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RTDNA Murrow Submission: Excellence In Writing - David Martin Davies

Excellence in Writing Submission

David Martin Davies – Texas Public Radio


San Antonio’s Response To Surge of Asylum Seekers


The number of asylum-seeking migrants released by Customs and Border Protection grew over the weekend. Hundreds of families arrived at San Antonio’s bus station, prompting an unprecedented humanitarian response. Texas Public Radio’s David Martin Davies reports area charities and the City of San Antonio scrambled to provide emergency services.


Reporter: On Saturday afternoon, at the Catholic Charities Community Center on San Antonio’s West Side, an infant is struggling to breathe.

He’s only a month old, and already he’s seen more upheaval than most adults.

His family says they were forced to flee their home in Guatemala. The child was born in Mexico while they journeyed to the United States.

After being detained by immigration authorities at the border, the family was released.

Now, in San Antonio, the heavy oak pollen in the air is overwhelming for the baby.

His parents look worried and rub his back to help him breathe.

With his tiny sinuses blocked, he can’t nurse and breathe at the same time.

San Antonio Archbishop Gustavo Garcia-Siller calls a nurse over.

Garcia-Siller translates for the nurse. What’s the child’s name?

Antonio – the archbishop laughs, recognizing the connection to the city now welcoming these migrant families.

The nurse uses a blue rubber suction bulb to clear the mucus in Antonio’s nose. He calms down. All he needed was a little help.

Garcia-Siller says that’s what they’re trying to do.

Garcia-Siller: We are blessed to help. We will not stop helping them, and to do that is just and what is right.”

Reporter: The archbishop says these asylum-seekers are no threat to United States.

Garcia-Siller: You can see it’s mainly families – mothers, fathers, babies. It’s a young population, and of course we were not expecting that many now.

Reporter: The spike in numbers of asylum seekers has raised concerns across the South Texas border. More than 76,000 immigrants without authorization surrendered or were apprehended by U.S. Customs and Border Protection in February, the highest number in more than a decade.

And they are showing up in parts of the border that don’t normally see many asylum seekers, like in the Del Rio and Eagle Pass areas southwest of San Antonio.

In addition, detaining families demands more resources and attention from Border Patrol, which they are not equipped to provide.

So beginning Thursday the Border Patrol began releasing many from detention in South Texas.

Archbishop Garcia-Siller:

Garcia-Siller: These people are not breaking the law. They are not breaking the law.

Reporter: He says they are not illegal immigrants. They are requesting asylum, which is allowed. They are given documentation by CBP to enter the United States and pursue their claims in immigration court. So calling them undocumented isn’t accurate either.

Nevertheless, approximately 300 arrived in San Antonio over the weekend.

So many arrived that for the first time the city of San Antonio opened a pop-up Immigration Resource Center.

Across the street from the Greyhound bus station, it’s in an empty storefront.

On the floor, children are intensely playing while volunteers help parents figure out their next steps.   

San Antonio interim assistant city manager Colleen Bridger said setting up the Resource Center was an emergency response.

Bridger: We set this up to get us through the weekend because folks are getting real tired. We’ve had a lot of people coming in late Thursday night – late Friday night. And our non-profit partners were just stretched beyond their abilities.

Reporter: But the city doesn’t know how long they’ll be needing to keep it open.

Bridger: Even when we talk to Border Patrol and ICE, they’re not sure how many people are going to continue to come across the border seeking asylum.

Reporter: In the past, the CBP released immigrants arrived in San Antonio with travel plans and bus tickets, all arranged while they spent time in detention. But many in this wave of asylum seekers didn’t spend much time in detention so they are being dropped off with no money, no bus tickets and no idea of how to get to their final destination. To top that off, there are so many immigrants being released that almost all of the buses leaving San Antonio were sold out, leaving the families stranded until Monday or later. That left non-profits buying bus tickets and hotel rooms for the families. Antonio Fernandez, the CEO of Catholic Charities, said unless they get financial support from the city they will run out of money.

Fernandez: I asked for financial support from the city. I hope they can give it to us because sooner or later I won’t be able to do this anymore.

And with no sign of slowing down on the border with Central American families continuing to arrive, the question for many is how long can San Antonio sustain its welcoming response?

David Martin Davies, Texas Public Radio News.


Remain In Mexico Means Remain In Danger


HOST: The Migrant Protection Protocols, also known as “Remain in Mexico,” has so far forced more than 57,000 migrants to wait in Mexico while their immigration cases wind through immigration court.

Last week at a congressional hearing on the policy, Laura Pena, an attorney for the Texas Civil Rights Project, told lawmakers “Remain in Mexico” is a violation of U.S. law and puts the Central American asylum seekers in danger.

[Pena: “Asylum seekers are being returned to dangerous cities where organizations have documented hundreds – hundreds of incidents of kidnappings and violence.”]

Host: Congressman Mike Rogers, the Republican ranking member on the Homeland Security Committee, defended “Remain in Mexico.”

[Rodgers: “I wholeheartedly support the Remain in Mexico Policy. I think it’s an essential policy and in no way inhumane. MPP discourages non metorious or false asylum claims and actually helps decrease the wait time for immigrant court hearings.”]

Host: A recent analysis by Human Rights First found 340 publicly reported instances of kidnapping, rape, torture and other types of violence against migrants returned to Mexico under MPP.   

How is “Remain in Mexico” actually working? Texas Public Radio’s David Martin Davies went to Nuevo Laredo to find out more.


Reporter:  I’m at a nondescript house in downtown Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. To get inside there’s an iron gate to unlock and a curtain in front of a big wooden door. After I’m led in and my eyes adjust to the darkness I can see that this small house is crammed full with people. Central American refugees, mostly mothers and their children. Many are sitting on the floor of a hallway.

Ortiz: “There’s not another place that we were able to find, and we’re renting it. We’re renting the house for them to stay here.”

Reporter:  Ruth Ortiz is my guide. She’s the daughter of Pastor Lorenzo Ortiz, who has stepped up to provide food, clothing and shelter for the asylum seekers waiting in Mexico.

Ortiz: “This has been open since August. Until this place is needed we will continue to help.”

Reporter: About 100 people are in the shelter. Every space is taken up. A little concrete back patio is filled with cots and clotheslines for an extra sleeping area.

On this day Pastor Ortiz was called away to Monterrey where he runs another refugee house. I spoke to him as he was driving back to bring asylum seekers back to Nuevo Laredo.

Pastor Ortiz: I got six people coming with me from Monterrey coming for their hearings tomorrow. And then I gotta go straight on the bridge there and pick up the ones that are there already. There are about 80 people who are already waiting.

Reporter: The immigration court hearings are held in a white circus tent set up next to the international bridge in Laredo, Texas. The asylum seekers line up at four in the morning. They are allowed to cross for a video link hearing with an immigration judge and then are sent back to Nuevo Laredo.

This is the system that came about last June called “Remain in Mexico.” This has dramatically decreased the number of asylum seekers allowed in the U.S. while their cases are adjudicated but it puts the asylum seekers in danger. In Matamoros, a refugee camp was set up but Nuevo Laredo is so dangerous that authorities would not allow a camp.

LaRock: In Nuevo Laredo, people are really in hiding rather than out in the open.

Reporter: Sister Denise LaRock has been bringing supplies from San Antonio for the refugees.

LaRock: In Matamoros they are out in the open but they are very close to the port of entry. Whereas here they really are in hiding. They can’t go out of the house.

Reporter: They are hiding from the cartels. According to a 2018 State Department report, there are no safe areas in border cities like Matamoros and Nuevo Laredo “due to gunfights, grenade attacks, and kidnappings.” The State Department has labeled Tamaulipas, the Mexican state that includes Nuevo Laredo, as a “level 4” threat risk – that’s the same category as Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Somalia.

The cartels prey on the Central American refugees by kidnapping them and torturing them until their relatives pay a ransom.

Ortiz: There was one time that the bad guys came.

Reporter: Santiago, the shelter manager, said gunmen busted in and ordered everyone on the ground. They wanted to know who was running this operation. When they learned it was a Christian group helping migrants and not a rival cartel, they left, but Santiago says everyone is afraid that the cartel will return.

At the shelter, one woman from Guatemala who didn’t want to give her name explained how she had been kidnapped in Mexico.

Ortiz: (translating) They just got me into a vehicle and placed a jacket on my face.

Reporter: For eight days along with other migrants she was tied up with tape over her mouth. She managed to get free, climb out a window and find her way to this shelter.

And she has a message for President Donald Trump.

She says Mexico is a very dangerous place, and she hopes he hears about what is happening in Nuevo Laredo and it touches his heart.

LaRock: “The United States has created this crisis at the Mexican border.”

Reporter: Sister Denise says it’s the policies under Trump that have created Remain in Mexico.

LaRock: Putting families in the hands of corrupt officials, gang members, cartels.

Reporter: And for these people that means remain in danger.

In Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, David Martin Davies reporting.


The Body Ranch and the Execution of Larry Swearingen


Establishing “time of death” is a piece of information that in a murder investigation can lead to arresting and convicting the perpetrator - or exonerating someone wrongfully accused. Getting it right can mean life or death for someone like Texas death row inmate Larry Swearingen. He’s facing execution tomorrow for a murder he says he didn’t commit. Texas Public Radio’s David Martin Davies went to the Texas Hill Country Body Ranch to find out more about the science of “time of death.” 


Reporter: Scattered around an open field under the hot Texas sun there are a dozen human bodies. Their skin is blackened. Their flesh is half eaten by bugs and varmints. They are in varying states of decay. This isn’t the scene from a horror movie or a mass murder - this is science.

Wescott: What we're interested in doing is getting some kind of idea of the rate of composition and then the pattern of decomposition.

Reporter: Professor Daniel Wescott is in the Department of Anthropology at Texas State University. He is the director of their Forensic Anthropology Center  - which some people call “The Body Ranch.”

Wescott: We typically have about 60 to 70 bodies out at at any given time that might be involved in various different experiments. 

Reporter: This is one of the seven outdoor body composition laboratories in the United States and the largest such forensics research facility in the world.

Wescott: So what you want to try to do is have some kind of baseline information about what's going on and then alter a single thing to look at how that then affects it.

Reporter: Here, human cadavers are left out in the open and carefully monitored for patterns of human body decomposition. That data is used to train forensic experts so when they look at a murder victim they can read the body and the crime scene to gain an understanding of the time of death.

Wescott: It's not guesswork.  We do lots of bodies so we have a good idea of the normal variation. 

Reporter: In the murder of Melissa Trotter establishing when she died is central to the conviction and the pending execution of Larry Swearingen. Trotter went missing in Willis, Texas, on Dec. 8, 1998. Her body was found 25 days later on Jan. 2 in the Sam Houston National Forest. She’d been sexually assaulted and strangled. Her body was tossed onto a pile of bushes. Swearingen had been arrested and jailed on Dec. 11 - three days after Trotter was last seen alive. 

Swearingen says he didn’t kill her, and, based on the condition of Trotter’s body, forensic experts say there are questions about his guilt. 

Larry Swearingen: Both the climate, weather, temperature, the data, where the body was found. The environment where it was found, looked at all the weights, the organs, looked at everything, and they said Melissa died within 10 to 12 days of her body being discovered.

Reporter: There’s a lot of circumstantial evidence in this case that the prosecution says points directly at Swearingen and no one but Swearingen. But there’s no DNA that ties Swearingen to the death of Trotter. The prosecution’s case depends on establishing that Trotter died before Swearingen was jailed. The forensic evidence for that narrative is weak at best.

Larry Swearingen: Every doctor has said from Texas and beyond that Melissa was dead no more 10 to 12 days before discovery, which would have put, what about the 18th somewhere around in here. I've been locked up over a week by that time.

Reporter: Kelly Blackburn is with the Montgomery County District Attorney’s Office, which prosecuted Swearingen. He says one piece of evidence isn’t what this case is about.

Blackburn: Science can only tell you so much. You have to look at the whole story because there does come down, no matter how good the scientist is, no matter how either, you know, for whatever reason they're giving their opinion on whether and how unbiased they claim to be. It's, there's still is interpretation.”

Reporter: And what the conditions were in the Sam Houston National Forest for those 25 days is also undetermined. 

Blackburn: If you're looking at what the weather was like at Intercontinental Airport and basing the way the body would decompose based on those weather patterns versus what's actually happening 20 miles north of here in the national forest and how cold the temperature could have gotten during that period of time and how cold it stayed for that period of time. All of that comes into play.

Reporter: James Rytting, the attorney for Swearingen, says the time of death is a major problem for the state’s case. He says the bottom line is when Melissa Trotter’s body was discovered, had it been out in the woods for 25 days, it would have been in terrible condition. 

Rytting: The body weighed the same the day that girl disappeared as it did on the slab. And it was left out in the open in the Texas woods. A woods which is filled, as everyone knows, with vultures, with raccoons, with wild pigs. There should not have been much left to that body at all after 25 days, let alone 105 pounds out of 105 pounds.

Reporter: But Wescott from the Body Ranch said some bodies don’t always decompose the way you’d expect them to - sometimes there are surprises.

Wescott: Yeah, that does occur. So typically when we get one that is a little bit off of what we expect, it's, it usually turns out to be that they were on heavy dose of antibiotics at the time or sometimes chemotherapy.

Reporter: Forensic entomology and establishing time of death is a science - but if it’s an exact science shouldn’t depend on if it’s being used by the prosecution or the defense.

David Martin Davies, Texas Public Radio News.

David Martin Davies can be reached at dmdavies@tpr.org and on Twitter at @DavidMartinDavi