The Iowa Dispatch features the voices of Iowans scattered around the country and the world, offering a local perspective on national and international issues.
The daily summer temperature in the Chihuahuan Desert, the land that stretches from the middle of New Mexico and southeast through Texas and Mexico toward the Gulf, frequently surges above 100 degrees. The desert itself receives about 9 inches of rain a year, and very little of that during the summer months. Mix in devastating dust storms that often darken the sky and choke people to death in 70-plus mile-per-hour winds, and you have one of the most inhospitable places in the country.
Most of the Chihuahuan Desert is within the jurisdiction of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and their enforcement counterpart, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). That full jurisdiction is within 100 miles of any border (Canadian, Mexican, ocean) and within it, CBP and ICE have a fair amount of autonomy in their operations. It is in the Chihuahuan desert that the enforcement of President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ “zero tolerance” immigration policy has been exposed to the world — including the separation of children from their parents, and the holding of these children in tent camps and facilities.
In response, hundreds of local protests have surged to join the standing protests against standard ICE and CBP abuses. I attended two of these local protests specifically targeted at ending the Trump policy of separating parents and their children at the border. The first on June 17 — Father’s Day — organized with less than a 48-hour turnaround by Texas Senate hopeful Beto O’Rourke. The start location of this particular march was moved a few times in order to accommodate the swiftly increasing number of attendees, eventually settling at the Tornillo-Guadalupe Toll Plaza, about 10 minutes outside of Fabens, Texas.
My husband and I attended with our 2-year-old child, Sonje, arrived about 15 minutes before the event was set to begin, and were absolutely floored by the turnout. All along every ridge of the highway, cars were parked — and swarms of people were flooding the Toll Plaza.
Many organizations who protest regularly the overreach of ICE and CBP were there, from the Democratic Socialists of America to the Coalición de Derechos Humanos and the Border Network for Human Rights. But joining these organizations were hundreds of people with their own handmade signs with custom slogans criticizing the current administration and figures (Trump, Sessions, McConnell, etc.) within it. I spoke with one woman, there with her husband. A self-proclaimed “staunch Republican,” she insisted that this was “not a political rally,” but instead something that “everyone should agree on.”
Thousands came out to protest Trump Administration's policy of separating families. #Tornillo is where the first tent city has been set up, with the possibility of holding 4000 children. More on the #immigration debate on @CBSNews w/@Elaine_Quijano tonight. pic.twitter.com/FqvQZLc84a
— Mireya CBS (@cbsmireya) June 17, 2018
I have seen crowd estimates from O’Rourke’s camp that say there were about 1,000 people at the march, but I feel confident there were more.
Accommodating that number of people on such short notice is extremely difficult, but I will say that the entire event suffered from a complete lack of organization. While some chants (“El pueblo unido/jamás será vencido” or “Let our children go,” among others) were able to gain traction in some parts of the crowd, event organizers found it almost impossible to coalesce people around a singular goal.
O’Rourke was joined by Veronica Escobar (The El Paso judge who is vying for his vacated seat), El Paso’s Democratic state representatives, a few more state reps and, eventually, Joe Kennedy III (D-MA 4th District). The arrival of these public figures only added to the complexities of the gathering. Occasionally, speeches would be delivered from within the mob — but no one I spoke to was able to hear what was being said. This did not stop the cheers from rippling through the crowd, but the attitude was generally “I didn’t hear what was said, but I support it if they’re talking here.”
Those of us who recognize the terrors of ICE and CBP on a daily basis were sometimes at odds with protesters who wished to focus specifically on children being separated from their parents. There was a lone woman who identified as a representative of the Right to Life Committee of New Mexico who felt that this policy was “too far,” but the rally too political for her. I actually agreed. It felt much more like a campaign rally for O’Rourke than a targeted action against the institutions and administration responsible for immigrant persecution. I continue to believe O’Rourke has his heart in the right place, but in my view, his organizers took advantage of an opportune moment.
That feeling of “political rally” contrasted greatly with the march organized on Tuesday, June 19 by the Border Network for Human Rights (BNHR). With a week’s planning time, the organization and action plan of this particular march was substantially more pointed. This may primarily be because the BNHR is experienced at doing this marches regularly against these institutions which have always been guilty of violating basic human rights, but it is also partially because the turnout was much smaller, around 750.
The group started at Edgemere Park in El Paso and marched to a processing facility run by CBP. My immediate cohorts consisted of a number of elderly women from Las Cruces (including a wonderful woman named Jeanne) and our state representative, Bill McCamley. All had been at the march earlier in the week and shared my ambivalent impressions.
Signs were handed out to those who had none, extra crates of water were available and we marched a determined path in two-by-two formation, when able. Upon arriving, six large lettered signs spelling C-L-O-S-E-D were held across the entrance as the crowd halted traffic.
Drum circles and chants rippled through the crowd throughout the march and sit-in, defiantly shouting down border agents who began to set up cameras and recording equipment in the parking lot and from the roof of their facility. Once we had settled in, there was a series of speeches delivered from behind the gates by the organization’s leaders, but once again — even with a microphone and speaker system — the majority of the crowd was unable to engage with the statements being made. At the same time, different sections of the group were busy shouting slogans and yelling at border agents — all worthwhile actions, but demonstrating a lack of direction within the crowd.
However, shutting down the facility felt like action — an action that I fully support. The only time I saw the crowd part was to let an emergency vehicle through; otherwise, members of the group stood back and helped guide vehicles to turn around and provide directions when necessary. Border patrol agents, without irony, expressed that they were being prevented from going home.
Without national action, national response, these actions mean very little. And if the administration realizes their mistakes and properly reverses the policy and reunites families, activists fear the rest of the country will grow silent once more.
The marches, however, will continue. Concentration camps or not, there is violence at the border perpetuated by an arm of the federal government. If there was one message to take away from these rallies (and the ones that have been organized daily for the past few weeks), it is that protesters are empowered by the national support. But those who have only recently been empowered to defend immigrants’ rights, from Texas to Iowa, must remember — the problem is more systemic than this one policy.
Jo Andreassen currently lives in New Mexico with their wife Becca, husband Per and 2-year-old Sonje. Jo works as an instructor at New Mexico State University where they are finishing their graduate degrees in writing, rhetoric and gender studies. Jo has a background in the mental health and social services field, but focuses most of their days on activism and writing. Born and raised in the rural Iowa countryside, Jo can’t wait to get out of the blistering New Mexico heat and return home to the Midwest. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 246.