American Tune Tornillo
As the vast Chihuahuan desert rolled out in front of me last week I passed the hours behind the wheel listening to music.
Somewhere around Van Horn, near Big Bend National Park the Paul Simon song "American Tune" suddenly began weeping out of my radio like a prayer.
That song became the musical backdrop for a terribly sad and frightening trip to the U.S./Mexico border.
The lyrics continue to haunt me and are a pretty good reflection of the mental and emotional space in which I seem to have been stuck since last Wednesday.
It's a tough thing to see and experience what I now fear may be our collective future. I'm normally a pretty fearless person but I've gotta admit, I'm scared.
I've lost count of the number of times this week that I've been asked why I chose to drive 500 miles to Tornillo, Texas.
There are two reasons I did so and two important things I learned. I'd like to tell you about them all.
Today I'm writing about the first thing I noticed and my impression of it's implications. I'll follow-up with the second and most important tomorrow and then finish the following day with additional conclusions and resources. There's a lot here, but I feel compelled to write it all down.
Oh, and on Wednesday I'll also tell you about the truck driver and the bottle of pee.
Nothing there but the dirt, some drones, patrol cars and a lot of helicopters.
Last Monday I returned home after spending almost three weeks in the U.K.
As we traveled from green, glorious Ireland to our home-away-from-home in London and on to the gorgeous sea cliffs in Cornwall I saw a few bits and headlines about the current situation in American.
It was easier to ignore them than I'd imagined, mostly because they were all so very, very bleak and ugly. Ignoring those headlines seemed, at the time, an appropriate act of self-preservation.
When boarding the return flight from Heathrow to DFW they handed us a copy of the New York Times. Everything I had been trying to ignore let out a Times New Roman roar for the next 10 hours. Not a single thing I read made me glad to be flying toward Dallas.
In the pages of that newspaper I read that the United States of America is actively imprisoning asylum seekers and their children, whose only goal was to cross our border and ask for protection. Because we are the United States of America and that used to be what we did.
You are now acutely aware of this crisis and we're all trying desperately to reconcile what it means. About us.
These are criminal acts, they are cruel and the crisis is far, far from being over. That is if over is even possible anymore.
Our media is covering those sickening stories pretty thoroughly so
I'd like to tell you about my personal observations about things the media is not covering.
It's not an intentional exclusion on the part of the media. These observations are comprised of something that is more than words.
To see them, to feel them, requires the lens of time and experience.
When I was a little girl my family could drive or walk across the border from El Paso to Juarez to spend the day shopping for straw baskets, cheap marionettes with strings that impossibly tangled within minutes and"authentic" serapes- all while eating elotes, covered with cotija cheese, guajillo chili and salty mantequilla.
I remember my brother once throwing himself to the ground wailing and begging my parents to buy him a "real" Mexican bullwhip. They did, and my sister and I got the bad end of the flick of that leather tail a few times.
Once we were finished it was a simple thing to pass back across the border and head home.
In college the rite of passage that was heading to Mexico to get drunk on tequila and maybe get a tattoo of a burnt orange longhorn was a just part of being a student in Austin. It was a day trip and we made it often.
Later, my friends and I would drive to Eagle Pass, Texas to cross the border into Piedras Negras, Mexico. We'd sit in a dark bar, slumped in red leather booths all day long, listening to La Onda Chicana on the jukebox and paying eager young boys a few pesos to run to the panaderia to bring back some crusty pan to help soak up whatever we were drinking.
A friend and I once drove from Kerrville Texas to the beach at the Pacific Ocean in Mazatlan, in the state of Sinaloa. We wound through the switchback roads of the Sierra Madre mountains in the state of Durango with a few bucks in our pockets and not much else other than a general idea of where we were headed.
It was just my friend and me, on a spur-of-the-moment trip, driving a pickup truck and listening to country music cassettes, waving at the kids we passed in the small towns along the way.
When we headed back home we drove across the border through a small and minimally barricaded auto lane while waving out the window at the Border Patrol.
For almost 400 years the U.S./Mexican border has been an epicenter of bi-cultural relations between two countries that share over 2000 miles of a special mix of deserts, ocean shores, mountains and densely populated cities. The shared goal was to grow crops, trade manufactured goods and services, learn from each other and try to extend a hand to anyone looking for something more.
Last Wednesday I crossed that border and had more than 10 guns aimed directly at my car. The car was x-ray scanned. Then, every bag, door pocket and the entire motor compartment was searched while an agent of the United States Border Patrol grilled us about where we had been and where we were headed.
I'm still pretty much the same me, but that border is not the same border.
Not by a long shot.
This is apparently necessary to drive around trying to catch thirsty people traveling on foot with small children.
A few years ago I traveled to Israel. We drove from the port of Ashdod through the Gaza Strip to Jerusalem, crossing an eerie, militarized desert with high fences on all sides, meant to keep some people out and others in.
Driving from Van Horn to El Paso reminded me of that trip, over and over again.
The entire region has morphed from the beautiful desert and lazy Rio Grande into what feels like a well-policed military installation.
The ubiquitous Border Patrol trucks were stacked along the roadway along with roving helicopters, county sheriff patrol cars, Texas Department of Public Safety SUV's, and Homeland Security (ICE) vehicles of every size. And drones. Lots of camera drones.
The semis speeding along I-10 were more likely to be loaded with strange looking mechanical parts, hauling Halliburton trailers loaded with brand new Border Patrol speedboats, HumVees and military jeeps than they were with fruit and livestock.
In one single four mile stretch of I-10 I saw five TX Dept of Public Safety SUV's. Three of them had stopped vehicles, lined up the passengers on the highway shoulder and every person I saw standing in that dirt was brown. Every one.
Our border highway, the main artery between California and all points eastward has been militarized and the aim seems to be to make sure that no brown person is left unchecked. Even those with valid Texas license plates.
The line for the routine, interior borderland checkpoint near Sierra Blanca used to be a formality for passenger cars where the aim was to slow down enough to keep from getting a ticket. Now it is a scorching hot line of overheating cars that can stretch for miles and take an hour to pass through.
Our carefree days of see the USA in a Chevrolet are no more. Especially if your skin happens to be anything other than white.
FIRST OBSERVATION AND A QUESTION-
This was the entry to the border bridge at 8 am on Wednesday. Clear.
Same entry at 9am after the U.S. Conference of Mayors press conference began. Tx Dept of Public Safety SUV and a local police car.
Last Wednesday morning a bipartisan group of about 20 U.S. Mayors from cities all over the country came to Tornillo to hold a press conference and request they be allowed to enter and inspect the facility. We arrived at the site of the press conference about an hour early.
At 8am, the port of entry that leads to the bridge to Mexico was wide open. Photo above.
By 9am, the port was guarded by State Troopers and local police. Photo above.
Their purpose was to block the mayors from going inside the border station and makeshift child tent prison. Maybe it's better described as a concentration camp.
Let that sink in. These were not Border Patrol agents of the Federal Government. These were Texas troopers and police who are directed by local and state officials. Those troopers call Governor Greg Abbott the big boss man, not the U.S. president.
The mayors were denied access by the armed and uniformed officers.
I've heard people say "Big deal, they were mayors, not elected officials of the federal government".
Let's break that down.
Mayor Bill DeBlasio of the City of New York was the first to ask to be admitted to the facility to ask some questions, only to be denied.
His questions were about why a couple of hundred children were flown to New York from Tornillo without the city being notified and after being ripped from their parents who were crossing the border to request asylum.
He wanted to ask a question that directly involved his city, his constituents and the Tornillo facility.
It's important to note that the average Member of the United States House of Representatives represents around 700,000 constituents.
Constituents are Americans like you and me who pay taxes to fund institutions like the Border Patrol. We deserve answers and are not getting them.
Mayor DeBlasio was elected to represent a city of approximately 8 and a half million people. That's 8.5 million taxpayers.
New York has 13 separate congressional districts in it's boundaries.
That means that Mayor DeBlasio represents more Americans than at least 11 Members of Congress.
Also in attendance was Mayor Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles. The city of L.A. has a population of almost 4 million with at least portions of 10 separate congressional districts.
Dee Margo is the republican mayor of El Paso. He spoke eloquently about how El Paso should be the“poster child for immigration and bicultural relations.” He also said that "the folks in Washington D.C. need to get their acts together".
El Paso has a little under 700,000 citizens, just like the average sized-congressional district and it is only the SIXTH largest city in the State of TEXAS.
Between the mayors of Miami, Austin, Albuquerque, Columbia South Carolina, Seattle and many others represent more Americans than the entire congressional delegations of several states. Put together.
Yet they were all denied entry into the Port of Tornillo to find out exactly what our citizens are funding and our federal government is perpetrating.
So here's my question that I've not heard anyone ask-
Who directed the troopers and police to block that gate? Why wasn't it the border patrol? Why were officers paid by the citizens of the State of Texas standing with their arms crossed to assist a maniac's delusional policies?
I would like to know.
-A couple of other things I saw that day at the Tornillo Port of Entry-
There were loud camera drones buzzing the press conference at close range, ruining the television audio recordings. I notice things like that and it was clearly intentional.
Undercover but not terribly undercover agents milling around among the well-behaved crowd of press and onlookers. The microphones on their shirts and their bad-guy sunglasses were kind of a dead giveaway.
A still photographer walked around the perimeter of the station fence. On foot. Through wide-open, American soil.
He later tweeted that his walk "brought a helicopter, a customs border patrol van, two officers from Homeland Security and a guard."
There were so many unusual and intentionally threatening actions going on that day that it's hard to list them all.
The last and most important thing I noticed is the main reason I drove to Tornillo.
The tents that are "housing" the children cannot be seen from the American side of the border. They are set back behind the station buildings, facing the Rio Grande river. The camp is pointed as a big FU to our Mexican neighbors.
What that means is that despite all the protests, worldwide chatter, social media blah, blah and outrage.....
THE CHILDREN LIKELY HAVE NO IDEA WHAT IS REALLY GOING ON OR THAT ANYONE OUT HERE CARES ABOUT THEM.
The location of their tent-prison means they cannot hear the protests or the news conferences. They are kept inside most of the time.
It's hard to imagine that anyone is telling them much. The policies change several times daily. Many of the kids are too little to understand anyway.
I went to Tornillo to find a way to tell them that we care. I had a plan and it worked. Sort of.