to take a bus to the border and cross on foot, but experienced and committed immigration attorneys as well as other volunteers traveled at their own expense from all over the country. While I was there, a team of medics from Alaska flew in to staff the onsite clinic. The preponderance of gringo volunteers does not indicate a neocolonialist agenda. The migrants need to consult with US attorneys expert in US immigration law. Local tijuanenses, some with dual citizenship, were also there to volunteer on behalf of the vulnerable newcomers to their city.

Because new people are regularly rotating in and out, we spend time each morning in training and organizing assignments. There’s plenty for English-only volunteers to do: registration and security checks at the entrance and on the stairs, tech and data entry, lunch set-up, childcare in the playtime area, intake with Anglophone Africans, documentation and more. Everyone helps with cleaning. In the afternoon, clients begin to arrive for the free clinic and for lunch. If they’ve already met with a lawyer once and have follow-up questions or have additional documents with them, they can be seen again. Newcomers attend the charla, the know-your-rights workshop (in whatever languages needed) that provides an overview of the asylum process.

My role usually started after the charla. I’d do intake interviews with Spanish-speakers, explain again that the attorney would offer suggestions and advice but could not offer representation. Some had immigration questions not related to asylum and I’d get answers from one of the lawyers. For someone traveling with their biological children, we had them fill out a form with the kids’ names and birthdates and a statement they would not under any circumstances agree to be separated. The signed statement is not always honored, but we know it did the job at least once when a CBP officer put a pen in a woman’s fingers and tried to move her hand to sign a document agreeing to have her children taken. She resisted and produced our form. (Through a parallel program, Al Otro Lado is working to bring improperly deported parents back to the US and reunite them with the children the US government managed to lose.)

For particularly vulnerable clients—for example, with serious medical issues, or someone speaking only an uncommon indigenous language—we had a special form to try to keep track of their treatment.

During intake, I’d get some basic information about the person, including contact information for them and for anyone in the US willing to serve as sponsor. We went over background and the reasons they feared being sent home. One of the lawyers would then join us and get a better idea of whether a person had a strong case. Some did not, and were told this in a straightforward but compassionate manner, while suggesting another opinion might be different. Then followed the two most important parts of my job as first I helped prepare people for their credible fear hearings.

In my interviews, traumatized people spoke in disjointed, confusing ways, without clear chronology. We didn’t put words into their mouths but tried to help people get the chronology straight and tell their stories in a logical way, highlighting what’s relevant, what actually happened directly to them instead of resorting to euphemism or speaking in general terms. We role-played so they could practice their words and think hard about them. People are sometimes awakened at 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning—and who thought that would be a good idea?—taken from the hielera for their hearing in a state of total confusion, so they need to be well prepared.

Finally, I accompanied the client to the documentation table where even new volunteers became the most precise, detail-oriented helpers you could imagine. Here we copied all the important documents the person carried, e.g., identification cards, marriage certificates, birth certificates, medical reports, political party membership cards, photos and videos of injuries and State-sanctioned attacks. All this gets stored in a secure site in the cloud where it can be accessed by the client if the originals are stolen, lost, or—as shouldn’t happen but does—confiscated by border officials and trashed.

Volunteers remain onsite to finish up and debrief each evening though we need to get clients out the door early enough that they can travel back to their shelters before nightfall.

My admiration for the courage of the migrants and the commitment of my fellow volunteers goes beyond what I can easily express. Because of confidentiality and security concerns I can’t share individual stories of asylum-seekers. I can’t give a shout-out to extraordinary volunteers who deserve recognition.

As for me, I heard about Border Rights Project because the Program for Torture Victims, my home base and social justice family, is part of the Rapid Response Network, receiving calls to action when immigrants and refugees are at risk. I expected to be the oldest person traveling to Tijuana and I was already patting myself on the back when I met the woman older than myself who’d spent months camping out at Standing Rock, and the three seniors so committed to social justice they pack up and go wherever there’s a need.

I returned to LA profoundly inspired by so much resilience and passion. But…at the Ped East border crossing to San Ysidro, as I got in line with my US passport, I saw the cage holding people whose numbers had been called that morning. I saw Central American families with little children and CBP officers barking orders at a group of English-speaking Africans. Their next stop would be the hielera. I wanted to wish them good luck and courage. I wanted them to know there are people who care, but my line moved too quickly past them.

The CBP officer looked at my passport and asked only one question: “What are you bringing from Mexico?” Grief, I thought, and anger, and hope. “Nothing,” I said. I told him nothing.

The Human Dignity Awards Dinner

April 27, 2018

The theme was Women in Human Rights and Healing and it was amazing to be honored last night along with LA City Councilwoman Nury Martinez, who’s led the fight against the trafficking of women and girls, Lisa Fujimoto of the Change a Life Foundation, and the wonderful Amina Nakiyaga who shook everyone up with her speech. We got the celebrity photo treatment and the photos were then projected in the banquet hall throughout the program. Here I’m with Amina


and here with Rossana Perez, my brave and talented friend who survived the worst in El Salvador in the ’80’s (and brought the flowers).


We raised a lot of money for the Program for Torture Victims – but it’s never enough!

Resistance

January 20, 2018

This post is dedicated to Carol Hand who misses hearing from me. As I explained to her, problems with my eyesight mean I limit computer use, but I can share some images here.

The current regime causes so much outrage and heartache, but we also suffer when violence hits close to home. Last week, a member of our PTV family, Viccky Gutiérrez who came here from Honduras seeking safety, was murdered, her body burned. Last Friday, her friends held a vigil.

Saturday, I joined the Salvadoran community (and Haitians) threatened with termination of their protected status and with deportation. I’m sick of marches that seem to accomplish nothing, but it’s important to let threatened people know they have allies who love them.


For the same reason I participated in the Kingdom Day Parade, held annually to celebrate the life (and meaning of the life) of Dr. King. I walked along with members of STAND, dedicated to fighting against neighborhood oil drilling and for environmental justice. It’s an issue that brings together people of all backgrounds.

There are about 16,000 homeless African Americans in LA, and I can understand why some think that they are being ignored while immigrants get all the attention. Can solidarity and unity defeat Divide and Conquer?

Yesterday was a reminder of what another country—Guatemala—suffered for so many years. First, some signs as I walked down Fairfax, and a section of the Berlin Wall on Wilshire.

Then, in the sculpture garden of the LA County Museum of Art, Naufus Ramírez-Figueroa directed local performers in a staging of the piece that led to death threats against the director and the theater being burned to the ground when presented in Guatemala in the mid-70’s. You can see the indigenous prisoner trying to get free, the guerrilla who ran around the periphery, hiding behind trees and, held up to ridicule, the military, the Church, and the upper class.

Walking home. As Carol would advise: Take comfort in beauty.

Betting on Peace

June 10, 2016

After billions spent on destruction through Plan Colombia, will the US now support Peace Colombia? And will Colombians take the wager on peace? My article today

Interview at Awst Press – Beautiful ideas cross borders

December 11, 2015

Liz Blood was in the process of leaving Austin, TX for Tulsa, OK but still caught up with me and edited our interview for Awst Press. If you check it out, I also highly recommend the essay by Donald Quist.

and for something lighter and happier, the latest cat photo.

Millie and plant

Escape into a novel

December 5, 2015

With so much heartbreaking and terrible news around the country and the world, I was happy to escape into Damnificados, JJ Amaworo Wilson’s new novel.

Damnificados

Read the review here.

He survived war and torture; she married him — and his trauma.

October 13, 2015

Here’s Miguel’s story of survival from the civil war in El Salvador. I always think it’s important to consider how trauma affects others in a family as well so I am grateful that Sandra was willing to talk with me about their marriage, and here is her story, too. Click here, please, to read.

Gay Man Deported to Mexico, Assaulted by Police

October 10, 2015

I’ve just posted the latest oral history to the Second Chances LA website. http://secondchancesla.weebly.com/angel.html

It’s an honor to know people like Angel.

gardenia 2