Immigrant border deaths as important as rancher Rob Krentz's murder, protester says

Most locals celebrated the 4th of July weekend with picnics and fireworks. But approximately fifty locals marked the holiday yesterday with a vigil at Aurora's GEO detention center.

There, they decried current immigration policy in Colorado and elsewhere, with a focus on the deaths of two migrants whose deaths haven't received nearly the attention paid to the murder of Arizona rancher Rob Krentz. Look below to see videos of the incidents and a photo gallery from the rally.

"The death of that rancher is definitely tragic," says Jennifer Piper, interfaith organizer with the American Friends Service Committee, which is marking its sixteenth month of participation in GEO protests. "But they haven't yet charged anyone with that crime. Right now, there's a theory that it was somebody from a drug cartel or an immigrant passing through, but we don't know that for certain. And the incident has been used to fan the flames."

Indeed, Krentz's May murder, which former Colorado congressman and longtime immigration-policy critic Tom Tancredo tweeted about from the scene, provided substantial momentum for SB 1070, Arizona's controversial immigration bill, which will become law later this month. Locally, protests against the measure have included student walkouts, an ACLU advisory and travel bans by Denver Public Schools and the City of Boulder.

The GEO protests have attempted to broaden the immigration discussion beyond the Arizona measure. For the latest, Piper says, "we felt it was important to mark the increasing militarization of the border and interior through immigration policy.

"This year has been a really deadly year," she continues. "For the first time in many years, deaths on the border have gone up, and we've seen an increase in death directly linked to border patrol encounters. The border patrol has increased exponentially over the past several years, and we're concerned that people aren't receiving appropriate training about when to use what type of force."

Specifically, she notes, "there have been seventeen deaths, fifteen of them drownings of people trying to swim across the river. That includes an incident this month, where four people were trying to swim across, and a border patrol agent told them to cross back to the Mexico side while they were swimming, instead of allowing them to get to the U.S. side, then apprehending them and returning them. And when they turned back, three of them drowned."

Just as shocking as the drownings are the deaths of Anastasio Hernández Rojas and Sergio Adrián Hernández; the former has been ruled a homicide. Here's Piper's descriptions of the incidents, beginning with the one involving Rojas, which took place as May turned to June:

"Anastasio had been in the U.S. since he was sixteen years old," she says. "He was in his early forites, with a U.S. citizen wife and five citizen children. He had been apprehended earlier by immigration and deported to Mexico, and he was crossing back to reunite with his family -- which is one of the problems with our system. There was no way of him going through a legal process to reunite with them or become a U.S. citizen, because of the way our laws are written.

"On his way back, he was caught by border patrol agents, who were taking him to Mexican authorities when they say he got out of his van and ran. They caught him close to the van, handcuffed him, and he was Tasered up to five times, beaten with batons and kicked. By the time he got to the hospital, he was brain-dead."

And the Hernández case?

"Two weeks after what happened to Anastasio, on the El Paso-Juarez border, there were several teenagers trying to cross into the U.S. across a dry concrete canal," Piper says. "They'd cut a hole in a fence. Then, they saw a border patrol agent coming up on a bike and they ran back toward the Mexico side. The border patrol agent went through the fence and got one of the kids on the ground. A couple of other kids began throwing rocks at him, which was a stupid, teenage thing to do. Then, one of the kids, Sergio, who hadn't actually been throwing rocks, peaked his head out from behind a concrete pillar, and the border agent, without any warning, pointed his gun straight at him, shot three times, and killed him."

Page down to see videos taken at the scene of each incident:

Here's the Rojas clip, taken using a cell phone:

And here's Univision coverage of the Hernández incident:

No telling what the focus of the next GEO protest will be. As Piper points out, "each vigil is planned by a different group. And we have a pretty diverse community of people who come out."

Still, Piper feels that the vigils have had an impact.

"We want to keep up community pressure, so they don't fill the extension to the facility," she says. "They've finished an 1,100-bed extension, but they haven't signed a contract for that space. I don't think our actions are the sole reason why there isn't a contract yet, but I think we're a piece of it."

She adds that "whether we're talking about the detention of immigrants in the interior or border patrol and National Guard troops on the border, it's our belief that the increased militarization actually makes the border less safe. We're only bolstering the business of human smuggling and drug trafficking, and making it impossible for people crossing just to work to do so in a safe way, because there's no legal channel for them to do so. This is their only option."

Look below to see more photos of the vigil:

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts