Early 1990s: The genesis

A group of dedicated El Paso attorneys and civil rights activists created the Border Rights Coalition in the early 1990s, with support from the American Friends Service Committee through its Immigration Law Enforcement Monitoring Project. The group documented alleged human rights and civil rights abuses committed by the Border Patrol and provided legal aid to the community on specific cases.

The highlight of the work of the Border Rights Coalition was the group’s involvement in two landmark cases – The historic civil federal lawsuit brought by the students and staff of Bowie High School in 1992 to stop the Border Patrol from harassing students inside the school; and the 1997 death of Esequiel Hernandez Jr., a teenage goat herder who was killed by Marines patrolling the border near Radford, Texas.

1998: Back to the roots

The Border Rights Coalition began transforming itself into a grassroots organization with the hiring of Fernando Garcia as executive director. Garcia, a former photojournalist in California, said that despite high profile cases such as the Bowie High School suit, abuses of civil and human rights continued in El Paso, mostly in the form of possible illegal entry by the Border Patrol, racial profiling and alleged beatings.

Garcia started training community members as Human Rights Promoters to teach their neighbors about search warrants, their right to remain silent and other civil and human rights they did not know they had. The strategy to have trusted members of the community train others – was successful.

Later, community members organized themselves into Human Rights Committees, meeting weekly to discuss cases and organize events. Some of the groups have been meeting continuously since 2000. In 2000, the Border Network for Human Rights (the name changed legally in 2001) had its first abuse documentation campaign conducted by members of the community, with support from immigration and human rights lawyers.

2003: Going public

After three years of intense organizing, during which membership grew exponentially to reach hundreds of people, the Border Network for Human Rights held its first public event. It was prompted by the tragic death of Juan Patricio Peraza Quijada on February 22, 2003. Juan Patricio, a 19-year-old undocumented immigrant, was shot and killed by Border Patrol agents outside the migrants’ shelter where he was staying. The Border Network for Human Rights organized a 20-mile march, from Anthony to Downtown El Paso, to honor Juan Patricio and demand accountability from the Border Patrol. Hundreds of men, women and children participated in the event.

In addition to public events, the Border Network for Human Rights started sending delegations to Washington, D.C., each year to educate elected officials about the realities of border life and the need for immigration reform. These trips also served to introduce members of the community to the realities of the U.S. political system.

2005: A time for responsible law enforcement

In 2005, the Border Network for Human Rights responded to a situation where long-time El Paso Sheriff Leo Samaniego had his deputies detain undocumented immigrants, thereby sowing fear in the community. After a campaign including the drafting and eventual adoption of a resolution by county commissioners calling for the end of the practice, Samaniego ceased.

At that time, the Border Network for Human Rights started making allies with law enforcement officials who believe mixing immigration and criminal enforcement is bad policy. The Border Network for Human Rights also organized a series of joint community meetings with the Border Patrol, during which then-Border Patrol Sector Chief Luis Barker took questions from community members.

2006: Immigration reform

In December 2005, U.S. Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-WI, introduced the “Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005 (H.R. 4437), a needlessly punitive bill, and the struggle for humane and rational immigration reform was born. Immigrant communities and their supporters organized massive street protests around the nation in 2006. The Border Network for Human Rights was one of the leaders of this mobilization with marches in March, April and May 2006 that brought tens of thousands of El Pasoans to the streets.

2007: Working with the system

The Border Network for Human Rights continued working on immigration reform in 2007 with letter-writing campaigns and forum discussions aiming at including the voices of border communities in the national debate. Through the staff’s hard work, several elements proposed by the Border Network for Human Rights (such as the creation of a U.S.-Mexico border enforcement review commission, more Border Patrol training and better reporting of border deaths) made it to the “Security Through Regularized Immigration and a Vibrant Economy (STRIVE) Act,” a promising bill that, like the Sensenbrenner bill, would eventually fail.

The Border Network for Human Rights’ efforts were greatly aided by the work of the U.S.-Mexico Border Immigration Task Force, a group of elected officials, law enforcement officials, academics and religious representatives organized by the Border Network in 2006. Task Force members traveled to Washington, D.C., several times to speak to federal officials about the need for comprehensive immigration reform.

At the same time, the Border Network for Human Rights started organizing border tours to bring staffers for key members of Congress to experience the reality of the bi-national way of life.

2009: Preparing for the next fight

The 2008 presidential elections and the subsequent push for health care reform placed immigration reform onto the back burning. During that time, the Border Network for Human Rights concentrated on building up its grassroots network, doubling its membership in the span of one year. The group also reorganized its work around four pillars — Community organizing, Policy, Alliance building and Communications.

In mid-2009, the Border Network for Human Rights organized like-minded groups around the state into the Reform Immigration for Texas Alliance. The alliance’s first action was to gather 25,000 signatures in support of immigration reform and to participate in a national day of action in Washington, D.C., October 13.

The Border Network for Human Rights community is still working for a resolution to the immigration debate, one that is sensible and humane and takes into account border communities.