ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
A disabled 10-year-old girl was recently apprehended in South Texas for immigration violations. Her case spotlights a harsh reality of the borderlands. Undocumented immigrants who live north of the border but south of a string of Border Patrol checkpoints say they feel trapped. Some call it la jaula, Spanish for the cage. NPR's John Burnett reports.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: The federal government maintains 34 highway checkpoints within a hundred miles of the southwest border as a second line of defense against illegal immigration. At the checkpoint on the interstate north of Laredo, Texas, Border Patrol agents question every driver.
UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER: Good afternoon. Could you state your citizenship?
BURNETT: They're looking for smuggled drugs and people.
UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER: Resident? Anybody else in the vehicle?
BURNETT: Because they fear getting caught at these checkpoints, unauthorized immigrants can live their whole lives in this strip of thorn brush and desert along the U.S.-Mexico border. They miss graduations and funerals. They hunker down instead of evacuating for hurricanes. The undocumented parents of Rosa Maria Hernandez, the little girl with cerebral palsy, were fearful as well. They didn't accompany her through the checkpoint to a hospital two and a half hours away. Instead, they sent her with an adult cousin, who's a U.S. citizen. But the Border Patrol apprehended her anyway. Mike Smith is a Methodist pastor and director of a local community center.
MIKE SMITH: So people who live here in Laredo are really living in an island. You can't go anywhere north, south, east, west without passing through some kind of checkpoint that questions your nationality, citizenship.
BURNETT: For people trapped in the cage, on this island, the lack of specialized health care is the biggest challenge. Laredo, an isolated city of 235,000 people, has limited medical facilities. Inocencia Garcia never, ever leaves Laredo - not for vacations, not for medical care. The wizened, soft-spoken woman has lived in Laredo illegally for 26 of her 67 years.
INOCENCIA GARCIA: (Speaking Spanish).
BURNETT: Garcia says for several years she's suffered from a chronic bladder infection that resists antibiotics. She's had to stop working as a housekeeper. If she's too active, she bleeds. Pastor Mike Smith has tried to help.
SMITH: I have a doctor that's ready to see her and to treat her in San Antonio at no cost, but she can't get there.
BURNETT: The Border Patrol says it's their policy that if an undocumented immigrant is in an ambulance at the checkpoint agents allow them to continue on to the hospital, then hand them a Notice to Appear in immigration court. That's what happened to Josefina Pena, another undocumented housekeeper and Laredo resident.
JOSEFINA PENA: (Speaking Spanish).
BURNETT: Pena, who is 60, says a doctor told her she had partial blockage in her veins and was at risk for a heart attack. She needed an emergency coronary angioplasty, so in April she left Laredo for University Hospital in San Antonio. But first, her ambulance had to pass the checkpoint.
PENA: (Speaking Spanish).
BURNETT: "I was lying in the back of the ambulance," she says, "when an agent opened the door and asked me for my documents. I told him I didn't have any. He closed the door and let us go through. Then when we got to San Antonio, the Border Patrol was there waiting for me."
In her hospital bed, Josefina Pena was put under arrest. After the procedure, agents transported her to a federal detention facility in Laredo. She was released the next day. Josefina's attorney and other longtime Laredoans say agents didn't always bother with undocumented immigrants at the checkpoint on their way to the hospital. Sometimes they just let them go. But under the Trump administration, they say, enforcement has gotten much stricter. Nelly Vielma is an immigration lawyer and City Council member in Laredo. She represented a woman whose ambulance was followed from Laredo to a San Antonio hospital, where immigration agents served her with deportation orders before she had a brain tumor removed.
NELLY VIELMA: We've noticed more detentions. We've noticed less discretion, cases where we thought, OK, this was, you know, a sure thing. You know, they will exercise their prosecutorial discretion. They don't.
BURNETT: The Border Patrol disputes they handle medical emergencies at the checkpoints any differently these days. Gabriel Acosta is assistant chief patrol agent in the Laredo sector.
GABRIEL ACOSTA: It's 100 percent inspection. Nothing has changed. In the 20 years I've been in the Border Patrol, we're doing exactly the same thing.
BURNETT: Some border residents wonder why immigration authorities are following ambulances carrying sick women and children who pose no threat. The Border Patrol responds, we're just enforcing the law. John Burnett, NPR News, Laredo.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
And this update - the ACLU, which is representing 10-year-old Rosa Maria Hernandez, said late-Friday that the girl has been released from a government-contracted shelter to the custody of her parents. She still faces a deportation order in court.
(SOUNDBITE OF SHOUT OUT LOUDS SONG, "JUMBO JET")
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