Three weeks ago, one of my closest friends shared what she called “good news” with me. After weeks of unplanned unemployment, she had finally been offered a decent-paying job with the local non-profit Southwest Key. She was excited and relieved.
Immediately after the news though, I had serious doubts—doubts based on the deeply corrosive effects that such purported benefits actually have on our community.
I had heard of Southwest Key. Just days earlier, I had seen friends on Facebook spreading the word about job openings there. Weeks before I spoke to my close friend, I had talked to a person who recently quit her job with BCFS, another organization which, like Southwest Key, is also in the business of immigrant children detention. She shared with me what she perceived as the disconnect between the charitable image that organizations like BCFS portray versus what she described as extremely restrictive and jail-like conditions. From the snacks they ate to restroom trips, she told me everything was constantly surveilled, monitored, and evaluated. One time, she actually saw a child being taken somewhere in restraints.
It had been years since my childhood friend and I lived in the same city. Although we had still managed to remain close, the distance had prevented us from engaging in many personal, as well as political, conversations. After years of being away from home and away from her, I felt I should be nuanced in my response. But at the forefront of my mind was also the fact that I had definitely seen Southwest Key’s name appear in deportation and detention datasheets before.
Although I trusted her, I worried that working in a facility dedicated to the detention of immigrant children would inevitably transform her into a cog in the machine.
I pushed my usual politeness aside and told her upfront that I didn’t think working with Southwest Key was a good idea. She listened, but ultimately retorted that she had other friends, “good people,” that worked there. And wouldn’t it be better to have good people–people who cared about the children–in those facilities? And, after all, she needed the job.
About a week later, the video of Senator Jeff Merkley being denied entry to Southwest Key Casa Padre went viral.
For the rest of the month, I sent my friend every investigative piece and every whistleblower video on Southwest Key that I came across. She never responded.
Even so, I kept sending her articles. It felt as though there was too much pain and suffering happening around us, literally just a few miles away, to casually shrug off her “good news.”
A Two-Month Snapshot of Border News
In May, Attorney General Jeff Sessions introduced the Trump administration’s infamous “zero tolerance” policy, making public its intent to prosecute immigrant and refugee parents caught entering the U.S. without inspection and to take their children from them. The first national story about zero tolerance immigrant mass trials broke from Brownsville, Texas.
Day after day, chilling account after account surfaced of mothers whose children were taken from them by physical force or cruel deception. Then, on June 9, only two weeks short of Father’s Day, the Washington Post broke news of the death of Marco Antonio Muñoz, a Honduran father who arrived at the U.S. border with his family to seek asylum and who committed suicide in a Starr County jail cell after suffering a mental breakdown following forceful separation from his 3-year-old son.
On May 23, a (still unnamed) Laredo Sector Border Patrol agent shot to death Claudia Patricia Gomez Gonzalez, a 19-year-old unarmed undocumented immigrant, further fueling anger towards the agency.
I wish that I could say that I was completely shocked with these developments, with each new story of a child torn away from their parent. But I wasn’t. At least not initially.
Obviously, I found the fact that the Trump administration had openly and brashly declared the practice of literally ripping children from their parent’s arms a public policy beyond morally reprehensible. But I grew up on the border. Over years I have learned that, in an extreme manner, this is where the rubber meets the road, where the consequences of nationalistic and anti-immigrant rhetoric play out and translate into 18-foot high border fences. And where abuse, though hidden or disguised, abounds.
It’s been hard not to get desensitized. As a U.S. citizen, my privilege affords me that luxury.
But there was another reason that the news didn’t completely surprise me. Despite the unprecedented mass-scale violence which families and children arriving at the border are now facing, such violence is not all that new.
In May, the American Civil Liberties Union released a report documenting the chilling experiences of “unaccompanied” children held in Border Patrol custody from 2009 to 2014. One of the documents the report was based on notes that approximately “15 percent of these children reported being separated from other family members.” Similarly, although Claudia’s murder was completely egregious, her fate was not atypical. At least 83 people have been killed by Border Patrol agents since 2010.
Still, several days after the original announcement, I was mindlessly scrolling through my Facebook feed when I came across an image. It was a young, brown girl. She looked about three or four years old. She was crying, her face clenched, arms clinging to her mother’s neck. She stared, visibly scared, towards the Border Patrol agent in front of her.
That image shook me.
Seeing it forced me to re-familiarize myself with a fact that some border residents have always known or suspected, but which they’ve learned throughout the years to push aside. The fact is, what’s happening here really isn’t normal. This isn’t normal.
That image opened up a Pandora’s box I had unconsciously shut. It was filled to the brim with questions about my community and its way of life.
Coincidentally, this happened at about the same time my friend first talked to me about the job offer with Southwest Key.
Every time she and I met up in person, I couldn’t help but bring up the dozens of immigration articles and video clips I was coming across. After Senator Merkley revisited the Rio Grande Valley with Democratic colleagues, I shared with her how weird it was to have the CNN, AP, the New York Times, and basically all the major media sprawling around town, consciously and unconsciously exposing the contradictions of border communities like ours, and the harsh immigration enforcement practices that play out here.
“Have you thought about dropping the job?” I’d ask her. Most of the time she sighed and said she was still thinking about it. One day she said she didn’t want to think about it anymore, and she asked me to drop the subject for the rest of the week. She said I was giving her too much anxiety.
A week later, she told me about her financial situation, how she was running out of money, no savings to fall back on, and the mounting anxiety she was experiencing from applying for several jobs but still not hearing back. She said she was considering showing up to Southwest Key and giving it a shot, at least until she saw something there that made her question the organization.
She’d been offered almost $20 an hour, more than twice the minimum wage. She had college loans and bills to pay. She needed to eat.
Outside of the food and retail sector or hard manual labor, she and I both knew how limited job opportunities are in the Rio Grande Valley. As a college graduate, she wasn’t even sure that a fast-food place or the local Walmart would hire her.
I felt incredibly conflicted. On the one hand, I wanted to assure my best friend that everything would work out— though I couldn’t say how or when. But part of me also wanted to warn her I that I feared her decision to work at Southwest Key could severely strain our relationship— that what she did or didn’t do for her daytime job would always be a question on my mind.
How did we get here?
In the newspapers, on TV, and even in paid Facebook advertisements, many of our politicians are calling the attacks on immigrant communities a Trump-created crisis. Given the Trump administration’s blatant racism, open vitriol, and unprecedented attacks on immigrant and refugee communities, it’s tempting to agree.
But I think the labeling is inaccurate.
Trump and his administration are undoubtedly dangerous to the multi-faceted and multi-ethnic Rio Grande Valley. But Trump is not the only danger. There is danger within our own communities.
A terrible fire threatens to consume our communities. But the way I see it, all that Trump, Sessions, and his administration’s cronies ever did was pour gas onto a conflagration that’s been smoldering for over two decades. To place the blame entirely on Trump is to ignore the role which local officials, of both parties, have played in getting us to the point we are at today.
When the news broke of children at the border being separated from parents, many of our local officials, including Congressman Filemon B. Vela, Congressman Vicente Gonzalez, and Congressman Henry Cuellar, expressed concern for the families. Nevertheless, many of these same officials have contributed to the violence happening now, by creating, among other things, a false distinction between the violence that immigrant and refugee communities suffer and those who actually perpetuate it. They’ve done this by continuously lauding the Border Patrol and by ensuring increasing funding to that agency, even as abuse allegations and complaints of misconduct accumulate and predominate.
Since 1986, over $263 billion have been spent on border security and enforcement measures. Since the creation of the Department of Homeland Security in 2003, the Border Patrol’s budget has more than doubled, from $5.9 billion to $13.2 billion per year.
Our local leaders and Congress members have all previously supported large “border security” bills. Through the years, they’ve even funneled millions of dollars in grants, through programs like Operation Stonegarden, to local police departments willing to up their cooperation with Border Patrol.
Most recently, in February, Congressman Vela introduced H.R. 4940, a bill which would hire 500 more Border Patrol agents each year “until the agency is fully staffed.”
How do we square these actions?
Is it logical to tweet or talk about how #FamiliesBelongTogether, but simultaneously fund the agencies which are historically and, currently, literally responsible for ripping families apart? Or is it dissonance?
Social Normalization and Desensitization
Unfortunately, such situations and contradictions occur not just at the political level. In the Rio Grande Valley, they also seep into the deepest pores of our social psyche.
Take, for example, our relationship with Border Patrol.
In June, I published an article about abuse complaints by unaccompanied immigrant children, made against Border Patrol agents in the Rio Grande Valley Sector.
To be clear, most of them remain “allegations.” That’s one part of the problem: because the organizations responsible for investigating these complaints are unable or unwilling to do timely, independent, investigations, most of the complaints never made it past the “allegation” stage. As a result, despite horrific allegations—from threats about making a child the “wife” of another detainee to several complaints of verbal and physical abuse, including forcing a 13-year-old boy to sit in a freezing holding cell for 24 hours with nothing but his boxers—almost 96 percent of all complaints end up with no action taken.
The Department of Homeland Security agencies who investigate abuse complaints almost always conclude that the allegations are unfounded, even though child-abuse experts maintain that children seldom lie about abuse, especially if it is sexual.
Unfortunately, as most survivors of child abuse and followers of the #MeToo movement know, it can be nearly impossible to prove abuse. This is especially so when the abusers are influential, powerful, or otherwise protected by the institutions surrounding them.
Any allegation of abuse is concerning. In the Rio Grande Valley, the massive number of complaints raise serious concerns.
After all, the agents against whom these complaints are being lodged are not strangers to us. They live with us, in our communities. They are the uniformed people we spot at the restaurant we frequent for lunch. They drive alongside us on our way to work. They attend career fairs at our high schools and colleges, attempting to recruit us. They visit schools, talking to elementary-aged children about how they’re here to “protect us.”
They’re even present for holiday celebrations. This year at Charro Days, a bi-national cultural celebration, Border Patrol–the same agency responsible for separating 2,400 children from their parents—literally paraded down Elizabeth Street on foot, on horseback, and on a yacht float filled with smiling brown children dressed in traditional Mexican attire.
What will we do?
When I was younger, I couldn’t understand how something like the Nazi regime could happen. As an adult, I understand that fascism didn’t happen overnight. It didn’t even happen solely during Nazi Germany. It happened over several years: the gradual dehumanization of people, the policies and propaganda aimed at deceiving and simultaneously appeasing their audience. Back then, Nazi leaders and the Gestapo were revered, respected. They, too, were “law enforcement.” They, too, were “just doing their job.” They were there to “protect,” and their officers had great power. Not just because they had guns, but also because they occupied a protected, enshrined, spot in society. When they came home from “work,” nobody batted an eye. Nobody questioned them or their official version of what they did.
National media is getting ready to pack up its bags. When the next news cycle kicks in, they’ll forget about us, and so will the rest of the country. But we’ll still be here. And so will the painful questions and contradictions that we navigate each day.
Today, more than half of Border Patrol agents are Latinx. Locally, Southwest Key, BCFS and other child detention centers provide thousands of job to friends and family. In some smaller cities like Los Fresnos, immigrant children detention centers were literally the second-largest employers. In the poverty-ridden border communities of the Rio Grande Valley, these agencies provide the highest-paying and most stable jobs that people with papers or citizenship can get.
But, at what cost?
Can any number of drug confiscations ever justify ripping a child from their parent’s arms? Can they justify the trauma inflicted on that child? Can they justify the death of Marco Antonio Munoz? How will we justify to ourselves the fact that siblings separated from their parents by our government are prohibited from hugging each other?
These are the difficult questions that regions like ours need to deal with. They touch all of us who live at the border: journalists, who should question whose statements they believe and promote; parents, who must ask what it means to have Border Patrol at their child’s school; business and restaurant owners who never bat an eye when serving Border Patrol; and, perhaps most important, the people who are just “doing their job” or “following orders.”
A Small Sigh of Relief
Two days ago, I met up with my friend for food and drinks. I was trying my best not to ask about her decision regarding Southwest Key. At least, not as the conversation starter.
While eating wings and chatting about the World Cup, she changed the subject. “Southwest Key called. They needed some paperwork. I told them it wouldn’t be necessary.” She said she wasn’t taking the job.
“I just couldn’t ignore it anymore,” she told me.
I felt the air I didn’t know I had been holding in leave my body.
Our region has many painful questions and contradictions to deal with. The recent media limelight has made this starkly clear, to me and many of the people around me. Fortunately, what my friend does to make a living will not raise more of these issues.