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A death at the border mutes Father’s Day

A death at the border mutes Father’s Day

Published: June 14, 2013

Luz Rojas (center), mother of Anastasio Hernandez Rojas, accompanied by her son Bernardo Hernandez Rojas (left) and Andrea Guerrero (right), Executive Director of the Equality Alliance prepare for their trip to Washington DC to advocate for justice in the death of Anastasio Hernandez Rojas.

Photo: AFSC / Pedro Rios

By Adriana Jasso, Project Voice coordinator of AFSC's San Diego office 

On Father’s Day, many families take their dads out for brunch, give him frivolous gifts, and enjoy each other’s company. But for one San Diego family—and thousands of others across the countrythe day is a reminder that a grave injustice forged by our broken immigration system has cast a shadow on what otherwise would be a festive affair.

The seven-year-old twins Daniel and Daniela understand this too well, having lived for the past three years with too many unanswered questions about why federal border agents beat their father, Anastasio Hernandez Rojas, and left him brain dead until his passing three days later. According to court records, Anastasio was beaten and tortured while under the custody of agents who were in the process of deporting him to Mexico.

The significance of Father’s Day also changed for Maria Puga, the twins’ mother, when she became Anastasio’s widow on May 31, 2010. She is not alone when caring for Daniel and Daniela, because the three other children Maria and Anastasio shared14-year-old Fabian, 21-year-old Daisy, and 23-year-old Yeimieach do their part to help. Nevertheless, every day is a struggle, and this Father’s Day will not be the exception.

Daniela was four years old when the unfortunate incident that took her father from her occurred. She still likes to draw pictures and write letters to her father. Bursting with pride, Daniela shows her letters and drawings, and demands that her mother Maria acknowledge her work. “Look Mommy, here is my daddy. I love you a lot, but I love him more because he is dead.”

Daniel, on the other hand, expresses his feelings more directly, insisting that he needs his father now. Daniel has asked several of his uncles if any of them would like to become his father. Indeed, the significance of Father’s Day has changed for the uncles and the entire Hernandez Rojas family.

Anastasio had been a construction worker, a 26-year resident of San Diego, and a father of five childrenall U.S. citizens. Father’s Day had been a big deal in the Hernandez Rojas home before the terrible incident, which witnesses recorded with their cellphone cameras. The most revealing video of Anastasio’s beating by border agents was released two years after Anastasio’s killing, and was aired nationally on PBS’ Need to Know, finally drawing national attention to this violent and rarely acknowledged face of border enforcement policy. Today, three years after his killing, the lack of accountability has permitted Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents involved in the killing of Anastasio to get away with murder.

Since the loss of Anastasio, organizations such as the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) and the community in general have accompanied the Hernnadez Rojas family in their call for justice. This case also has sparked congressional inquiry, a federal grand jury investigation, and legislative proposals that require better training for agents and procedures to hold them accountable when there is excessive use of force.

Sadly, Anastasio’s case is not isolated. This case is one of at least 20 documented cases where excessive violence at the hands of Border Patrol agents from 2010 to the present has resulted in the loss of life.

In light of the current immigration reform debate in Congress, Anastasio’s family and community advocates continue to meet with members of Congress urging support for provisions that increase training, oversight, and accountability of border agents.

AFSC strongly urges Congress to act now to curb abuses, protect civil and human rights, and hold agents accountable. Had oversight provisions and safeguards been the norm three years ago, perhaps Daniel and Daniela and the rest of the Hernnadez Rojas family could have enjoyed a typical Father’s Day filled with laughter, gifts, and beautiful memories.

Accountability, transparency, and proper training of agents of one of the country’s largest federal agencies must become fundamental components to an immigration policy reform. If we seek to replace impunity with accountability, live up to our country’s oft declared faith in families, and perhaps even find ways of healing the daily pain and suffering the Hernandez Rojas family and many others experience, policy makers now debating immigration reform must work to eliminate the chances of another senseless death at the U.S.-Mexico border.