The new frontier spirit
Passionate and perspiring, Xochitl Rodriguez shouts through her bullhorn to several hundred activists gathered in downtown El Paso, Texas. ‘We vow as mothers to not stop speaking until these 2,000 children are with their families!’
The crowd is populated largely by parents and children responding to the call of the group Familias para familias, organized by Ms Rodriguez and two other mothers to contest the fallout of President Trump’s Zero Tolerance immigration policy. The crowd will march to the El Paso County Detention Facility five blocks away, which houses asylum seekers who have been forcibly separated from their children.
By the 6pm departure, the temperature has dropped slightly – but still stands at a sweltering 38°c. It is impossible not to think of the 400 boys held 40 miles east outside the dusty town of Tornillo, Texas, in one of the tent cities erected as a result of the policy. Many of these same protesters gathered at local congressman Beto O’Rourke’s march there only days before. Sirens punctuated its conclusion as an ambulance rescued a demonstrator with heat exhaustion – and that was before noon.
Enacted in April, Zero Tolerance calls for every person crossing the border without permission – which is a misdemeanour (a minor criminal act) – to be criminally prosecuted regardless of whether they have children with them. Because children are protected from being sent to federal prison by the 1997 Flores Settlement, this de facto separation decree has resulted in 2,400 migrant children being taken from their parents indefinitely, and possibly permanently.
The erection of tent cities to house the overflow of children has sparked a particularly acute outcry in El Paso, the largest U.S. city on the Mexican border.
El Paso and its geographically contiguous sister city, Juarez, Mexico, were, in fact, one until Texas was annexed in 1848 along the Rio Grande. Even through to the early 1990s, thousands of Juarenses crossed the river daily to work, and returned home every night.
‘Our culture transcends the border,’ says Nicole Cobb, another Familias para Familias organizer. ‘We go back and forth all the time – you’d be hard pressed to find someone from El Paso who doesn’t know someone from Juarez.’
Downtown, the Familias marchers arrive outside the county detention centre and trade their chant of ‘Mamas, papas, estamos luchando!’ (Mothers, fathers, we are fighting) for songs. Many already know them, others look to lyric sheets.
Ay, ay, ay, ay
Canta y no llores
Porque cantando se alegran
Cielito lindo, los corazones
(Ay ay ay ay
Sing and don’t cry
Because singing, handsome darling
Lifts hearts inside)
‘Louder!’ shouts Xochitl, striding in front of the lines with her bullhorn. ‘So they can hear you!’
At their return to the square, the children break off to play in the fountain, and the rest receive a piece of good news: the U.S. attorney’s office for the western district of Texas announced it will drop criminal charges against all detained parents.
Those who were detained in El Paso and have not already been deported have a chance at finding their children. However, the majority of detentions are occurring in McAllen, in the southern district.
‘Unfortunately, this is not new,’ said Kathy Revtyak, who marched with her son. ‘What’s new is the scale.’
Since 1994, the stated aim of U.S. immigration policy has been ‘prevention through deterrence’. A known and calculated consequence of blocking traditional urban corridors was that migrants and asylum seekers would be forced into the wilderness.
A rise in deaths in desert areas would be, according to a report for the US Congress, an indicator of the strategy’s success (see p. 84).
‘Those of us who have been in this fight for years, our hearts are broken and heavy,’ says Kathy.
There is no doubt the desert crossings are daunting.
‘When you talk to little kids about this,’ says immigration attorney Allegra Love in a recent podcast, ‘they talk with delight about when border patrol came over the hill, and they knew their life was going to be saved’.
Deterrence has not proven a great success, however. Since the early 1990s, the budget of the U.S. border patrol has grown by a factor of ten, while the number of undocumented people living in America increased threefold. The economic incentive is powerful. In 2014, American business employed 8 million unauthorized immigrants.
But migrant deaths along the south-west border – in line with expectations of the deterrence policy – doubled between 1995 and 2005. Missing person reports, numbering in the thousands annually, far exceed the official body count.
Unless those who succumb to the harsh desert conditions are recovered within a few days, their corpses are consumed by carrion. Vultures carry off limbs; beetles devour bones.
Meanwhile, in the U.S., 2,400 migrant children remain in custody, at a financial cost of $200 (£150) per night per person, equating to $480,000 (£362,000) of taxpayers’ money daily. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) spends an estimated $2bn a year on privately-run immigrant detention facilities.
At the Familias march, protesters explain why they have brought their own children out in searing heat. ‘Trump has free rein to do whatever he wants,’ says Gray Coldwell, an El Paso native. ‘Congress is broken. The only oversight is going to come from the people.’
Marcher Dayana Trevizo, whose relatives have spent thousands of dollars attempting to migrate via official channels, agrees. ‘These protests have political value,’ she says. ‘If people don’t care, nothing will change.’