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Latinos and the Environment: A Conversation on Pollution, Toxic Chemicals, and Conservation Efforts

Posted on 06/02/2016 @ 12:45 AM

Photo Credit: Huffington Post

By: Mark Salay, LULAC National Communications Intern

For two years Juana Olivares and residents of Flint, Michigan saw brown water gush from their sinks. Olivares is one of the many victims of the Flint water crisis, an environmental tragedy that has brought national attention to environmental discrimination affecting communities of color across the country.

Olivares spoke last week on Capitol Hill at a LULAC and NHLA policy panel about the challenges Latinos in Flint have endured as part of a broader discussion with representatives from leading advocacy organizations regarding environmental policy issues of importance to Hispanics.

By now, the Flint case has been widely reported on by the media, however, the plight of Flint’s east side, where most of the city’s Latino residents reside, has often gone unnoticed.

In 2014, Michigan’s governor Rick Snyder switched Flint’s water source from the Detroit system to the corrosive Flint River water, a move made to save the financially-strapped city money but ended up creating an environmental catastrophe as residents were exposed to lead through the city’s drinking water. Lead levels in children spiked and 12 people died due to Legionnaire’s disease allegedly caused by the poisoned water.

The crisis was particularly hard on the city’s Latino undocumented population, which may include upwards of 1,000 people by Olivares’s estimates. According to Olivares, many were barred treatment from lead-testing centers because of their unauthorized status, and many didn’t even know they were drinking poisoned water because there was no outreach in Spanish to the community.

“Our (Latino) population is not as big as Detroit or Grand Rapids, so we unfortunately don’t have a Spanish television channel or a Spanish radio station at all,” Olivares said. “Nothing in Spanish was being produced by the state or city.”

Olivares spoke of one young girl with a lead level of over 50, but because she is undocumented, she does not qualify for a recent Medicaid expansion given to Flint residents affected by the lead poisoning. Another baby did not recover her vision until she was six-months-old because her mother was not notified by city officials of the crisis since no bilingual materials were distributed through the airwaves or on paper.

The lack of environmental protection given to low-income minority communities like Flint is nothing new. A report by the Center of Public Integrity published last year found that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has never filed an environmental discrimination violation in a minority community in 22 years.

Representative Raul Grijalva (D AZ-3rd District) opened the panel and highlighted the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda’s (NHLA) new environmental public policy platform concerning Latinos. The NHLA is a coalition of 40 national Latino civil rights and public policy organizations that investigate some of the most serious issues facing the Latino community and recommends meaningful policy solutions.

The NHLA policy agenda explicitly advocates for effective solutions to climate change such as cutting greenhouse gas emissions and promoting renewable power. Pollution is a serious problem for Latinos as half in the U.S. live in the country’s most polluted cities, and Latinos who live in urban areas next to plants, roadways, and factories are at an increased risk of developing asthma.

The EPA earlier this month limited the amount of methane emissions from new oil and gas development and vowed to monitor the output of existing sources, but as Director of National Advocacy for the Hispanic Federation Laura Esquivel, noted, the new rule does not include limits on existing developments.

“You learn to adapt to it,” said Mark Magaña, President and CEO of GreenLatinos, a non-profit that works to address environmental and conservation issues in Latino communities. “But we have to push back; we need to get the renewable energy so we don’t have to suffer like this.”

Another policy recommendation from NHLA’s agenda emphasized during the discussion was the importance of promoting more national parks and monuments dedicated to Latinos. Esquivel pointed out how of the 460 national parks and monuments, a mere 24 percent are dedicated to diverse peoples and cultures.

As national monuments are designated protection for many years, it is important not to overlook their significance.

“Monuments may not be one of the first things that we think about as something important to Latinos or other communities, but there are a lot of ways that they can protect our communities and our history,” Esquivel added.

Along with more conservation efforts like promoting diverse national parks and monuments, supporting programs and policies that address environmental issues most important to U.S. Latinos will be needed to combat environmental discrimination and avoid another Flint crisis.

Mark Salay is the Communications Intern at the LULAC National Office in Washington, D.C. He is a senior at the University of California, Santa Barbara, majoring in communication with minors in history and professional writing, and will be graduating in the Spring of 2016.

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Central American Asylum Seekers Bring their Case to Capitol Hill

Posted on 05/24/2016 @ 12:45 AM

Photo Credit: Associated Press

By: Mark Salay, LULAC National Communications Intern

Dozens of undocumented families from Illinois came out of the shadows Wednesday on Capitol Hill alongside Representative Luis Gutierrez (D IL-4th District) to tell the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE) to stop the new wave of immigration raids.

Amid reports that ICE is renewing efforts to deport Central American families during May and June, thirty undocumented parents and children of the Children Refugees United For Freedom Campaign (CRUFF) met with various congressional offices to share their stories and advocate for fair immigration court proceedings.

Accompanied by Representative Gutierrez, Representative Zoe Lofgren (D CA-19th District), and Representative Lucille Roybal-Allard (D CA-40th District), the families gathered next to the Capitol on Independence Avenue, chanting the rallying cry, “we want liberty” in Spanish, with the children holding American flags in their hands before telling their stories to the public.

Speaking on behalf of seven-year-old Raul, Julie Contreras of LULAC said, “When he was in Honduras he was kidnapped, he’s asking you to please make him an American.” Raul’s mother, who also accompanied the group decided to flee to the United States because gang members threatened to kill the child in Honduras. “When we first interviewed Raul he said if Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves, then President Obama can free the refugee children,” Contreras continued.

Hailing from Waukegan, IL, a city known as “Little Honduras,” the immigrant women and children are the faces of Central America’s ongoing humanitarian crisis in the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, where corruption, extortion, drug trafficking, kidnappings, and violence continue to plague the region.

The instability in the region forced many to make the dangerous journey to the United States to seek asylum, but with Secretary Jeh Johnson of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) taking an aggressive stance on border crossings, many migrants are facing the risk of deportation, and for some, certain death awaits them if deported back to their home countries.

In January, DHS ordered ICE to begin deportation raids–which ultimately detained 336 migrant youths–to counter an influx of refugees entering the country two years earlier. In 2014, as many as 66,000 migrants from the Northern Triangle countries crossed the border to seek asylum from threats of murder, rape, and forced gang recruitment.

Maryori was one of those children who made the trek that year, escaping from Honduras because gang members threatened to rape or beat her while on her way to school if she did not pay them. She would see dead bodies on her way to school or people getting beat and murdered.

Although her application for asylum has been denied and her next court appearance isn’t scheduled for another two years when she will still be 17-years-old, she wanted the chance to tell Members of Congress, including Xavier Becerra (D CA-34th District), Raul Grijalva (D AZ-3rd District), and Linda Sanchez (D CA-38th District), that unlike in Honduras, she feels safe with her mother and sisters in the United States.

She has had own life threatened already, but she is now a freshman in high school, where she is also on the honor roll.

“When I grow up I want to be a doctor and stay here with my family,” Maryori said. “We’re not criminals; we want to be here with our families because we want to be safe, and I’m really scared because I think I’m not going to be safe in [Honduras].”

Despite valid claims by Central American migrants to qualify for asylum, Secretary Johnson insists that anyone crossing the border and not granted asylum will be sent home. The result has been children and women being treated as criminals under the law. One mother spoke how a monitoring bracelet ended up shattering bones in her foot. Screws were put in, but her foot is still impaired.

“I simply came to this country to protect my children from violence and what is going on in El Salvador,” the mother said in Spanish. “We know other people are getting placed with monitoring bracelets, and I speak for all of those women because we are not criminals, simply human beings.”

A menacing threat for a majority of the asylum-seekers is the lack of access to legal counsel at court proceedings; the government is not obligated to do so, a huge problem considering 90 percent with legal counsel are granted refugee status.

“The truth is I’m scared because I do not know if I will have to return to my country,” said Freddy, a 17-year-old from Honduras who fled because his life was in danger for refusing to join a local gang. So far, he has gone through court proceedings without legal representation on three separate occasions. “It gives me fear because not having a lawyer is not having anything. You don’t have anyone to represent you.”

Representative Lofgren has proposed the Fair Day in Court for Kids Act, which would mandate the government to provide legal counsel for children and vulnerable individuals, such as victims of abuse, torture, or violence, in immigration hearings. More than 100 members of Congress support the act.

“I have a new court hearing in July, and I have a lawyer this time,” Freddy said. “Hopefully everything turns out fine.”

A statement by DHS says Johnson will take a two-day trip to El Salvador and Honduras to evaluate refugee reintegration efforts, causes of migration, and “engage with regional partners to highlight law enforcement cooperation to address violence.”

Representative Gutierrez says he hopes Johnson will listen to stories from Central Americans and establish a fair asylum process for the refugees. Representative Roybal-Allard called for more focus on a comprehensive refugee strategy that takes on better screening, legal counsel, and just due process.

“These are the kinds of policies that reflect our American values,” Roybal-Allard said, “and provide Central American families with meaningful due process and hope for safety, free of the endless violence and brutality they have endured.”

Mark Salay is the Communications Intern at the LULAC National Office in Washington, D.C. He is a senior at the University of California, Santa Barbara, majoring in communication with minors in history and professional writing, and will be graduating in the Spring of 2016.

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