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American Coyotes

Former Pittsburgher preaches at border wall of pain, suffering and separation

| Sunday, July 19, 2015, 12:15 p.m.
Dylan Terrazes of Santa Barbara, Calif., touches his grandmother's fingers  in a 'pinky kiss' through the border fence as she meets him for the first time at Friendship Park in Border Field State Park in Imperial Beach, Calif.
Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
Dylan Terrazes of Santa Barbara, Calif., touches his grandmother's fingers in a 'pinky kiss' through the border fence as she meets him for the first time at Friendship Park in Border Field State Park in Imperial Beach, Calif.
Rev. Dermot Rodgers, at right, formerly of Pittsburgh, holds ecumenical services along the steel border wall.
Carl Prine | Trib Total Media
Rev. Dermot Rodgers, at right, formerly of Pittsburgh, holds ecumenical services along the steel border wall.
A family stands in the rain on the Mexican side of the border fence as they visit with family at Friendship Park in Border Field State Park in Imperial Beach, Calif. The park is the only place along the entire 1,933 miles of U.S. border with Mexico where families are allowed to congregate on both side of the fence to communicate.
Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
A family stands in the rain on the Mexican side of the border fence as they visit with family at Friendship Park in Border Field State Park in Imperial Beach, Calif. The park is the only place along the entire 1,933 miles of U.S. border with Mexico where families are allowed to congregate on both side of the fence to communicate.
Concepcion Salazar looks through the border fence from Tijuana, Mexico, into Friendship Park in Border Field State Park in Imperial Beach, Calif. She met her grandchildren for the first time and visited with her family, whom she hadn't seen in 20 years.
Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
Concepcion Salazar looks through the border fence from Tijuana, Mexico, into Friendship Park in Border Field State Park in Imperial Beach, Calif. She met her grandchildren for the first time and visited with her family, whom she hadn't seen in 20 years.
The U.S.-Mexico border fence runs out into the Pacific Ocean near Border Field State Park in Imperial Beach, Calif. The area is heavily monitored by Border Patrol as well as the Coast Guard.
Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
The U.S.-Mexico border fence runs out into the Pacific Ocean near Border Field State Park in Imperial Beach, Calif. The area is heavily monitored by Border Patrol as well as the Coast Guard.

IMPERIAL BEACH, Calif. — They can barely glimpse each other through the triple-meshed steel fence.

On the California side, about 12 miles south of San Diego, there's the undocumented man who came from Seattle. On the other side of the fence, in Mexico's Playas de Tijuana, is his 88-year-old mom.

They haven't seen each other for 11 years.

She's never met any of her grandchildren. Until now.

There's another father — an American citizen – standing with his red-haired daughter, talking through the fence to his deported Mexican wife.

“El amor no tiene fronteras,” they like to say here. Love has no borders.

You can see that in the children poking fingers through the tiny metal squares, trying to give a repatriated parent on the other side what are called “pinky kisses.”

“The only thing that fits through the hole is the pinky. I'm waiting for the day they stop that, too,” said the Rev. Dermot Rodgers, 52, nodding at the three Border Patrol agents circling the crowd, ready to pounce on anyone trying to scale the two-story wall or swim around its long jetty into the Pacific surf.

Ordained as a Roman Catholic priest in 1991 at St. Augustine Church in Pittsburgh's Lawrenceville neighborhood, Rodgers now is affiliated with the Evangelical Catholic Church in California, an organization not recognized by the Vatican.

Border Field State Park, established in 1972, was intended to be a place where Mexicans and Americans could congregate peacefully. All that's left of the sentiment is the half-acre “Friendship Park,” a spit of pavement squeezed between the ocean and twin layers of razor wire. It looks a lot like much of the rest of a border that stretches 1,933 miles east, except that here federal agents allow people to congregate on both sides of the fence for a few hours every Saturday and Sunday.

Participants told a Tribune-Review investigations reporter that there's probably more heartbreak here than anywhere else along the border.

Most on the Mexican side said they were deported for getting caught working illegally or committing minor crimes in the United States. Some were brought to America as toddlers by parents who were illegal immigrants. Some are U.S. military combat veterans. Some don't even speak Spanish.

“Treat us like equals. If you were brought here illegally, that's not your fault. Instead of deporting us, let us stay on the U.S. side of the border. I don't know Mexico. I was raised as American,” said Marco Palma, 35, who said he grew up in California but was repatriated to Mexico after a theft conviction.

He said he's working two jobs to survive in Tijuana and looks forward to reapplying for citizenship three years from now.

“It's complicated. But something must be done to change things,” said his sister on the U.S. side, Diana Sanchez, 27. Pointing at the fence, she added, “This can't be the answer.”

Divisions over Obama order

Because she's one of the estimated 1.6 million law-abiding immigrants brought here as minors, the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival program, or DACA, temporarily bars Sanchez's deportation. Established by presidential order by Barack Obama in 2012, the act allowed Sanchez to work legally, obtain a driver's license and go to school. However, Congress or the next president can end the policy.

Disagreement within the GOP-controlled House of Representatives in 2013 stifled a controversial immigration overhaul bill that cleared the Democrat-held Senate.

Shortly after a landslide Republican victory in November's midterm elections, President Obama used executive power to block from deportation nearly half of the estimated 11.5 million illegal aliens living in the United States — mostly the parents of childhood act kids.

A coalition of GOP-led states is challenging Obama's order in court, and Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill have vowed to stop its implementation.

In a two-month trek along the U.S. border with Mexico, residents who spoke with a Trib investigations reporter split on whether Obama's proposal – called “amnesty” by critics – would spur more illegal immigration.

Doyle E. Amidon, 45, Patrol Agent in Charge of Border Patrol's station in Falfurrias, Texas, about an hour's drive north of Mexico, said that Obama's announcement “could have some impact,” but not if the U.S. advertises overseas that the deal won't apply to those who arrived after 2013.

Perceptions that the act allowed juveniles illegally crossing the border to become U.S. citizens helped drive 68,541 minors — many of them from Central America — into the southwestern states in the fiscal year that ended in October.

Since then, word of mouth from deported immigrants and U.S. ad campaigns south of the border sliced juvenile apprehensions from 36,280 minors in April 2014 to 18,919 at the same time this year, a 48 percent decline, according to the most recent Homeland Security report.

Border crossings are seasonal, rising as the weather warms, so apprehensions are expected to climb from April's tally and tail off in autumn.

Perceptions that the act allowed juveniles illegally crossing the border to become U.S. citizens helped drive 68,541 minors — many of them from Central America — into the southwestern states in the fiscal year that ended in October.

Since then, word of mouth from deported immigrants and U.S. ad campaigns south of the border sliced juvenile apprehensions. Between Oct. 1, 2013, and June 30, 2014, federal officials had detained 57,478 juveniles unlawfully entering the United States without their parents.

So far in the current federal fiscal year, they have tallied 26,685 arrests – down 54 percent.

Calculating apprehensions from the first half of the year, however, the estimated number of juveniles detained along the border likely will slump to around 39,000 minors for the year ending in October, according to the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute, an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit think tank in Washington dedicated to analysis of the movement of people worldwide.

Vicki B. Gaubeca, 53, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Regional Center for Border Rights in Los Ebanos, N.M., said U.S. immigration policies lean too heavily on “prevention through deterrence” security and not enough on finding creative ways to provide entry visas and pathways to citizenship to foreign workers, and that's only helped Mexican smuggling syndicates.

“You're forcing these people into the hands of the cartels,” she said.

About 400,000 special work visas are now issued annually to temporary foreign workers and investors, according to the U.S. State Department. Most are designated for computer technicians and other skilled workers, however, and not for the less skilled workers coming from Mexico and Central American nations seeking work.

Legals became illegals

Homeland Security this year will begin removal actions against more than 600,000 foreigners living in the United States. That's half the number of deportations only nine years ago, but the figure comes with an important asterisk. Two out of every five illegal immigrants did not jump the border to get here but entered legally and then overstayed their visas, according to a 2006 Homeland Security survey.

Those figures haven't been updated and point to a problem neither expanded border security nor deportation efforts has fixed, despite higher congressional spending on Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, the wing of Homeland Security tasked with repatriating those found living unlawfully in the American heartland.

Between 2003 and 2013, ICE's budget grew 73 percent to nearly $6 billion and the number of agents deporting aliens doubled to more than 6,300 officers. But 11.5 million unlawful immigrants remain in the country, with 2.5 million in California alone.

In Friendship Park, families say the solution is temporary amnesty from deportation and a path to citizenship.

In Texas, former Rio Grande City mayor Ruben Villarreal told a Trib investigations reporter that it makes sense not only to raise the number of work permits for foreigners, but to crack down on those who stay here illegally. The well-liked Republican believes each childhood act kid should perform 4,000 hours of community service to stay in America: “Citizenship shouldn't be free. It should be earned.”

He steadfastly supports more funding for Border Patrol and believes Congress should guide immigration policy, not presidential orders. In April, he stepped down as Rio Grande City mayor and announced that he was exploring a run for Congress.

Villarreal's concerns appear to tap into the country's mood. A poll released May 21 by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center found that 56 percent of Americans disapproved of how the president is handling unlawful immigration, triggering louder calls by critics for a brake on executive action.

“We're totally opposed in every conceivable way to the president's amnesty measures,” said Joe Guzzardi, 71, spokesman of the nonprofit Californians for Population Stabilization, which seeks to curb illegal and many forms of legal immigration from its headquarters in Santa Barbara, about 230 miles north of Friendship Park.

“If the program goes through, illegal aliens are going to be allowed to get Social Security numbers, apply for welfare benefits, compete for jobs, when they're not even legal citizens. That's not right,” said Guzzardi, who represents the California group from his home — in Bradford Woods, north of Pittsburgh.

“It's the weirdest thing. You never hear anyone speak Spanish in the groceries here. But in California, you hear it all the time. Immigration transformed California, in a very short span of time, and not necessarily for the better.”

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