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The most important border stories of 2017

The election of Donald Trump in November 2016 provided much of the catalyst for stories along the border over the past year, however, long-term issues with U.S. Customs and Border Protection which go back years also continued to demand coverage from the TucsonSentinel.com.

While much of our coverage was based on the raucous actions of the Trump administration, TucsonSentinel.com delved into some hidden corners of the borderlands, including a story about a decorated Marine who faces deportation despite being a U.S. citizen, a story that uses documents that describe how the ex-governor of Sonora may have been linked to a cocaine smuggler, the trial of a Border Patrol agent accused of second-degree murder for the 2012 cross-border shooting of a Mexican teenage, and and a move by Congress to exempt the Border Patrol from Freedom of Information laws.

Five years after the death of 16-year-old Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez, killed in a 2012 cross-border shooting by a U.S. Border Patrol agent in Nogales, his family still waits for their day in court in two separate cases.

In the piece, "After 5 years, family of teen killed by Border Patrol agent frustrated by delays," we covered a vigil held by the family that marked the fifth anniversary of the boy's death. There the boy's mother and grandmother, along with other family and supporters, express their frustration that the court case against Lonnie Swartz, the Border Patrol agent, charged with killing Rodriguez, was delayed repeatedly throughout 2017, and will not begin until at least March 2018.

We also covered a series of motions over evidence related to Swartz's trial, including a hearing where a video reconstruction gave the first true glimpse of what happened that deadly October night, including the fact that Swartz fired 16 rounds into Nogales, Sonora, emptying the entire magazine, before he reloaded and fired three more rounds.

Another court case continued throughout 2017.

In 2015, immigration advocates and civil rights lawyers filed a class-action lawsuit against Border Patrol, arguing that the agency regularly breaks its own policies when it holds people in temporary detention facilities throughout southern Arizona.

In January, U.S. District Judge David C. Bury reiterated his order that the agency must provide blankets, sleeping mats, and showers to people held for more than 12 hours by the agency, and then in March Bury held the agency in contempt, arguing that officials had failed to preserve video evidence of the treatment of immigrants at several Tucson Sector stations.

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Government lawyers refuted Bury's order, and asked the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to intervene, however in late December, Appellate Judge Consuelo Callahan affirmed Bury's decision.

In our piece, "9th Circuit: BP must provide blankets to detained immigrant," we outlined the decision.

While this might seem like legal sausage-making, these are the first steps of a larger class-action lawsuit that will be important in 2018, especially as the Trump administration is determined to lock up more immigrants, and Border Patrol officials have announced that they will seek prosecution for every immigrant who crosses the U.S.-Mexico border illegally.

With the help of Keith Rosenblum, TucsonSentinel.com also dug into documents that helped unravel the how a report of gunshots in a posh Hermosillo neighborhood led to the arrest and prosecution of the ex-governor of Sonora, Guillermo Padrés Elías.

In our piece, "Coke smuggler's arrest unravels alleged corruption of ex-Sonora governor," we reported on documents, including a"tarjeta informativa" or policy summary, provided to TucsonSentinel.com by state and federal authorities, which outlined the interrogations of 42-year-old Gualberto Gastélum López, an alleged cocaine dealer.

Gastélum told officials that he gave millions of dollars to Padrés' campaign, using a businessman in Cananea as a go-between, avoiding Sonora's strict campaign finance laws.

In exchange, Gastélum profited from the state government, and was able to smuggle 176 to 220 pounds of cocaine in the United States. Gastélum's statements may also be responsible for investigations launched against nearly two-dozen members of the Padrés administration.

In August, TucsonSentinel.com reported on the plight of Marine veteran, George Ybarra, who after serving a seven-year sentence for aggravated assault in Tucson, was transferred to an immigration detention facility in Eloy where he has remained for 133 days pending deportation proceedings. And, yet Ybarra claims — and a federal judge agreed — that he is a U.S. citizen.

Written with freelancer Joe Watson, the story, "Decorated Marine vet may be deported, despite likely U.S. citizenship," digs into two important issues: the deportation of military veterans and how people with derivative citizenship may still face deportations because of the law's complexity and hard-charging immigration officials.

In January, Ybarra is scheduled to finally get a hearing on his status.

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We also published an overview of border issues as part of our Panorama De La Linea project in April, which includes photographs of the borderlands, as well as images covering some of the major issues surrounding the U.S.-Mexico border over the last two years.

Look out for more photographs and coverage from this project in 2018.

A story that was probably only a blip, but highlights important issues along the border, was the seizure by Mexican officials of an air-cannon mounted in a van, designed to lob packages of drugs over the 18-foot-high bollard fencing that separates Douglas, Arizona, from its sister city, Agua Prieta, Sonora.

Several ingenious smuggling attempts were intercepted by officials this year, including a zip-line that ran from a building in Agua Prieta into Douglas and an ad-hoc catapult bolted to the fence, but the air cannon showed that smugglers were working hard at building new ways to get over the international boundary.

Finally, reporting from TucsonSentinel.com shows that solid watchdog journalism can have a direct effect.

In early October, our editor and publisher Dylan Smith caught wind that H.R. 3548, a bill co-sponsored by U.S. Rep. Martha McSally, would make Customs and Border Protection exempt from a host of environmental laws to ease construction of President Donald Trump's border wall.

A remarkable exemption considering that Secretary of Homeland Security already has the ability to waive environmental laws to build border barriers based on the 2005 Secure Fence Act.

In our piece, "McSally bill may exempt Border Patrol from freedom of information laws" we outlined how the bill would go even further, allowing CBP to refuse to disclose information on most of its border enforcement activities, giving the agency, which has nearly 50,000 sworn officers and agents the ability to ignore the Freedom of Information Act.

Following our reporting, McSally quickly stripped the exemption from the bill.

TucsonSentinel.com's original reporting and curation of border and immigration news is generously supported in part by a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

A photo of Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez, a 16-year-old boy shot and killed by a Border Patrol agent in 2012, on display during a vigil marking the five-year anniversary of the boy's death.

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