This Formerly Undocumented Woman Is Teaching Her Fellow Immigrants to Know Their Rights

After her husband was jailed for entering the United States without papers, Gabriela Casteñeda vowed to help her peers live without fear.

This Formerly Undocumented Woman Is Teaching Her Fellow Immigrants to Know Their Rights

On a Wednesday morning in February, 25 undocumented immigrants sat in a crowded Sunday school classroom at the Holy Spirit Catholic church in Horizon City, a neighborhood on the outskirts of El Paso, Texas. At the front of the class, Gabriela Castañeda, a human rights promoter and communications director from the Border Network for Human Rights (BNHR), pointed to a chalkboard, where the words “Trump,” “Round up Illegals,” and “usted tiene derecho a permanecer en silencio” were written on the blackboard.

“You have the right to remain silent,” said Castañeda, her words mixing with the sounds of hymns sung by the church’s choir practicing a room over. “If Immigration and Customs Enforcement comes to your door without a warrant, you do not have let them in. If you don’t know what to do, call this number.” She handed out cards listing BNHR’s number and the words “THIS PERSON KNOWS HIS/HER RIGHTS” written in bold across the top.

Castañeda, a formerly undocumented women from Mexico City, has been teaching these weekly classes (also called committees) for over a year. They are part of the ongoing campaign lednby BNHR, a human rights advocacy and immigration reform organization that works to educate undocumented people about their rights.

“I thought I had no rights in this country,” says Martina, an undocumented mother of five who has been attending the classes ever since her husband was deported this past April. “These classes give me the power and the knowledge to know that life can be better.” (Like most of the undocumented people interviewed for this article, Martina requested that her last name not be published.)

Castañeda is one of fifty volunteers who teach the weekly classes held at committees throughout West Texas and southern New Mexico. She draws upon her own experiences living in the country illegally in order to help educate others in her community.

“I was just like them,” says Castañeda. “I was afraid to drive. I couldn’t work. I couldn’t see a police officer or sheriff without shaking.”

“My sons live in fear that they will come home and I might not be there,” said Alma, an undocumented mother of two U.S. citizens who spoke to me through an translator after the class had finished. “I have taught my kids to love and serve this country. If I got deported it would destroy them.”

A woman holds an educational pamphlet outlining her rights at one of the many Constitutional rights classes held around El Paso.

Most of BNHR’s work goes to support families. On the day I visited, the class was exclusively women, save for one man whose four-year-old son spent the hour-long session sitting in his father’s lap, playing with three small toy race cars.

“We protect our families,” says Castañeda. “Knowing our rights can keep our families together.”

For nearly twenty years the Border Network for Human Rights (BNHR) has attempted to limit the suffering caused by family separation, which threatens eleven million undocumented people living in this country. Their classes have reached thousands of undocumented immigrants in the borderlands of southern New Mexico and west Texas. They are provided free of charge and include basic lessons about the Constitution, the differing powers of state and federal authorities, and the rights people have when dealing with immigration officials.

“We all have friends or family that have been impacted by deportation,” says Linda, a 28-year-old undocumented immigrant in a small town on the New Mexico and Texas border, who has lived in the United States since she was a young girl. “My kids are all American citizens. I don’t remember Mexico. What would we do if I was sent back?”

BNHR’s weekly classes deal not only with issues of deportation but other challenges facing undocumented immigrants in the U.S. Depending on the day and the needs of those attending, the class might address what to do if your employer refuses to pay you. Or if the school your child attends won’t allow you to pick up your kid without a valid ID. Or what resources to access if you want to attend college without a Social Security number.

“We are above all else a community organization,” said BNHR director Fernando Garcia, speaking from their modest offices located on Piedras Street near the base of the Franklin Mountains a few miles north of Downtown El Paso. “The promotion of human rights has always been our goal. We are about improving the lives of everyone that lives here.”

A family comes together in an embrace at the US-Mexico border during the third Hugs Not Walls event in January.

Under Garcia’s leadership BNHR has pressured local politicians to implement immigration reform, mobilized community members as human rights educators, and produced a series of in-depth reports on human rights abuses suffered by community members at the hands of federal immigration enforcement officials who operate with extraordinary extra-Constitutional powers in the one-hundred-mile border zone.

While BNHR is often ideologically at odds with immigration enforcement officials – particularly ICE – they have nonetheless created a cordial and somewhat surprising working relationship with United States Border Patrol, increasing the transparency and accountability of a federal agency that has historically operated with little of either. They have hosted joint training sessions for Border Patrol agents and BNHR volunteers, organized information sessions in which Border Patrol officers describe their powers and take questions from community organizers, and arranged for a non-uniformed Border Patrol officer to serve as a community liaison – an arrangement unique to El Paso.

When there is an alleged incident of abuse by Border Patrol agents, BNHR’s 7,000-member community documents and responds to it. The open dialogue, mutual respect and increased accountability for Border Patrol has resulted, according to Garcia, in a 70 percent reduction in incidents of documented abuse since 2000. But their most remarkable collaboration occurs not in the classroom, but on the border itself.

On January 25, Ricardo Jaquez stood with his family along the muddy banks of the Rio Grande River, a shallow brown trickle of water marking the boundary between El Paso and Juárez, between the United States and Mexico. Across the river stood Jaquez’s brother and thousands of other brothers and sons, mothers and wives, all waiting to cross over the makeshift bridge of tires, plywood and cardboard and embrace their loved ones on the U.S. side of the river. The event is called “Hugs Not Walls,” and it’s organized by BNHR in collaboration with Border Patrol.

“I can’t express with words what I felt,” says Jaquez, whose brother was deported twenty years ago, and whom he hadn’t seen since. “I was walking towards the river, tears started running down my face.”

A section of the US-Mexico border wall in Sunland Park, a suburb of El Paso.

There is no other program like Hugs Not Walls. For six hours, families met in the middle of the river in groups of ten. They were given three minutes to reconnect, were not allowed to exchange gifts and were required to wear color-coded t-shirts to ensure that no one from Mexico ended up in the United States. This was the third Hugs Not Walls event organized by BNHR, and there are those who fear the program will soon be forced to stop.

“I am here to witness this because I fear it may not ever happen again,” says Melissa Lopez, a lawyer and executive director of the Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services, which provides legal services to immigrants in Texas and New Mexico.

“My mother died two weeks prior to the event,” says Jaquez, “and she wasn’t able to see her sons together one more time. It was only three minutes, but they were the most beautiful minutes of my life. It was a piece of heaven that God gave me.”

For Castañeda, whose husband is currently in prison for illegal re-entry, this event highlights the human impact of a broken immigration system. “This is what family separation looks like,” says Castañeda. “These are not criminals. These are hardworking families that have been torn apart.”

Her life filled with fear began to change in 2004 when a regional coordinator from BNHR came to her neighborhood church and asked the preacher if he could speak to the congregation about immigrant rights.

“When he said that undocumented immigrants have rights and are protected by the Constitution I honestly could not believe it,” says Castañeda. “All this time I was thinking I was a criminal because I had violated the law.”

Alma, an undocumented mother of six, tells her story during the class in Horizon City in February.

After the service she went to talk to him and soon after began attending the local human rights committee held in her neighborhood.

Yet Castañeda says it was not until after her husband was deported in 2007 that she became more deeply involved in BNHR. “My husband was driving home from work when he was pulled over for speeding – five miles over,” says Castañeda. When he could not produce a valid driver’s license the police officer called Border Patrol. He was arrested and charged for multiple illegal re-entries – a felony. He spent seven years in prison and was then deported. He returned to the United States and was caught again, and is currently serving another prison term.

“My husband did not know he had rights,” says Castañeda. “If he did he might still be with my family.”

In the summer of 2016, Castañeda was teaching a class at her mother’s house – a modest adobe building in Agua Dulce, one of El Paso’s numerous immigrant communities located in the suburban sprawl of the nation’s second largest border city. That day, she acted as an ICE official during a home raid, grilling her class of female students on what to do if ICE comes knocking.

“What do you do if ICE asks to come in your house?” said Castañeda.

“Ask to see a warrant,” answered the room.

Gabriela Castañeda teaches undocumented immigrants their Constitutional rights during a class in El Paso.

The intense sessions allow students to address – in a safe space – their greatest fears while simultaneously providing a sense of community for people whose lives are often relegated to the shadows.

“My husband’s family tells me not to come. They are afraid it will be a trap,” said Martina, whose husband had recently been deported, leaving her alone with her children, who are all citizens. “Right now my youngest doesn’t want to go to school. He sees what’s on the news and he gets very scared. I am afraid. But I need to know my rights so I can stay with my children.”

In 2016, the women I spoke to gave their full names, and were happy to have pictures and video taken.

Things have changed.

Since the inauguration of Donald Trump, ICE has been reported making massive, indiscriminate sweeps, raiding established undocumented communities and deporting those who before had felt a modicum of safety. When I returned to El Paso in February, most of the women I met asked to have their faces hidden and their full names excluded from this article.

“It is a fearful time,” says Alma. “All that’s happening in Washington, how could we not be scared?”

“We have already seen stuff that we hadn’t seen happening before in El Paso,” says Garcia. “[ICE] are going into our communities with presumably some sort of deportation order and then using that to start questing other people. It is not true that they are doing targeted enforcement, they are just throwing the net to see who they are going to catch. It seems that everybody is a target. It’s open season.”

A mural painted by El Mac in downtown El Paso, titled Animo Sin Fronteras (Spirit Without Borders), one of the many political murals decorating the downtowns of both El Paso and Juarez.

With every raid, BNHR’s classes become more popular, and their lobbying efforts on behalf of the undocumented intensify. Castañeda believes the BNHR is essential, because it provides hope and agency for people who are trying to keep their families together.

“It is amazing to watch these women transform,” she says. “To help people live a less fearful life is a great thing.”