Yes, there’s a crisis on the border. But it’s not what you think it is.

Tracy L. Barnett
Jan 19 · 7 min read

I spent Christmas week on the Texas border, writing about the activists from all over the country who were spending their holidays camping out in front of the now-famous Tornillo Detention Facility, where nearly 3,000 migrant teens were being held. That camp is now history, with the last child leaving last Friday. But the story is far from over.

What I witnessed there went far beyond Tornillo, one of many detention centers across the country that were holding 14,300 migrant children at the time of my visit and are still holding more than 10,000. It didn’t take long to see that Tornillo was just one manifestation of a crisis created in large part by our government.

I had accompanied a group from St. Louis that had organized a creative occupation called Christmas in Tornillo, aimed at bringing cheer to the children inside while raising awareness among the public on the outside.

“The best way to describe it is that we are taking everything the artivists have learned in Ferguson and applying it to a movement that is of national importance,” said Elizabeth Vega, founder of Arthouse St. Louis and cofounder of St. Louis Artivists.

Nobody was being allowed inside to visit the children or bring them gifts, but the group had invited puppeteers and stilt walkers to help them organize a colorful and inspirational procession of solidarity that would be lifted up over the center’s walls with a powerful message: No están solos, You are not alone.

Christmas in Tornillo volunteers begin their procession along the fenceline of the detention camp with the message: No están sólos, No están olvidados (You are not alone, you are not forgotten). (Tracy L. Barnett)
Stilt walker Regina Armenta towers above the fenceline, wearing wings that display Latin America’s most beloved patron saint: The Virgin of Guadalupe. (Tracy L. Barnett)
Elizabeth Vega, right, and a young friend peer into the camp through a hole in the black plastic that was installed to isolate the detained youth. (Tracy L. Barnett)

The story of how those children ended up imprisoned in a military-style tent camp thousands of miles from their homes in Central America is in itself a damning glimpse into the effects of U.S. foreign policy in that region. Beginning with our historic sponsorship of dictators, death squads and civil wars throughout the region to the more recent deportation of thousands of criminals to those countries, the violence they are fleeing is of our own making.

But I will stay focused on what I saw with my own eyes during my recent stay in the borderlands.

Less than an hour after we arrived at the detention facility in the desert outside El Paso, Texas, two days before Christmas, word came that ICE had dropped off 200 asylum seekers at the El Paso Greyhound station, without notifying the local charities that usually coordinate care for the steady flow of migrants who have been arriving here in recent months.

I joined several who headed to town to lend a hand. We arrived at the Greyhound Station at 11 p.m. just a few blocks from where Jackeline Caal Maquín, a 7-year-old Guatemalan asylum seeker, had died in U.S. custody just two weeks before. There at the bus station we found a sea of bewildered faces — many of them mothers and fathers with small children, most without coats in the freezing weather, many coughing, feverish and traumatized after their long crossing over thousands of miles. I was reminded of the horrific conditions in their home countries, bad enough that they felt compelled to risk the harrowing journey to a country whose president had made no secret of his intention to keep them out.

The Christmas in Tornillo encampment had at its heart an altar honoring Jakeline Caal Maquín and other victims of the U.S. Border Patrol. (Tracy L. Barnett)

I watched as volunteers like Jen Apodaca of the Detained Migrant Solidarity Committee, Denise Benavides from Immigrant Families Together and Samson Hampton from the Borderline Rainbow House snapped into action, surveying the group to see who needed what. I was surprised to learn that most of them had family members somewhere in the U.S. who were waiting to buy them bus tickets — they just had no way to communicate with them.

I will never forget the shy young woman who told me she had left her home in Guatemala because she was a victim of domestic violence; she had come to join an uncle, to start a new life with her son in a land where he could grow up without seeing his mother being beaten, she said. She suppressed a cough, acquired during her detention with her little boy and her brother in the hielera, or icebox — what they call the ICE detention facilities because they are so cold.

Nor will I forget young Diana and her little boy José, from rural Honduras. Her husband, a Honduran immigrant who had sent for them from his home in Pittsburgh, had been terrified that they had died, since they’d been held in the hielera for a week after their 11-day crossing and had no way to reach him.

I volunteered my cell phone to help connect people with their families, people like Miguel, a Guatemalan man who was trying to reach his brother-in-law in Houston, his wide-eyed 15-year-old son looking on. We worked until nearly 2 a.m. trying to connect people with their families and getting their bus tickets, and then taking them to the shelter where they would await their departure. Denise and others surveyed the families to see who needed coats, gloves, medicine and other items, and then shuttled some to the hotel that had been rented to accommodate the emergency.

The next night, Christmas Eve, the same thing happened. Christmas Day, with temperatures dipping below freezing, the same day that 8-year-old Guatemalan refugee Felipe Alonzo Gómez died of flu in U.S. custody, an estimated 300 people were dropped off in a nearby park. Poorly funded nonprofit groups staffed mostly by volunteers were scrambling to pick up the slack. Annunciation House, which normally receives and processes around 500 incoming asylum seekers each week, was overwhelmed, and spent more than $150,000 renting hotel rooms to house the overflow.

Chaos reigned at the Greyhound station over Christmas, putting the city of El Paso on the verge of a humanitarian crisis — but it didn’t have to be that way. El Paso has historically had a low crime rate since long before it closed its border, and most of the crime is committed by U.S. citizens. Apodaca, one of many volunteer relief workers who barely slept that week, called the situation a “manufactured crisis” designed to increase tensions around the border and support for a needless wall.

Since the peak of the crisis, the majority of the children were finally allowed to join their waiting relatives; an estimated 300, however, were sent on to other detention facilities, and the government recently confirmed plans to double the size of a similar unregulated facility in Homestead, Fla.

Back at the Tornillo Detention Camp, I watched as volunteers built an altar to honor the victims of the U.S. Border Patrol, and hung flowers that had been sent from all over the country, each one representing a detained child. The flowers created a striking contrast to the stony wall at the front of the Port of Entry compound, ironically named for Marcelino Serna, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico who went on to become the most decorated Texas soldier in WWI.

Volunteers from all over the country sent handmade paper flowers, each one representing a child in detention. These are hung in front of the Tornillo detention center, named for Marcelino Serna, an undocumented immigrant who went on to become the most decorated Texas soldier in WWI. (Tracy L. Barnett)

Volunteer Josh Rubin of Witness: Tornillo, a systems analyst from Brooklyn who had spent three months camped out in an RV, documenting the comings and goings at the secretive facility, took us on a walk around the fenced-in compound. At the back, under a bridge about a hundred yards from the border wall that already exists in these parts, he pointed out the charred remains of a bonfire. This was a place where migrants have found their way across the desert, across the river and over the wall — and the first thing they do is to build a fire so that the Border Patrol will pick them up, and they can begin the process of filing for asylum.

Encampment volunteers contemplate the remains of a campfire built by asylum seekers wishing to turn themselves in to the Border Patrol. (Tracy L. Barnett)
The tent city in Tornillo was built over the course of a few months to house up to 3,800 migrant youths. By mid-January, practically nothing remained. (Tracy L. Barnett)

I thought of family members back in Missouri who worry that we are being besieged by hordes of criminals. These people are not criminals. They are refugees. They are people who have fled the violence that we with our tax dollars and our votes unknowingly created. They are following international law by presenting themselves at our border and pleading for asylum.

I thought, too, of a Mexican friend, who commented on the millions of Syrian refugees being taken in all over Europe. “This is only a few thousand people,” reflected José. “Imagine what would happen if there were a war, like in Syria.”

There’s a meme going around on Facebook these days: “If you’ve ever wondered what you’d have done in Nazi Germany, you’re doing it.”

I take comfort in the fact that on the Texas border, there are people who are doing something.

How you can help: Detained Migrant Solidarity Committee, Immigrant Families Together and Annunciation House are scraping together a decent humanitarian response for these refugees. The DMSC has established an immigrant bond fund, The Fronterizo Fianza Fund, which works to bail out detainees ensnared in the system. Follow them, find out what’s going on, and see what you can do.

Tracy L. Barnett is an independent writer based in Mexico. Her forthcoming book, Looking for Esperanza: One Woman’s Search for Hope in the Other America, examines the roots of this crisis and efforts by Latin Americans to build regenerative lives in their homelands.

Signs hung by protestors at the Tornillo/Marcelino Serna Port of Entry. (Tracy L. Barnett)

Tracy L. Barnett

Written by

Freelance writer/author based in Guadalajara, Mexico. Founding editor of The Esperanza Project: A Green News Portal for the Americas, www.esperanzaproject.org.

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