Photo by Laura Tillman.

Scenes from the Southern Border: Asylum-Seekers, Border Guards,
Activists and More

"We’re a nation of laws, but the laws should be enforced with heart."

By  Laura Tillman

We sent writer Laura Tillman to the Texas-Mexico border to write and report on the ongoing crisis of family separation taking place under orders from the Trump Administration. As part of her reporting, Ms. Tillman spoke with asylum-seekers, immigration lawyers, customs and border agents, activists, and locals. Her full story will appear tomorrow.

I.
Scene: Catholic Charities shelter in McAllen, Texas.

A family enters the mostly empty shelter: a mother with a one-and-a-half year old girl in her arms and four-year-old boy by her side. They are from Guatemala and they speak K’iche. The mother has a few words in Spanish, enough to explain that it’s not her language. The boy wears adult-size flip-flops, a white t-shirt and oversized basketball shorts. He reaches up, securing his grip on his mother’s arm. The girl hides her frightened face behind a screen of black hair.

“Bienvenidos.” A volunteer approaches them. Welcome. If they’re hungry, there’s food in the other room. There are showers if they’d like to bathe, clothes to change into. A woman with curly gray hair walks over to the boy: there are some toys over there if you’d like to play. He walks with her to the corner play area slowly. “No te preocupes, tu mommy no va a ninguna parte.” Don’t worry, your mommy isn’t going anywhere.

Later in the day a group of detainees arrives at the bus station. On their ankles are black monitors and they are guided to the shelter by volunteers. They walk in looking nervous, glancing around to assess the safety of the situation. The volunteers break into applause. Welcome, welcome, welcome, they say. Some mothers are nursing, some hold sleeping children in their laps. Some kids cry, others gather in a corner to watch The Jungle Book on a big TV. There aren’t enough chairs for everyone, so some sit on the ground.

Reporter: Have you heard that mothers were being separated from their children? What do you think of that?

Honduran Mother: Well, that’s inhuman. It’s inhuman, because a mother will die without her child. And a child without her mother will die, too. I’ll bet you that if they take me away right now and my little girl stays here, that little girl will cry herself to death. It’s something that, I don’t know… that’s how I see it… it’s inhuman. You can’t do that. But we also recognize that we’re breaking the laws here. And laws have to be enforced.

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II.
Scene: Harlingen, Texas restaurant where a group of grassroots organizers, part of the Indivisible movement, meet to further progressive politics in South Texas.

Organizer: The weekend before where the protesters were blocking the bus?

Immigration Attorney: It was on Saturday.

Organizer: I just want to say, it makes me a little uncomfortable. I don’t want to get to the point where we’re being aggressive.

Immigration Attorney: I was there, there was nothing aggressive about that protest. Other than the Border Patrol agents picked up a guy and physically moved him and threw him into the street.

Organizer: I guess what I want to say is I’m hesitant to get into a situation where we’re blocking things… now, I’m ready to lay on the levee in Santa Ana, if the bulldozers were coming, but I’m a little concerned we not start getting down to the level of Trump and the nastiness and like Sarah Sanders being told to leave the restaurant. I mean, that’s the owner’s right. But I don’t know what I would do or how I would feel, but it’s starting—you know—I just don’t want to start getting into a thing where, even though the passions are high, I don’t want to get into that. And, chanting, like with the marchers, that’s fine, I don’t know. It’s already, there’s enough bad feelings amongst people and I just don’t want anyone to have a reason to say “oh, those jerks” about us. I mean, I may feel it inside but I just want to say that, and I don’t know, like this ACLU thing. If it starts getting into where you’re causing other people to become more angry, I don’t know. And I don’t want to sound like I’m not for everything, cause I am.

Immigration Attorney: I think what you’ve described is called civil disobedience. And if you’re willing to lay down in front of a bulldozers cause there’s a wall to be built because you feel that passionately about the wall, there are people that are willing to lay down in front of a bus full of children that immigration has kidnapped from their parents. It’s just different levels—and I can tell you, cause I was at that protest (not to go to the protest, I was at Ursula for some legitimate work reasons, and I had no idea about the protest), it erupted when I was there and I watched the whole event, and about a fourth of the people that were there that sat down in front of a bus.

“Anyone who calls themselves a Christian should not be involved in doing that to children and their parents.”

But then there were 75 percent of the people that were at the protest that surrounded the bus and made loving, kind gestures, prayers that were the most moving and emotional, silent and peaceful way of protesting that I think I have witnessed in a long period of time. Hearts, kids would draw them and they were blowing kisses. There was certainly a contingent that was loud and there was certainly a contingent that used some language that I don’t think was appropriate. There’s no reason to really have a confrontation with individual agents on a personal level, there’s no reason for that. But in terms of the gentleman who started stopping the bus, it was an older man that was—hey, those old folks they came out!—and it was an older man who stood in front of the bus first.

Organizer: There was a person I saw… I saw it streaming, there was a man that was screaming and kind of losing it I thought, and don’t get me wrong, you know, I’m from the 60s, you know. It’s just already our president has set that tone and I just want to say for our groups, I don’t want to start descending to that.

III.
Scene: Woman in HEB Supermarket, shopping for groceries.

Shopper: All I have to do is think about my children and my grandchildren, if I were in the position they were in, how far would I go to ensure their safety? And there’s no limit. And it’s… unbelievable that they’re doing this and getting away with it, and even more than that they’re hiding from the American people and from some of the lawmakers exactly what’s going on in those places. I’m from Conroe, been here for 15 years. I want to run down there and get all those babies and bring them to my house and love them and feed them and take care of them. This was their country first—we stole it from them. Just like we stole the rest of America from the Indians, and it’s horrible that now they have to swim the river full of barracuda and whatever else is in there just to get back to their own country. It’s just un-American to me. I’m a third-generation immigrant myself and my family, and I just don’t… it violates everything to me that America is about.

All the people that I talk to in this area and a lot of them in the areas I grew up close to the Texas-Louisiana border and I was born in California and Conroe, Montgomery County, they feel the same way. The biggest percentage of the people are outraged. The ones that holler the loudest are the ones that really don’t care one way or the other. I think the reasons they say why they’re doing it—I think they’re telling a big lie and they expect us all to be stupid enough to believe it, but I don’t! I don’t and I’m just really upset about it.

I think he wants that damn wall and I think it’s what almost all of the news media said: he wants that wall and he’s willing to take children hostage to get it. And I hope they don’t ever raise a stone of it. Besides which, if you look at the one in California and San Diego, they were climbing over the top of it. So, what’s a wall gonna do? If you want to get here bad enough, you’ll get here. Actually, I think the news media is trying to be honest with the people and tell them the truth about what’s going on, but I think the politicians are trying to cover up what’s going on. I don’t believe that the people that come here are informed before they come here because they are trying to escape something horrible to get here. And when they come here they find out it’s the same. It seems to me that if it were me in their shoes I would feel pretty hopeless. Now on the… if it’s people that come here and they’ve committed crimes and they can’t pass a background check, I understand that. But mothers and fathers that are trying to escape whatever it is they’re running from, and I know there’s a lot of bad things going on in the countries they’re coming from, I don’t see how anyone with a heart… like Melania Trump said—we’re a nation of laws, but the laws should be enforced with heart. That’s how I believe. That’s just what I believe. I look at Channel 5, I look at CNN a lot, and MSNBC. If I had my way about it, Fox News would be thrown off the air. But then we’d be violating freedom of the press, so we can’t do that. That’s just my personal feelings. I think their mouths all need to be washed out with soap! Cause they don’t know the truth from a hole in the ground. That’s just the way I feel about it.

I know a lot of people in this area, I’ve been here long enough to know how things are with regard to that. I’ve seen how these people have been treated, I see where they live. And it’s just unbelievable, makes me want to sit down and cry. My husband and I, we say our prayers at night, we pray for every last one of ‘em. Cause it’s just unacceptable to me as an American and a human being and anyone who calls themselves a Christian should not be involved in doing that to children and their parents. Just because their mommas and daddies want to save them from the terrible things that are happening in their own country. I don’t think it’s just the United States that should be responsible, I think Mexico and the whole world should be. We’re supposed to be each other’s brothers! We all came from the same place and the same God. I just don’t understand, I don’t understand it.

Reporter is approached by supermarket staff and politely asked to stop conducting interviews.

IV.
Scene: Bar on the Brownsville expressway. Reporter sits with two Customs and Border Protection Officers at a table.

Reporter: What would they have to do tell you guys to do where you’d say no? Because there has to be a line in the sand at some point, where you’d say, “I’m not going to do this.” Where do you think that would be for you guys, where they’d tell you something and you’d say no?

Officer One: Number one, I wouldn’t worry about that because the United States has checks and balances. I don’t think everything would ever get to the point where we can have a full dictator. When it gets to that point we would be (doing something) to innocent people for no reason, you know. Like, putting them in… what can I say? No… I don’t think… I don’t know.

Officer Two: Like in harm’s way?

Officer One: Like in harm’s way, like we’re going to actually take their lives. An innocent person’s life. I’d be like, “no, this is it.” But as far as, uh, I don’t ever worry about that because there are so many checks and balances out there, it’s like, it’s not a dictatorship. There’s no way that stuff like, crazy, like the Holocaust would happen here. But I would never, when it comes to the point of physically putting someone’s life in danger, possibly take their life, throwing them without food or whatever? I’m not denying anybody food, water, stuff like that? No.

Officer Two: We’re allowed to question our superiors also. We don’t have to just be like robots. If they tell me to take that guy down, kick him, if this guy doesn’t deserve it, or if I know that, from my perspective, he’s not a threat to me, I’ll tell him no. I’m not gonna do it.

Reporter: Have you been in that position?

Officer Two: No, because they’re smart enough to know that they can get in trouble. They have their superiors they have to answer to. And they have theirs and so on.

Officer One: Plus, there’s cameras everywhere now. There’s cameras everywhere.  So there’s not…

Officer Two: Actually, customer service is a big deal now with the federal government. It’s kind of crazy, you have to be professional and you have to be… you can’t just be shouting out obscenities, you have to be composed. Even if they’re spitting on you or whatever you have to actually hold back and try to use reasonable force. Once you control it, that’s it. It stops.

Laura Tillman
Laura Tillman
Laura Tillman is a journalist and the author of The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts: Murder and Memory in an American City, which was published by Scribner in 2016. She began her career at The Brownsville Herald and has written for The Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, The Nation and Pacific Standard/, among others. She lives in Mexico City where she is at work on her next book.





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