I’ve joined my friend Sr. Margaret in El Paso, Texas, to work for 10 days with immigrant families newly released by ICE. During my time here, I’ll share my experiences via this blog. Thanks for sharing this journey with us.
Only last June, the white and beige tents of Tornillo rose in the scrubby desert of southwestern Texas. Set among pecan groves and cotton fields, snugged up against the tall fence of steel mesh that separates U.S. territory from the Rio Grande, Tornillo was built to house more than 3,000 immigrant teens who made the dangerous journey from Central America alone. The Texas Monthly estimates that the expanse of tents, fences, soccer fields, porta-potties and small army of guards, teachers, nurses, cooks and barbers cost taxpayers about $1 million a day to operate.
Yesterday, my first day in El Paso, I witnessed some of its dismantling.
Tornillo was part of the Trump administration’s strategy to deter immigration across the southern border by making weary, hungry, frightened people still more miserable. Until public outcry stopped it, small, sobbing children were separated from their parents. Even now, families are held in jail-like conditions, in icy cells, with scant, poor quality food and only thin foil blankets for warmth.
For the teens in Tornillo, most of whom have family in the U.S., there was another strategy: Require fingerprints from their sponsors and everyone in their households and share those fingerprints with Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials. There are an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., many of whom have lived and worked here for decades. Fingerprints meant putting everyone in a household at risk of criminal prosecution and deportation. Previously, only parents or guardians seeking to sponsor a child were required to submit fingerprints and only if background checks indicated a possible threat to the child.
Predictably, under the new policy, the number of teens detained and the wait for sponsors grew from an average of 30 days at the end of the Obama administration to 75 days.
But last week, under public pressure, the Trump Administration policy changed – now only parents or potential sponsors will be required to submit fingerprints. National Public Radio reports that camp staffers are driving 100 kids a day to the El Paso airport to join sponsors and that the population at Tornillo has fallen from 3,000 to less than 1,500. Not all have found a home, though. Some will be moved to other facilities.
When I arrived in El Paso yesterday to join my friend Sr. Margaret McGuirk to work with immigrant families released by ICE, she proposed that we go to see Tornillo. So we made the 40-minute drive on I-10 and into the desert with Sisters Mary, Kay and Katherine. All of them are religious sisters in their 70s who have served Spanish-speaking communities for decades.
I was happy to see the camp with these dedicated women and grateful to meet some of front-line activists who’ve camped outside the camp to protest the detention and document what’s happening there.
Musician and activist Martin Bates drove us around the camp’s perimeter, where we watched workers taking apart the vast dining camp and tossing metal bed frames into dumpsters. As we watched, a soccer ball came flying over the fence. Plastic sheeting blocked our view into the soccer field. But Martin retrieved the ball, and one by one, we grey-haired women with arthritic fingers wrote blessings and messages of hope in Spanish. And with a great hurl, gentle Martin tossed it back over the fence.