Elizabeth Aguilera
Jan 3 · 13 min read

Maybe MS-13, Second child dead in federal custody, government shutdown and the wall

On the border of Canadian-US border sits a binational library. It has also become a meeting place for Iranian students who cannot leave or enter the U.S. to see their families due to the travel ban. Yeganeh Torbati wrote about them last month for Reuters, and This American Life featured an audio version this week. Image source: Wikicommons.

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When 20-year-old University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts was found dead in August 2018, allegedly murdered by an undocumented immigrant, Trump used the murder to bolster his border crackdown. But instead of lashing out against immigrants, Mollie’s mother, Laura Calderwood, decided to take one in. “The nation, it seemed, was directing its anger about Mollie’s death toward Yarrabee Farms, where her alleged killer had worked, deluging it with vitriolic messages. The immigrant families who worked there were fleeing,” Terrence McCoy writes in The Washington Post.“Laura thought of Mollie. She would argue that the farmworkers didn’t deserve this, that they were only trying to earn a living.” Calderwood’s reaction marked a departure from many other parents in similar situations who lash out against the killers of their children– and the communities they come from.

The student was suspended, arrested and deported this year after he drew on a calculator in math class. “Without any legal changes, schools have become the start of a law-enforcement chain that lets ICE agents on transnational-crime task forces peer into hallways and backpacks without ever entering the property,” writes Hannah Dreier for ProPublica and New York Magazine. Under the Trump administration’s Operation Matador, ICE can detain immigrants with suspected gang ties who have not been charged with a crime. More than 800 people have been arrested on suspected gang affiliations since May 2017, based on evidence that is “unreliable.” School police officers, who often lack specialized training to identify gang symbols, have become a key part of this enforcement effort.

In a separate graphic and intimate look at gangs and Central American youth on Long Island, ProPublica’s Kavitha Surana and Drier investigate “What happens when you say no to MS-13.” The photos for both pieces are from Natalie Keyssar.

Migrant Children at Risk
Family mourned the death of the second Guatemalan child to die in U.S. custody in December, Felipe Gomez Alonzo. The 8-year-old boy died in CBP custody on Christmas Day, reports The Guardian. The Guatemalan government has called for an investigation, but has acted cautiously towards the Trump administration so as not to damage relations, reports The New York Times. The exact circumstances of the child’s death are still unknown, but he exhibited flu-like symptoms shortly before his death.

The family of Jakelin Caal, the 7-year-old Guatemalan girl who died in U.S. custody on Dec. 7, mourned her death last week.

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen visited facilities in El Paso, Texas and Yuma, Arizona last week in response to the two deaths, which she called “deeply concerning and heartbreaking.” She ordered more thorough medical screenings of children after the two deaths, and at least four children in U.S. custody have been admitted to the hospital as a result, reports NPR.

Former staff at a now-closed Southwest Key shelter in the Phoenix are being investigated after a video was published by Arizona Republic showing staff dragging migrant children across the floor.

Despite widespread reports of sexual assault of minors in shelters for migrant children, police often fail to investigate and instead close cases within hours or days, reports ProPublica. In the case of 13-year-old Alex, a Honduran detained at Boystown outside of Miami, who reported an attempted sexual assault by two other residents which was partially caught on tape, police closed the case 72 minutes after responding to the call. “Over the past six months, ProPublica has gathered hundreds of police reports detailing allegations of sexual assaults in immigrant children’s shelters, which have received $4.5 billion for housing and other services since the surge of unaccompanied minors from Central America in 2014,” Michael Grabell, Topher Sanders, and Silvina Sterin Pensel write. “The reports, obtained through public records requests, revealed a largely hidden side of the shelters — one in which both staff and other residents sometimes acted as predators.”

Members of the caravan celebrated Christmas in Tijuana with a traditional Central American dinner of tamales to feel closer to home while they await asylum, reports The Guardian. “We wanted our new caravan family to be able to have our traditions. But being here is hard,” said one Honduran woman who helped prepare more than 2,000 tamales.

During the early hours of January 1, CBP launched at least three canisters of tear gas at 150 Central Americans who allegedly tried to breach the border fence, reports AP.

Another caravan of Central Americans, estimated to reach 15,000 people, will allegedly leave from Honduras on Jan. 15, with Salvadorans and Guatemalans expected to meet the group, reports The San Diego Union-Tribune.

Immigration is an International Issue
CBP commissioner Kevin McAleenan said Sunday that the U.S. needs to invest in economic development and security in Central America, particularly in places like Guatemala’s western highlands where residents are migrating in large numbers, reports ABC. His comments came after Trump, once again, threatened to cut aid to Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, through a tweet last week. The Salvadoran government responded to the threat by pointing to its efforts to improve social and economic conditions in the country, which led to a 60 percent drop in migration from El Salvador this year, reports AFP.

Canada has a booming “birth tourism” industry that provides a specialized experience for immigrant women, many from China, who travel to Canada to give birth and then return to their home countries, reports The New York Times. Although legal, the practice is gaining more criticism from politicians and citizens who call it unethical. This is a long-established practice in the US. Bloomberg looks at trends beyond Chinese across the country, focusing on Russians in Miami who say they are not in it for the passport. Russians tend to prefer Miami, Sunny Isles Beach if they are affluent, while Chinese flock to Los Angeles and Nigerians go to the Northeast and Texas. In 2016 the Los Angeles Times reported about the Chinese birth tourism trend that is centered in Southern California.

Government shutdown
Democrats are expected to sign a bill Thursday that will end the government shutdown and provide $1.3 billion for border security, rather than the $5 billion that Trump demanded, reports The Guardian. Immigration has been the main issue of tension between both parties, ultimately leading to the shutdown. White House aide Kellyanne Conway called the impasse a “semantic argument,” but Dem. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries called it a “ransom note,” reports The Hill.

During the shutdown, hundreds of immigrants have had their court dates postponed for asylum, green card and other immigration hearings, adding to the backlog of more than 800,000 cases, reports CBS News.

The tent city in Tornillo, Texas where an estimated 2,500 minors are being housed, is set to close by Jan. 15 when all minors are released to parents or sponsors, reports The New York Times. The government has spent at least $144 on housing minors at the tent city, where the daily cost per person is double other locations.

At least $800 million in taxpayer dollars, if not more, was spent on private prisons in 2018 that house migrants, an industry with little transparency despite using public funds, reports The Daily Beast. “This culture of secrecy — bolstered by revolving door politics and political contributions — have paved the way for a rapid and reckless expansion of the detention system,” said one expert from Detention Watch Network, an organization that wants to end immigrant detention.

Over a few days last week, including Christmas Day, ICE released hundreds of migrants from detention at a bus stop in El Paso, putting stress on immigrant rights groups that house migrants and leaving many out in near zero degree temperatures without winter clothes and sans knowledge about what to do next, reports CNN. This is part of a larger plan within CBP to release hundreds of families a day in response to the dysfunctional detention system, reports Vox.

A Salvadoran asylum-seeker who was deported in November 2017 was murdered six days after his return to El Salvador, reports The Washington Post. Ronald Acevedo fled El Salvador when he received threats from the gang that ruled his neighborhood, which he unwillingly helped by serving as a lookout. He withdrew his asylum application after seven months in detention on the alleged advice of ICE officials, his family says. “In at least a handful of cases, asylum seekers were killed in Central America after being deported during the Obama administration,” Kevin Sieff writes. “The number of those facing the same fate under the Trump administration is just beginning to emerge. In addition to Acevedo, The Post has identified another asylum seeker, Miguel Panameño, who was killed this year, months after being deported to El Salvador. He is buried in the same cemetery as Acevedo.”

As of Tuesday, undocumented immigrants in Maryland can legally designate a guardian to care for their children in the case of deportation so that they will not be put into foster care, reports The Baltimore Sun. The law is the latest attempt for state legislators to protect Maryland residents from Trump’s immigration crackdown.

An increase in deportations of Somali immigrants since 2013, particularly under the Trump administration, has left one Georgia town struggling to deal with the aftermath of immigration raids, reports The Intercept. But after alleged inhumane treatment during a deportation flight, some immigrants may have the chance to gain legal status and return to their lives.

The Somali flight was among various recently botched deportation efforts, reports The Boston Globe. “As ICE officials intensify efforts to remove unauthorized immigrants…attorneys say the agency is struggling to carry out deportations, sometimes scheduling flights before securing the proper travel documents or final agreements with home countries,” Maria Cramer writes in a story about an Indian man desperate to be deported, who still spent nearly 17 months in jail. “As a result, many deportees are languishing in detention for months, often well beyond the legal limit of six months set by the US Supreme Court, according to immigration attorneys.”

Counterfeit Social Security and green card operations have continued to adapt to the needs of undocumented workers, with some using online resources and social networks to reach clients, reports The New York Times. The illicit industry, which took off in the 1980s, also flourishes with the help of social media and sophisticated technology, and some players operate across international boundaries. Payments are made via untraditional methods, like Venmo, and marketing is happening on the dark web.

A lawsuit filed against the Vermont DMV alleges that the agency illegally shared information with ICE about undocumented immigrants who received licenses, reports NPR. More than a dozen states and Washington D.C. allow undocumented immigrants to get a license, but the case is raising questions about the risks they face when doing so.

ICE officers have reported having their personal information published online and increased threats since Trump took office, and the agency has started to take more precautions to keep employees safe and protect their information, reports AP.

A Guatemalan woman whose first language is Jacaltec is applying to return to the U.S. given that her immigration hearing was carried out in Spanish, a language she did not fully understand, reports BuzzFeed News. Language barriers are a common problem for speakers of Guatemala’s 23 Mayan languages. “We have seen people receive negative credible fear determinations when they did qualify for asylum because of poor interpretation. This can be a life-or-death mistake,” said one organization that provides legal aid to migrants in Texas.

The Trump administration has been rejecting special immigrant juvenile status applications for about a year for those over 18, even though the courts have determined they were mistreated or neglected, reports the LA Times. A lawsuit in California, and similar ones across the country, are charging that this is unlawful.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo issued 22 pardons on Monday for immigrants at risk of deportation or hindered from getting a green card because of their criminal records, reports The New York Times. Pardoning immigrants has become a key part of his clemency plan as he assumes his third term in office.

An undocumented Mexican immigrant was charged with the murder of a California police officer Wednesday, but his lawyer declared him incompetent for trial, reports LA Times. The trial was suspended until a doctor issues a report.


  • An increase in crossings of migrant families have left federal agencies working at the border unprepared to house and attend these migrants as told through the child Jakelin Caal’s journey that ended in her death. (The Washington Post)
  • Six-year-old Wilder Maldonado returned to his family in El Salvador just in time for Christmas after being separated from his dad and living in foster care in Texas. But he is having trouble adjusting to his home country after six months of living in the U.S., eating pizza, watching Spiderman and learning English. (ProPublica)

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*Daniela Gerson is a co-founder and the editor of Migratory Notes. She is an assistant professor at California State University, Northridge with a focus on community, ethnic, and participatory media. She is also a senior fellow at theDemocracy Fund. Before that she was a community engagement editor at the LA Times; founding editor of a trilingual hyperlocal publication, Alhambra Source; staff immigration reporter for the New York Sun; and a contributor to outlets including WNYC: New York Public Radio, The World, Der Spiegel, Financial Times, CNN, and The New York Times. She recently wrote The Grand Refugee Hotel: The Sequel to My Grandfather’s Germany for Refugees Deeply. You can find her on Twitter @dhgerson

*Elizabeth Aguilera is a co-founder and the executive editor of Migratory Notes. She is a multimedia reporter for CALmatters covering health and social services, including immigration. Previously she reported on community health, for Southern California Public Radio. She’s also reported on immigration for the San Diego Union-Tribune, where she won a Best of the West award for her work on sex trafficking between the U.S. and Mexico; and before that she covered a variety of beats and issues for the Denver Post including urban affairs and immigration. Her latest story is California AG labels Trump’s draft “public charge” crackdown on immigrants reckless — and unconstitutional. You can find her on Twitter @1eaguilera

*Yana Kunichoff is a special projects editor for Migratory Notes. She is an independent journalist and documentary producer who covers immigration, policing, education and social movements. She was project manager for Migrahack 2016 in Chicago. She has also produced feature-length documentaries and a pop-culture web series for Scrappers Film Group; worked as a fellow with City Bureau, where she won a March 2016 Sidney Hillman award for an investigation into fatal police shootings; and covered race and poverty issues for the Chicago Reporter. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, The Atlantic, Pacific Standard and Chicago magazine among others. You can find her on Twitter @yanazure

*Anna-Cat Brigida is a staff writer for Migratory Notes. She is a freelance reporter covering immigration and human rights in Mexico and Central America. She began covering immigration as a journalism student at USC Annenberg and later moved to Central America to work as a reporter. She has covered the region since 2015 and has been based in El Salvador since January 2018. She has also worked as a Spanish-language writer for Fusion out of the Mexico City office. Her work has appeared in Washington Post, The Guardian, Univision, LA Times, and Al Jazeera, among others. You can find her on Twitter @AnnaCat_Brigida

*Migratory Notes Advisory Board: Daniel Connolly, Maria Kari, Dan Kowalski, Paola Marizán, Roberto Suro, Phuong Ly,

Migratory Notes

At a time of rapidly shifting policies, we synthesize exceptional immigration journalism.

Elizabeth Aguilera

Written by

Health/Social Services reporter @CALmatters, co-founder of #MigratoryNotes. I carry a mic & a pen. Prev: @KPCC @SDUT, @DenverPost. elizabeth@calmatters.org

Migratory Notes

At a time of rapidly shifting policies, we synthesize exceptional immigration journalism.

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