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Report catalogs abuse of immigrants at Mexican border

No More Deaths, a ministry of the UU Church of Tucson, finds a ‘Culture of Cruelty’ among Border Patrol.
By Donald E. Skinner
9.26.11

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Volunteers with No More Deaths

Volunteers with No More Deaths fill water bottles to leave in the desert for people crossing the border between Mexico and the United States. (No More Deaths)

No More Deaths, a humanitarian group in southern Arizona, accused the U.S. Border Patrol last week of systematic abuse of virtually all immigrants who are caught coming across the border from Mexico.

No More Deaths released a report Sept. 21, titled A Culture of Cruelty, based on 4,130 interviews with 12,895 people who were caught by the Border Patrol in Arizona in the past three years and deported back to Mexico. According to the report, all but 41 reported various types of abuse at the hands of Border Patrol agents, from denial of basic food, water, and medical aid, to beatings, sleep deprivation, confiscation of their belongings, and deliberate separation of family members.

No More Deaths was founded in 2004 by a group of religious leaders in Tucson. In 2008 the all-volunteer organization became a ministry of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Tucson. Many members of the Tucson congregation volunteer with it, as do many other UUs and other people of faith across the country.

The organization leaves water in the desert for migrants, provides first aid, collects and distributes clothing, and works to raise awareness of immigration issues. It has a national campaign to raise Border Patrol custody standards.

Dr. Katerina Sinclair, a member of the Tucson congregation and one of the authors of the report, said that it was no secret that the Border Patrol abused people. “But I don’t think anyone—even folks within No More Deaths—understood how big this was until we put it all together. We found 30,000 instances of Border Patrol abuse among those almost 13,000 people,” she said. “When I combined all of the reports from our volunteers who interviewed people after they’d been returned to Mexico, I had to go back and do the numbers twice more. I’ve done a lot of research and never felt this level of disbelief.”

She said the report demonstrates that the abuse, neglect, and dehumanization of migrants are part of the institutional culture of the Border Patrol.

The Border Patrol, in an emailed statement responding to the report, said its policies require that agents treat everyone they encounter with “respect and dignity.”

“On a daily basis, agents make every effort to ensure that people in our custody are given food, water, and medical attention as needed,'' the statement said. “Any agent within our ranks that does not adhere to the highest standards of conduct will be identified and appropriate disciplinary action will be taken.”

Last week’s report is the second one issued by No More Deaths. The first, in 2008, was based on interviews with 300 people, Sinclair said. “When we went to the Border Patrol with that report they said we didn’t talk to very many people. So this time we talked to almost 13,000.” She said the Border Patrol consistently denies that it abuses people.

In addition to confirming widespread abuse, the other key finding of the report, said Sinclair, is that an increasing number of immigrants are people who have lived in the United States a long time and then were deported and now are trying to get back.

No More Deaths volunteers interviewed an additional 100 deportees and found they had lived in the United States. 14.4 years on average and had on average 2.5 children in the United States. Many had returned to Mexico because of the illness or death of a family member living there, then were caught returning to the United States. Almost 70 percent said they were returning to family.

Sinclair said that in addition to the connection No More Deaths has with the UU Church of Tucson and with scores of UU volunteers, it also works closely with the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Standing on the Side of Love campaign. SSL Campaign Manager Dan Furmansky helped coordinate publicity for the No More Deaths report and helps the organization spread the word about individual deportations where public pressure can help, she said.

“I’d like people, especially Unitarian Universalists, to connect this report with what’s happening where they live, with [Arizona] SB1070 copycat legislation and Secure Communities acts spreading,” said Sinclair. “This is not all about Arizona. The people who are being deported are coming from everywhere. If people go to work on immigrant issues in their own communities, then at some point No More Deaths won’t be needed. What’s going on across the country has to change for anything to change in Arizona.”

She urged UUs to connect with immigrant communities. “Talk to people who do humanitarian work in the prisons near you. Of course you can send us money—we always need it—and we always have a critical need for socks for immigrants, but the most effective way of dealing with this problem is in your hometown, putting pressure on your representatives and on Homeland Security.”

Sinclair and the Rev. Peter Morales, president of the UUA, were two of the four people who spoke to reporters on a conference call Sept. 21 following the release of the report.

Morales said that the UUA Board of Trustees met in Arizona last year and as part of that trip talked with people in Nogales, Mexico, who had been recently deported. “One after another they brought up the horrible stories of the ways they had been mistreated by the Border Patrol,” he said.

Morales related the story of a 12-year-old girl who had grown up in Phoenix. The family went to Mexico to see a dying grandfather, but was caught coming back across the border. The father was separated from the family and other family members didn’t know where he was. “This was an egregious act of abuse. I’m delighted to see the kind of thorough documentation that No More Deaths is doing.”

He added, “This is a moral issue that has to do with the inherent worth and dignity of every human. This has nothing to do with how I or anyone feels about immigration policy. The overwhelming majority of Americans do not want to see this kind of treatment . . . in their name. None of us win when people are dehumanized.”


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