Immigration | United States
How the Subversive Act of Seeing Turned My Outrage Into Action
Bearing witness to the humanity of 1st-responders to Trump & Co’s slow genocide, I was moved to illuminate and celebrate their heroism
Welcome to Brownsville
Brownsville airport is a throwback. There are no indoor bridges or jetways connecting terminal to plane. Old-fashioned hydraulic stairs lead passengers to the tarmac where painted lines mark the way to the no-frills glass-and-concrete terminal building. Inside, there is no shopping mall with IKEA-style winding traffic patterns, steering you from duty-free smokes to liquor to perfume. Just a straight shot to a single baggage carousel serving all.
It’s old-school. It’s refreshing.
Signage at the Brownsville airport is bilingual. But the language you mostly hear, from the minute you step through the automatic sliding doors, is Spanish.
The scene, sounds, and sudden feeling of heat that January 3rd, 2020, all conspired to transport me to the 1980s, when my idealism was at its peak. I spent a lot of time back then traveling in and out of the Guatemala City, San Salvador, and Managua airports. It was the age of Ronald Reagan, the last time Norte-Americanos seemed to be paying attention to the goings-on south of the border. I went to bear witness to my country’s involvement in the Guatemalan genocide, the Salvadoran Civil War, and the covert — and ruthless — destabilization of Nicaragua’s democratically elected Sandinista government, staged from Honduras.
My trips lasted anywhere from three to six months. I tried, always, to be of use. There was lots to do: support the care of war orphans; accompany repatriating refugees; observe elections. I spent most of my time working with the few brave teachers still giving lessons in the zonas conflictivas of El Salvador, specifically Morazán, where basic services, like education, had been disappeared by the government of José Napoleón Duarte.
Solidarity in the Age of Ronald Ray-gun
I was a small player in the International Solidarity Movement. We Internationalistas (or sandalistas as cynics liked to call us) stepped in where governments abdicated responsibility, usually in collaboration with NGOs or the UN. As we worked, we listened, we watched; we brought our observations back to religious, scholarly, and media communities at home. We sided with no army, no guerrilla faction, but operated in the spirit of democracy and Vatican II: for liberty and justice for all, especially the poor and downtrodden.
We stood out like sore thumbs, deliberately, believing that no armada or death squad wanted Yanqui blood on their hands, especially if they were armed, trained, and funded by the US government — which they mostly were. Unfortunately, some of us were not so lucky.
In the vintage Brownsville airport, with its linoleum floors and windows yellowed from airplane exhaust, surrounded by more Spanish than English and more brown skin than white, something in me stirred. I was waking back up to my activist days, before I married Jim and life swept me up in career- and home-building, alongside an on-going health issue, in China and Hong Kong, New York, Paris, and London.
Since 1994, Jim and I have lived abroad for more years than we haven’t. We reside in an ephemeral borderlands — one that cannot be mapped — buffeted and buoyed by diversity of languages, cultures, colors, and creeds. Now in the dusk of our lives as working stiffs, we’re in the UK, where darkness descends by 4pm in winter, and where — lucky us — our privilege extends to getting five weeks off each year. When our only child launched in 2014, releasing us from the bonds of the school calendar, we started using that time to escape the short, cold days of January in northern Europe.
This year, we decided to also be of use.
Most sane people arriving in Brownsville in midwinter exit the airport and turn right, toward the beaches of South Padre Island. But we went left. For this year’s trip was to the Tex/Mex border.
Because Outrage isn’t Enough
We were among millions who were shocked and horrified when it became clear, back in the spring of 2018, that the US government had condoned ripping terrified children out of the arms of anguished parents. Under their zero-tolerance policy, announced on April 6, Trump & Co resolved to deter immigration by resorting to a tactic most vile: separating families.
Our horror metastasized into outrage with each subsequent development:
April 11 — Under oath, erstwhile Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen testifies to Congress that the administration has no family separation policy. It’s a lie.
April 27 — The Washington Post outs her with a White House memo, proving family separations had been piloted in El Paso from July-November 2017. More than 700 children (the exact count remains unknown) were being warehoused in detention centers when the story broke, at least 100 under the age of four.
May 10 — Mariee Juárez, a 19-month-old Guatemalan child, dies from a preventable illness, caught while in a frigid ICE detention center.
June 14 — Attorney General Jeff Sessions justifies separating children and parents with the same Bible passage used to defend slavery (Paul: Romans 13).
June 15 — Trump & Co admit to having separated 2,000 immigrant children from their parents in just six weeks, between April 19 and May 31, amid reports they’ve lost track of 1,475 minors who arrived unaccompanied.
June 18 — Now, that was a busy day…
First, White House Chief-of-Staff, John Kelly pretends family separation wasn’t his idea. But a 2017 interview, when he was Secretary of Homeland Security, has him on record saying, “separating families could help curtail immigration.”
Then, Amnesty International issues a global statement, condemning Trump & Co’s policy of separating children from parents as “nothing short of torture.” And torture, the statement reminds us, is illegal under international law.
Finally, the sound of said torture reverberates around the world when ProPublica leaks a recording, taken from inside the Ursula Processing Center in McAllen, TX, of ten inconsolable children begging to be reunited with their parents. One demands that her aunt be called. She’s memorized the phone number. The audio is accompanied by photos of kids in cages huddling under mylar “foil” blankets for warmth. The facility’s nickname, La Hielera (the icebox), is not for nothing.
On June 20, Trump rescinded the family separation policy by executive order. At that point, the number of children stolen on his orders was up to 2,300. Six days later, US District Judge for the Southern California, Dana Makoto Sabraw, prohibits any further separations and orders all children reunified with their families.
Popular protest had won. The horror was over. On June 30, we marched under the banner: Families Belong Together.
Then, life being busy, we got back to it.
Take a Ticket. Get in Line.
But it turns out that beneath the furor over family separations, Trump & Co were rolling out an even more sinister plan. That month, while no one was looking, Sessions yanked both domestic and gang violence as credible fears, thereby criminalizing asylum. Trump declared Mexico a “safe third country” — even though the US State Department had it under a level-4 travel advisory — and instituted a new take-a-ticket-and-get-in-line case review strategy called “metering.”
As they jerked us from one manufactured crisis to another…and another…few beyond the border noticed that the number of refugees from Northern Triangle countries getting through to their sponsors in the US had dropped by 70%. Interesting parallel: DHS officials have since stated that more than 71% of those apprehended at the southern border in the 2019 fiscal year were from Guatemala, Honduras, or El Salvador.
What was happening to them? News was hard to come by — you had to want to find it. And when you did, it wasn’t good:
There were bottlenecks at all ports of entry. Folks were pooling up all along the border, stranded in some of the most dangerous places on earth. Others were being shackled, children included, and sent to detention centers popping up all over the U.S., most famously within defunct office complexes and big box stores. Many more were being hunted and deported under cover of night, even if they’d been living in and contributing to the country for decades.
Suddenly, outrage was not enough. Jim and I were compelled to go see what was happening ourselves. This was the plan:
- Spend a week driving along the Tex/Mex border, bearing witness at every international bridge from Brownsville to Del Rio.
- Feed our long-standing mission to explore all the great US national parks with a little “we” time in Big Bend.
- Hit the art outpost in Marfa on our way to El Paso.
- Wrap up with a few more days’ witness in Ciudad Juárez.
The Road Trip Begins
We took off from Boston at 5am on January 3, 2020, after ringing in the new year with friends and family along the east-coast corridor. Since that required a 3am wake-up call, we were famished and in dire need of caffeine by the time we landed at the George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston.
Stumbling through the terminal en route to our connecting gate, we had to blink several times before we could believe what our eyes were telling us: Every seat at every table at every airport dining establishment was kitted out with a flashing iPad.
This bizarre sight of airport-turned-video-arcade, served as a reminder that when you live in the ephemeral borderlands as we do, gradual changes in the greater culture — like the steady invasion of screens into public spaces — can feel like an abrupt slap. They’re inescapable today: talking heads in NYC taxis; CNN at passport control; Fox at the pump; a college or pro (or, in Texas, high school) sports event on each of three screens in view from every seat at any local restaurant. You can’t go anywhere in the US anymore without being bombarded by someone else’s notion of what you should be consuming.
And so, with the touch of a finger, we chose breakfast tacos with salsa verde, kicking off our two-week hunt for the best Tex/Mex meal on the border. Then pulled the cords from the boisterous iPads and lay them facedown one table over.
We landed in Brownsville just a few hours later with one contact, three nights pre-booked in a hotel, and a car reservation, which right away went awry. The Dollar rent-a-car website had stated that, “yes,” we could take their rentals into Mexico — all we had to do was buy the right insurance. The nice lady at the counter said otherwise.
“So we won’t be able to weave back and forth across the border?” we asked, disappointed.
That’s when I remembered the most important rule of thumb for traveling in Latin America: things never happen on time, or go precisely to plan.
We agreed we’d just have to roll with it. And as it happens, we wouldn’t roll far, for the next slap was lurking just on the other side of the Gateway International Bridge in Matamoros: a humanitarian crisis worse than we could have ever imagined.
And this was just one bridge along a 2000-mile border.
We were immediately put to use. There was so much to do, and so few people beyond the border knew. Because not only had Trump & Co succeeded in stopping people at the border, they’d stopped their stories, too. And not just the stories of those running from persecution, gang violence, murderous husbands, threats of kidnapping, rape, or crushing poverty: The stories of the everyday heroes helping to bring dignity to the 60,000 — and growing — men, women, and children caught in the crosshairs of Trump & Co’s policy of deterrence by chaos and cruelty had been stopped from crossing the border too.
“We can’t get our stories beyond the checkpoint,” folks told us, again and again, and in so many words, on learning we were writers. “Please, listen. Record them. Share them. Amplify them. Help us get the word out about what’s going on here.”
So that’s what we resolved to do. Big Bend and Marfa would have to wait.
Thank you for reading Episode 2 in my travelogue of a road trip gone awry: THE FIRST SOLUTION: Tales of Humanity and Heroism from Trump’s Manufactured Border Crisis, rolling out on Medium as fast as I can write it because it’s Just. That. Urgent. Click here to access the Project Forward followed by links to other articles in the series.
“Let us be reminded that before there is a final solution, there must be a first solution, a second one, even a third. The move toward a final solution is not a jump. It takes one step, then another, then another.” — Toni Morrison, 1995