Borderlands Reporting

Witnesses Begin Documenting “Remain in Mexico”

Image: Margaret Seiler. All images originally posted to public Facebook page Witness: Tornillo. Target: MPP.

As part of #TargetMPP, witnesses begin reporting back on the disastrous impact of Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” program in Brownsville/Matamoros.

Marisol Cortez

I met Joshua Rubin, I think, at an action down in Carrizo Springs last summer, outside a new child detention facility set to open its door to fresh arrivals. I didn’t know it was him at the time, the one folks call The Original Witness. He handed me a button, stark black lettering over bright red backing—“free them,” it said, meaning the children held inside, all of the children separated from all the families and held in a scattering of internment camps set up by the Trump Administration.

I took the pin and fastened it to the baby carrier where five-month-old Wolfi slept snug against my chest. We’d brought both kids to the action that day; we brought a sign that read, Nuestra familia defenderá suya. Our family will stand up for yours.

Wolfi’s “Free Them” pin, worn proudly at the Carrizo Springs action. Image: Marisol Cortez

A couple weeks later, witnesses who attended that action and others preceding it announced they would start a sustained presence outside the shelter in Carrizo Springs, Texas. Administered by non-profit contractors Baptist Child and Family Services in a refurbished man camp for oilfield workers, the Carrizo Springs shelter opened in July 2019 as an intake center for mostly adolescent youth separated from families or crossing unaccompanied.

Originally from Brooklyn, NY, Rubin had by that point spearheaded a slow, quiet movement to bear continual witness outside detention facilities, first the Tornillo tent city near El Paso/Ciudad Juarez; then the for-profit Homestead facility in Florida; then the shelter in Carrizo Springs.

The principal behind this presence was simple yet profound: to refuse to look away from the horror of state-sanctioned family separation and child detention, and to open a critical lens on something permitted to continue simply because, by government design, it could not easily be seen.

The action at Carrizo Springs that day was brutal. The late-morning July day was hot and sticky, and a large bus of young folks from some Communist sect called the Progressive Labor Party had traveled that day from New York City to the semi-deserts of Southwest Texas to take part. Their constant leafleting, newspapering, and chanting interrupted the Indigenous speaker singing a song of welcome to Esto’k Gna lands, introducing a degree of instability that organizers had not seemed to plan for.

Later, what appeared to be tensions between some Indigenous and non-Indigenous attendees over organizers’ chosen solidarity song (“This Little Light of Mine“) presented an opportunity for the PLP to take over with “The Internationale.” The crowd’s energy became disorganized and confused. Sensing imminent escalation, we finally decided to jet with the kids when I overheard someone murmur to someone else: We gonna throw down or what?

The action ended abruptly not long after, when the phalanx of cops that had steadily assembled grew increasingly hostile, warning protestors that they would begin towing vehicles, despite earlier assurances to organizers that people could park along the shoulder so long as they did not block the roadway. Nervous, folks began moving towards their cars and trucks.

The protest location—at the end of a long, unpaved road with only one point in and out—finally became a dangerous bottleneck when tow trucks arrived, blocking off the sole exit and effectively trapping those assembled. When one departing protestor exchanged critical words with a tow truck driver, police used this exchange as pretext for use of force, tasing one woman and slamming another to the ground—a Congressional candidate seeking Will Hurd’s seat—before arresting Rosey Ramos Abuabara, Moureen Kaki and Ahmad Kaki. (For a more detailed firsthand account of these events, see this one by John Wiesen.)

An interesting thing happened after that action, though. Just as sustained protests outside Tornillo and Homestead had forced those shelters to vacate, it was suddenly announced, on the eve of a similar campaign of witnessing outside Carrizo Springs, that this brand new facility was closing down for a lack of children to fill the beds.

It was confusing and also suspicious. If kids were no longer being held there, where are they being held? Where were families crossing and seeking asylum being processed and sent?

Slowly, the answer seemed to appear from just across the border, in the tent courts and camps that formed as a result of the Migrant Protection Protocols program, aka “Remain in Mexico.”

Skirting the high visibility that had attended exposés of U.S. “hieleras”—the freezing, overcrowded spaces where migrant children were detained in cages, huddled beneath aluminum blankets, soap and toothpaste and vaccines and medical care withheld, in some cases dying from flu and other illnesses—the Trump administration would simply repel all refugees and asylum seekers to the other side of the border to await an expedited hearing process that resulted in an almost total denial of asylum applications.

As described by Physicians for Human Rights,

The MPP policy was first implemented in February 2019 in Tijuana and forces asylum seekers to remain in under-resourced border towns in Mexico as they await court proceedings in the United States. The administration touts MPP as a mechanism to reduce “overcrowding” in detention facilities and an alternative to family separation. But instead of finding the safety they so desperately seek while their asylum claims are reviewed, migrants are being routinely exposed to extreme violence and trauma.

On January 12, Rubin and others began an ongoing presence in Brownsville/Matamoros on the same principle they invoked in their travel to Tornillo, Homestead, and Carrizo Springs.

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Gallery of Witness Images

In a public Facebook post from January 12 called “Learning to See,” Rubin sums up this purpose:

Somos testigos. We are witnesses. Here is what we do.

We see with more than our eyes. We see with our ears. We use all our senses. But we see with our hearts and our minds, too.

When we look across the road from the park where we gather this morning, what we see at first is a fence with tents partly visible behind. Then we notice gates. Then coiled concertina wire.

We are told these are courts. We will learn, from others who see what goes on in those places that there are no judges except on a screen. That most people inside go alone and unrepresented. That the procedures conducted virtually guarantee that no one gets the asylum they need.

So we learn they are not courts as we know them. Courts are places where justice is imperfectly strived for. These are not courts. They are an illusion of justice, smoke and mirrors, to disguise a system of deliberate injustice.

Many of us will go across the river to see. We will see people camped, living in the hope of a release from their plight. People helping them, valiant, heroic people.

Look hard with eyes and ears that hear their stories. We will see diaspora. We will see not just Matamoros, but all the other places pilgrims are forced to huddle, along the borders. We will see fear.

Look harder, we will see torture, and we will see the hands of the torturers, thought they are invisible. We will learn how to see this.

We will see death. We may hear it sometimes called suicide, our eyes, learning their job, will know it is murder.

We will see families break apart under the strain of the fear of death. We will learn the word for this. Genocide.

We will see hope, and it is a terrible burden, one that we will not be able to shrug off.

There is more. We will talk more.

As witnesses post other dispatches from the border to the public Facebook page Witness: Tornillo. Target: MPP, Deceleration will share some of these on a regular basis to amplify their witness. We cannot be there in person, but we can do what we can to make sure people of conscience see what is happening there, out of sight on the so-called border, in our names: an ever-widening circle of silent witness aggregating evidence of abuse in ever-greater accumulation, until the fall of all walls and the end to all policies of concentration and internment.

Two more dispatches:

Cat Yuracka, January 10, 2020

Traveled from Central Texas to a parking lot outside of a kiddie concentration camp named Tornillo in far west Texas in November of ‘18 on a whim to meet a balls-to-the-walls activist – after 7 trips and a little over 30 days in total, the facility closed and 2,500 kids were placed with their families to await their asylum hearings.

Drove from Central Texas to Homestead in the southern-most tip of Florida to stand on a ladder and blow kisses over a fence to kidnapped teenagers in the spring/summer of ‘19. After investing two trips and approximately 20 days in the 6 month project, the facility closed – 3,300 children were transferred “we know not where” because HHS, ORR and Caliburn International refused to release the information. All we knew was that they were no longer residing in a high-density, concentration camp style prison, or being walked in single file, 10-12 at a time, with a guard at both the beginning and the end of the line, from one building to another. The facility is now closed.

Drove from Central Texas to Carrizo Springs in the oil flats of Southwest Texas in the summer of ‘19 to take the lead in protesting the short-lived Carrizo Springs facility at the request of a guy I had never seen before in my life. I spent a day in 108 degree heat singing on the side of a dusty caliche road with The Resistance Choir, and followed my mentor’s lead by sitting my ass…alone …in front of the guard shack until Kevin Dinnin of BCFS came out and personally invited me in, where we found…much to my surprise…that we had more in common than not: 5 trips, and a cumulative total of 7 days, 444 of 445 kids placed with their American families to await their asylum hearings and the facility was closed.

And now the car is almost packed for an 8 day trip to the closest Call to Action yet…a little jaunt down to the Rio Grande Valley to meet with Witnesses from across the nation in Brownsville to help establish a Vigil to protest the horrors of MPP – the “Remain in Mexico” policy. My goal is to see first hand the bogus asylum hearings where judges don’t even show up in person and all asylum claims are denied, while Witnesses with more intestinal fortitude than I will cross over to Matamoros to offer support to asylum seekers and bring their stories back to the Americans who barely know they are there.

Why do I do it? It’s not out of nobility, I can assure you. It’s because as long as this Administration unleashes it’s white nationalistic hatred on helpless, innocent, highly traumatized children…I refuse to sit on the sidelines and watch them do it unopposed.

Most folks who have been with us for a while know me as the unofficial “court jester”…the Gaga from Central Texas who will whip out endless pictures of her one and only granddaughter…born of her one and only child…with the least provocation. The rotund old gal with the quirky hair-do, ready smile, and more often than not…a thermos of Lavender Martinis tucked away somewhere in an over-packed SUV….the owner of a million-and-one felt tip pens, and a plethora of protest posters that took more time to prepare than my last tax return. But under all that, I am mostly the hyper-vigilant recovered survivor of a seriously troubled childhood who “watches”…with a not-quite-recovered intensity. And I’ve learned something profound this past year from watching the man this group refers to as the Original Witness.

I have learned to never let the fact that “nobody will go with me” stop an action I want to take, because one person can do a helluva lot to create change in this world ….all by themselves. And when a group of people who have discovered that fact get together … they can bend the living fuck out of that “arc of the moral universe”.

I’m headed to Brownsville. Join me. You will never regret it. Not for a moment.

Joshua Rubin, January 11, 2020

The border is everywhere. The tent courts hug the banks of the river and loom from the north side. In Matamoros, the old camp, its cluster of little tents, still crowds together, as if for warmth, at the base of the bridge, right where those who are permitted to cross enter the walkway and climb the short span.

But I am not going back yet. First I have to look, to hear, to walk around. To witness. To greet people. To make my way along the road to the left, that leads to the row of buildings, the first prominent one the place where newly expelled migrants register with the authorities, marched like prisoners of war, back from their short time on the opposite shore, in possession of the date far in the future, the next major event in the timeline of their exodus, having had their first look at the canvas-sided halls of injustice, a time not-so-certain for their next.

Because, to make it to their next station of the cross, they will have to survive. On the left, to reach the new camp, I scale the levy, and step down into the once-park, the now-home to clusters of tents, many with clay stoves, the smell of wood smoke mingling with humanity. I use my halting Spanish with everyone I meet. I am with someone who is fluent, so it is easier for me. We smile, we shake hands, we say the children’s names as we are introduced.

And now, on the edge of the river, watching it flow. The border is everywhere.


For video of January 12 action, including interviews with Rubin and other witnesses, see this livestream shot by Carbon Trace Productions.