Young crossers tell DC panel it’s not safe at home

(For the Arizona Daily Star. Published July 30, 2014. Click here for the Star article)

Three young people who fled Central America because of violence and poverty told a congressional panel that the United States should continue protecting undocumented children like them by not changing a law that dictates how the government handles their cases.

D-Rep Grijalva (photo from A.E. Araiza / Arizona Daily Star)

D-Rep Grijalva (photo from A.E. Araiza / Arizona Daily Star)

Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., who convened a hearing of the Progressive Democratic Caucus on Tuesday, presented their testimonies as a way to get a direct look at the issue of unaccompanied Central American youths crossing illegally into the United States.

A proposed change to the 2008 law would allow for faster deportations of Central American children caught in the United States. Now, these children are provided safe shelter here as their immigration status is decided. More than 50,000 of these unaccompanied minors have been caught at the Southwestern border this year, reports show.

Opponents of the proposed changes said this could lead to the children, like the three who testified, being sent back to dangerous situations from which they fled.

“We’re missing the point that as a nation, we’re the embodiment of those values that protect the weaker, those values that protect people fleeing persecution and prosecution unjustly and today we’re going to hear from those young people that did just that,” said Grijalva.

The youths’ testimonies centered on the dangers they faced in their home countries and the reasons they decided to come to the United States. Each said they witnessed homicides near their homes and feared for their safety. All three have been reunited with their families in the United States.

Saul Martinez, 15, said he fled El Salvador in April. As he spoke, he sat close to the table, the cuffs of his long-sleeved striped gray shirt rolled up a bit so as not to fall past his hands.

“I have seen horrors that no child ought to see,” he said, looking toward the members of Congress.

Saul Martinez, 15, left El Salvador because of fears of gang violence

Saul Martinez, 15, left El Salvador because of fears of gang violence

MS-13 gang members threatened to kill him if he rode his bicycle through their neighborhood. He was afraid if he stayed in El Salvador, he would

be asked to join a gang or be killed.

Martinez was caught after crossing the Rio Grande into Texas. He was held with about 200 other children. It was the worst experience of his life, Martinez said, calling the center “the icebox.”

He said he was very weak after spending six days there, because he wasn’t given enough food, was always cold and couldn’t sleep because guards came in every two hours, counting the children. There was only one bathroom for all 200 occupants.

Mayeli Hernandez, 12, also spoke of the cold detention centers. Her long dark hair almost hid her face as she quietly read her testimony in Spanish. She rubbed tears from her eyes while describing her loneliness after her mother left Honduras for the United States when Mayeli was 8.

Mayeli Hernandez, 12, fled Honduras in July 2013.

Mayeli Hernandez, 12, fled Honduras in July 2013.

Mayeli and her younger sister left Honduras in July 2013 because they were afraid of the violence and because her younger sister suffered from epilepsy.

Before she fled, Mayeli said she saw two people slain in Honduras. “It was very ugly to see the blood running on the ground,” she said.

“Please protect children like me and my little sister,” she said. “We can’t go back to our countries because they’re very dangerous and very poor.”

Dulce Medina, 15, spoke in clear English. Wearing a shiny plum-colored top, she explained how she was often afraid to walk 30 minutes to her school in Guatemala because of gang violence. Medina lived with her uncle and aunt after her father died and her mother came to the United States.

Medina said she witnessed the slaying of a local woman, with no repercussions for the killer. “I do not want to go back to Guatemala because I am afraid there is no one there to protect me,” she said.

Dulce Medina, 15, fled Guatemala 5 years ago and has since learned English while living in the U.S.

Dulce Medina, 15, fled Guatemala 5 years ago and has since learned English while living in the U.S.

She now lives with her mother in New York. Medina, who has been here for about five years, wants to attend college and hopes to be a pediatrician one day because she loves kids and wants to care for them.

Several immigration experts who work with children spoke at the hearing.

They described the importance of convening hearings for unaccompanied children and stressed the dangers the children face in Central American countries like Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. The factors leading to these dangers ought to be addressed, they explained. They also called for funding to ensure unaccompanied children at our border are treated humanely and to continue treating their cases individually.

Christa Elise Reynolds is a University of Arizona journalism student who is an apprentice at the Star. Contact her at starapprentice@azstarnet.com

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Syfert challenges Gowan-Stevens team in LD14 GOP primary

(For the Arizona Daily Star. Published July 26, 2014. Click here for the Star article)  

In the Republican primary race, Susan Syfert will challenge longtime state Reps. David Gowan and David Stevens, who are running as a slate.

After 2012 redistricting, Syfert says, “We found that we didn’t get callbacks, we didn’t get them coming to talk to our elected officials or any of our business people.”

She decided to run for office to give the people of LD14 a “choice for representation.”

Gowan and Stevens, officeholders since 2009, say they enjoy serving their constituents and attend local activities as much as possible when they are not in session.

“It’s the best job I’ve ever had and I love serving,” Gowan said.

Syfert says she has some good ideas for economic growth and rationally evaluating bills.

The platforms of Gowan and Stevens often overlap, evidence of their long years of teamwork. They want to bring in small businesses through deregulation and to promote the free market by fighting legislation like the Affordable Care Act.

All three candidates support school choice.

ECONOMY

Arizona’s location next to Mexico should be a trade asset, Syfert says, and she has met with the Mexican consul for the Douglas area to discuss “ideas for increasing the flow of commerce across that port of entry.”

“There are really some great opportunities across the border for legal commerce,” she said.

Gowan and Stevens “want to look into what’s hampering the business community and free them of those hassles.” Part of that entails reducing regulatory burdens on businesses already in the state and enticing more businesses to come to Arizona.

A large part of Gowan’s first term was dedicated to balancing the state budget, and he hopes to be able to maintain that balance in the upcoming term by avoiding overspending.

The three candidates agree federal policy has restricted the lumber industry in Arizona.

Syfert thinks logging companies need more assurances so they can be certain federal policies on logging rights won’t change. She thinks companies will manage the lands responsibly because maintaining long-term business is in their best interest.

“There are a lot of private-industry solutions that don’t cause the taxpayer to bear the burden,” she says of forest management and logging.

Stevens says there could be a lucrative lumber industry if federal regulations would allow more logging. Getting these lands into private citizens’ hands is “a major effort from this Legislature that we’re looking at in the future,” he says.

IMMIGRATION

If she had been in office at the time of the vote, Syfert says she would have supported SB 1070 because federal laws requiring proof of identification already exist, she says.

“I think everybody should be treated the same and it’s just a repeat of federal law,” she says.

Syfert supports legal immigration and says, “I think it should be an easier process.”

Gowan wrote the House version of SB 1070 and both he and Stevens strongly support it.

Stevens says while it is the federal government’s duty to secure the border, the state should apprehend people who cross the border illegally.

Gowan and Stevens already are speaking with other state and federal legislators and constituents about creating action plans to address immigration. They say the federal government needs to step up and do more to secure the borders.

SB 1062

SB 1062 was described by its authors as a religious-freedom bill but seen by opponents as opening the door to discrimination against gays and religious minorities.

Syfert promises constituents she will use a three-part system to evaluate such bills. She will ensure the legislation is constitutional and addresses a current issue. Finally, she will look at the “spinability” of the legislation, ensuring the wording is precise and cannot be spun to mean something different than the intent of the bill.

“We know there is a lot of polarization. People look at things with different lenses,” she said. Thus, it is especially important to look at the intent of the bill and the language used, Syfert says.

For this reason, if she was in office at the time, she would not have voted for SB 1062.

She supports the idea of protecting businesses and business owners’ rights but finds the bill to be addressing an issue that hasn’t come up in Arizona. She also feels the “spinability” is too high.

Gowan and Stevens both voted for the House version of SB 1062. They explained the bill was vetoed as part of a moratorium the first year it was put forward, and at that time, it had not received much attention. Thus the public backlash when it was reintroduced the following year was a surprise.

Gowan says the bill would strengthen religious rights.

“If I don’t want to serve somebody, why should I have to?” Gowan said.

Early ballots will be mailed on Thursday. Primary election day is Aug. 26.

The two winners of the primary race will face Democrat James Burton in the November general election.

Christa Elise Reynolds is a University of Arizona journalism student who is an apprentice at the Star. Contact her at starapprentice@azstarnet.com

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During hot Tucson summers, Ramadan fast a challenge

(For the Arizona Daily Star. Published July 10, 2014, for the AZ Daily Star. Click here for the Star article)

When the temperature tops 100 degrees, staying inside or guzzling water are about the only ways to get by.

But one of those options is off limits to many Muslims in Tucson, who are observing the Ramadan fast and cannot eat or drink until the sun goes down.

“It’s very tough. If I’m sitting at home and don’t go out, it’s perfect, but if you go out into the heat – that’s no fun at all,” says Ferial Malaika, event coordinator at the Arabian Oasis Cultural Center, 2102 E. Broadway. When she sees women wearing traditional Muslim head coverings, she sometimes advises them to carry an umbrella to block the hot sun.

The fast is possible, she says, because of her belief. “It’s not easy but we do it. We don’t complain,” Malaika says.

Fasting is twofold, explains Maksood Ahmad, who was born in Pakistan but has been a Tucsonan for about 40 years. The intent is to purify oneself and also to “experience the pain of a hungry person.”

“I don’t know about the first, but I do achieve the second!” Ahmad says good-naturedly.

An important part of the Ramadan celebration is iftar, or “the breaking the fast” meal. Held at sundown, the meal begins slightly earlier every day as daylight hours grow shorter.

A few dates and a glass of milk is the traditional way to begin iftar. Even one date can make a person feel pretty full after fasting all day, says Sehrish Choudhary, 13. She has been observing the Ramadan fast since second grade.

Fasting was difficult at first, but Choudhary says she adjusts. She tries to “think about how the needy feel, and live the experience of their lives” while fasting.

In order to avoid being out in the heat of the day, her family stocks up on groceries before the month starts.

For iftar at the Arabian Oasis Cultural Center, families contribute different dishes. Malaika makesharira, a Moroccan soup found across the Arab world and, for dessert, kunaffa. This pastry has a creamy, cheesecakelike filling sandwiched by sweet, shredded dough. It’s her own secret recipe, coveted by many who have tasted the dessert, she says, but she refuses to give up her recipe.

It’s important to avoid eating salty foods when Ramadan falls during summer, Zena Khalel says. An immigrant from Iraq, she says her family celebrates Ramadan in Tucson just as they did in her home country. She likes to include watermelon in her evening meal because it is hydrating.

Ruaa Alkanan, another Iraqi immigrant, says it’s almost easier to fast for Ramadan in Tucson than it was in Baghdad. Although she misses her family in Iraq, the air conditioning that is ubiquitous here helps her stay cool during the day.

A midday shower also helps a fasting person cool off, says Ahmad. He explains how Muslims perform ablutions before praying five times a day, pouring water on their faces, hands and feet. That’s especially refreshing when temperatures are high, he says.

The difficulty of fasting depends on what a person does during the day, explains Sufyan Mohamed, another recent Iraqi immigrant.

“We’ve been used to fasting,” he explains. It is customary for Muslims to begin fasting when they reach puberty.

When Tubah Ahmad, 13, was younger, she would fast for half a day and then eat her breakfast around noon. “When your parents do it, it gives you the urge,” she explains. “It’s not really difficult if you’re not being forced to.”

For some, the month of Ramadan can be a time to adopt nocturnal schedules. Several kids at the cultural center try to outdo one another with how late they stayed up the night before. Omar, 11, won with his bedtime of 6 a.m. Sleeping until 3 p.m. makes it easier to fast until dusk, he says.

How did he stay up so late? Playing video games, he says.

(Christa Elise Reynolds is a University of Arizona journalism student who is an apprentice at the Star)

Unemployment, economy are hot issues in LD4 race

(For the AZ Daily Star, July 6, 2014. Click here for a link to the Star article)

New U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics place Arizona next to last among the states for recovering jobs lost to the recession.

That fact hits particularly close to home in Yuma County — the heart of Legislative District 4— where unemployment stood at 26.5 percent in May.

So it’s little wonder fixing the economy is such a critical issue among the three Democrats vying for the district’s two seats in the Arizona House of Representatives.

Where the three differ is on how to get the job done, and they have different political priorities.

Investment representative Jose Leonardo Suarez would support legislation creating a guest worker program for migrants and believes undocumented people in Arizona should be allowed to apply for driver’s licenses.

Charlene Fernandez, a former staffer for U.S. Congressmen Raul Grijalva and Ed Pastor, says an educated workforce will boost the economy and strongly supports increasing transparency in state agencies.

Incumbent Lisa Otondo is proud to stand by her voting record from her first term. She supports preventative services, for both health care and land management, and believes a strong public school system will help attract businesses to the state.

ECONOMY

Suarez says the best way to improve the economy is to invest in proper public infrastructure. This “will help to attract private capital investment and get more job opportunities for people,” he says.

During four years on the San Luis City Council, population 32,000, he worked with other council members to fund community development and street improvements.

Suarez points out District 4 shares a long border with Mexico and is close to California. “We’re in a very enviable location, so we need to take advantage of that and keep promoting the legal international trade,” he says.

Fernandez says she believes the economy and education go hand in hand. Fully funded public schools will better prepare students for college and the work force, she says.

To increase funds for schools, Fernandez says many state agencies can be streamlined, improving efficiency and increasing transparency.

Reducing obstacles for businesses, such as making applications for certifications and regulations more straight-forward, would make Arizona more business friendly, Fernandez says.

She says her experience working with a small engineering firm in Yuma gave her first-hand knowledge about the difficulties such businesses face.

Small businesses are important because “the money they generate stays in our communities,” Fernandez says.

Otondo stresses the importance of trade with Mexico for her district. During her first term, she met with the Mexican consulate several times. Otondo cites a need for coordination between the federal government and the Mexican government to ensure trade continues.

Loopholes in tax credits are a problem Otondo says must be reviewed to “find what is beneficial for the state and for the state revenues.” Some of these tax credits are antiquated, she says.

Proper management of public lands is another way to avoid financial losses, Otondo says. Although wildfires are not a primary issue in District 4, Otondo points out the negative effect of a fire on the entire state budget.

“When we take care of state lands, it benefits everybody from the south to the north,” Otondo says.

EDUCATION

The candidates agree more money should go to education.

Suarez and Fernandez both strongly support science and technology education. Candidates have different ideas for how to address public education needs.

Suarez stresses the need for educational programs to help students prepare for the “real challenges” presented by increasingly globalized markets. And he would increase funding for extracurricular activities that help students get more prepared for life after school.

Fernandez, a former school board member, focuses on the importance of ensuring schools are well-equipped and class sizes are manageable for teachers. Public money for full-day kindergarten and preschool would help prepare students from an early age for a better education, Fernandez says.

Otondo wants to focus on funding public education rather than promoting private schools.

Better education means a more skilled workforce, she says, which in turn will help attract more businesses to the state.

“If we are going to take tax dollars to put it into education, there better be some accountability,” which is not available when funds go to private education, she says.

Otondo meets with teachers in her district and listens to the Arizona Education Association.

IMMIGRATION

None of the candidates support SB1070.

Fernandez and Otondo say the tough immigration law hurt business and tourism ties with Mexico.

“It felt racially motivated,” Fernandez says. “It felt like a scare tactic and we’re better than that.”

Both say immigration reform must be addressed at the federal level.

Although Suarez does not support undocumented immigration, he says communities and roads will be safer if undocumented people already living and working in Arizona are allowed to apply for and hold driver’s licenses, which is now prohibited by a 1996 law.

The primary election is August 26. Early voting starts July 31.

The two winners of this race will face Republican Richard Hopkins in the November general election.

(Christa Elise Reynolds is a University of Arizona journalism student who is an apprentice at the Star.)