Category Archives: Immigration

Records show Trump’s border wall is costing taxpayers billions more than initial contracts

A border wall construction site near Donna, Texas, on Dec. 8, 2019. (Veronica G. Cardenas/Reuters)

On the same day in May 2019, the Army Corps of Engineers awarded a pair of contracts worth $788 million to replace 83 miles of fence along the southwest border.

The projects were slated to be completed in January 2020, the Corps said then. Four months into this year, however, the government increased the value of the contracts by more than $1 billion, without the benefit of competitive bidding designed to keep costs low to taxpayers.

Within a year of the initial award, the value of the two contracts had more than tripled, to over $3 billion, even though the length of the fence the companies were building had only grown by 62%, to 135 miles. The money is coming from military counter-narcotics funding.

Those contract spikes were dramatic, but not isolated. A ProPublica/Texas Tribune review of federal spending data shows more than 200 contract modifications, at times awarded within just weeks or months after the original contracts, have increased the cost of the border wall project by billions of dollars since late 2017. This is particularly true this year, in the run-up to next week’s election. The cost of supplemental agreements and change orders alone — at least $2.9 billion — represents about a quarter of all the money awarded and more than what Congress originally appropriated for wall construction in each of the last three years.

President Donald Trump made construction of the border wall a signature issue during his 2016 campaign, claiming that his skills as a builder and businessman would allow his administration to build the wall in a more cost-efficient way than his predecessors. “You know the wall is almost finished,” he told a crowd of supporters in Arizona recently, and they weren’t paying a “damn cent” for the border wall. It was “compliments of the federal government.”

Yet an accounting of border wall contracts awarded during his presidency shows that his administration has failed to protect taxpayer interests or contain costs and stifled competition among would-be builders, experts say. In all, Trump’s wall costs about five times more per mile than fencing built under the Bush and Obama administrations.

Continue reading at ProPublica.

COVID-19 Cases at One Texas Immigration Detention Center Soared in a Matter of Days. Now, Town Leaders Want Answers

The South Texas ICE Processing Center in Pearsall, Texas. (Robin Jerstad for The Texas Tribune)

It was a historic occasion for the South Texas town of Pearsall when officials broke ground in 2004 on what would become one of the country’s largest immigration detention centers.

Not only would it help improve border security, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn said then, it would also bring employment to the small rural community, about 60 miles from San Antonio. Hundreds of good jobs for a region that desperately needed them.

But now, as the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread inside immigration detention centers, local leaders here in an extraordinary move have called on the company that runs the center, the GEO Group, to publicly explain itself. They say the company has not been transparent, and has failed to respond to emails and letters seeking answers to a simple question: What is the GEO Group doing to prevent the virus outbreak inside the privately owned facility from creeping into their community?

Continue reading at ProPublica.

Texas sues Exxon Mobil over environmental violations from Baytown fire

Workers watch a fire burn at the ExxonMobil Baytown Olefins Plant on Wednesday, July 31, 2019, in Baytown. Photo: Jon Shapley, Houston Chronicle / Staff photographer

The state of Texas is suing Exxon Mobil for environmental violations, including releasing millions of gallons of firefighting wastewater into the Houston Ship Channel after the petrochemical giant’s most recent fire and explosion in Baytown.

The lawsuit, filed by the attorney general on behalf of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, seeks injunctive relief, civil penalties exceeding $100,000, attorney’s fees and court costs for alleged violations of the Texas Clean Air Act and the Texas Water Code. It follows the filing of a lawsuit by Harris County on Aug. 1 — a day after the company’s plant erupted in flames and injured at least 37 people.

The July 31 fire at the Baytown Olefins Plant released a plume of black smoke visible for miles. For several hours, the City of Baytown issued an order to shelter in place to residents who live west of the plant and south of Texas State Highway Spur 330.

The cause of the fire still is being investigated. Two workers who suffered second- and third-degree burns as a result of the fire have also filed lawsuits seeking more than $1 million in damages each.

Continue reading at the Houston Chronicle.

The El Paso I know

Samantha Ordaz, 20, embraces her boyfriend César Antonio Pacheco, 24, during an anti-violence rally Sunday, Aug. 4, 2019, in El Paso, a day after a shooting that killed 20 people. Both born in El Paso, but parents and grandparents migrated to the United States. Marie De Jesús/Houston Chronicle

Growing up in El Paso meant taking certain things for granted, like speaking two languages and living in two cultures. It was simply a way of life.

My grandfather, born to a mining family in New Mexico, at some point returned to Mexico, where he grew up, got married and had my mother (along with nine other children).

I was born across the border in Juárez. When I was 8, my father moved us al otro lado to El Paso in search of better opportunities.

My husband was born in El Paso but raised in Juárez, learning English by listening to oldies and watching cartoons.

My family’s story is not unique. Most of us straddle the border, not feeling foreign on either side.

To us, it is not Juárez and El Paso — it’s one big city where people cross from one side to the other to shop or eat out. Where families like my own keep a home in each place. The cities are intertwined, and so are the people. And that makes us better; it makes us stronger.

People in El Paso switch from English to Spanish, sometimes in the same sentence; we can have a carne asada (grilled meat) one day and cook hot dogs the next. Families celebrate the Fourth of July and el 16 de septiembre, Mexico’s independence day. Neither makes you less American or less Mexican.

As I read the four pages of the so-called manifesto posted by the accused El Paso shooter, I realized that the seamless blending of two cultures and ethnicities that El Paso represents was the very quality that he feared the most. The “Hispanic invasion of Texas,” as he called it.

He was against race mixing, he said, and cultural diversity. His solution was the physical separation of the races, which would in his view, “improve social unity by granting each race self-determination within their respective territory(s).”

He was afraid of people like me. Brown. He recoiled from a connection that my community embraced.

I found this jarring. Spending most of my childhood and teenage years in El Paso meant seeing others who looked like me, sounded like me. Judges. Teachers. Doctors. I was not the “other.”

It wasn’t until I moved to Tennessee in 2007 that I realized I was actually seen as a foreigner. It was the first time people questioned whether I belonged. The first time I was told to go back to where I came from.

In El Paso we live in a sort of bubble where we are generally shielded from racism and discrimination.

This doesn’t mean El Pasoans don’t have their own issues with immigration. I’ve heard plenty of conversations — including in my family’s kitchen — about Central Americans arriving and how Juárez has its own problems and how local governments should help those in need first, instead of people coming from elsewhere. About how their numbers are overwhelming the border cities. About how you don’t know who they are and what their intentions might be.

And of course, El Paso could benefit from better-paying jobs, better school equity, more voter participation and engagement.

Somehow, El Paso continues to have that small-community feel in an ever-sprawling city. It’s still the place where my parents can leave the house without locking the door and not worry about it (even though I continue to advise against it). Where you run into people you know when you’re out shopping — including at Walmart. Where people show up for each other, as we’ve seen these last few days.

When I talked to my Dad Sunday, he said he had to go to Walmart later that day.

Do you feel weird about it? I asked him in Spanish.

You can’t live in fear, he responded. Life must go on.

And if more of Texas becomes like El Paso, I say there’s nothing to be afraid of. Quite the opposite: We should embrace it.

Passports to the American dream: Mounting debt, few opportunities keep Guatemalans coming

Candelaria López, 15, washes dishes in her front yard in Bulej. The young girl stopped going to school in 2016 after finishing sixth grade. Her responsibilities intensified after her mother’s husband left for the U.S. this year. Simone Dalmasso /For the Arizona Daily Star

HUHUETENANGO, Guatemala — Amidst the chaos of third-graders getting ready for recess, a small empty desk stands out. The child who used to sit there is gone, having left for the United States with his father.

In another classroom, four girls work together to fix their costume for the school’s carnival. The rest of their ninth-grade class has dropped out — some to go to the U.S., others because their families couldn’t afford school any longer.

In a neighboring town, a teacher gardens to empower young women after the village’s only secondary program closed due to a lack of students.

Since October 2016, more than 720,000 unaccompanied minors and parents traveling with children have turned themselves in to Border Patrol agents along the U.S.-Mexico line. An additional 110,000 have gone to ports of entry to seek refuge. About 40% are from Guatemala, the largest single group.

It’s not clear how many will end up seeking asylum, but in fiscal 2018 nearly 20% of migrants from all countries claimed to a border officer they feared returning to their home country.

For families in Bulej and Yalambojoch — indigenous towns near Guatemala’s border with Mexico — leaving for the United States is seen as a last choice, propelled by a cycle of debt that only fuels more migration. And while it’s too soon to predict the long-term impact of family migration, some of these villages are losing their future as the younger generation heads north.

Many of those who stay behind face a heavier workload — they need to care for younger siblings and tend house while their mothers work in the fields or fetch wood, tasks that typically belonged to their husbands.

Every week, residents estimate, at least 10 parents, each with a child or two, leave the small villages.

President Trump has called the current numbers a crisis and a national emergency. He has threatened to shut down the U.S.-Mexico border and shifted hundreds of customs officers from the legal ports of entry where migrants present themselves to helping Border Patrol agents process families crossing illegally.

But the numbers keep rising. In March alone, agents made a total of 92,600 apprehensions — the highest in a decade. Nearly 63,000 were family groups and unaccompanied minors.

In Yalambojoch, not even the death of 8-year-old Felipe Gomez Alonzo, who died in Border Patrol custody on Christmas Eve, deters others from following. His uncle and cousin left a week after Felipe’s funeral. It was his fate, the townspeople reason. It won’t happen to them.

In the end, the stories of those who make it and the need to leave are more powerful. As some in the villages say, children have become their passports to the American Dream.

Continue reading at the Arizona Daily Star.