tv NBC Bay Area We Investigate NBC March 9, 2019 6:30pm-7:01pm PST
hannah macnorlin: there is a lot of very strong anti-immigrant sentiment here. announcer: two women, both victims of rape, but only one gets to stay in the united states. we uncover how geography impacts asylum more than the merits of a case. then-- tony romo: just like prisoners of war, you know, all of us together. announcer: they serve this country but then broke the law. we reveal how hundreds of immigrant veterans, once promised u.s. citizenship, got deported by the very country they fought to protect. but first-- i feel that they will kill us, everybody. announcer: fleeing for their lives, firsthand accounts from families escaping unspeakable violence. here's senior investigative reporter stephen stock. ♪ stephen stock: thanks for joining us. during the last few years of turmoil and debate in washington, perhaps no single topic has created as much division as the topic of immigration. who should be allowed into the country, and under what circumstances? our investigative unit went behind the scenes to expose
the real impact of this stalemate on human lives. we followed the journeys of immigrants fleeing their homes in el salvador, honduras, and guatemala, where murder rates are among the highest in the world. they come seeking asylum in the united states, but, instead, they encounter a total breakdown, an immigration system, which, according to its own judges, is simply not working. [speaking spanish] jaime: i got out of guatemala because of problems with the gangs. they were following me, wanting to kill me. i didn't want to die. i wanted to save my life. stephen: the gangs in guatemala came for jaime when he was 12. shortly after that, he fled for his life, leaving his mother, his home, and his country. even now, he fears for his life, which is why we won't show you his face or use his real name. [speaking spanish] jaime: if i return to guatemala, for sure, death will be waiting for me.
stephen: jaime is now in school and in hiding, hiding in plain sight among us here in the bay area. except for a distant relative whom he barely knows, he is alone. jaime is 14. male: was it worth it to come here? [speaking spanish] jaime: if i didn't have this now, i'd be dead today. stephen: according to the u.s. border patrol, about 224,000, or so, unaccompanied children, plus other families, have crossed the southwest border in the last year alone, data that includes 57,000, just in the last month. many of those, like jaime, fled out of fear that gangs in their home countries would kill them. the numbers of people fleeing central america have become so large, there's no room in court or in holding facilities. so after picking the refugees up along the border, federal agents rerelease them back into the u.s. if the immigrants have relatives already living here, who can pay for a bus ticket. in exchange, these refugees agree to report to local immigration authorities once
they get to their relatives' hometown. galen hunt: many of them were dehydrated. they were hungry. their, you know, clothes were torn and dirty and-- stephen: over the course of several days, the investigative unit documented family after family arriving at this bus station in tucson, young mothers and their children, even a father and a young daughter traveling alone. we talked with many of them. all of them feared for their lives. female: they roll the dice to come here. stephen: we also rode the bus with several of these immigrants, headed to places like atlanta, los angeles, new jersey, even eureka in northern california. sophia: if you stayed there, you will be kill, and that's why we are here. stephen: among those who rode the bus, 19-year-old sophia and her family, riding for three hours, here to the east bay-- sophia: we're here because we are saving our lives. stephen: before going into hiding, living in the shadows, even now.
sophia: they will kill us, everybody. stephen: she hides her face, but she wants you to hear her story of escape and survival from death squads in her honduran hometown. sophia: they start to beat up my father a lot, and then they placed a gun over my baby's head. stephen: the people were members of mara 18, one of the most violent gangs in honduras and the world, coming to collect extortion money from her family. sophia: we can't pay anymore because my father has no job to pay it. [speaking spanish] stephen: sophia's father asked to be called "roberto." [speaking spanish] stephen: after robert's wife and daughter were raped, his life threatened, he and his family fled honduras, unsure of their future. [speaking spanish] stephen: even after they escaped such unspeakable horror, these children and families face an uncertain future here in the u.s., thanks in large part to a backlog of court cases and the
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than the one next door. the nation's immigration court backlog of cases increased by 49%, despite efforts by the trump administration to reduce it. that total case backlog has continued to grow, and as of november of 2018, just over one million immigrants were waiting to have their cases heard in federal immigration court. here in san francisco, there are nearly 60,000 cases now waiting to be heard. [speaking spanish] basilio: i was beaten. stephen: beaten and threatened with his life, all because he supported a political opponent of his hometown's mayor. thirty-eight-year-old basilio, his wife, margarita, and their two sons, fled here, but they say the rest of their family in guatemala faces the same threats. [speaking spanish]
basilio: i hope no one will harm them, and i pray the united states can help me. stephen: it might eventually. basilio faces a long wait for justice. he won't get his day in u.s. immigration court until 2020. [speaking spanish] basilio: i don't know what's gonna happen. i have no hope. gautam jagannath: it's certainly not justice. stephen: gautam jagannath and his law partner emily abraham founded a legal organization called the social justice collaborative in oakland, in 2012, just to represent undocumented immigrants like basilio and his family. emily abraham: we receive cancellation notices at least five times a month, usually, for cases that are scheduled to go forward. clients are frustrated. we are frustrated. gautam: we were seeing cases pushed out two years. now we're seeing four years and more. we have cases set out to 2022. stephen: part of a backlog of immigration court cases-- stephen: since we first uncovered the extent of this backlog, the numbers show it's grown worse, not better, even with the courts issuing more deportation orders under president trump.
emily: the practical problems with delays is that most of our clients have left family members, usually young children abroad, and they have no way to be reunited until their cases are resolved. stephen: the problem: there remains a shortage of u.s. immigration court judges across the country, meaning that some judges have as many as 5,000 cases on their docket. dana leigh marks: the immigration judges have been the canaries in the coal mine, saying that we were going to be overwhelmed, that we needed more help. for more than a decade-- stephen: judge dana leigh marks has more than 3,000 cases on her calendar right now. speaking as president of the national association of immigration judges, marks says, "understaffed courts continue to be a growing problem, one that only congress can fix." judge marks: it is not a democratic or republican issue. stephen: though congress did recently approve money to hire 65 more judge teams, marks says only by adding another 200, or so, more judges would the backlog really start to improve.
judge marks: the older cases get more complicated because the evidence becomes stale. people may lose touch with witnesses that they need. stephen: in san francisco, the wait is now one of the longest in the country, an average of 1,113 days, and no court is setting new cases as far into the future as san francisco, now setting cases in 2022. judge marks: a lot of people tell us that they fear for their very life if they're sent back to their home country. that's a death penalty case. stephen: immigrants come here because u.s. law guarantees them the right to ask for asylum if they fear for their safety in their home countries, but we found court data that shows getting asylum may depend not on the merits of a case but on where an immigrant lives and where they file their case. [speaking spanish] maria: i am afraid. stephen: she asked us to call her "maria." [speaking spanish] maria: i was raped at the age of eight. stephen: maria tells us the sexual assaults by several different men continued into adulthood,
including by a police officer who became the father of her child. [speaking spanish] maria: i got pregnant. stephen: now 28, maria fled her home and that police officer in honduras, seven years ago. mariele: i'm afraid of him. stephen: she asked us to call her "mariele." [speaking spanish] mariele: he was a person who drank a lot. stephen: her name and age are different. [speaking spanish] mariele: my life was in danger. i had no peace. stephen: but the rest of her story is eerily similar to maria's. mariele fled honduras to escape a lifetime of sexual assault that started when she was a child, as well. [speaking spanish] mariele: he was aggressive with me. he made me have sex with him when he wanted to. stephen: both women came to the u.s. to escape abusive men in power. mariele had to leave behind her infant daughter. [speaking spanish] mariele: it was a nightmare. stephen: maria was able to take her daughter with her. this is her daughter now. [speaking spanish] maria: i am very afraid of him, and that is why i say i came her to the united states. stephen: mariele lives in the bay area and had her request for asylum granted by a u.s.
immigration court judge. maria fled to atlanta, where her request for asylum was denied. sarah owings: it's a rough place to practice immigration law. stephen: sarah owings is maria's immigration attorney in atlanta. sarah: the bench can be a lot more hostile. the government is really interested in winning every case, every time, as opposed to, sometimes, i think, doling out the most fair and correct administration of benefits. stephen: and it's not just maria and mariele's cases either. data collected by the transactional records access clearinghouse, or trac, at syracuse university, shows a wide gap in the granting of asylum requests from court to court, throughout the country. karen musalo: there's something going on that is very, very troubling. stephen: karen musalo, director at the center for gender & refugee studies at uc hastings school of law in san francisco, has studied this inconsistency for years. karen: there are gross disparities between the grant and denial rates on asylum of judges, both judges within individual courts, but then across courts.
stephen: every year, los angeles and san francisco courts consistently rank in the top 15 in granting asylum, along with phoenix, philadelphia, san antonio, new york, and boston. stephen: here, in atlanta, georgia, for the last three years, this court has had one of the lowest rates of granting asylum in the country. stephen: averaging 22%, atlanta's immigration courts join lumpkin, georgia, along with charlotte, dallas, and houston, as the courts with the lowest rates of asylum grants. stephen: what do you think's going on? karen: i think there are a number of factors that contribute to these disparities. they have to do with both the selection process for the individual judges and what their backgrounds are, and whether or not they're qualified. hannah: there is a lot of very, very strong anti-immigrant sentiment here. stephen: immigration attorney hannah macnorlin also represents maria in georgia. hannah: it's the judges not following the law. it's the judges feeling like they can decide that they don't
like this kind of asylum case, and so they're gonna decide that the law doesn't apply. stephen: after declining an on-camera interview, a spokesperson for the executive office for immigration review, e-mailed us a statement which reads, in part, quote, "it is important to note that each asylum case is unique," but that, quote, "eoir takes seriously any claims of unjustified and significant anomalies in immigration judge decision-making." paul wickham schmidt: if i were an immigrant, i'd rather be in california than in atlanta, georgia, any day. stephen: retired immigration court judge paul wickham schmidt says, "the disparity even within regional circuits is so wide, it can only be explained by personal bias creeping into judges' decisions." judge wickham schmidt: clearly, the attitudes of the judges and how they feel about asylum law has quite a bit to do with it. stephen: the consequences of those decisions are gray for people like mariele and maria. mariele: sometimes it seems like people don't
care about it, you know? we are human beings. [speaking spanish] maria: i came to this country to get away because i thought that, here, they could do something for me. stephen: congress's own government accountability office, twice, issued reports in 2008 and 2016 that point out, quote, "significant variation in asylum cases." the gao report called on lawmakers to fix the problem, but, so far, nothing has happened. coming up next-- hector barajas: i don't think it's right, but, you know, that's the law. stephen: noncitizens in the u.s. military, they say they were promised citizenship, but after leaving the service, they got deported. we investigate that next.
for committing any one of a long list of crimes, some of those crimes even minor. because of that policy, hundreds of u.s. veterans now find themselves deported by the very country they served. stephen: when you walk out of tony romo's back porch overlooking the pacific, you might think you're looking at paradise. tony romo: you can see there's san diego. stephen: but in reality, it's paradise lost for tony romo, who feels trapped here. tony: just like prisoners of war, you know, all of us together. this is me. stephen: romo, a retired marine who led raids into iraq during the buildup to the gulf war, was deported by the very country he served, forced to live here after serving time in a u.s. jail for selling drugs. tony: i miss the marine corps, i missed my country. my dad is over there, my daughter, my brothers. stephen: even so, romo's allegiance remains to the country he can see from his back porch,
just beyond the border wall. tony: and it is a great country, and i'd defend it any time. i still would. stephen: we found dozens of u.s. veterans now living in tijuana, all of them, noncitizens who served in the u.s. military, dating back to the vietnam war, deported for committing crimes classified as "aggravated felonies," things like drug possession, failure to show up in court, or entering the country illegally. stephen: in this report issued by the aclu of california, in july of last year, they were able to identify some 250 u.s. veterans deported to at least 34 different countries. our investigation found at least 60 veterans living here in the tijuana, mexico area. hector barajas: i don't think it's right, but you know, that's the law. stephen: a deported u.s. army veteran himself, hector barajas helped the aclu prepare that report. he says the number of deported veterans keeps growing. hector: we've come into contact with veterans either being in the process of being deported or are already
deported, at least 301. we're up to 301. stephen: barajas served two years in prison after pleading guilty to illegal discharge of a firearm in compton, in southern california. deported in 2004, he now runs a shelter here in tijuana, nicknamed, "the bunker," where deported veterans can get help with job prospects, immigration advice, and legal services. hector: my allegiance is to the united states. it's not to mexico. i was born in mexico, but my allegiance and who i choose to die and fight for is the united states of america. stephen: our investigation found 70,000 noncitizens enlisted in the u.s. military between 2009 and 2016. at least half of them never applied for citizenship, according to the center for naval analyses, leaving them vulnerable to deportation. to a man, these vets serve their time in jail, prison, or probation, for the crimes they committed here in the u.s. no one knows exactly how many there are because the u.s. government does not track them.
stephen: --here, did the military drop the ball? nathan fletcher: yeah, the department of defense did. stephen: retired marine and former california assemblyman nathan fletcher says he was shocked when he learned about these deported vets. nathan: anyone willing to die for their country should have a country willing to give them citizenship, and it's what they were promised when they joined. stephen: fletcher is now lobbying congress to change the law and allow these veterans back. nathan: if we had 300 americans who were missing in iraq or afghanistan, we would stop the gravitational spin of the earth to bring them home. sharon rummery: they just have to qualify to be a u.s. citizen. stephen: sharon rummery represents the u.s. citizenship and immigration services, the federal agency that processes citizenship. while officials with the department of defense declined our request for an interview, rummery did agree to sit down with us and answer our questions. sharon: well, if you've been convicted of certain defenses, it's a deportable act. stephen: even if you've served as a veteran? sharon: oh, that's right, yes. stephen: does that seem fair? sharon: it's--we don't ask ourselves
what's fair or not fair. we simply are here to administer the law. that's what we're charged with. that's what we do. hector: these are some of the men that have passed away here in mexico. stephen: in one of the saddest ironies involving this issue, current law allows these veterans to return to the u.s. after they die. nathan: we will bring their dead body across the border. we will go to a military cemetery. we will give 'em a 21-gun salute. we will play "taps." we will fold the flag, and a military officer will hand the flag to the family member and say, "a grateful nation appreciates your husband's service." hector: there's no honor in that. there's no honor in that in only allowing these men to return when they die or when they're at the point of death. stephen: we found the grave of one such veteran, manuel castano, who had been deported to juarez, mexico, now back in the u.s., resting finally in peace in a national cemetery in el paso, texas. stephen: after our initial series of stories about deported
deported veterans, california governor jerry brown intervened in some of their cases. he granted a pardon to three veterans who had been deported. stephen: the news had been a long time coming. after first being deported in 2004, from the country he had been willing to die for, in march 2018, hector barajas learned that the path was now clear for him to become a u.s. citizen. hector: says, "thank you for your interest in becoming a united states citizen. you must now appear." whoo. stephen: talking, via skype, from tijuana, barajas told us what he's looking forward to the most. hector: all those days when my daughter would cry, "why can't you be home?" or i'd take her to the border, and i couldn't go across with her--now i can. hector: wow. stephen: barajas's path to citizenship got smoother
a year earlier in april 2017, when he learned governor jerry brown had pardoned him and two other vets. male: hector, welcome home. stephen: then, a year later, april 13, 2018, hector barajas's dream became reality. in a san diego u.s. immigration office. he swore the oath to officially become a citizen. hector: dear heavenly father, i wanna thank you today for this opportunity to be home with my family and-- stephen: cut off from his family in california for 14 years and struggling to survive in tijuana, mexico, barajas now says he's ready for a new life. hector: my dream is to put my daughter through college, find a job, continue to help others. stephen: hector, welcome home. hector: thank you, thank you. stephen: barajas later sat down with me to share more details about his journey and his continued fight for justice for fellow veterans and all undocumented immigrants. hector: it feels great to just to be able to be here. i mean, there's a peacefulness that i feel now that i'm--just that i'm home, that i'm able to be with my daughter when i need
to be, and, you know, i could cross whenever i wish and feel like it. stephen: what do you think needs to happen next? hector: we just need to keep raising awareness, and hopefully the laws will change. i still feel that our men are being left behind. stephen: what're you gonna do now that you're here? are you gonna rest? are you gonna stop? hector: no, i'm not resting. i'm gonna continue my work. i have a commitment to my veterans, and i love my country. it's not perfect. it's made of imperfect people, but it's my country, you know, and i think i can hopefully make a better impact on this side of the border, but also in mexico. stephen: several congressman have introduced legislation in washington to change immigration laws to allow veterans such as hector barajas to return here to the u.s., but changing policy is slow-going in washington these days, meaning that many people will remain in limbo as politicians battle over what immigration should look like into the future. i'm stephen stock. thanks for joining us as we investigate the breakdown in america's immigration system.
remembered as, you know, an actor, as a heartthrob. >> i like that. >> indeed. welcome to "access," the weekend edition. scott evans with kit hoover. it's so nice to hear the outpouring of love for luke and his family. >> the kindness. you just saw right there one of luke's biggest fans, san tina. three years ago, she was hospitalized for three months. luke came to visit her at her bedside. guys, no press, no ulterior motive, just compassion. >> and kindness. you'll hear more about our moments with luke later in the show, but kit, whoo! >> whoo! >> what a week it has been. let's just recap it all, huh? okay, let's start, i think we have to, with r. kelly, who sat down with gayle king for an explosive interview. >> now we have clips you haven't seen and analysis from the experts. >> let's begin with dr. gail saltz, who's a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at new york presbyterian hospital. >> i didn't do this stuff! this is not me! i'm fighting for my [ bleep ]