Two Buses To Brownsville

Scenes from The Texas-Mexico Border

This is happening in my backyard. That’s what I kept saying to myself and anyone else who would listen. I did not mean the families torn apart by the US Border Patrol, or the one year-old crying on the witness stand during his trial, though that was enough. Nor did I mean Tornillo: white tents in the West Texas desert, a line of boys, every image taken from the far distance outside the militarised zone, though that was closer. What I meant was something that could only be described with words I had been taught to reserve for the most extreme circumstances. Words that, when I said them aloud, marked me as a hysteric. Fascism. Concentration camps.

On 7 May, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy. For decades, under both Democratic and Republican administrations, people caught crossing the southern border of the US illegally had been released to family or advocacy groups to wait out the weeks or months until their court date. Under zero tolerance, migrants would be detained indefinitely in detention centres many Central American migrants refer to as “la perrera” because of their resemblance to dog pounds. The policy made no distinction between asylum-seekers who turned themselves in to Border Patrol and those crossing for other reasons. Notoriously, it called for children to be separated from their parents and detained in facilities managed by a separate agency. At the same time, Sessions narrowed the categories for legal asylum, eliminating several that addressed violence against women, and advocacy groups began receiving reports that the major legal crossing point, the bridge connecting El Paso, Texas and the Mexican town of Juarez, had been closed to migrants for weeks, forcing families to cross illegally or sleep in the desert without shelter. Within weeks the already overtaxed immigration courts – some reports found a backlog of as many as 70,000 cases – and detention centres were at a breaking point. Thus did the Trump administration manufacture an “immigration crisis” in a year when crossings were, in reality, at historic lows.

In the same period of time a “tent city” for 500 children appeared outside the tiny agricultural community of Tornillo, mere days after Trump announced it was needed. More than 2,500 children were taken from their parents by the US government, some by force, others through deception. Numerous parents reported that, while waiting at the courthouse to see a judge, nameless officials told them their child was dirty and needed a shower. The children were led away and never returned. Many of the children were under the age of five. Some were as young as one or even, in several cases, three months. The only stated plan for re-unification depended upon the child’s being able to give the full name and birth date of their parents. Children were tried separately and were expected to advocate for themselves in court. No accommodation was made for children who could not yet speak.

I am not a Jew who grew up surrounded by Holocaust survivors and their stories. My great-grandparents fled Russian pogroms, not Nazis. My childhood in the Northwest town of Boise, Idaho was secular, isolated. As if in recompense, I spent years in graduate school studying fascist regimes and human rights abuses and wrote a dissertation using theories of trauma created in response to the Holocaust. For the past few years I’ve been researching a novel based on a circle of artists exiled from Europe by World War II, one of whom escaped from a concentration camp. I have been walking around with a sense of dread and déjà vu for several years. As the Trump administration shuttled children around the country in secret and prepared to build another concentration camp for 12 to 14,000 people at Fort Bliss, Texas, that dread was replaced by an overwhelming sense of recognition. When I said this is happening in my backyard what I meant was that the imprisonment and punishment of refugees felt like a rehearsal, a test – the beginning of a story we swore would never be told again.

I kept looking up the routes between my house in Austin and the sites along the Texas–Mexico border mentioned in the day’s news. As though knowing the exact distance would close the gap in my understanding. As though a map could show me where and how to bear witness.

My house to El Paso: 8 hours and 57 minutes

My house to Tornillo: 8 hours and 41 minutes

My house to Fort Bliss: 8 hours and 57 minutes

El Paso to Fort Bliss: 12 minutes

My house to Brownsville: 5 hours and 20 minutes

My house to McAllen: 5 hours and 1 minute

Brownsville to McAllen: 1 hour and 2 minutes

Brownsville to El Paso: 12 hours and 1 minute

My house to Southwest Key: 8 minutes

I got in my car and drove the eight minutes to Southwest Key, the non-profit contracted by the Trump administration to build the Tornillo camp. It was in an East Austin neighbourhood I knew well from a former job at another non-profit. I parked in their parking lot, beautifully landscaped with native plants, got out and looked at the colourful mosaic of their logo. A rising (or is it setting?) sun blazed behind their name on the ground in front of their “Paseo del Heroes”, a winding path set with more colourful mosaics, this time raised on plinths, featuring local and historic notables, beginning with Martin Luther King and Cesar Chavez. I looked at the directory for their corporate campus, which includes a café, a charter school – I could see children wearing the school uniform of white polo shirts and navy blue pants – and an after-school programme. The soft, public face of a corporation that took 458 million dollars from the Trump administration to build concentration camps for children. I stood there, watching a TV reporter set up a background shot, and wondered what, exactly, I had planned to do.

When I got home, there was an email in my inbox from the ACLU with a link to sign up for a bus caravan to a protest in Brownsville.

Protestors: around 1500 of us marched to the courthouse holding signs.

To drive from Austin to Brownsville, you first get onto Interstate Highway 35 to drive the 75 miles to San Antonio. You will be travelling southwest, even though Brownsville is southeast of Austin. Nonetheless this is the fastest route: travelling from Central Texas to the border is never straightforward. If you leave, as I did, in the small hours of a summer morning, the moon will hang huge and low above the horizon in front of you for a good hour or so while the early dawn sky pales and pinks up behind you and to your left. After you pass the ugly corridor of wholesale big box stores where Black Friday shoppers will wait in line for hours in idling cars for midnight to arrive, after the long blank wall of the Walmart distribution warehouse and the huge evangelical church with three crosses, after the eerie towers of the refinery lit up with yellow sodium lights like a small dystopian city, you turn southeast onto IH-37. The moon drops below the horizon, the billboards and box stores disappear, the sun comes up and now you are driving by cedar trees under pink and gold clouds and you understand why even those of us who curse the cruelty of Texas politics every day of our lives can still love Texas skies.

About four hours in there’s a place – I’m not sure where it is on the map, but you’ll know it – a place where the land flattens out, the sky becomes enormous, and the quality of the light changes, everything washed in a milky whiteness, sun-bleached, overexposed. If you open your window you can smell, almost taste it; the air is humid, heavy, brackish. You’ve entered the Rio Grande Valley. Sorghum fields. Cotton. Soy. Oil derricks on the horizon, and, later, the huge white windmills of wind farms. Semi-trucks pass, rocking the car in their slipstream. Stay alert. The roads are so straight and flat here and run so far in both directions that drivers often drift off, hypnotised by an unchanging horizon.

Finally, five hours in, you swing toward the Gulf Coast. Ten minutes later you’re on the southernmost tip of Texas, driving slowly down the streets among the low, faded buildings of Brownsville, lines of palm trees bent from a steady Gulf breeze, the mid-morning temps already climbing into the 90s. You can walk to the border from here. If you have a passport you can walk across, to Matamoros. To Mexico.

The distance between Austin and Brownsville is cultural and historical as well as geographical. The majority of the ACLU group was female, over 40 and overwhelmingly white. The 2010 census puts the Latinx population of Brownsville at 94%. The young local activists who welcomed us to the open plaza in front of the courthouse were not among the remaining 6%. I may have gotten on the bus in Austin as a Jew haunted by history, but by the time I got to the rally on the plaza in front of the Cameron County Courthouse I was a well-meaning middle-aged White lady bussed in from the capitol to fill out the crowd.

And I was walking into the middle of a very long fight. Many of the protestors I spoke to at the ACLU rally told me they had “marched at Dilley” – meaning Dilley, Texas, the site of the largest detention centre for the more than 47,000 unaccompanied children seeking asylum who crossed the border in the first eight months of 2014. The Fort Bliss detention centre, the one the Trump administration plans to expand, was built in the Obama era to detain unaccompanied children and adolescents. Valeria Luiselli’s brief, searing book on the 2014 crisis, Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions, makes it easy to see both how policy decisions made by Obama, including deals with Mexico to deter migrant crossings, prepared the way for Trump, and how the events of 2014 and 2018 have their roots in 1980s drug wars and gang deportations. Most of the people now crossing the southern border are from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, and they are fleeing the very things Trump, with his usual uncanny projection, accuses them of perpetrating: rape, murder and gang violence.

Luiselli’s book also clarified my uneasiness with the slogan “Families Belong Together”. The spectre of children forcibly removed from their parents has radicalised many people previously unaware of US immigration policy on our southern border, including myself. The emphasis on family reunification is urgent and necessary. But I worry that the story we are telling is too narrow and may be co-opted to punish people who do not conform to it. Many asylum seekers leave their children behind in order to raise the funds to get their children to the US. Others make the agonising decision to send their children on ahead. Can we imagine the pain that would necessitate such a decision in the same visceral way we have imagined children torn from their mothers’ arms?  Could we, for example, place the stories of these parents alongside the stories of the thousands of Jewish parents who sent their children away from Nazi-occupied territory?  Can we make room for those who do not belong to a family, or might be fleeing abuse within a family? To find true justice will require a story as fluid and multivalent as the border itself.

While the rally continues, the speakers alternating fluidly between Spanish and English, a reporter from Mexico’s Univision, in full make-up, kneels on the ground to interview a young boy holding a placard, and I talk to Sylvia Garza-Perez, the County Clerk of Cameron. She speaks with the rapid, practised ease of a long-time politician about the necessity of defending her constituents from the president (“We’re not murderers!”), but when she tells me about her parents and grandparents leaving Mexico and becoming naturalised citizens her speech slows and her eyes well up. She pulls out her phone and shows me a Fourth of July photo of her grandchildren and herself, the children in red, white and blue hats. Her grandchildren, she tells me, are Black, White and Mexican. “I take them to visit their grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ graves. I make sure they know who they are.” The cemetery, she says, pointing, as though we could see it from the plaza, is “ten feet from the border.”

Scholar, poet and activist Gloria Anzaldúa famously defined the place separated and sewn together by the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo as, “una herida abierta where the Third World grates against the first and bleeds,” and in bleeding, combines “the lifeblood of two worlds… to form a third country, a border culture.” Anzaldúa’s frontera is a place unto itself, both inseparable from and far more than the violence that forms it. It is not surprising that this fluid, transitional, transnational, bilingual place defined by an ever-changing river inspires fantasies of walls, sealed borders, stasis and impermeability in our racist, isolationist, president and his followers—or that they would treat it as a broken place to press and press and test just how far their power goes.

Every border is a specific place with a specific history, but it is also, as Anzaldúa and other border theorists have shown us, a rhetorical construct, a psychic space, a set of power relations. The border crisis cannot be relegated to Texas and its long, troubled history, or even to the long line where the US and Mexico come together. It is happening in warehouses, abandoned Walmarts, office buildings, late night airports, Greyhound bus stations and detention centres in Michigan, New York, Florida, California and Arizona to name just a few of the places where the children taken from their parents have been seen, often by ordinary people like Lianna Dunlap. When the 25-year-old teaching assistant for children with autism in Phoenix saw children speaking Spanish being escorted into an office building, she filmed it on her phone and called a journalist. “There’s been times where I drive by and I just start crying,” Dunlap told Reveal’s Aura Bogado, “because, you know, it’s right behind my house…” A recently published map of ICE-contracted detention facilities created by a team of researchers and data specialists under the project name Torn Apart/Separados shows a United States covered in tiny round dots from coast to coast.  The centre of the crisis is equally a courtroom in Brownsville, Texas, a concentration camp in Tornillo and the White House.

There is an echo, in the fear and hatred of La Frontera, of antisemitic rhetoric about the simultaneously unstable and inassimilable nature of Jews, a people who, in the eyes of antisemites, will always be from elsewhere no matter how long they live in a place. “Globalist” and “cosmopolitan”, are the antisemitic dogwhistles currently favoured by Breitbart and their more blatantly white supremacist and Neo-Nazi allies. The terms have their roots in Nazi and Stalin-era nationalist purges, but have been revived in recent years by Putin, as well as leaders in Hungary, Poland, Germany, France, the Netherlands and Great Britain. When presidential advisor Stephen Miller accused journalist Jim Acosta of “cosmopolitan bias” for questioning whether Trump’s proposal to admit only English-speaking immigrants was a violation of American values, white nationalists celebrated Miller’s supposed victory over the press. Miller is widely regarded as the primary architect of the zero tolerance policy. If, as multiple reports suggest, Miller is borrowing more than his rhetoric from antisemitic policies of the past, the current immigration policies and rhetoric of the United States may be far more than a kind of historical rhyme – they may be a chapter of the same story. The fact that Miller himself is a pro-Israel Jew whose great-grandparents, like my own, escaped Russian persecution, complicates that story, but does not change it.

I'm here because I care

After the rally, the crowd, around 1500 of us, gathered on the plaza and marched a few hundred feet to the courthouse, holding our signs – in one case a clothesline of infant-sized shirts strung between two poles. We chanted demands for justice, our voices echoing and amplifying as they bounced off the hard surfaces of the building. People inside peered down at us from the second and third floors. “LET THEM OUT! LET THEM OUT! LET THEM OUT!” we shouted over and over again, surging forward, swamping the police cars parked in front of the courthouse. We pressed up against the glass doors of the building, demanding to be let in – until the police objected and an organiser shouted at us through a bullhorn to step back, which we did immediately, forming a long, orderly line to be let in, 25 people at a time.

After the first 25 people went inside, the line did not move and I faded back to the plaza to find some shade. A teenaged boy in a blue blazer, white shirt and tie, holding a large microphone joined me. He had just returned home from his first semester of college at University of Alaska – which was, he told me, as far away from El Paso as he could get – and was reporting on the rally for his college newspaper. He was excited about it, and hoped that one of the major media outlets at the rally might pick up some of his coverage.

How long national media will remain interested in the story of family separation and immigrant concentration camps is an open question. When I asked one of the protesters who had marched at Dilley whether he thought this round of attention was different he rolled his eyes. “They’re here now. But we know there will be another big story soon.” I’m writing this in mid-July. The scrappy Texas Tribune, which has covered the story in depth with dogged insistence from the moment it broke – at one point they filed eight stories in a single day – has continued to report it almost daily as have many other venues. But two days ago I listened to an NPR commentator say that after three weeks the story of the separated families had “begun to move off the front pages”. She said she hoped people would remember the migrants. It was hard to tell whether she meant journalists, or people like me, listening to the radio.

On 12 July, four days before Trump’s treasonous meeting with Putin took over the front page, the New York Times reported the Trump administration had told Judge Dana Sabraw, the federal judge who ruled the zero tolerance policy was unconstitutional, that “all eligible children” under the age of five had been reunited with their parents. On 18 July, the Texas Tribune reported that at least 70 children under the age of four, including some “of nursing age”, had been categorised by Trump administration as “unaccompanied minors”, the phrase the government uses to describe minors who cross the border alone.

una herida abierta: an open wound

El Paso: a step – as in to take a first step, the ford, the passageway

Tornillo: screw

Ten days after the ACLU trip I took a very different trip to Brownsville with the non-profit organisation Jolt. Founded in 2017 by executive director Cristina Tzintzun, Jolt’s mission is to mobilise Texas’ huge population of young Latinxs. Of the 28.3 million people in Texas, 11 million are Latinx and more than a third of those are under the age of 18.  Most of Jolt’s staff and volunteers are under 30. Almost all are Latinx and most are women. Their best known action to date is probably their quinceañera protest against Governor Abbott’s anti-sanctuary bill – a political riff on the Mexican coming out party for which fifteen 15 and 16-year-olds wore traditional full-skirted ball gowns and beauty pageant sashes with protest slogans to speak out against the bill on the steps of the Capitol building. The hundred or so people who gathered in the parking lot of their headquarters on Austin’s rapidly gentrifying East Side were a mix of genders and ethnicities but nearly all were immigrants, or children of immigrants, and the majority were well under 40.

Before we boarded, Tzintzun asked the group to circle up. She translated from Spanish as the mother of a participant told us the story of how, many years ago, she had crossed the border with her four-year-old son. She thanked her us for our work on behalf of undocumented people like her who could not risk the journey. “I have so many feelings today.”

That day our journey was not to the courthouse, but to a small park overlooking the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo and the bridge that connects Brownsville to its sister city, Matamoros. The view is partially, but not completely, blocked by the Wall, which in that stretch of the border looks like a very tall, strong, but ordinary fence – a series of metal bars about three inches square. There was a gate big enough for Border Patrol to drive through, and a narrow dirt patrol road on the river side of the fence. When we first arrived a white Border Patrol truck was idling in a parking lot across from the site where we set up. The driver watched us awhile before leaving.

We were there to create a mural that would be displayed at a new immigrant advocacy organisation, and an installation in the park. Before we began, we circled up again and every person participating said what had brought them there. Most spoke about being the children of immigrants, a few made passionate political speeches. Reluctant to make a point of my Jewishness in a space devoted to supporting Latinxs, I spoke briefly about my horror and let the circle know I was writing an article. An older woman to my right had no such reservations: “I’m Jewish,” she said. “And I’m here because what’s happening right now is Fascism.”

Throughout the day there was music – first over a loudspeaker and later, as we painted, from a local mariachi band. A volunteer artist screen-printed T-shirts and handed them out to participants. The media showed up, but so did many locals, drawn by solidarity or just curious about the music.

festival protester

It felt as much like a party as a protest. An artist friend who had come along with me referred to the whole day as “luxurious”. And in fact, the organisers paid close attention to our physical comfort throughout the day. They fed us, accommodating people’s dietary restrictions. They reminded us to wear hats and sunscreen and urged us to hydrate. They paid attention to our spiritual well-being too: before releasing us from our opening circle Tzintzun had told us that though what had brought us together was very dark, it was important to find joy in the ways we resisted it together.

I came to see this care as an essential component of Jolt’s organising. A number of the people participating in the day’s action had crossed the river themselves as children – one young woman told me it was the first time since then that she had been back to the river. For many others the border was a reminder of familial trauma and hardship. To create joy at the site of trauma, to create solidarity and relief for a community targeted by a campaign of terror and cruelty, is a powerful form of resistance whether or not the media shows up to film it. And it’s good for recruitment – who wouldn’t want to join a movement that dances while it works? It’s a strategy that makes particular sense for a young organisation focused on deep, long-term change. We were there in response to an unfolding emergency, but Jolt’s young members are geared toward mobilising for a distant future – not just for the 2018 midterms and the 2020 presidential election but for 2040 and beyond.

“I look at this wall, and I know that I will see it come down,” one of the participants told my friend and me near the end of the day as we stood looking out over the river. “A day will come when it just doesn’t make sense any more.” At the beginning of the day she and her sister had introduced themselves as the children of immigrants from El Salvador and Peru. “My mother came across the river holding on to the underside of a truck.” She had worked on several campaigns for the ACLU before plunging into organising for the 2016 election. Her speciality was messaging – figuring out what story to tell and how to tell it. “I was one of the few people who kept saying we needed to figure out a plan for what would happen if we lost,” she said. She understood, personally and politically, “how much some of America hates immigrants. How deep that hatred goes.” And how easy it was for Trump to stoke and manipulate that hatred. She was worried about the focus on the 2018 midterms: “We need to figure out a story that means we’re still winning even if we lose some important races.” In spite of all that she was sure we would not only survive but triumph: “There is a great reconstruction coming in this country.”

My friend and I walked with her in silence toward the buses, where everyone was loading up for the long trip home, a little dazzled by her certainty and optimism. When I questioned her about it she laughed. “You have to remember I come from people who have been dealing with this kind of shit for centuries. They haven’t given up. Why would I?”

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