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Veronica Escobar talks Biden immigration policy, LGBTQ asylum seekers

Texas Democrat represents border city of El Paso

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Texas Congresswoman Veronica Escobar on Thursday said LGBTQ asylum seekers are among those who should be able to pursue their cases outside of detention.

“We need to use alternatives to detention far more robustly and we need to stop growing detention space,” Escobar told the Washington Blade during a telephone interview. “We need to stop growing ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) personnel. We need to put all of that on pause and put resources and energy into alternatives to detention and legal pathways and reenvisioning our refugee and asylum system.”

Escobar represents Texas’ 16th Congressional District that includes El Paso, which is across the Rio Grande from Ciudad Juárez, Mexico.

El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juárez, México, on July 15, 2019. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

The Texas Democrat said she supports the closure of private ICE detention centers that include the Otero County Processing Center in Chaparral, N.M., from which Johana “Joa” Medina León, a transgender woman with HIV from El Salvador, was released days before she died at an El Paso hospital on June 1, 2019.

“I’ve sounded the alarm and written letters,” Escobar told the Blade, noting she has expressed concern about the treatment of LGBTQ detainees in ICE custody. “I am calling for shutting down private facilities like Otero, but to be honest our government-run facilities are not a whole lot better. They are better in some respects, but they’re not in other respects.”

Escobar said she would like the U.S. to create “a system where vulnerable populations are not in this kind of custody at all.”

“They are in our custody through what is very similar to a criminal justice process. That is a fundamental problem,” she told the Blade. “I think we can try to spend time and energy reforming the way vulnerable populations are dealt with in custody or my preference is to advocate so that they are not in criminal-like custody at all.”

“There has to be a hybrid approach, a new way to approach populations that should be treated with a humanitarian component instead of a criminal component or viewed through a humanitarian lens instead of through a criminal lens,” added Escobar. “I want our law enforcement to focus on criminal activity and bad actors, but someone vulnerable seeking asylum should not be treated in the same away as a drug trafficker, part of a sophisticated criminal organization that poses a major threat to our homeland. There’s no way that we should be treating these two populations the same way, but that’s what’s been happening ever since the Clinton era and so it’s going to take a lot of unwinding of that and I want to get those ideas into the public dialogue. I want to push a complete revamping of the system and a reenvisioning of how we address vulnerable populations who arrive at our front door.”

Escobar said she does not support the abolition of ICE, noting it “performs important functions.”

“I am not a believer of abolishing police,” she said. “They serve a very important critical function, but I am a fan of and what I am pushing for is taking certain populations out of their custody and out of their purview.”

Escobar said she wants to “see people who are actual criminals and who do pose a threat to our communities deported” and ICE “performs that function.”

“The problem is we’ve criminalized everybody arriving at our front door,” she told the Blade. “That lens of criminality began with the Clinton administration and it’s been expanded year after year after year and so it’s going to take a lot of work to unwind it, but I’m committed to that.”

Johana “Joa” Medina León, a transgender woman with HIV from El Salvador, died on June 1, 2019, at a hospital in El Paso, Texas, three days after U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement released her from their custody. (Photo courtesy of Patricia Medina de Barrientos)

Escobar spoke with the Blade less than two months after the Biden administration began to allow into the U.S. asylum seekers who the previous White House forced to pursue their cases in Mexico under the Migrant Protection Protocols program.

Tens of thousands of unaccompanied children have entered the U.S. since President Biden took office. Title 42, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rule that closed the Southern border to most asylum seekers and migrants because of the coronavirus pandemic, remains in place.

“We are still as a government using Title 42 to expel families,” Escobar told the Blade. “And because the expulsions are completely dependent upon Mexico’s collaboration, whenever Mexico makes the determination that they can’t take more families, families are being flown across the state or sometimes across the country, to be expelled in other Mexican countries.”

Escobar cited reports from lawyers and immigrant advocacy groups that Title 42 expulsions are “being handled in a really terrible away, that in fact agents are not informing families of what’s happening to them, and it’s led to just really traumatic experiences for vulnerable populations.”

“We continue to see policies that were initiated by the Trump administration and they are heartbreaking situations for everybody involved, but especially for the migrants,” she said.

Escobar noted the number of unaccompanied children in U.S. Customs and Border Protection custody have “drastically reduced,” but the number of them who are in the care of U.S. Department of Health and Human Services “have grown.”

“HHS is doing a remarkable job given the situation to get children as quickly as they can out of their custody and into the arms of their family members,” she said. “They have had very little time to ramp up. They have had a staff shortage, a facility shortage, a tragic lack of preparation that should have been initiated by the Trump administration, so they inherited little to nothing, so they’ve been doing the best they can.”

“I am so glad though that kids are being taken out of CBP custody,” added Escobar. “Kids and vulnerable populations shouldn’t be in CBP custody at all.”

Addressing root migration causes will ‘be tough’

Biden has charged Vice President Harris with the task of working with countries in Central America’s Northern Triangle — El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras — to address some of the root causes of migration that include violence, poverty and climate change.

“We can’t address root causes without providing people with more legal pathways,” Escobar told the Blade. “Part of what fuels migrants making the treacherous journey and what forces them to go to banks to take out loans to pay human traffickers is the lack of access to a legal pathway.”

She further acknowledged there is “not one policy approach that will be the cure all.”

“We do have to look at this very clear-eyed and understand that some of the very governments that (Harris)’s going to have to work with are complicit in what’s been happening and have allowed criminal organizations to operate with impunity,” said Escobar. “Some have had family members who have participated as well, and then there will need to be a multifaceted approach on that front, as well, so there will have to be a carrot and a stick approach.”

Escobar told the Blade there should be a “robust collaboration and support that should flow to” non-government organizations “that we trust and that will be transparent with us and what will work closely with us.” Escobar added sanctions that include travel ban and freezing assets could also be used to hold individuals accountable for human rights violations in the region.

“The criminal organizations that have thrived, especially over the last four years, and have indeed gotten more sophisticated over the last four years, have operated with impunity in these governments and the United States has to work with these governments,” she said. “We have to be good neighbors, strong neighbors, but we have to be neighbors that also create accountability and create an environment where there are consequences for being complicit with bad actors or criminal organizations.”

“It’s going to be tough,” added Escobar. “Do I think it’s doable? 100 percent. Will it happen overnight? Absolutely not, but it’s long overdue.”

A group of migrants who were part of a caravan that left San Pedro Sula, Honduras, on Jan. 14, 2019, approach the Honduras-Guatemala border. (Photo used with permission)

Escobar not invited to participate in GOP trip to El Paso

Escobar on March 27 led a group of eight House members — seven Democrats and one Republican — to El Paso.

The lawmakers met with immigration activists and representatives of local NGOs. The delegation also visited the Paso del Norte Port of Entry; CBP’s El Paso Central Processing Center; Casa Franklin, an HHS facility for unaccompanied children, and Annunciation House, a shelter for migrants.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) is among those who has sharply criticized Biden for beginning the process to reverse his predecessor’s hardline immigration policies.

McCarthy and 12 other House Republicans on March 15 visited El Paso. McCarthy did not invite Escobar to participate; even though she reached out to him once she learned about the trip and offered to help set up meetings with lawyers, activists, business owners and others.

“As you prepare to come into my district, I would like to remind you that you are visiting a community that has always welcomed the stranger and has provided good will and hospitality to the most vulnerable among us,” wrote Escobar in a letter she sent to McCarthy on March 11. “Over the last four years, as the former President used increasingly racist and xenophobic language that dehumanized immigrants, we learned the painful lesson that those words have consequences.”

Escobar said “a target was painted on our backs as Donald Trump and many of our own colleagues in Congress chose to fan the flames of anti-immigrant fervor and incite hatred towards our safe and secure border.” She further noted in a letter “a domestic terrorist” who killed 23 people at an El Paso Walmart on Aug. 3, 2019, “confessed that he drove over 10 hours to slaughter Mexicans and immigrants in my community.”

“The words you and your delegation of members will use to describe the situation, immigrants and my community have tremendous power,” wrote Escobar. “I ask that you never lose sight of that because my district and I will ultimately pay the price.”

Escobar on Thursday noted McCarthy and the House Republicans who he brought to El Paso only met with law enforcement officials.

“It’s a real failure to look at the whole picture,” she said.

Escobar further criticized McCarthy and the group of 18 U.S. senators who “parachuted into” South Texas late last month.

U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and John Cornyn (R-Texas) led the delegation that visited the CBP facility in the Rio Grande Valley in which thousands of unaccompanied children had been housed. A press release that Cruz’s office issued noted the Texas Department of Public Safety gave the senators “a boat tour” of the Rio Grande.

“They’ve been in Congress for a long time,” said Escobar. “Their idea of a solution is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. That’s everybody’s definition of insanity.”

“I am going to bring forward a new way of looking at all of this and my hope is that those legislators with an open mind and want to explore new ideas will listen,” she added.

 

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D.C. mayor to lift all restrictions on bars, nightclubs on June 11

‘We will definitely be celebrating Pride’ next month

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Mayor Muriel Bowser announced Monday that she will fully lift capacity and other restrictions on most businesses, including restaurants and places of worship, on May 21. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser announced at a news conference on Monday that a continuing trend of significantly lower numbers of coronavirus cases and deaths in the city has enabled her to fully lift capacity and other restrictions on most businesses, including restaurants and places of worship, on May 21.

The mayor said bars and nightclubs will be allowed to increase indoor capacity from the current 25 percent to 50 percent on May 21, with all capacity restrictions for bars and nightclubs to be removed on June 11.

The mayor’s announcement came after representatives of the city’s nightlife businesses, including the city’s gay bars and restaurants, expressed concern that D.C. had yet to lift its capacity restrictions beyond 25 percent while surrounding jurisdictions in Maryland and Virginia had already lifted most restrictions.

“On May 21, restrictions on public and commercial activity, including capacity limits, types of activities, and time restrictions, will be lifted,” the mayor’s directive says.

It says restrictions for bars and nightclubs would continue at a 50 percent capacity from May 21 through June 11. The directive says restrictions for large sports and entertainment venues would also continue from May 21 to June 11, which includes a requirement such events apply for a waiver of the restrictions on a case-by-case basis.

“On June 11, capacity limits and restrictions will be lifted on those venues that cannot fully reopen on May 21,” the directive says.

In response to a question at the news conference, Bowser said the June 11 date would essentially end all restrictions on nightclubs and bars, including the current requirement that they close at midnight rather than the pre-epidemic closing times of 2 a.m. on weekdays and 3 a.m. on weekends.

In a development that could have a major impact on plans for D.C.’s LGBTQ Pride events, the mayor’s revised health directive announced on Monday includes the lifting of all capacity restrictions on large outdoor and indoor sports and entertainment events beginning on June 11.

That change would remove restrictions that have, up until now, prevented D.C.’s Capital Pride Alliance from holding its annual Pride Parade and Festival in June during Pride Month.

Capital Pride Executive Director Ryan Bos told the Washington Blade shortly after the mayor’s announcement that Capital Pride is assessing its options for expanding its current plans for in-person events in June.

“We will definitely be celebrating Pride in June,” Bos said. “We just received this information as well. So, we will be getting further information,” he said. “We have not been informed that they will be issuing any permits yet, so at this time we are moving forward with our original plans for doing things.”

Bos was referring to a city requirement for obtaining permits for street closings and use of other public spaces for events such as a parade or street festival. He said existing plans, among other things, call for an informal parade of cars and other vehicles on June 12 that will drive throughout the city to view homes and businesses that will be decorated with Pride displays such as signs, photos, and other symbols of Pride.

Those familiar with the city’s past Pride events don’t think there will be enough time for Capital Pride to organize the traditional large parade and street festival in time for June. But Capital Pride officials have talked about holding a possible parade and festival in October, and the lifting of the capacity restrictions announced by Bowser on Monday would likely make that possible.

In addition to lifting all capacity restrictions on May 21 for restaurants, the mayor’s May 21 timeframe for lifting restrictions includes these additional venues and events:

  • Weddings and special events
  • Business meetings and seated conventions
  • Places of worship
  • Non-essential retail
  • Personal services
  • Private at-home gatherings
  • Libraries, museums, galleries
  • Recreation Centers
  • Gyms and fitness centers
  • Pools
  • Office space
  • Schools
  • Childcare

“We’re very pleased that over the last several days, we have seen our case spread, our community spread numbers, venture out of the red into the yellow and fast approaching the green,” Bowser said in referring to a health department chart that shows the changes in coronavirus cases in the city.

“You might remember that our daily case rate peaked in January at 45.9. And today you can see it’s down to 6.6,” she said at her news conference on Monday.

“Throughout this process I have said how proud I am of D.C. residents and businesses who have responded, who have followed health guidance and have worked together to help protect our community throughout the pandemic. And we see it in these numbers today,” she said.

“Containing the virus will continue to require all of us to be focused on maintaining a robust health system,” the mayor said, adding that while over 200,000 D.C. residents have been fully vaccinated since December 2020, “many more thousands” still need to be vaccinated. “Vaccines are free and available on demand at walk-up sites across the District,” she said.

The mayor also noted that the city will continue to require residents and visitors to use a mask in accordance with existing and updated guidance set by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Mark Lee, coordinator of the D.C. Nightlife Council, an association that represents restaurants, bars, nightclubs and other entertainment venues, said the mayor’s directive on May 10 leaves some details to be addressed but will open the way to bring nightlife businesses back to life.

“What we do know is that on Friday, May 21, businesses begin returning to normal operations and, three weeks later, on June 11, all restrictions for all businesses in the District will end,” Lee said. “It’s a day we’ve long awaited and one that will save much of our community enterprise from financial ruin.”

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Family code bill to be introduced in Cuban Parliament in July

CENESEX made announcement during May 4 press conference

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Mariela Castro at a CENESEX press conference

 

Tremenda Nota is the Washington Blade’s media partner in Cuba. A Spanish version of this story was published on May 6.

HAVANA — The National Center for Sexual Education on May 4 during a press conference in which it unveiled the program for the 14th annual International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia events in Cuba announced a bill to amend the family code will be introduced in Parliament in July.

CENESEX Director Mariela Castro Espín said during a meeting with official and foreign media outlets at the International Press Center that this year’s events are part of the process of amending the family code.

She added that this legal change will reflect several rights guaranteed in the constitution, which is why it is necessary to sensitize and educate the Cuban population to avoid prejudice and discrimination.

“I was able to appreciate that the majority of the population … is in favor of recognizing the rights of LGBTI+ people and especially the rights in the family sphere that include the possibility, the option, of marriage,” said Mariela Castro during the press conference.

The official referred to the results of the National Survey on Gender Equality in Cuba, conducted in 2016 and published in 2019. According to this official study, 77 percent of the Cuban population between 15 and 74-years-old said that gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people should have the same rights as any other citizen.

CENESEX’s director, however, did not use this information in the 2018 parliamentary debates sparked by Article 68 of the bill to amend the constitution. The idea that it was not the appropriate time to implement same-gender marriage in Cuba eventually won out.

Mariela Castro told Tremenda Nota a few days before the referendum in which Cuban voters approved the current constitution that she was aware of the survey, but she did not explain why she did not use the data it revealed as an argument (in favor of marriage equality.)

“It was a wasted tool that now we can only use in the next referendum,” then-MP Luis Ángel Adán Roble told Tremenda Nota during a February 2019 interview, as did Mariela Castro.

The moment that Adán Roble mentioned has arrived.

It became known during the May 4 press conference that the family code will be introduced in the scheduled parliamentary session in July. The Council of State on March 22 appointed a commission that will be in charge of preparing the bill, but the list of its members was not made public until April 30. None of them are openly LGBTI+.

Activists over the last few weeks have demanded that Parliament reveal the identities of those who make up the commission and the deadline they have to prevent the Family Code. The May 4 press conference resolved the last outstanding point.

The Cuban IDAHOBiT program

Mariela Castro and CENESEX Deputy Director Manuel Vázquez Seijido explained that numerous activities with the goal of making visible and fighting against all types of discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity will virtually take place from May 4 through May 30.

The IDAHOBiT events in Cuba have a program that includes academic dialogue, social activism and artistic presentations from virtual spaces.

Forum debates are among the activities. The Juventud Rebelde newspaper will host the first one with the theme “Deconstructing myths around same-sex families and partners” and Cubadebate will hold the second called “Constitution and Sexual Rights in Cuba: Progress and Main challenges.”

They also announced at the press conference the books “Paquito el de Cuba: A Decade of Online Activism” and “Non-Heteronormative Sexualities and Gender Identities. Tensions and Challenges for Human Rights” will be presented.

There will be virtual panels titled “Diverse Families: Histories of Non-Hegemonic Lives,” “National Program for the Advancement of Women: Opportunities to Confront Homophobia and Transphobia,” “Keys for Inclusive Communication” and “Sexual Rights and Religious Fundamentalisms.”

Castro Espín explained that CENESEX will use its social media accounts to promote the program, contribute to the sexual education of Cubans and the recognition of rights for all people, regardless of gender or sexual orientation.

A show against homophobia and transphobia that will officially end the events will be broadcast on social media and on television.

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Bill to ban conversion therapy dies in Puerto Rico Senate committee

Advocacy group describes lawmakers as cowards

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Puerto Rico Pulse nightclub victims, gay news, Washington Blade

 

A Puerto Rico Senate committee on Thursday killed a bill that would have banned so-called conversion therapy on the island.

Members of the Senate Community Initiatives, Mental Health and Addiction Committee voted against Senate Bill 184 by an 8-7 vote margin. Three senators abstained.

Amárilis Pagán Jiménez, a spokesperson for Comité Amplio para la Búsqueda de la Equidad, a coalition of Puerto Rican human rights groups, in a statement sharply criticized the senators who opposed the measure.

“If they publicly recognize that conversion therapies are abuse, if they even voted for a similar bill in the past, if the hearings clearly established that the bill was well-written and was supported by more than 78 professional and civil entities and that it did not interfere with freedom of religion or with the right of fathers and mothers to raise their children, voting against it is therefore one of two things: You are either a hopeless coward or you have the same homophobic and abusive mentality of the hate groups that oppose the bill,” said Pagán in a statement.

Thursday’s vote comes against the backdrop of continued anti-LGBTQ discrimination and violence in Puerto Rico.

Six of the 44 transgender and gender non-conforming people who were reported murdered in the U.S. in 2020 were from Puerto Rico.

A state of emergency over gender-based violence that Gov. Pedro Pierluisi declared earlier this year is LGBTQ-inclusive. Then-Gov. Ricardo Rosselló in 2019 signed an executive order that banned conversion therapy for minors in Puerto Rico.

“These therapies lack scientific basis,” he said. “They cause pain and unnecessary suffering.”

Rosselló issued the order less than two weeks after members of the New Progressive Party, a pro-statehood party  he chaired at the time, blocked a vote in the Puerto Rico House of Representatives on a bill that would have banned conversion therapy for minors in the U.S. commonwealth. Seven out of the 11 New Progressive Party members who are on the Senate Community Initiatives, Mental Health and Addiction Committee voted against SB 184.

“It’s appalling. It’s shameful that the senators didn’t have the strength and the courage that our LGBTQ youth have, and it’s to be brave and to defend our dignity and our humanity as people who live on this island,” said Pedro Julio Serrano, founder of Puerto Rico Para [email protected], a Puerto Rican LGBTQ rights group, in a video. “It’s disgraceful that the senators decided to vote down this measure that would prevent child abuse.”

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