Border Observatory 2019:
Hope and Resistance at the Border
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Late on December 23, 2018, my wife and I were wrapping Christmas gifts when I received a text message that ICE was dumping dozens of migrant families in downtown El Paso.
It couldn’t be. It was too late at night, too cold and too close to the Christmas holiday.
The only other time ICE had done this was just before the November midterm elections, when Trump played the border politics card to turn out his base, whipping up fears about a caravan of migrants from Central America and sending troops to the border.
The news spread on social media and folks from across the city began showing up at the downtown bus station where ICE was releasing people. Good Samaritans brought water, pizza and blankets. Police officers called their wives to rustle up donations. The ICE bus driver confessed that he had a heavy heart but, after all, he was just following orders.
I was dispatched to organize shelter for 60 migrants, all Central American parents with children. Soon after midnight they arrived with police escort, tired and thirsty. The children had glossy eyes, runny noses and sore feet. Just before going to sleep, some of the migrants asked to pray. Soon the room was enveloped in a cacophony of tears, gratitude and sheer release of emotion bottled up over a journey of 2,000 miles and several days crammed in overcrowded, freezing detention cells.
So began the three days when ICE would release around 600 migrants into downtown El Paso.
At times, it seemed the ICE buses would never stop arriving. Every bus brought new asylum seekers, dazed and confused, uncertain about where they were, not knowing if they were still in the hands of the government, unsure of their next steps.
We brought the migrants to a small park in El Paso’s Duranguito neighborhood which was transformed into a sort of humanitarian hub where we triaged the sick, fed the hungry and organized transportation. In the thick of the chaos, the irony might have been lost on the casual observer. The historic neighborhood that had witnessed waves of migration was presently in the crosshairs of the city’s ruling class, who were spending millions to raze and gentrify it. These were the same city leaders incapable of mustering a word against Trump’s new border wall that ran like an embarrassing gash through downtown.
There was no plan of action. Some migrants needed medical attention. One woman had nothing but a bundle in her arms, a two-day-old infant. Paramedics offered first aid to a dehydrated 7-year-old boy with a high fever. Migrants appeared out of nowhere saying Border Patrol agents had simply waved them across the border and pointed them in the direction of this makeshift refugee camp.
In the confusion, the biblical story of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes was repeating itself. Volunteers brought food, water, medecine and Christmas toys. Bystanders thrust money into my pockets. Mike Patino, the colorful owner of a local establishment, opened his doors and organized a makeshift buffet. Local reporters put in long hours to tell the story with compassion.
Miraculously, Ruben Garcia, the director of Annunciation House, found shelter for every soul. As each group departed Duranguito on city buses to one of Annunciation House’s shelters, there were cheers and broad smiles of gratitude.
Then, after Christmas, the whirlwind stopped. No explanation was forthcoming from ICE because no sane explanation was possible.
The Christmas 2018 events demonstrated not just the depths of callousness to which the government could fall but also the administration’s cruelty over the entire year. 2018 was the year of 'zero tolerance', family separation, turnbacks of asylum seekers, the Tornillo detention camp, the deployment of the military to the border and the beginning of the first government shutdown over border politics.
2018 also demonstrated the dangerous and deadly consequences of this vapid politics.
On December 7, Jakelín Caal Maquin, a 7-year-old indigenous girl from Guatemala, fell ill in the custody of Border Patrol and died at an El Paso hospital. On Christmas Eve, Felipe Gómez Alonso, an 8-year-old indigenous migrant from Guatemala, died of influenza en route to hospital from a Border Patrol station.
This report relates the impact of the actions of the Trump administration in 2018 on the Paso del Norte border community, the binational community that straddles El Paso, Ciudad Juárez and southern New Mexico.
Like our previous reports, Hope and Resistance at the Border documents the government’s ongoing militarization of the region and the criminalization of migrants who live and pass through here. This report is based on HOPE’s observation of nearly 500 cases in El Paso’s immigration courts and federal criminal courts, site visits at Tornillo to interview children detained there, scores of interviews with legal advocates for asylum seekers, surveys of migrants in detention, data collected at the Diocese of Juárez’ migrant shelter, interviews with asylum seekers turned back by CBP officers and meetings with administration officials.
If 2018 was an inflection point in the long story of human rights violations at the border, it was also an inflection point of hope and resistance.
Hope and Resistance at the Border is the story of one border community’s resilience and creative organizing in the face of the dark actions taken by an administration that waves the flag of xenophobia and nativism. If in times of deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act, then this report is a chronicle of subversion, the effort of one border community to witness to the truth of human dignity and to expose lies and distortions at the core of the Trump administration’s attack on migrants and the border.
The policies and practices described in this report and their devastating consequences continue to challenge and engage our faith, commitment and imagination. Crucial aspects of the administration’s policies which it sought to implement during the past year are deeply unethical and unjust, and violate US law and internationally recognized human rights standards. All of the policies described here have faced legal challenges, and several have been stayed or reversed, pending further appeals. But the administration continues to press for measures along the same lines.
Hope and Resistance at the Border memorializes the hospitality of faith communities opening their doors to welcome to the stranger, and the story of generosity and compassion in Duranguito. It records the protest and determination that led to the closure of the tent city in Tornillo and the actions of activists who challenged power to protect the rights of asylum seekers. And it documents the perseverance of families who risked everything to leave country and kindred to find safety and refuge at our border.