Exclusive: For migrant youths claiming abuse, U.S. protection can be elusive

An unidentified Honduran immigrant is photographed in his apartment in New York, U.S., March 1, 2019. REUTERS/Zachary Goelman

By Mica Rosenberg

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Growing up in eastern Honduras, Jose said his father would get drunk and beat him with a horse whip and the flat side of a machete. He said he watched his father, a coffee farmer whose crops succumbed to plague, hit his mother on the head with a pistol, sending her to the hospital for three days from the abuse.

At 17, Jose said, he hired a coyote to ferry him to the United States, seeking to escape his home life and violent feuding among his relatives, as well as seek better opportunities for himself and his siblings. He was picked up by border agents, then released pending deportation proceedings.

After struggling to get a good lawyer, Jose applied at 19 for special protection under a program for young immigrants subjected to childhood mistreatment including abuse, neglect or abandonment.

But like a growing number of applicants, his petition hit a series of hurdles, then was denied. Now he is appealing.

“It’s like being stuck not going forward or backwards,” said Jose, now 22 and living in New York. He spoke on condition his last name not be used because he is working without a permit and does not want to jeopardize his appeal. “You can’t advance in life,” he said.

As President Donald Trump vociferously pushes for a physical barrier across the country’s southern border, young people claiming to be eligible for protection under the Special Immigrant Juvenile (SIJ) program increasingly face a less publicized barrier: heightened demands for paperwork.

Data obtained by Reuters under the Freedom of Information Act show that the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has recently ramped up demands for additional documents through “Requests for Evidence” and “Notices of Intent to Deny,” which can tie up cases for months.

The program allows immigrants under 21 to apply for permanent residency in the United States if a state court determines that they need protection and that returning to their home countries would be unsafe. Since 2010, about 54,000 applications have been approved.

In fiscal year 2016, before Trump took office, USCIS issued 347 “Requests for Evidence,” the data show. A year later, the agency issued 4,153, while the overall number of new applications rose only slightly.

“Notices of Intent to Deny,” one of the last opportunities to submit additional information before a petition is rejected, doubled in fiscal year to 767 in 2017 compared to fiscal 2016.

Meanwhile, approvals of special immigrant juvenile status petitions dropped by nearly 60 percent in the 2018 fiscal year compared to a year earlier, to 4,712, while denials increased more than 88 percent, according to federal data.

USCIS Spokesman Michael Bars said in a statement that the agency evaluates every petition case by case and that requesting additional evidence “cut down on frivolous petitions and applications, reduce waste, and help to improve the integrity and efficiency of the immigration petition process.”

Immigrant advocates and attorneys have turned to the special protection program as one avenue to offer young migrants who had come from violent pasts a path to legal residency in the United States. Some apply for asylum at the same time.

But for years critics have seen the youth program and other forms of legal relief for Central Americans, including some asylum protections, as “loopholes” that are too permissive and end up encouraging more migration.

It’s “shockingly easy for any minor that is represented by a lawyer to meet the requirements of the law regardless of whether they have been abused, neglected and abandoned,” said Jessica Vaughan from the Center for Immigration Studies, which supports increased immigration restrictions.

‘LOW-HANGING FRUIT’

Migrant attorneys say the administration is using an administrative back door to curb the program. They say many of the requests for additional evidence are technical – requiring proof, for instance, that a state court’s order was issued according to that state’s law.

These advocates say a large chunk of cases being challenged by the Trump administration are those like Jose’s, in which applicants applied between the ages of 18 and 21, and in which the government has challenged the jurisdiction of state family courts in the proceedings.

Immigration rights groups have sued the government in California, New York and Washington state over what they say are blanket denials of petitions from that older group. In the California suit, a judge in February issued a preliminary ruling against the administration, saying state courts do have jurisdiction. A ruling is expected soon in New York, and the Washington suit was just filed Tuesday.

“These post-18 cases are the low-hanging fruit,” said Maria Odom, the former independent ombudsman for USCIS under President Barack Obama. “This is just one piece of (the administration’s) overall plan to destroy protections for unaccompanied minors to try to stop the flow.”

Rich Leimsider, Executive Director of Safe Passage Project speaks during an interview with Reuters at his office in New York, U.S., February 21, 2019. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

Rich Leimsider, Executive Director of Safe Passage Project speaks during an interview with Reuters at his office in New York, U.S., February 21, 2019. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

MISSION CREEP?

Underlying these disputes is a conflict over the purpose of the 1990 law authorizing the youth protection program.

The law was passed in response to growing concerns about foreign children becoming homeless or orphaned in the United States because of abandonment or abusive family situations. Eligibility was expanded in 2008 under a U.S. anti-human trafficking law to include kids abandoned by just one parent even if they were being cared for by the other.

Applications ballooned during the Obama administration following a surge in unaccompanied minors crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, many from violent countries in Central America.

The government received 1,646 applications for the status in fiscal year 2010; in 2018, the number of applications jumped more than thirteenfold.

“This is not what the original law anticipated,” said Vaughan from the Center for Immigration Studies. “It was meant for kids who were trafficked.”

By statute, USCIS is supposed to process applications in six months, but Randi Mandelbaum, who runs a legal clinic at Rutgers Law School that serves immigrant foster kids, said she is handling a dozen cases that have been pending longer than a year. The delays can be painful, she said.

Young people “are already very vulnerable and now they can’t move on,” Mandelbaum said. “Their lives are on hold.”

(This story has been refiled to correct the spelling of USCIS spokesman’s name in 13th paragraph)

(Reporting by Mica Rosenberg in New York; Additional reporting by Kristina Cooke in San Francisco; Editing by Julie Marquis and Marla Dickerson)

Portugal tackles labor trafficking on farms but resources scarce

A Thai worker drinks, during a labour conditions control at a red fruit farm near Odemira, Portugal February 7, 2019. Picture taken February 7, 2019. REUTERS/Rafael Marchante

By Catarina Demony

ODEMIRA, Portugal (Reuters) – Portugal is cracking down on labor trafficking, carrying out thousands of raids on farms suspected of trapping poor migrants in unpaid work, with the known number of victims almost doubling in less than a decade.

“Labor exploitation in agricultural areas, especially in the Alentejo region, is out of control,” said Acasio Pereira, president of the inspectors’ union in Portugal’s Immigration and Border Service (SEF).

A European Commission report in December said that in 2015-16 Portugal had a higher proportion of labor trafficking victims per one million of the population than any other European Union state except Malta.

Most victims are men and predominantly from Eastern Europe as well as India, Nepal, Pakistan and Bangladesh, said SEF.

Portuguese investigators say typical victims are impoverished migrants brought to Portugal by trafficking rings with the promise of a job advertised on the Internet.

But once put to work, their identity documents are often confiscated and their pay withheld, with many packed into grim, common living quarters with few amenities.

“Human trafficking is a phenomenon that really worries us,” Filipe Moutas, a police captain in Portugal’s National Republican Guard (GNR), told Reuters as a team checked workers’ employment contracts and identity documents during a raid on a 100-acre (40-hectare) raspberry farm in Alentejo last week.

“We keep a close eye on this and regularly carry out operations of this kind. Our main concern is labor trafficking because that’s the reports we have been receiving.”

Thai workers wait for a labour conditions control at a red fruit farm near Odemira, Portugal February 7, 2019. Picture taken February 7, 2019. REUTERS/Rafael Marchante

Thai workers wait for a labour conditions control at a red fruit farm near Odemira, Portugal February 7, 2019. Picture taken February 7, 2019. REUTERS/Rafael Marchante

CRACKDOWN

The Feb. 7 raid began with four police cars driving into the middle of a field where officers jumped out to locate the owner, who had Thais and Bulgarians in his workforce.

Police found no irregularities this time. All workers had the required work permits and their contracts were in order.

“I don’t recruit anyone abroad,” said the farm owner, who wished not to be named. “I need people and they just come.”

But in another raid a few weeks earlier in the nearby city of Beja, police found 26 victims of trafficking and arrested six Romanians, the biggest bust of its kind to date, the SEF said.

The Council of Europe reported last year that labor trafficking was rising across the continent and had overtaken sexual exploitation as the “predominant form of modern slavery” in several countries including Britain, Belgium and Portugal.

Portugal’s human trafficking observatory said authorities conducted 4,539 raids and inspections in 2017 at farms and other premises including shops suspected of exploiting labor. The number of known victims rose from 86 in 2010 to 175 in 2017.

The latest figures for 2018 are not yet out but Pereira said the numbers did not reflect the true scale of the scourge.

“SEF doesn’t have the capacity to inspect most properties where workers are being abused,” he said, as it had less than 20 inspectors available to probe Portugal’s interior.

Labor trafficking has risen as Portugal’s native population has aged and declined due to falling birth rates and emigration to more prosperous northern EU countries.

Another factor has been depopulation of the rural interior as young people leave for cities in search of better-paid jobs.

Meanwhile, agricultural exports have boomed in recent years and large farms need ever more cheap labor.

“The situation is worrying, particularly in sectors where there are not enough workers,” said Pereira, pointing to seasonal jobs including olive and strawberry picking.

“That’s where you find trafficking and exploitation.”

(Reporting by Catarina Demony; Editing by Axel Bugge and Mark Heinrich)

African churches boom in London’s backstreets

Members of the Eternal Sacred Order of Cherubim & Seraphim Church sing as they celebrate their annual Thanksgiving in Elephant and Castle, London, Britain, July 29, 2018. REUTERS/Simon Dawson

By Simon Dawson and William Schomberg

LONDON (Reuters) – On a cold, grey Sunday morning, in a street lined with shuttered builders’ yards and storage units, songs of prayer in the West African language of Yoruba ring out from a former warehouse that is now a church.

The congregation, almost entirely dressed in white robes, steadily grows to around 70 people as musicians playing drums, a keyboard and a guitar pick up the pace of the hymns. Some women prostrate themselves on the floor in prayer.

In the sparse formerly industrial building, its interior brightened by touches of gold paint, a speaker reminds the group of a list of banned activities — no smoking, no drinking of alcohol, no practicing of black magic.

In a street outside, a pastor flicks holy water over the car of a woman who wants a blessing to ward off the risk of accidents.

The busy scene at the Celestial Church of Christ is repeated at a half a dozen other African Christian temples on the same drab street and in the adjacent roads – one corner of the thriving African church community in south London.

Around 250 black majority churches are believed to operate in the borough of Southwark, where 16 percent of the population identifies as having African ethnicity.

Southwark represents the biggest concentration of African Christians in the world outside the continent with an estimated 20,000 congregants attending churches each Sunday, according to researchers at the University of Roehampton.

Reflecting the different waves of migration to Britain in the 20th Century, Caribbean churches began to appear in the late 1940s and 1950s as workers and their families arrived from Jamaica and other former British colonies.

African churches opened their doors in London from the 1960s, followed by a second wave in the 1980s.

Migrants, many of them from Nigeria and Ghana, sought to build communities and maintain cultural connections with their home countries by founding their own churches, often founded in private homes, schools and office spaces.

As the communities grew, the churches moved into bigger spaces in bingo halls, cinemas and warehouses, gathering congregations of up to 500 people where services are streamed online by volunteers with video cameras.

There is a striking contrast with the empty pews at many traditional Church of England churches where congregations have dwindled for years.

Female members of the Apostles Of Muchinjikwa Christian church prepare to enter into the sea during a mass Baptism (Jorodhani) on the beachfront on Southend-on-Sea, Britain, August 25, 2018. REUTERS/Simon Dawson

Female members of the Apostles Of Muchinjikwa Christian church prepare to enter into the sea during a mass Baptism (Jorodhani) on the beachfront on Southend-on-Sea, Britain, August 25, 2018. REUTERS/Simon Dawson

“We pray for this country,” said Abosede Ajibade, a 54-year-old Nigerian who moved to Britain in 2002 and works for an office maintenance company.

“People here brought Christianity to Africa but it doesn’t feel like they serve Jesus Christ anymore.”

Anyone traveling around south London on a Sunday morning will see worshippers, often dressed in dazzlingly colored African clothes, making their way to churches, each with their different styles of worship.

Hymns are sung only in African languages in some temples, or only in English at others. Some pastors take worshippers for full immersion baptisms in the cold of the English Channel. Others believe that when congregants suddenly start speaking in unknown languages it marks the presence of the Holy Spirit.

But the researchers from the University of Roehampton found things that many churches have in common, including a drive for professional advancement, a commitment to spend three hours or more at Sunday service and typically very loud worship.

“That is how we express our joy and gratitude to God,” Andrew Adeleke, a senior pastor at the House of Praise, one of the biggest African churches in Southwark, in a former theater.

Senior members of the Apostles Of Muchinjikwa Christian church baptise members during a mass Baptism (Jorodhani) on the beachfront on Southend-on-Sea, Britain, August 25, 2018. REUTERS/Simon Dawson

Senior members of the Apostles Of Muchinjikwa Christian church baptise members during a mass Baptism (Jorodhani) on the beachfront on Southend-on-Sea, Britain, August 25, 2018. REUTERS/Simon Dawson

“The church is not supposed to be a graveyard,” Adeleke said. “It is supposed to be a temple of celebration and worship and the beauty is to be able to express our love to God, even when things are not perfect in our lives.”

For some, the noise from amplified services is a problem, leading to complaints to local authorities from residents.

But many churches face bigger challenges than unhappy neighbors: Some provide food for people struggling to make ends meet, or work with young people at risk of recruitment by gangs.

Andrew Rogers, who led the University of Roehampton researchers, said pastors had to juggle retaining the churches’ African identity while appealing to children of first generation immigrants, many of whom have never lived outside Britain.

They typically have a more liberal world view which can be hard to reconcile with conservative Pentecostal teachings.

Rogers recalled speaking to one pastor who lamented he was unable to talk about religious miracles to his children.

“If the church doesn’t adapt, then they are going to leave and look elsewhere,” Rogers said.

Click on https://reut.rs/2GgX5Qv for a related photo essay.

(Writing by William Schomberg, Editing by William Maclean)

On Day 28, no sign of end to U.S. partial government shutdown

Long lines are seen at a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) security checkpoint at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport amid the partial federal government shutdown, in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S., January 18, 2019. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage

By James Oliphant

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – As the partial U.S. government shutdown hit the four-week mark on Friday, tensions mounted in Washington on either side of the standoff over President Donald Trump’s demand for $5.7 billion to help fund a U.S.-Mexico border wall.

That ultimatum, which congressional Democrats have rejected, has prevented Congress from approving legislation to restore funding to about a quarter of the federal government, which closed down partially on Dec. 22 when several agencies’ funds expired for reasons unrelated to the border.

The Democratic-led House of Representatives has left town for a three-day weekend, returning late on Tuesday. The Senate was expected to reconvene on Friday, but its exact plans were unsettled.

The Republican-controlled Senate, toeing Trump’s line on the wall, has not acted on any of several shutdown-ending bills approved in recent days by the House, all lacking wall funding.

The partial shutdown – already the longest in U.S. history – seemed certain to drag well into next week, meaning 800,000 federal workers nationwide would continue to go unpaid and some government functions would remain impaired.

Any serious debate about immigration policy has deteriorated into a test of political power. After House Speaker Nancy Pelosi suggested to Trump that he delay the annual State of the Union address until after the government reopens, Trump responded by denying Pelosi and a congressional delegation use of a military aircraft for a planned trip to Belgium and Afghanistan.

Trump’s intervention stopped the trip just as Pelosi and other lawmakers were about to travel.

Pelosi’s spokesman said on Friday that the congressional delegation had been prepared to fly commercially after the military plane was revoked, but learned the administration had also leaked the commercial travel plans.

“In light of the grave threats caused by the President’s action, the delegation has decided to postpone the trip so as not to further endanger our troops and security personnel, or the other travelers on the flights,” Drew Hammill wrote on Twitter.

Hammill said the State Department had to pay for the commercial flight, which was how the White House knew about the travel plans that Hammill said were leaked.

A White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity, denied leaking the travel plans, adding, “When the speaker of the House and about 20 others from Capitol Hill decide to book their own commercial flights to Afghanistan, the world is going to find out.”

In tweets on Friday, Trump reiterated his claim that farmworkers would still be able to enter the country and stressed again his demand for the border wall, which he says is needed to stem illegal immigration and drug trafficking. Democrats have resisted the wall as wasteful and unworkable.

The House has passed short-term spending bills that would end the shutdown and reopen the government, but Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has refused to allow a floor vote on them, saying they lacked White House support.

A House Republican aide told Reuters on Thursday that no back-channel talks to resolve the shutdown were taking place.

During the week, a small group of Senate Republicans sought support for a plan to urge Trump to agree to a short-term funding bill in exchange for a debate on border security. Their efforts went nowhere.

The Trump administration worked to minimize the damage being done to government operations across the country. On Thursday, the State Department said it was calling furloughed employees back to work.

(Reporting by James Oliphant; additional reporting by Richard Cowan, Susan Cornwell, Jeff Mason and Makini Brice; editing by Kevin Drawbaugh, Peter Cooney and Jonathan Oatis)

Venezuela children left behind as parents flee to find work abroad

Iris Olivo holds her grandson Andrew Miranda's hand at the slum of La Vega in Caracas, Venezuela November 16, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello

By Shaylim Castro

CARACAS (Reuters) – Yusneiker and Anthonella have been living with their grandmother since their father left Venezuela and its collapsing economy last year for Peru, to try and earn enough to feed them. Two years earlier, their mother fled for the Dominican Republic for the same reason.

Yusneiker, 12, and Anthonella, 8, are eating better thanks to hard currency remittances from their parents, according to their grandmother Aura Orozco, who is grateful for the dollars that offer a reprieve from Venezuela’s annual inflation of nearly 2 million percent.

Still, she said, they miss their parents.

When they fall sick, they clamor for their mother. Though Yusneiker has adapted, Anthonella’s grades have slipped. The dark-eyed, curly-haired girl has clammed up and often answers her grandmother by simply nodding or shaking her head.

“To this day, she will lay down and if you ask her ‘what is wrong?’ she will say ‘I miss my mommy,'” said Orozco, 48, in her home in the hillside Caracas slum of Cota 905.

Some 3 million Venezuelans have migrated in three years, putting a growing strain on the country’s children as more parents are forced into the heart-wrenching decision to leave.

There is no official data on the phenomenon from the government of President Nicolas Maduro, which disputes the idea that there is an exodus, saying international aid agencies are inflating figures to give the administration a black eye. Despite this official skepticism, Maduro has touted a program to help migrants return.

Childhood hunger, decrepit schools and shortages of medicine and vaccinations already were problems amid the collapse of an economy once renowned for abundant oil wealth. With more parents migrating, experts interviewed by Reuters said growing problems facing Venezuelan children now include slumping school performance and malnutrition of newborns separated from would-be nursing mothers.

“These are lose-lose decisions for the parents – do I lose more by not being able to cover basic needs in the country, or by sacrificing the relationship with my child?” said Abel Saraiba, a psychologist with Caracas-based child advocacy group Cecodap.

Venezuelan migration, for years a middle-class phenomenon that involved air travel, is now dominated by working-class citizens who take long bus rides or walk along dangerous paths that are unsuitable for children.

Many also know they face challenging economic circumstances and want to be free to work all-day shifts to send more money home.

Cecodap said problems associated with children left behind by emigrating parents comprised its third most common request for help in 2018, up from fifth place in 2017.

Catholic organization Faith and Happiness, which runs schools in poor neighborhoods, said at least 5 percent of students had seen their parents emigrate as of the start of 2019.

MATERIAL BENEFITS

Children often gain material benefits from their parents’ migration, because sending hard currency to relatives provides greater access to food and medicine and even the occasional gift. Yusneiker’s grandmother was recently able to surprise him with a new pair of sneakers.

Parents say this is little consolation for breaking up a family.

“Even though my kids are older, it still hurts. I miss them so much,” said Omaira Martinez, who left her 17-year-old and 21-year-old children with their grandmother when she moved to Chile six months ago, where she now works washing dishes. “The first few months were hard. I cried a lot.”

Anthonella Peralta looks at photos sent by her mother Yusmarlys Orozco, who lives in Dominican Republic, on grandmother Aura's phone, in their home in the slum Cota 905 in Caracas, Venezuela December 18, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello

Anthonella Peralta looks at photos sent by her mother Yusmarlys Orozco, who lives in Dominican Republic, on grandmother Aura’s phone, in their home in the slum Cota 905 in Caracas, Venezuela December 18, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello

Venezuela’s Information Ministry, which handles media inquiries for the government, did not respond to a request for comment.

Maduro has warned migrants that they face xenophobia and exploitation in other countries, and has launched a repatriation effort called “Return to the Homeland” that he says has helped some 12,000 unhappy migrants return home.

Often parents are unable to return quickly despite having promised to do so.

When Angymar Jimenez, 27, left for Ecuador to work as a manicurist, she planned to be back in several months. Two years later, her two children Andrew, 5, and Ailin, 10, are still in the care of their grandmother, Iris Olivo.

“(Ailin) at first would say that her mom was coming to get her, she would say goodbye to her friends because she thought she was leaving,” said Olivo. “Eventually she realized that wasn’t happening.”

In extreme cases, migration of a nursing mother can lead to illness and malnutrition.

One-year-old Leanny Santander in the western Falcon state has been suffering from diarrhea and vomiting since her mother moved to Colombia in search of work and stopped breastfeeding her, said her grandmother, Nelida Santander.

Santander said doctors told her Leanny’s health problems, which now include bronchitis, resulted from the early end of breast-feeding.

“I prefer for my granddaughter to be here with me – if her mother took her over there it would be worse,” said Santander, 50. “Here she is sick, but at least I can attend to her.”

The decision to migrate is often made quickly, which means parents are likely to leave children with relatives without giving them custody, putting children in a legal limbo.

A 2018 survey on migration issues by pollster Datanalisis found that about half the households surveyed had not legally placed children in a guardian’s care. That complicates signing up for school, where the presence of both parents is legally required.

The situation puts further pressure on kids to grow up early, sometimes to comfort their own anguished parents.

“I speak to her every day,” said Yusneiker of his mother in the Dominican Republic. “I tell her I miss her, that she should not worry, and that I know she has not abandoned me.”

(Additional reporting by Mircely Guanipa in Punto Fijo; Editing by Alexandra Ulmer and David Gregorio)

Grisly Mexican gang battle near U.S. border leaves 21 dead

FILE PHOTO: A logo patch is shown on the uniform of a U.S. Border Patrol agent near the international border between Mexico and the United States south of San Diego, California March 26, 2013. REUTERS/Mike Blake

By Delphine Schrank

REYNOSA, Mexico (Reuters) – The charred remains of 21 people killed in a suspected gang battle have been found in a Mexican border town, just over the river from where U.S. President Donald Trump was seeking to win support on Thursday for his plan to build a border wall.

Officials in the notoriously violent border state of Tamaulipas said they were investigating the incident, which took place in Ciudad Miguel Aleman, after discovering the bodies on Wednesday. Seventeen of the bodies were burned.

Photos shared with Reuters by a state official show the deceased scattered along a dirt track in scrubland, alongside burned-out vehicles.

Trump visited McAllen, Texas on Thursday afternoon, about 90 kilometers (56 miles) from Ciudad Miguel Aleman. He threatened to use emergency powers to bypass Congress and get billions of dollars to pay for the wall.

He has justified that demand by saying that undocumented migrants, criminals and illegal drugs have been pouring across the border. Statistics show illegal immigration has fallen to a 20-year low, while many drugs are believed to enter through legal ports of entry.

In Tamaulipas, turf wars between the local Gulf Cartel and its chief rival, the Zetas, have been a key source of bloodshed over recent years.

One body found was wearing the remains of a baseball cap bearing the letters and logo of the Gulf Cartel, while others wore the remains of bullet-proof vests with the same insignia, according to the photos.

Luis Rodriguez, a spokesman for state police, said in a statement that it appeared gunmen from the Gulf Cartel had fought with members of the Northeast Cartel, a group that split off from the Zetas.

Irving Barrios, the state’s attorney general, said in a radio interview that authorities found semi-automatic weapons and bulletproof vehicles at the site.

The area is “greatly fought over” by traffickers of arms and drugs as well as those who help undocumented migrants to cross to the United States, he said.

Another confrontation on Thursday morning between an armed group and military forces in Nueva Ciudad Guerrero, also in Tamaulipas, left five people dead and one military officer injured, said a representative from the state’s peace coordination group.

Tens of thousands of people have been killed in Mexico during years of fighting between security forces and cartels warring over drug trafficking, extortion rackets and the exploitation of migrants.

(Reporting by Delphine Schrank in Reynosa, additional reporting by Lizbeth Diaz in Tijuana and Michael O’Boyle and Daina Beth Solomon in Mexico City; editing by Rosalba O’Brien)

Mexico prepares for arrival of next Central American migrant caravan

FILE PHOTO: Migrants, part of a caravan of thousands from Central America trying to reach the United States, leave a temporary shelter voluntarily, which is to be closed by Mexican authorities for sanitary reasons, in Tijuana Mexico January 5, 2019. REUTERS/Jorge Duenes

By Diego Oré

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Mexican authorities will meet with Central American officials to prepare for the arrival of a planned new caravan of migrants headed to the United States next week.

The head of Mexico’s immigration office, Tonatiuh Guillen, left on Wednesday on a trip to El Salvador and Honduras to meet with his counterparts and other authorities, said Interior Ministry spokesman Hector Gandini.

Mexico hopes to discourage a mass exodus from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, and wants Central Americans who decide to migrate north to do so in an orderly way and through legal ports of entry.

“The doors to Mexico are open to anyone who wants to enter in an orderly fashion,” Gandini told Reuters in a telephone interview. “But whoever wants to come in illegally will be deported.”

Previous Central American caravans became a flashpoint in the debate over U.S. immigration policy.

That was intensified by the recent deaths of two migrant children in American custody and a partial U.S. government shutdown over U.S. President Donald Trump’s demand for $5.7 billion in funding for a wall along the border with Mexico.

There are 12 legal ports of entry for Central Americans on Mexico’s southern border, but Mexican authorities have identified an additional 370 illegal points of entry on that frontier, Interior Minister Olga Sanchez said this week.

Mexico borders in the south with Guatemala and Belize.

The illegal entry points will be “monitored and controlled to avoid undocumented access of people to our territory,” Sanchez said.

Guatemala’s deputy foreign minister, Pablo Cesar Garcia, met with Mexican authorities on Tuesday to discuss the caravan and to “provide all the necessary support to the migrants,” said Guatemalan Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marta Larra.

“In Honduras, they kill us,” read an appeal circulating on social media for people to assemble in the violent Honduran city of San Pedro Sula next Tuesday to start the long trek north to the United States.

While other social media posts invite people to leave from nearby Santa Barbara on Jan. 20, U.S. authorities hoped to dissuade Central Americans from making the journey.

“The risks of illegal immigration are serious. Don’t waste your time and money on a trip destined to fail. The road is long and very dangerous. Thousands of Hondurans who participated in the caravan came back sorry,” Heide Fulton, the U.S chargé d’affaires to Honduras, said on Twitter on Wednesday.

(Reporting by Diego Ore; Additional reporting by Gustavo Palencia in Tegucigalpa, Sofia Menchu in Guatemala City, Nelson Renteria in San Salvador and Lizbeth Diaz in Tijuana, Mexico; Writing by Anthony Esposito; Editing by Peter Cooney)

Border patrol chief defends agents in child deaths

U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan addresses a news conference on the Trump administration's plan to deploy U.S. military forces to the Southwest border at U.S. Customs & Border Protection headquarters in Washington, U.S., October 29, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

By Doina Chiacu

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The head of U.S. Customs and Border Protection on Sunday defended his agents’ handling of two sick children who died in their custody, saying they did everything they could to get medical help for them in difficult circumstances.

The deaths have intensified the debate over U.S. immigration policy as President Donald Trump holds onto his demand that lawmakers give him $5 billion to fund a wall along the border with Mexico.

The impasse over Trump’s border wall resulted in a partial government shutdown that entered its ninth day on Sunday.

CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan told ABC’s “This Week” it had been a decade since a child had died in the agency’s custody and that the loss of two Guatemalan children in three weeks was “just absolutely devastating for us on every level.”

Felipe Gomez Alonzo, 8, died on Christmas Day. In early December, 7-year-old Jakelin Caal died after being detained along with her father by U.S. border agents in a remote part of New Mexico.

On Saturday, Trump blamed Democrats for the deaths of the two children in a Twitter post, drawing criticism that he was politicizing the tragedies.

The standoff over his demand for wall funding will be a test for Congress when it returns this week with Democrats in control of the House of Representatives.

Trump sees the wall as vital to stemming illegal immigration, while Democrats and some Republicans see it as impractical and costly.

After the death of the second child, the CBP said it will conduct secondary medical checks on all children in its custody, with a focus on those under 10.

Caal was 94 miles (150 km) from a Border Patrol station when she began vomiting on a bus ride to the station, McAleenan said on ABC. He said a Border Patrol agent who was a paramedic revived her there and she was taken to a children’s hospital in El Paso, where she died.

In the boy’s case, McAleenan said, it was a Border Patrol agent who first noticed he was ill and sent him and his father to a hospital. State officials in New Mexico said on Friday that Felipe had the flu before he passed away.

“Our agents did everything they could, as soon as these children manifested symptoms of illness, to save their lives,” McAleenan said.

‘VULNERABLE POPULATIONS’

McAleenan said the number of families and children crossing the border illegally has increased steadily in recent months and made up 65 percent of crossings in December. Those families and children are entering a system set up for adults.

“We don’t want them in border patrol stations. We want them in a better scenario for these vulnerable populations that we are seeing,” he said.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, the incoming chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he would hold hearings on the deaths and “the policies that entice people to come.”

A border wall was the last measure listed by McAleenan as necessary to address what he called a crisis at the southern border – after new legislation in Congress, investing in Central American nations to help improve life there, and working with Mexico on a joint plan for handling migrants.

“We need a sober-minded nonpartisan look at our immigration laws to really confront and grapple with the fact that children and families are coming into this cycle,” he said. “That’s first and foremost.”

Before it can hope to tackle complex immigration legislation, Congress must reach a deal on the critical spending measure.

Graham on Sunday proposed enticing Democrats into supporting Trump’s border wall by offering in return a measure providing legal status for 700,000 so-called Dreamers, children who were brought to the United States illegally.

“So to my Democratic friends, there will never be a deal without wall funding and many Republicans are going to offer something as an incentive to vote for wall funding that you have supported in the past,” he said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

However, fellow Republican Senator Richard Shelby warned on CBS’ “Face the Nation” that negotiations were at an impasse and the shutdown “could last a long, long time.”

Democratic U.S. Representative Hakeem Jeffries said the country needs comprehensive immigration reform and border security.

“But we are not willing to pay $2.5 billion or $5 billion and wasting taxpayer dollars on a ransom note because Donald Trump decided that he was going to shut down the government and hold the American people hostage,” Jeffries said on ABC.

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Phil Berlowitz and Daniel Wallis)

Bereaved Guatemalan mother recalls hopes son would ease U.S. entry

Catarina Perez (C), grandmother of Felipe Gomez Alonzo, a 8-year-old boy detained alongside his father for illegally entering the U.S., who fell ill and died in the custody of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), gestures at an altar in memory of Felipe at the family's home in the village of Yalambojoch, Guatemala December 27, 2018. REUTERS/Luis Echeverria

By Sofia Menchu

YALAMBOJOCH, Guatemala (Reuters) – Between heavy sobs, Catarina Alonzo explained that when her husband left Guatemala to try to reach the United States, they hoped taking their 8-year-old son would make it easier for the pair to get in. Instead, the boy fell ill and died.

Detained on the U.S. border, Felipe Gomez Alonzo died late on Christmas Eve in a New Mexico hospital a few weeks after setting off with his father, becoming the second Guatemalan child to die this month while in U.S. custody.

The two deaths have led to increased criticism of the Trump administration’s hardline stance on illegal immigration, as well as fresh scrutiny of why some migrants from Central America travel with children on the long, dangerous road north.

Speaking at her home in a mountainous region of western Guatemala, Catarina Alonzo said neighbors had told the family that taking a child would provide her husband with a way in.

“Lots of them have gone with children and managed to cross, even if they’re held for a month or two. But they always manage to get across easily,” she told Reuters in an interview.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has yet to give an official cause of death for the boy, prompting Democratic lawmakers to intensify calls for an investigation.

The Department of Homeland Security, which says that Felipe Gomez Alonzo and 7-year-old Jakelin Caal, who died on Dec. 8, were the first children to die in CBP custody in a decade, this week said it would step up medical checks of migrant children to try to prevent any more deaths.

Alonzo, an indigenous Maya and native speaker of Chuj, has little Spanish and communicated through a translator. Wearing a sweatshirt and a purple dress, she spoke outside her hut in Yalambojoch, a village of about 1,000 people near the Mexican border.

She related how her son and his father, Agustin, an agricultural worker, had left in early December to find work in the United States to pay off debts. The two also hoped the boy would get a better education in the United States, she said.

Still, Alonzo said her husband had doubts and at one point decided he did not want to take the boy. But that upset the boy, so they resolved he should go.

Alonzo’s sobs could be heard for minutes outside the house before she came out to be interviewed. Afterward she went back inside to a tiny altar she had adorned with three photos of the boy that a local schoolteacher had printed out for her.

The altar stood to one side of a room with cement walls that serves as a bedroom and living area for Alonzo and her three surviving children. Adjoining it was a kitchen with a dirt floor and wooden walls.

Her husband remains in U.S. custody.

“NOW OR NEVER”

Marta Larra, a spokeswoman for Guatemala’s Foreign Ministry, said smugglers known as “coyotes” often encourage migrants to take children as a form of “visa.” Many coyotes, she noted, are trusted by migrant families, so their word carries weight.

But Lucas Perez, the mayor of Yalambojoch, said some coyotes are only interested in ripping off people. Still, for many migrants trying to cross the U.S. border, taking a child along was the “only option,” he told Reuters.

Describing migration from the area as “constant,” Perez estimated about 200 people from the tiny village live in the United States.

Agustin Gomez, the boy’s father, has two brothers in the United States he hoped to meet, his wife said.

Next to her hut, laborers worked on a two-story concrete house with a twin-gabled, tiled roof – evidence of the money coming back from the United States, the mayor said.

Under U.S. law, families from countries that do not border the United States cannot be immediately deported, and because of a longstanding legal settlement, there are restrictions on how long U.S. authorities can detain migrant children.

As a result, families with children are often released to await an immigration court hearing, which can be scheduled well into the future due to ballooning backlogs.

U.S. President Donald Trump has tried to reverse the policy, which he calls “catch and release,” but has been blocked by lawsuits in federal court.

His Democratic opponents have seized on the deaths of the two Guatemalan children to attack his policies. On Thursday, Senator Dianne Feinstein urged the Senate to hold a hearing in the new year on how children are treated in U.S. custody.

In the meantime, Trump’s insistence on building a southern border wall has given coyotes a fresh argument to promote migration, Larra said.

“According to interviews (with migrants), the coyotes are saying ‘it’s now or never’ because the wall is going to be built, and it won’t be possible to cross,” she said.

(Reporting by Sofia Menchu; Additional reporting by Stefanie Eschenbacher in Mexico City and Mica Rosenberg in New York; Editing by Dave Graham, Rosalba O’Brien and Leslie Adler)

Mexico vows to end ‘horror’ migrants face, seeks more detail on U.S. plan

By Dave Graham

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – The Mexican government on Monday pledged to end the “horror” migrants face crossing the country en route to the U.S. border, and pressed Washington for more details of its plan to send asylum-seekers to Mexico while their requests are processed.

Mexico’s government had said it would on Monday set out its position on the Trump administration’s radical policy change, announced last week, that migrants seeking refuge in the United States would be sent to Mexico while their cases are pending.

But for the second time running, Mexican foreign minister Marcelo Ebrard told a regular news conference that he would seek “more information” from U.S. authorities about the plan both sides unveiled on Thursday.

Most migrants traveling to the United States are from poor and violent countries in Central America. Caravans of them from the region have in recent months fanned tensions between Mexico and U.S. President Donald Trump over border security.

Ebrard reiterated his government would not sign any accord that made Mexico a “safe third country” – an agreement Mexico says U.S. officials have requested which would oblige migrants who arrive first in Mexico to file asylum requests there.

Instead, the minister said, Mexico would “drastically” change its migration policy to ensure that its response to the mass movement of people was humanitarian.

“Today there’s only one way of describing the experience of the migrants that travel through our country: It is a horror. Humiliations, abuses, violations, and outrages,” Ebrard said alongside President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

Deflecting attention from Trump’s often pointed criticism, Mexico has tried to take the higher ground in the debate by promising to help migrants get jobs and visas.

Interior Minister Olga Sanchez told the news conference that migrants would in future enter Mexico in an “orderly” and “safe” way, vowing a shift away from what she called a policy of “repression and militarization” at its southern border.

But many questions remain about how Mexico will cope with an influx of potentially thousands of Central Americans into the country for cases that may take years to process.

Lopez Obrador has sought not to antagonize Trump by commenting on the U.S. president’s demands for a southern border wall, and on Monday he again declined to do so.

“There’s a special situation in the United States and I don’t wish to offer a point of view,” he told reporters. “I will keep my counsel. There will be time.”

(Reporting by Dave Graham; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis)