Published in


Immigration | United States | Children

FREE THEM! How One Man with a Bold Sign and a Commitment to Witness Spoke Truth to Power

Joshua Rubin’s sole vigil at the US border reminded us the meaning of humanity and kick-started a movement

Joshua Rubin protests the mass incarceration of immigrant children, Tornillo, Texas, Oct 2018-Jan 2019 (photo courtesy of Joshua Rubin)

Cruelty Remains the Point

I was compelled to write The First Solution as part of the crusade against the institutionalized cruelty of Trump & Co’s immigration agenda. But when images of kids being ripped from the arms of their parents pinged around the world, I didn’t drop everything and go protest — indefinitely and alone — in the middle of nowhere.

Joshua Rubin did that.

Joshua’s outrage, like mine, began when Trump & Co announced, on April 6, 2018, that they would henceforth have “zero tolerance” for anyone trying to enter the US at the southern border. Whether sneaking in or requesting asylum at an established port of entry — a human right recognized by international law — everyone would now be charged with “illegal entry” and processed as a criminal.

Then, exploiting a US Department of Justice loophole that prohibits children from remaining in the care of a parent accused of a crime, Trump & Co took the kids.

The scenes of inhumanity shook us to the core. A mother shackled for protesting her suckling infant being pulled off her breast. A man dead from suicide on being denied information regarding the whereabouts his wife and three-year-old son. Distraught siblings punished for trying to comfort each other.

Religious groups decried family separations as “deeply immoral.” Amnesty International said it was “tantamount to torture.” The American Academy of Pediatrics warned it would trigger “toxic stress,” disrupting, and potentially arresting, brain development. Physicians for Human Rights predicted — and have since proven — that the mental, emotional, and physical toll of the experience will hamstring its victims for a lifetime.

Families Belong Together

Families Belong Together poster (2018)

Criticism of the policy sparked a movement: Families Belong Together, 250 organizations that coalesced to fight for the immediate reunification of families separated at the border, and the compassionate treatment of immigrants going forward. From their home in Brooklyn, NY, Joshua Rubin and his wife, Melissa, joined the nationwide protests that erupted that spring.

Melissa made them a sign. Big bold letters painted in black on white foam core read: FREE THEM.

But Joshua didn’t end his protest there. He packed his sign and flew to McAllen, TX, ground zero of family separation at the time. He went to the Ursula Processing Center, aka la hielera (the icebox), the largest Customs and Border Patrol (CB_) location, and the first place immigrants crossing into South Texas end up. It’s a 72-hour way-station built into a 77,000 sq. ft. warehouse retrofitted to hold 1,000 children… in cages.

Joshua stood vigil outside Ursula for days, a lone protester whose poster shouted FREE THEM to all who went in and came out.

While he was there, the cries of inconsolable children inside Ursula reverberated around the world. Passed to Jennifer Harbury of the then-forming Angry Tías and Abuelas of the RGV, then published by ProPublica, it put McAllen on everyone’s map.

But then torrential rains came, and McAllen’s streets turned into rivers. Joshua couldn’t get out for several days.

The clouds parted to reveal a second protester: a young Democratic politician from Maine, then running for US Senate against the Independent incumbent, Angus King. Zak Ringlestein was his name, and he’d shown up with a pick-up truck full of water and toys and bedding — gifts from his constituents — which he parked in front of the facility’s entrance and refused to move. A campaign stunt, perhaps. His presence drew reporters.

On the record, he said he wouldn’t remove his truck until he was allowed inside. Under his breath, he told Joshua it was either that or get arrested.

Joshua offered to join him. The FREE THEM message rang a littler louder.


At the June 28, 2018 Families Belong Together rally, Brownsville, Tx (photo REUNITE by @mrkmully)

Zak and Joshua were indeed arrested, carried off to spend the night in the Hidalgo county jail. “It was shockingly cold,” Joshua remembers.

There was nowhere to sleep but the floor. The lights were never turned off. Joshua couldn’t catch a wink, and empathized more than ever with the plight of all detainees, having become one himself, if only for one night.

Meanwhile, lawyers working round the clock to locate the children of parents and guardians held in Rio Grande Valley detention centers were beginning to understand the method to Trump & Co’s madness: From CBP, they were channeling adults and children into different bureaucratic purgatories.

Adults were labeled “illegal aliens” and passed to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), then detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Kids and youth were labeled “unaccompanied alien children” (UACs) — as if they’d crossed the border alone — then passed to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), a branch of the US Department Health and Human Services (HHS), for “sheltering.”

“Shelters” started popping up all over the country: in empty office buildings, abandoned Big Box Stores. And ORR wasn’t forthcoming about the location of these shelters or who was running them. Not even the minors’ attorneys were allowed to know. Many were clandestine.

The Protest Grows

Winner of 2020 Best Documentary Feature for Witness at Tornillo (photo courtesy of Carbon Trace Productions)

Once sprung, Ringlestein returned to Maine and Joshua resumed his vigil, but with new company: A friend, Doug Roller, brought along a documentary film crew called Carbon Trace Productions. Andy Cline and Shane Franklin arrived, toting a video camera.

The four drove east, 45 minutes, to attend the Families Belong Together rally in Brownsville, organized by Angry Tías, Madeleine Sandefur and Joyce Hamilton.

Then they hit the road west, 1,000 miles, to join the national mobilization of Families Belong Together in El Paso on June 30th.

From there, they traveled another 40 miles east of El Paso to see a tent city encircled in barbed-wire topped chain-link fence. It had been raised from the desert floor in the border town of Tornillo. A new detention center exclusively for kids.

Tornillo had opened that Father’s Day with 100 inmates and amidst protests so vehement its existence made the national headlines. When Joshua, Doug, Andy, and Shane arrived, it held 400 teens, all victims of family separation.

The thought of imprisoning kids nagged at Joshua, the father of a son. But he had to get home. Besides, Trump had rescinded the policy of family separation 10 days before by executive order. Popular protest had won. No?

Lost Count

Image by Sarah Towle (2020)


Family separations did not stop. They just went underground. And court orders to reunite families didn’t happen either.

Trump & Co missed their July 20th deadline to reunite families of children 4 years old and younger. They missed their July 27th deadline to reunite children aged 5–17. Finally, CPB Commissioner Kevin McAleenan confirmed: they weren’t able to reunite families because data necessary to keep track of both children and adults had not been collected.

Rio Grande Valley attorneys scrambled to try to find the stolen children themselves. But in the alphabet soup of departments and offices of an already tragically inept administration, no one really knew who was taken from whom, or where exactly they’d gone.

Some were detained. Others had been deported. Even today the numbers vary as to how many families Trump & Co broke apart then mislaid within the multi-layered system of intersecting agencies.

Can’t Count

Image by Sarah Towle (2020)

In early June 2018, DHS stated that 1,995 minors were separated from 1,940 adults from April 19 through May 31. As of June 26, that number was revised to 2,047 kids. But this still did not include the kids taken before “zero tolerance” became public.

When news came out that family separations had been piloted in El Paso from October 2017, affecting another 281 “family units,” the official tally of stolen children jumped to nearly 4,000.

Then reports emerged that DHH had “lost” another 1,475 children in 2017.

On June 27, ProPublica reported that a network of approximately 100 shelters and foster homes in 14 states run by ORR and an assortment of nonprofits were already housing 8,886 children who’d crossed the border before April.

DHH updated its numbers again, admitting that following the roll-out of Trump & Co’s zero-tolerance, it had 10,773 youth in custody. It also said that because its shelters were at 95% capacity, it was exploring the idea of setting up kids’ detention centers on underutilized military bases.

But by now, both science and legal precedent had established that children should be with loved ones until their parents or guardians could be found. It was more humane, less toxic, and far less costly for taxpayers. And it would be easier to track down their parents on a case by case basis.

The nation, and Joshua, were left wondering: why are these children being detained when they should be going to relatives or sponsors already in the US?

The Vigil Resumes

Image courtesy of Joshua Rubin (2018)

September 2018 found Joshua Rubin back in El Paso for a national interfaith gathering called El Grito de la Frontera (Cry from the Border), convened by Faith in Public Life and Hope Border Institute. There, another attendee said something that might have caused others offense, but Joshua took it to heart. She said she was tired of people coming to the border for a few days and thinking they’d “done” something.

Back in Brooklyn again, a New York Times Opinion article further captured Joshua’s attention: Teenaged boys in detention centers all over the country were being rounded up and sent to Tornillo. The population was now 1,000.

Then Amnesty International calculated that at least another 6,022 children had been separated between April 19 and August 15, 2018, indicating that Trump & Co had gone right on stealing children from their parents and guardian even after the executive order that ended the policy.

Joshua decided to go see for himself what was happening at Tornillo. He devised a plan that met with the approval of Hope Border Institute: Claiming to be part of the Carbon Trace film crew, he would hire an RV and park it at the shuttered Tornillo-Guadalupe Toll Plaza just across from the gateway into the ever-expanding tent city. The toll plaza sat inside the El Paso county line, while the detention center stood on federal land. Authorities could not, therefore, force Joshua to leave.

He packed up Melissa’s FREE THEM sign once more, as well as a new one. It read: WITNESS TORNILLO. He kissed her goodbye and promised to be back within three months. That was mid-October 2018.

The Subversive Act of Seeing

Bearing Witness at Tornillo (Image courtesy of Joshua Rubin, 2018)

En route to Texas, Joshua thought a lot about the act and responsibility of ‘bearing witness.’

“I didn’t expect to accomplish anything. I still don’t know if I did. But I was seeing. And I was recording what I saw in writing, which I’d never done before.”

The writing was therapeutic for Joshua who was alone for the first month and a half. “It was like my 40 days in the desert.”

He joined Facebook and started sharing his daily reports with the outside world. His ‘seeing’ became subversive. When friends shared his observations, a movement began to sprout from his one-man action. His following grew and grew.

“And what did you witness?”

Modern Mass Internment

An aerial photo shows the Tornillo tent city, Friday, November 9, 2018 (photo by Tom Fox / Staff Photographer, Dallas Morning News)

Joshua saw a compound of pristine white tents lined up in neat rows surrounded by an impenetrable fortress of barbed-wire topped silver chain-link fence. A concentration camp for children. El Paso journalist Robert Moore described it, “The largest mass incarceration in the US of children not charged with a crime since the Japanese internment during the Second World War.”

Joshua saw trucks going in, carrying more generators, tents, beds, and port-a-pots; followed by buses carrying more youth, ages 13–17, both boys and girls. More kids went in than came out.

Joshua saw trucks carrying in potable water at the rate of 70,000 gallons a day, then carrying out equal amounts of grey and black water again. In the middle of the desert, Tornillo was well and truly off the grid. Generators, hummed round the clock, powering lights and air conditioners.

“It’s no accident that this is in Tornillo,” remarked then-Congressman Beto O’Rourke at the Father’s Day protest. “It’s in a remote location on purpose so the American people don’t know what’s happening here.”

Joshua witnessed the camp expand into the biggest federal prison in the country. “If there were 1,000 kids there when I arrived,” he told me, “There were at least 3,000 in the end.”

Hope Border Institute calculates that, all told, 6,000 boys and girls passed through Tornillo’s patrolled gateway from June-December 2018. Robert Moore pegs it at closer to 6,200.

The Tornillo youth were brought into the camp’s yard in formation each day, “marched, single file, like prisoners.”

Once in the yard, they were “at ease,” but remained under constant surveillance. They played soccer and milled about in groups. But they were never permitted to touch. They could not hug or console each other. Only a fist bump was allowed.

One soccer pitch ran alongside the Tex/Mex border wall. There was enough space between the chain-link and bollard fences that Josh could walk that side of the fortress compound without being accused of “trespassing.” He sometimes got close enough to talk with the inmates, but they were reluctant to chat if the guards were near.

One day he found out that an El Salvadoran boy had been inside for three months. Another boy shouted “four months,” and another said, “Six, since the opening of the camp,” before a guard hurried over and shut down their conversation. The next day, tarps lined the inside of the fence to keep the kids from Joshua’s view, and vice-versa.

No estan solos,” he would reassure them when he could (you’re not alone).

Estamos de tu lado,” he’d tell them (we’re on your side).

We Aren’t in Brooklyn Anymore

Migratory birds sometimes landed at Tornillo to watch the kids. Then flew off again, an irony never lost on Joshua (image courtesy of Joshua Rubin, 2018)

Nighttimes were peaceful, and beautiful, if cold. The sky was awash in galaxies and stars — something you could never see from Brooklyn. Mornings brought distant mountains into view, as well as the sound of the wind rustling the fields of scrub, cotton, and alfalfa. And, of course, the generators. Daytimes, Joshua waved to the busloads of new arrivals, his heart breaking for them.

“They had no idea what was in store,” he said.

He would chat with the occasional passer-by who rolled to a stop and through an open window asked about the compound; about what he was doing there; about the meaning of his sign: FREE THEM.

Sometimes Joshua chatted with the truck drivers as they waited, engines thrumming, for the gates to open wide enough to let them in. “What are you hauling?” he would ask. “Do you know what you’re supporting?” And if they didn’t, “That’s a jail,” he’d tell them. “For kids.”

Eventually, Joshua’s Facebook following grew to 3,000. Shane returned to Tornillo with another cinematographer, Taye Taye, to continue documenting Joshua’s action. They, too, would call their project: Witness at Tornillo.

More Dirty Tricks

Photo by Samantha Sophia on Unsplash

Most of the kids at Tornillo were waiting to be reunited with parents or sent to the guardians who’d agreed to sponsor them while their immigration cases were processed. They’d feed and clothe them and send them to school. And following the mandates of the 1997 Flores Settlement, written to protect all children from prolonged detention, none should have been held for more than 20 days.

But Trump & Co found and exploited another loophole: Flores stipulates that children be in the care of “State Licensed Programs.” Because they placed the Tornillo detention center on federal, not state, land, they claimed exemption from Flores agreement rules.

They hung onto their young inmates for as long as they needed them. Time served stretched to a new average of 90 days, owing to additional Trump & Co regulations that obligated all members of a sponsor’s household to be fingerprinted and undergo background checks. The data derived from the vetting of sponsors and their families were then shared with ICE, which used the intelligence to ferret out and deport undocumented immigrants living in the US, including fine, upstanding community members that had been in and contributed to the country for decades.

When it became clear that Trump & Co were using the Tornillo kids as bait, many sponsors ceased to cooperate, trapping kids in Tornillo even longer. It also brought Trump & Co’s methods under further scrutiny.

News surfaced that HHS allocated $367.9 million in the last quarter of 2018 to operate Tornillo, which now held 3,000 boys and girls, or more, and was still growing. But the Washington Post reported on December 18, that about 14,600 children were then in the custody of HHS — the highest number in the agency’s history. While Trump touted Tornillo as a model to be replicated, talk of creating additional facilities like it sparked outrage.

Then, CNN revealed that the more than 2,000 Tornillo employees had never undergone FBI background checks, in violation of HHS’s own guidelines. This further highlighted that it was in no way a shelter “licensed” to hold and care for the unique needs of kids. It was, in fact, exactly what Joshua witnessed: a kids’ jail.

What’s more, feedback from chaplains given access to the Tornillo inmates painted a picture of psychological duress due to their indefinite confinement, duress that was not being met with adequate psycho-social support. The kids of Tornillo were by all indications suffering.

Christmas at Tornillo

Image by Sarah Towle (2020)

Meantime, the movement that sprung from Joshua’s Facebook following was taking on a life of its own. Shane teased the outside world with images of Joshua and the Tornillo kids on YouTube. Protesters from El Paso and the surrounding area joined them on weekends. Some even stayed a night or two, sleeping in their own vehicles.

If Tornillo opened to local criticism, it was now a national flashpoint.

In mid-November, 70 faith leaders, many of them Jewish congregants and their rabbis, joined Joshua to protest the kids’ jail, sparking the Shut Down Tornillo Coalition. Actress and activist Alyssa Milano came to interview Joshua outside the detention site. And appealing to Joshua’s followers, Ashley Heidebrecht, an El Paso social worker, organized a rally to coincide with a December 15th visit of congressional delegates, including Beto.

Then, activists celebrated Christmas at Tornillo. They sung and chanted as loudly as they could, lifting their voices up and over the chain-link and barbed wire fence to let the children know people were thinking of them that holiday season. The caroling began on Sunday, December 23rd, and continued through January 1st. It was the biggest press pull yet.

Finally, the shelter operator, BCFS Health and Human Services — the second-highest grossing kids’ jail contractor after Southwest Key — gave into the mounting negative PR. It announced the camp would close at the end of January, 2019, paving the way for Trump & Co to rescind the background check requirement for all members of a sponsor’s household. Suddenly, 2,500 young people were released to loved ones, proving that the cruel and prolonged detention at Tornillo had always been at the discretion of the administration.

No Rest for the Weary

Winner of 2020 Best Documentary Feature for Witness at Tornillo (schedule a viewing @ Carbon Trace Productions)

Joshua’s vigil at Tornillo was over. He returned home to Melissa within the promised three months. It was good to be home with his community of friends. It was great to be sleeping again in his own bed. He deserved a good rest.

But before February was over, the phone rang. It was Amy Cohen, Founder of Every. Last. One., an organization dedicated to reuniting all separated children with their families.

“When can you get to Homestead?” Amy asked,

The Tornillo camp was closed. All fencing, tents, toilets, soccer goals, everything had been carted away. The sand had been swept to remove any traces that the camp ever existed. But immigrant boys and girls were still being held captive, all over the USA.

Trump and Co were playing a game of Whack-a-mole with protesters and humanitarians. And now Homestead, Florida, was it.

Thank you for reading Episode 6 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 the issues are Just. That. Urgent. Click here to access the Project Forward followed by links to all 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



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Sarah Towle

Sarah Towle

Award-winning London-based author sharing her journey from outrage to activism one tale of humanity and podcast episode at a time @THE FIRST SOLUTION on Medium