Return to the Southern Border

I went back to Texas last month, and once again it took me a while to process what I saw. I went this time to Harlingen, which is on the opposite side of Texas from El Paso and Tornillo. The “tent city” at Tornillo closed down in January, after the nonprofit running it (BCFS) declined to renew their contract. Most of the kids who were at Tornillo were transferred to various shelters near Harlingen, and more keep coming every day. The government continues to impede their release, so the number of detained kids keeps growing.

Harlingen is a town of about 60,000 people, 30 miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico, a few miles from the border. The weekend I was there, Spring Break was in full swing, Cardi B was playing South Padre Island, and exuberant college kids filled the planes. Their experience of the weekend was the direct opposite of mine.

The volunteer setup was much the same as at Tornillo. I went to support the same group, CILA, and once again I worked with Brandon. I had the routine down better this time, so I was prepared for the 8am call times, the long days, the ubiquitous Spanish. It was a much larger group than last time—nine volunteers instead of four, plus Brandon, and once again the other volunteers were seriously high-quality people. We were once again supporting a local nonprofit, so they could keep the intake screenings going seven days a week instead of just five.

In El Paso, the “local nonprofit” was one woman working part-time, until a larger nonprofit and us volunteers started showing up. This time the local nonprofit was a well-established office with maybe two dozen lawyers, plus social workers and support staff. It’s called the South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project, or ProBAR for short. They work mainly with Unaccompanied Children who are detained in the Rio Grande Valley. But as well-established as they are, when the government closed Tornillo and dumped 2,000 kids on them, they needed help. So there we were. And unlike Tornillo, the Harlingen effort is not expected to end any time soon.

The kids were ages 13-17. The ones we saw were all boys and all being held at one of two shelters. The kids I personally saw were being held at the converted Walmart, which is being run by the infamous Southwest Key and has been given the Orwellian name “Casa Padre.” As if. The ProBAR staff say the Walmart now has drywall inside (instead of the original chain link), but it has no daylight or outdoor areas.

We couldn’t actually go into the detention facilities, as that would have required much more intensive background checks—and rightly so. Who knows what randos would try to bluff their way into a kiddy jail? So the boys were brought to us at the ProBAR offices, about 40 at a time for each half-day session. They waited in a conference room watching movies and cartoons until their name came up on a list and one of us lawyers took them to an office for the intake interview. In all, we saw about 150 kids that weekend. I personally saw 15 kids.

Before I describe the interviews, let me first ask you to form a mental picture of 40 teenage boys in a room—and not just any room but an office conference room. The boys have been there for hours and they have nothing to do but watch movies. Just picture it. What do you see? Do you see a certain amount of energy in that room—fidgeting, whispering, yelling, slumping down, farting the alphabet, passing things back and forth, finding any reason to get up and move? I sure do. Forty boys, I don’t care what the circumstances, are active. But not in this room. These kids were silent. Perfectly still. They sat upright at their tables and watched movies, without affect, until their name was called. It reminded me of the silence at Tornillo. Maybe Central American kids are just quieter and more well-behaved than American kids. Maybe I was misinterpreting what I was seeing as something sinister. Or maybe that silence is an indication of what these kids have been through. I just don’t know, but I never imagined that a group of human adolescent males was even capable of that stillness.

Back to the intake interviews. As at Tornillo, maybe a third of the kids did not speak Spanish well, if at all. And those that spoke only indigenous languages were often ashamed of that fact, so we had to ferret out whether they truly understood Spanish or not. For those that didn’t, we could call a language line, but those interpreters could only interpret into Spanish, not English, and their own skills were often less than I’m used to for the more common languages.

Almost all of the boys were from the Northern Triangle (Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador), and almost all had traveled across Mexico either in a group of strangers or entirely alone. Within minutes of crossing into the U.S.—some near Harlingen, some as far away as San Diego—either Border Patrol found them or they sought out Border Patrol.

Then began a process that the children I have interviewed describe consistently. They are first taken to a local Border Patrol field office, where they are questioned for several hours. Then they are taken to an “hielera,” which is Spanish for “icebox.” There are several hieleras along the border, and their locations are secret. Each one has four sections—boys, girls, men, and women. As the name implies, hieleras are very cold, and kids have only their own clothes or a “space blanket” for warmth. (The blanket works by storing ambient heat, so it’s useless where there is no ambient heat.) Also, the hieleras are made entirely of concrete, they have no windows, the lights are always on, they are loud, and the food is sparse and “fea” (disgusting). Kids are left here for four to eight days. Days. The law allows no more than 72 hours, and why it’s even five minutes is beyond me. Hieleras shouldn’t exist, period.

After that, the kids might be taken to a “perrera.” That’s Spanish for—brace yourself—dog kennel. Again no daylight, terrible and meager food, loud. Also, filled with chain link cages. Several boys are in each cage, and there is barely enough room for everyone to lie down at once. Not that anyone is sleeping anyway. In Tornillo, although the hielera stays were generally a bit shorter, the perrera stays were lasting two or three days. This time, the perrera stays were at most a few hours, and several kids hadn’t gone there at all. But again, why should a perrera even exist?

By now a week or so has passed since they arrived in the U.S. Finally they are taken to an ORR shelter, such as Casa Padre. A few days later, they receive a mandatory presentation about their legal rights, and a maybe a week or so after that, they see a lawyer for an individual intake interview. That’s what we were doing.

These interviews were the first contact they had had with anyone in the United States who was not connected to the government. I was getting basic biographical information, plus information that could help them legally, such as why they came to the U.S., their journey, their detention, and their potential sponsors who could take them in. Each kid handed me a scrap of paper maybe two inches by a half inch. The papers were all different, but all badly crumpled and all carefully preserved. On each one was a phone number and the name of a city. I realized these tiny papers were the single thread connecting these kids to a future in the U.S. If they lost that paper, they had nowhere to go. I imagined an adult back home carefully writing the number and city on the paper, checking its accuracy over and over, telling the child to protect it no matter what. I imagined the child himself writing the paper where there was no adult. I imagined the child protecting the paper on his journey even while getting robbed of all his other possessions. And I imagined a future museum exhibit showing these tiny papers in one huge collage.

As I wrote down each child’s story, encouraging them to tell me—some American stranger they had just met—about every horrible thing that had ever happened in their life, asking for more detail, thinking of alternative ways to ask the same question, listening for clues that there might be more there than they were telling me—as I did this, my one thought—not my one thought, but my frequent thought was, “You’re screwed, kid. This isn’t enough. You’re going home.” I would have my “nice adult” persona on, I would keep my voice gentle, I would give them time to form their thoughts, but meanwhile the pit in my stomach would be growing. I would say, “Have you ever known anyone who died?” and the voice in my head would beg them to tell me about their brother who was killed right in front of them. If they didn’t have that kind of story, I had to remind myself that the lack of a murdered brother is a good thing. But it ain’t gonna help them stay in America. The weeks of traveling, the fear, the money, the resilience, the tiny scrap of paper, the hielera and the perrera, it was all going to be for nothing.

Of course that’s not true for all. Some were going to have a life in the U.S. Some—more than a few—had personal histories that would probably open the doors to legal residency. Some were going to have lawyers and sponsors and American futures, and finding those kids was part of the reason for doing the intake in the first place. But some of the kids I saw that day I know are in Central America today, and the pit in my stomach is still here.

I am very grateful to Project Corazon for funding this trip. There’s no way I could have gone without their help. They are part of Lawyers for Good Government, which is a group that formed on Facebook immediately after the election (you know which election). Within a week they had more than 100,000 members. It’s the same organization that sponsored the conference I went to in D.C. on the weekend of the Women’s March. They have limited funds, but they covered the hotel stay and connected me with a lawyer 3,000 miles away who bought the plane ticket.