The last time I was in El Paso, Texas, I swore I’d never come back. That was 15 years ago. With all the passion of teenage angst, I full heartedly believed I was going to leave and never come home. As I approach the city, 20 minutes from landing, the irony of my return is not lost on me. The same city I was desperate to flee is now at the heart of an immigration crisis filled with Mexican citizens, Central Americans and other immigrant populations desperate for entry.
It’s 5PM MST Friday, June 22nd as I touch down in Texas. It’s been almost a week since the media firestorm of President Trump’s “separation ban” became the singular conversation, dominating the airways and our social media feeds. No Cohen, no Russia; silence about North Korea, zero talk of guns and even conversation of mid term elections halted. What was so powerful that is stopped a nation in its tracks? Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know it’s been images of children being taken out of their mother’s arms, families being ripped apart at the border, audio of screams from young babies – it took us all out of our busy lives and into the center of the immigration issue facing our country.
Far removed from the bright lights of Los Angeles and my career in entertainment, I grew up adjacent to (at one point) the most dangerous and violent city in the world, Juarez Mexico. In fact, as teens, we often snuck across the border of our country’s safest city per capita for the allure of the Mexican nightlife, the ability to underage drink and have fun. The truth is, the influence of our two communities was always present economically, socially, and culturally. The Juarez/El Paso border, which combined makes a population of 2.7M people, was a melting pot that thrived. It was not uncommon for Mexican nationals to cross over and work in our community, shop in our stores and vice versa. Stories of immigration and first generation Americans were a badge of honor to our community and a tribute to the United States’ adage of “the American dream”. It was happening right in front of our eyes and we were proud to be a diverse community that set an example for the rest of our country. What changed? I needed to know, I had to understand what was happening.
I came into this thinking I knew everything. A racist, xenophobic President had corrupted our border policy, used our government workers to carry out his divisive agenda (which they heartlessly did) deporting immigrants in droves or detaining them in the federal system, whilst their children have been snatched away to fend for themselves, all in ploy to convince the American people they were being rescued from gangs and cartels that were born out of these countries and infiltrating the US. What I learned is I knew very little, in fact, I was just scratching the surface. It was far worse then I could have imagined, with the caveat of some very sympathetic characters for which I had neglected to see.
In the two days I spent in El Paso, I made it my mission to speak with anyone and everyone I could, from a concerned group of mothers, to politicians, nonprofit organizers, immigration lawyers, ICE and Border Patrol employees, federal probation officers, migrant workers and asylum seekers so I could justify my beliefs, rationalize my anger and better understand this immigration policy. It’s interesting what you learn if you’re open to it. Not everything or everyone is what it seems.
“I value my job in today’s economy and you perform the duties you’ve been hired to do even if you don’t agree”, says one ICE officer to me on private direct message. She reached out to me, because she wanted to humanize the officers at the frontlines, “it does not mean we are not sympathetic”. She agrees separating families is “inhumane”, as she is a daughter of two immigrant parents, but was born in El Paso, raised here and received her education and “sees how blessed” she is. Both her parents were awarded citizenship and granted amnesty. I speak to a cousin of border patrol officer, who tells me a story of a four-year-old boy crossing the border alone running up to him, grateful he’s made it across. As this agent turns this immigrant child over to officials, he holds back tears, as he knows the chance of ever seeing his family again is slim. “There’s a chance his mom sent him alone so that he would have a chance at a better life, or that she’s already crossed over and is living undocumented and will be unreachable, but maybe she’s in the system, but with 99% of amnesty cases being denied, it’s unlikely these two will end up together. The real question we should be asking, is why do families think it is the best option to risk all of those things than stay in their country?” He goes on to say we have lost our focus on “humanity”. I speak to a probation officer overseeing cases at the federal level, who laments that “we have lost the dignity in immigration”. It becomes clear to me, there’s a bigger crisis happening here and yet, while people feel this way, everyone I speak to is afraid to speak out and requests anonymity and privacy to protect their families and their jobs.
I sit down with Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, a non profit that provides legal aid to migrants fighting for amnesty, as well as Annunciation House, an emergency shelter that only intakes non US citizens while they wait for judgment in their asylum cases. “These countries of origin are so dangerous that even knowing that they will likely face separation or detainment, they are willing to because is less of a risk then staying” say Linda, attorney for Las Americas. I ask her about the level of violent offenders entering the US from Central America and Mexico; “very very few” she says. The ICE employees I spoke to, Border Patrol agents and City Councilmen Paul Svarzbien second this sentiment. In fact, councilmen Svarzbien goes on to say that gangs, specifically MS-13, which we continually hear in the media was actually “formed in Los Angeles by El Salvador immigrants seeking refuge from Mexican gangs, which we then deported to El Salvador, destabilizing their country”. A systematic unhinging of foreign territories, a concept that we are not unaccustomed to (think the Middle East). Federal agents echo this bombshell as well. I actually hear this everywhere. Wait a minute, I thought we were trying to keep these people out, but low and behold they were formed here? “Absolutely”, I hear from everyone. “And they aren’t trying to come back in”, says this federal officer, “why would they?” I come to understand that these gangs and cartels are running rampant in their own countries and are perfectly happy that way. Why would they want to give up the money, the power, the control they have? They wouldn’t. The governments are even in bed with these activates and so they thrive. Who doesn’t? The civilians. “Which is why, they are crossing over seeking asylum and trying to work in the United States, because their countries are too dangerous,” says Kyle from the Annunciation House.
So, we have a large population of migrant workers trying to seek refuge in the United States, because the gangs we deported to Central America are so dangerous that the government is completely unable to control their country and we have detained and separated innocent people trying to better themselves in our country, which was founded by immigrants and has policy under the Refugee Act of 1980, which allows asylum seekers to reside as refugees? My mind is blown. And everyone here knows this no matter what side of the situation they’re on. So, why don’t the rest of the American people? And why are we building detainment facilities that are costing $300 -$700 a person per day, instead of spending that money helping our border cities stabilize their countries, so that we don’t have an influx of immigrants in our country? And why are we detaining these people anyway? An alternative solution, that has a resounding approval from everyone I spoke to is n “Intensive Supervision Program” allowing immigrants to work, pay taxes in this country, boost the economy and be monitored until their asylum is granted or they’re deported. We already know over 75% of immigrants requesting entry to the US show up to their court appointed meetings and have criminal conviction rate 85% lower then native-born citizens.
As I listen to a woman trying to find her son, fighting for asylum, she tells me she “loved her country”, that if she could she would “go back”. I hear this not only once, or twice, but also with the majority of cases. I try to understand why everyone in El Paso seems to know this history of this crisis and the background of all verticals. “We were the testing ground”, says Linda. “When Sessions formalized this policy in April 2018 creating mass separation it started in El Paso”, and the concept was new to The Immigration Reform and Responsibility Act that Clinton signed into policy in 1996, which I commonly hear from critics of liberal activists. While there were issues with both Clinton and Obama’s policies Linda conceded, “we did not see mass separation under this Zero Tolerance Policy”.
So where does this leave us? A robust and complex immigration crisis, a broken system, a divided country and a fight for human dignity are where. This matter is not simple at all. We have families who want to thrive in their community, but don’t have the security to do so, a government who is imprisoning humans for trying to thrive, an economy that is dependent on the integration of migrant populations, law enforcement who is reconciling their position with their conscious and people dedicating their lives to the humane and ethical treatment of all people no matter their race, religion, class or socioeconomic status.
As I head back to California, I am left with more questions then I had before. I learned that I really was very ignorant to these systemic issues that have created a crisis not only in this country, but also in the countries of origin to these migrants’ populations. Admittedly, there is no quick and easy solution, but we all agree that we cannot lose sight of humanity. Just as the protection of the federal agents, ICE employees and border patrol officers are inherent to their ability to thrive in our country and speaking out against the government or even publically addressing their concerns risks their livelihood, so does that of our brothers and sisters abroad. Only, they have no government to listen, they have no options, they have lost their safety and security, the ability to thrive and the opportunity to survive.
As the plane departs at 5PM MST on Sunday June 24th, I am not entirely sure where to go from here or what will happen to the 2,000 separated families, to the incoming migrant workers and asylum seekers, or how our country unifies in order to aid in the displacement of these people. I don’t know how the federal agents, politicians, and government employees continue to do their job and navigate their own personal conflicts. However, I do leave with a new love of the city I grew up in. The strength of it’s people, the unification of race and diversity and the willingness to rally around for the basic human rights of all citizens emboldens me more then ever. As this community stands on the frontlines of immigration policy and reform, all sides of this conversation converge into one echoing, resounding sentiment: that dignity and humanity have been lost in immigration and we have to get it back. I walk away knowing, this time I will be back and I won’t stop coming back. I take with me the tenants of El Pasoans that the best response to ignorance is education and conversation.
Photography By: Rosalie Agency