My Experience of the “Tent City”


I’ve been trying to write this up for a couple of days. I kept running into my mixed emotions, and I couldn’t figure out what “hook” to give this. I finally realized today that my mixed emotions ARE the hook. If I am to relate what I experienced, then I must share the good and the bad, even if I am not yet done processing it all. So here goes….

I went to Tornillo last weekend. Although I should clarify: I didn’t go to Tornillo last weekend. Tornillo is a small town in southwest Texas, population 1,500. It is a few miles down the road from where I was, and unless you’re from there, the only reason to go is to say you’ve been. I didn’t go.

But I did go to what the government calls the Influx Care Facility at Tornillo, what the media calls a tent city, and what an activist outside the gates calls a children’s prison, if not a concentration camp. I call it Tornillo. (What is Tornillo?)

I went in order to support the attorneys who are already on the ground, interviewing the kids five days a week, in order to identify potential legal issues and to help the kids know what to expect at court. Those lawyers are stretched to capacity, so the call went out for volunteers to come to El Paso for the weekend to keep the operation going seven days a week instead of just five.

I flew into El Paso on Thursday night and met with the group at 8 am Friday morning. We met first in a hotel meeting room for an orientation with our leader, Brandon, before heading over to the site. Brandon is an immigration lawyer from Houston. There were four volunteers. One was from Colorado and had prosecuted war crimes at The Hague. Another was from Boston, born in Brazil, to Chilean parents, and spoke at least three languages. A third was also from Boston, although she was originally from El Paso and quickly became our local guide. She told us at one point that her grandma makes “a hundred dozen” tamales every Christmas. I automatically did the math in my head, and then I had to check it, because I thought I had added a zero. All of the lawyers are experienced removal defense attorneys who speak fluent Spanish.

During the orientation, Brandon glanced out the window and saw a dust storm kicking up. Welcome to Texas. It was like fog, but brown, and soon it was so thick we couldn’t even see the building next door. It was also unsafe to go outside. Tornillo went on lockdown, and our plans for the day went out the window. Even if we dared to go outside, and dared to drive over there, the kids could not be moved from wherever they happened to be in order to meet with us.

Brandon was on it. This was the first I saw of the improvisation that would permeate the whole weekend. He called an immigration lawyer who works at a local non-profit, asking if she could make use of five immigration lawyers who were at that moment sitting in a conference room, laptops open, with nothing to do. She came right over. She brought several of her pending projects and settled in at the table herself. We all spent the rest of the day doing her projects. It was a fun day, if you happen to be a law geek, although also frustrating because it wasn’t why we were in El Paso. But Mother Nature had had her say, and that was that.

On Saturday, we gathered once again at 8 am, and this time we headed out to Tornillo. The drive itself was fascinating. Tornillo is about 35 miles southeast of El Paso. We turned off I-10 into the town of Fabens, home of the Wildcats. A moment later, we were past the town, driving through miles of pecan orchards, then miles of cotton fields. We made a turn and suddenly there was Tornillo. I don’t know how you hide something that huge in a place that flat, but we turned a corner and there it was.

It looks just like the pictures. There was the bit of county land outside the gate, where an activist has set up in an RV for the last couple of months to protest. We turned into the facility and parked.

I have many impressions of the place. It was much larger than I expected. We took a golf cart to get from place to place, and the cart took a while. I’m sure I would get lost if I had to find my way alone.

The person who drove us around and generally tended to us told us about a flock of birds that show up every day at 5 pm. Tens of thousands of black birds with gold breasts. They alight on a particular tent—always the same tent, and never any other. Then they fly away. Mother Nature once again. Unfortunately, we never saw this, working too late one day and not late enough the next.

The camp sits right up against the border, which has a fence running along it. Brandon assured us that the fence has been there for years and that Mexico definitely didn’t pay for it. It’s attractive, like something you might get at Home Depot to put in your yard.

The infrastructure I can best describe as Burning Man gets OCD. It is indeed a city, twice as large as the actual town of Tornillo, but all of it is temporary. It could pack up overnight, like the circus, and you would never know it had been there. Actual tumbleweeds would blow through. But the structure is all organized, with a place for everything, everything in its place, all of it well signed, with established traffic patterns and wi-fi. It was also neat as a pin, even the day after a dust storm blew through.

The logistics of the place are incredible. Consider just the food. First of all, it’s delicious and abundant, and I’m told that what we ate is what the kids eat. The kitchen is feeding about 4,000 people a day, morning, noon, and night, and middle of the night, all off of generators. There must be a kitchen tent and a substantial kitchen staff. All of the supplies need to be trucked in, and all of the trash needs to be trucked out. The staff is staying in hotels, which means paying for the staff itself, the hotel rooms, and the multiple buses and bus drivers to get them to and from work. There are multiple teams of paramedics standing by, plus on-site medical facilities. The legal team has its own area, with individual, climate-controlled trailers for meeting with the kids. It goes on and on. All of this in the middle of absolutely nowhere. The head of the non-profit running it told a group of politicians that it is the most expensive way possible to set up this kind of operation.

The site is run by a non-profit called BCFS. They’ve been around since the 1940s, mostly doing disaster relief all over the world. If ever I’m in a natural disaster, I would want these people to show up.

And that’s what brings me to the mixed emotions. The staff is nice. They seem to really care about the kids. They were everywhere, all the time, and none of them had a jail guard vibe to them. They didn’t have a “power stance,” they didn’t bark orders like a drill sergeant, they didn’t wear militaristic uniforms. They wore color-coded t-shirts, which I’m guessing helps everyone sort out who is who. Many of them were Latino and bilingual. Most of them are not local, and they see their own families at most every three weeks. They didn’t say so, but I can believe they were just as concerned about these kids as we were. Of course, I could have been seeing just a facade, and I could have been blind to problems right in front of me, but I also could have been seeing exactly what was there: good people doing difficult work under impossible circumstances.

At the same time, I don’t believe the staff has any training in caring for traumatized teenagers, nor any awareness of the harm that detention alone or separation from family can do to a child, especially a child in the formative years of adolescence.

The whole vibe was more like a huge high school than a prison, although a terribly sad and weirdly quiet one. How can 2,000 teenagers be that quiet? I don’t want to stretch the high school metaphor too far, because it definitely isn’t a high school, but I think it helps give a sense of the place, at least as I experienced it. How the kids experience it is something we’ll all be finding out in the years to come, as we hear from them directly. It’s not a happy place, but it also isn’t hellacious. When we left on the last day, the staff had just set up a giant Christmas tree.

The current population was just under the capacity of 2,400. They might have broken through that by today, and they were bringing more capacity online. The kids have either come straight from the border, a few days after crossing, or from other facilities, after crossing several months ago. The numbers of kids has exploded, not because more kids are coming but because fewer kids are getting released. The government last summer changed its long-standing policy, and it is now threatening to deport any family member they can who comes forward to claim a child. So the kids are left stuck in detention, perhaps all the way until their immigration case ends, whenever that is.

Systems have been place for decades to deal with Unaccompanied Children, but now they are stretched to the breaking point, and some of them can’t scale up at all. Everyone involved—lawyers, staff, courts, probably kids—are making it up every day. Brandon has been there four times since August, and he says the place is wildly different every time.

The kids are almost all Central American. A sizable minority speak only limited Spanish, or none at all. Their first language is one of several indigenous languages, such as Mam or Chuj or Qui’che. This means communication for them is that much more difficult. I don’t know if anyone on staff speaks any of those languages.

Every day Brandon had a list of kids to interview. I don’t know where the list came from, but the kids would be waiting for us when we arrived. We interviewed each one, sometimes conducting an initial intake to gather basic information about their background, their journey, and their apprehension, so some other lawyer down the line could help them figure out their legal options. For others, we were conducting second interviews, where the lawyer who would be with them at their next court date wanted more information than was in the intake.

The interviews were entirely in Spanish, and I’ve decided if I can get through a weekend of that, I speak Spanish. I still need to learn to pronounce “amenazas” (threats) and brush up on the many ways to say “was,” but I’m now deeming myself competent. I feel like the Scarecrow who finally got a diploma.

What struck me the most was the realness of it all. There are so many abstractions to all of this, as I read the news or talk with my colleagues. The border is an idea. The kids are an idea. Tornillo is an idea. Hell, Texas is an idea. But being at Tornillo, seeing the border fence, talking with the kids, being surrounded by the y’alls and the pecans and the dust storm, the whole thing became concrete for me. These are real people, at a real place. I could touch it, see it, travel through it. I could hear the weird silence and breathe the thin air. I could eat the food and feel the sun on my arms. On one level, it was just a few long days of work, nothing I haven’t done before. But on another level, it was…well, I don’t know what it was. I’ll have to get back to you on that.

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