Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies
Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies

Foro Urgente Addresses Border Immigration Crisis

llilas benson

by Susanna Sharpe

LLILAS Benson Latin American Studies and Collections organized a foro urgente on the border immigration crisis, held Thursday, September 4, on the campus of The University of Texas at Austin. Co-sponsored by the Department of Mexican American and Latino Studies and the university’s Graduate School, the forum drew a capacity crowd of some 200 people, a mix of community members, faculty, staff, and students.

“Foro Urgente—Understanding the Humanitarian Crisis on the Border: Roots and Responses” assembled a diverse panel of experts moderated by National Public Radio reporter John Burnett to discuss various aspects and causes of the current flood of refugees arriving at the Texas border from Central America, many of them unaccompanied children. The panel, conducted in both English and Spanish, was followed by a series of presentations by aid organizations that are working to support immigrants in a variety of ways.

After a welcome by LLILAS Benson director Charles Hale, moderator Burnett began the proceedings with the story of a 16-year-old Salvadoran boy named Jorge who had crossed into the United States via the Rio Grande on an inner tube. He had been escorted all the way from El Salvador by a coyote, who had likely received an exorbitant sum and who had instructed Jorge to give himself up to U.S. immigration authorities as soon as he arrived in Texas. “His story is repeated tens of thousands of times,” said Burnett. He spoke of a nine-year-old appearing in immigration court without adult accompaniment; of “rocket dockets” that expedite immigration hearings, leaving no time for a defense attorney to prepare any sort of an asylum case; of freezing-cold hieleras, or “ice boxes,” processing stations where detained immigrants are often held for days without access to hot food, showers, medical attention, or clean clothes; and of the newest detention facility at Karnes City, a privately run prison that houses asylum seekers, many of them mothers and young children trying to escape violence in their countries of origin.

Each of the five panelists who participated in the forum had a particular angle on the situation. Marlene Guerrero Chávez, of the Human Rights Coalition of South Texas, spoke of the fact that humanitarian aid organizations have few resources and have received no federal funding. Up to 100 people a day, she said, are dropped at the local bus station “like animals” after being processed by Border Patrol. There, makeshift camps are set up where they can shower and get some food. There is no medical attention available. Guerra Chávez believes that the militarization of the border area creates community stress, and said that humane policies on the part of the U.S. government will go much farther than the current $12 million per month being spent on National Guard presence there.

Father Ismael Moreno of Honduras spoke next. He is director of Radio Progreso and the Team for Reflection, Research, and Communication. Father Moreno outlined five sociopolitical factors contributing to the exodus from his country: (1) Neoliberal economic policies were implemented in Honduras during the 1990s at a time when basic survival needed to be addressed instead. (2) Hurricane Mitch, in 1998, destroyed infrastructure and diminished the government’s ability to respond to already existing poverty and social crises, thus stimulating a wave of migration to the U.S. that functioned as an “escape valve.” (3) Free trade agreements of 2004 opened borders to international products and an infusion of multinational capital that caused local sources of employment to disappear, lands to lose their value, and the U.S. and Spain to become the “only out” for many youth. Borders are open for commerce, he said, and closed to people. (4) The 2009 coup d’etat in Honduras introduced the “ley de los fuertes,” or rule of the mighty, which Father Moreno described as a collapse of the rule of law, opening the door to power gains by narco-traffickers and leading to a rise of violence and crime in society. Whole families emigrated in response, or parents who were already living abroad sent for their children. (5) Finally, Father Moreno spoke of a disparagement of the poor among the political elite as a factor in the dissolution of Honduran society.

A study in contrasts at this point, the panel continued with Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, who told the audience that immigration was “the most controversial topic” he has been involved in. One of Patterson’s main points was that political rhetoric and party divisions force political candidates and elected officials to adopt extreme positions and are inimical to establishing common ground, even when parties secretly agree with each other. Thus, Patterson said, certain adages are repeated and continue to polarize people: “build a fence, secure the borders.” He recalled a time when the flow of people across the border went both ways fairly regularly, and said he believes that stricter policy now prevents the back-and-forth that used to be tolerated and accepted. However, he also asserted that the current crisis is nothing new.

Next to speak was Salvadoran Consul Ana Lorena Siria de Lara, who said that of the 55,000 children and adolescents who had crossed the border so far this year, 17,000 were Salvadoran. She attributed some of the flood of immigrants from her country to a campaign of lies by coyotes, who have led many vulnerable Salvadorans to believe that children would be reunited with parents already living in the U.S. Siria de Lara faulted educational programs in her country for not preparing children to succeed in life. She bitterly pointed out that perhaps this type of detention would not be taking place if the children were from England or Holland, which elicited an eruption of applause from the audience.

The final panelist to speak was Denise Gilman, clinical professor of law and co-director of the Immigration Clinic at the UT School of Law. Gilman added the crucial legal piece to the discussion, pointing out that the United States has a system to deal with refugees in a systematic way—put in place by the 1980 Refugee Act—but that this law is being abandoned. Gilman reminded the audience of the once positive tradition in the United States of welcoming refugees and immigrants. She also pointed out the heavy presence of politics in questions of asylum, reminding those assembled that in the 1980s, asylum claims by Salvadorans were rejected (the U.S. supported the repressive government there) while those of Nicaraguans were accepted (the U.S. was sponsoring the contras against the Sandinista government at the time). Gilman also recalled times of great injustice toward immigrants in U.S. history, such as the internment of Japanese Americans and the refusal to allow entry to a boatful of Jews escaping the Holocaust, both during World War II. “I am afraid that we will look back on this moment with a great deal of shame,” she said.

Participants in the second half of the forum, the Plenary Discussion on Community Responses, included representatives from Circle of Health International, the Austin Immigrant Rights Coalition (AIRC), Texans United for Families, Hutto Visitation Program, Grassroots Leadership, Immigrant Services Network of Austin, Arte de Lágrimas: Refugee Artwork Project, American Gateways, and the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES). These participants spoke about their immediate plans to work with Central American refugees in Texan, and in particular, in Austin. Information on these and other organizations can be found on the Child Immigrant Refugee Resource Page (PDF, 94K).

The evening’s closing remarks were delivered by Alfonso Gonzales, assistant professor at LLILAS and the Department of Mexican American and Latino Studies, whose research interests include immigration policy, asylum, deportation, and human rights. Gonzales stressed that Central America’s geopolitical and economic reality is highly complex, and as such, there are no easy or short-term fixes for the violence, poverty, and social collapse that are driving people to flee. He warned that good governance and police institutions are being undermined by neoliberal economic policies. He gave the example of the Policía Nacional Civil (PNC) in El Salvador, once a promising and touted police force and now widely feared among the citizenry due to corruption and the lack of any structural support for such societal institutions. Finally, Gonzales pointed to failures of institutions such as U.S. State Department–supported CARSI (the Central American Regional Security Initiative), charged with disrupting crime, making streets safer, and fostering international collaboration in the region to combat security threats. According to Gonzales, the mano dura tactics of CARSI have instead had a deleterious effect on the region: its implementation actually saw a rise in the homicide rate. A proponent of activist scholarship, Gonzales will teach a graduate seminar in the spring in which his students will partner with the UT School of Law, local organizations, and border organizations to support Central American asylum seekers with valid claims.

The presence of such activist scholars at The University of Texas at Austin is promising, as is the expertise of the university’s faculty in the areas of immigration and human rights. This foro urgente was an opportunity to lay both intellectual and humanitarian groundwork in a community setting, to enumerate the vast complexities of an international crisis, and, it is hoped, to stimulate further learning and engagement from many sectors in our community and beyond.

Banner Image: Courtesy of Carina Guevara


  • Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies

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