To Be A Witness | Reflections on Witness At Tornillo and Targeting El Paso

Posted on January 9, 2020

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To Be A Witness

REFLECTIONS


Last night. Congregation Etz Chayim in partnership with Spark Church hosted a film screening of Witness at Tornillo. You can see the film trailer below, and host your own screening by visiting Tugg. The event was another installment in our work at understanding the current issues around immigration and advocating for a just and human approach to our policies. Josh Rubin, the film’s protagonist, was present and fielded several questions from the audience. It was a really meaningful event.

“Witness at Tornillo” Trailer:

Over and again, the practice of “witnessing” was the paramount theme, the avenue of activism most readily available to the widest of audiences, and one of the most powerful means by which we begin to see our humanity and the humanity of others. Rubin talked about using his eyes to communicate. The seemingly unremarkable act of seeing and being seen was testified by those held captive as one of the most powerful moments of hope and vindication. Rabbi Chaim spoke of the Shema, the central prayer in Judaism having two letters enlarged, the “ayin,” (ע) and “dalet,” (ד) which spell the word “eid” (עד) meaning “witness.”

It is reminder that to see and to be seen is a profound act of subversion and resistance. It is one of the most basic emotional, psychological, and spiritual needs of our humanity. To “witness,” is to connect across chasms, and to feel across boundaries. And that the act of seeing requires light, to witness is paradoxically contingent upon light and is light itself.

In that spirit, I followed up the evening by watching (“witnessing”) Frontline’s Targeting El Paso. I sometimes wonder what watching documentaries actually does in the world. I sometimes wonder what real difference it makes. I confess, I don’t think very much, at least in the grand scheme of things. The analytical part of me recognizes I will never know. However, in concert with my other post, A Confession, Lament, and Hope in Showing Up | Reflections From My Public Protest, if I understand that my attention given to programs such as these and stories such as Dariana’s below as witnessing, I can be encouraged that my actions are adding to the global work of bearing witness. Frontline’s viewing statistics went up by one. My authority (“cred”) in speaking about such things increases commensurate with my knowledge, understanding, and involvement in witnessing. And, my writing and posting here is in that same spirit, and for those same ends.

So, to the immigrant/migrant who is locked in a cage, I see you.

To the nationalist who is attempting to hide bigotry behind patriotism, I see you.

To the journalist who takes risks to bring the stories to the world, I see you.

To the citizen who voices dissent for the sake of justice, I see you.

To the politicians who perpetuate and permit human rights violations, who have eyes but refuse to see, I see you.

To the government employee who is stuck between a job and a heart, I see you.

To the suffering and grieved families of victims of violence spurred on by hatred, I see you.

And, to the few who subscribe and actually read this blog, I see you. And, you are now witnesses. Thank you for adding your eyes to these efforts. Thank you for bearing witness.


Targeting El Paso

TRANSCRIPT


Frontline, PBS. Targeting El Paso.
August 3, 2019

MALE VOICE ON VIDEO:

[Speaking Spanish] One injured. We have an injured person here, laying there by the stand that the school set up. An injured man.

Oh, no!

MALE BYSTANDER:

Where’s the ambulance? [inaudible] Help!

FEMALE BYSTANDER:

Hey, we need CPR, we need CPR!

MALE BYSTANDER:

Help!

FEMALE BYSTANDER:

We need CPR! We need CPR!

MALE BYSTANDER:

Help!

FEMALE BYSTANDER:

Help me turn him over! Help me!

MALE POLICE ON RADIO:

We need tactical units to go ahead and start responding to the Walmart.

All TAC units, investigative units, please make it to the west side of Walmart, please.

MARTIN SMITH, Correspondent:

The first call came from a Walmart on the U.S.-Mexican border at 10:39 a.m.

The killing spree lasted several minutes. Twenty-two people—dead.

Many of the victims were Mexican Americans. Eight were from El Paso’s sister city, Juárez.

ROBERT MOORE, Texas Monthly:

I know that Walmart really well, and I know who shops there. It’s a very popular destination for Mexican shoppers coming legally across the border.

MALE POLICE OFFICER:

Hands up! Hands up!

ROBERT MOORE:

So I knew the place was going to be packed with Mexican shoppers, and also with El Paso families, because school was getting back in session.

MALE POLICE OFFICER:

Go! Go! Go! Come on!

MALE NEWSCASTER:

This is now one of the top 10 deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history.

MALE NEWSCASTER:

The suspect, alive in police custody—

MARTIN SMITH:

The suspect was Patrick Crusius of Allen, Texas.

What did you learn about the shooter at that time?

DEE MARGO, Mayor, El Paso (R):

Not from El Paso—700 miles away in the Dallas area. I heard about his diatribe, his screed, whatever you want to call it. I did see that. He said he fully expected to die. And in reality, he surrendered as a coward.

MARTIN SMITH:

A four-page manifesto appeared online 19 minutes before the attack.

ANGELA KOCHERGA, Albuquerque Journal:

If you look at his rant, he chose El Paso because this is where the “Hispanic invasion of Texas” is happening. “They’re taking our jobs, they’re coming to replace us.” The gunman, when he was taken into custody, told police, “I came here to kill Mexicans.”

MALE VOICE:

Mic check test, 1, 2, 3, 3, 2, 1, 1, 2, 3, 3, 2, 1. Everyone good?

GOV. GREG ABBOTT (R):

Thank you all for joining with us here today. My name is Greg Abbott, I’m the governor of Texas, and I want to let you know: Texas grieves for the people of El Paso today.

GREG ABBOTT:

I ask that you keep El Pasoans in your prayers.

We know the power of prayer and the power that you can have by using that prayer.

MARTIN SMITH:

In the first hours after the attack, Gov. Abbott was reluctant to call the shooting a hate crime.

GREG ABBOTT:

Bottom line is mental health is a large contributor to any type of violence or shooting violence. We know that’s a component to shootings that take place in schools. I think that is a fact—

ROBERT MOORE:

Gov. Abbott talked about how these things are always connected to mental illness.

GREG ABBOTT:

—challenging mental health-based issues—

ROBERT MOORE:

He couldn’t even bring himself to utter the phrase “hate crime” in the press conference.

By this point, everybody was aware of the manifesto. Everybody is kind of tap dancing around this. And so I just got as loud as I could and deliberately chose to ask the question to Rep. Escobar.

The 800-pound gorilla in this room that nobody is talking about right now is the hate-crime nexus related to immigration.

And she was the only one at that point who had the courage to call this for what it was.

REP. VERONICA ESCOBAR, D-Texas:

The manifesto narrative is fueled by hate. And it’s fueled by racism and bigotry and division. This is someone who came from outside of our community to do us harm; a community that has shown nothing but generosity and kindness to the least among us: those people arriving at America’s front door.

MARTIN SMITH:

Later that day, Gov. Abbott said that the shooting would be prosecuted as a hate crime.

Are you from El Paso?

FEMALE SPEAKER:

Yes, I’m from El Paso.

MARTIN SMITH:

How do you make sense of this?

FEMALE SPEAKER:

I never thought this would happen in our city. I do feel heartbroken for the families, especially for the babies, because I have four of my own. So, it’s going to take some time to heal.

MALE SPEAKER:

[Speaking Spanish] This is very bad. These people came from so far away. But we will stay united.

FEMALE SPEAKER:

I’m Hispanic. I’ve lived here for 73 years and it really, really hurts, you know? Because I don’t hate you. You’re white, I’m brown. To me everybody’s the same, and it really hit home. It doesn’t matter where you come from.

MARTIN SMITH:

A few days later, I met with Rep. Veronica Escobar, a third-generation El Pasoan.

VERONICA ESCOBAR:

Welcome. Yeah, welcome to El Paso.

MARTIN SMITH:

Thank you, thank you. It’s been a hell of a week.

VERONICA ESCOBAR:

Yeah. Horrible.

I just got back from the hospital. Those folks endured so much—

MARTIN SMITH:

You still have some in critical condition?

VERONICA ESCOBAR:

There sure are.

MARTIN SMITH:

When did you start to make a connection between what was unfolding at Walmart and all of the rhetoric that’s been directed at migrants over the last couple of years?

VERONICA ESCOBAR:

When I heard about the alleged manifesto, and it was already online; it was starting to spread like wildfire, and it was clear that in that manifesto there were things that had been said by Fox News, by other politicians and by the person with the biggest bully pulpit, the loudest voice in this country, the president.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists—and some I assume are good people.

So with immigration, you better be smart, and you better be tough, and they’re taking your jobs, and you better be careful.

We have people trying to come in; we’re stopping a lot of them. But we’re taking people out of the country. You wouldn’t believe how bad these people are. These aren’t people—these are animals.

This is an invasion! When you see these caravans starting out with 20,000 people, that’s an invasion. But how do you stop these people? You can’t. There’s no—

“Shoot them.”

AUDIENCE:

[Laughter]

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

That’s only in the Panhandle you can get away with that statement.

MARTIN SMITH:

We asked the Trump administration to provide an official who could speak to us about immigration.

KEN CUCCINELLI, Acting director, Citizenship and Immigration Services:

We have a crisis at the southern border, and this is just one of the many responses—

MARTIN SMITH:

They arranged an interview with Ken Cuccinelli, someone who backs the president’s tough rhetoric.

The rhetoric used by the president, and by yourself, in referring to immigrants has been extremely harsh. How much does that, do you think, contribute to what we saw happen at Walmart in El Paso?

KEN CUCCINELLI:

I don’t think it contributes at all to something like that happening. This is a person who’s got boiling hatred and committing domestic terrorism, that’s what that is. That’s not caused by rhetoric. That’s a long thought-out decision, as we saw with this evil individual’s manifesto.

MARTIN SMITH:

That manifesto used language that was echoing what was being used by the president and on Fox News and other sources.

KEN CUCCINELLI:

You know, on the other side of this debate we hear Nazi allusions and we hear concentration camp comments, but I reject the connection between public debate, even tough public debate, and acts of violence.

FEMALE NEWSCASTER:

Authorities say the shooter drove 10 hours to get to this Walmart here in El Paso. This city is 80% Latino and it’s at the center of a national debate—

MARTIN SMITH:

I arrived in El Paso last May, three months before the attack at Walmart.

MALE NEWSCASTER:

—the death toll now rising—

MARTIN SMITH:

I came here to understand why this border crossing was suddenly seeing a dramatic spike in the number of migrants.

I wanted to understand how President Trump was handling this surge. Critics charge the president’s approach and his rhetoric have inflamed the crisis.

Feb. 5, 2019

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

The border city of El Paso, Texas, used to have extremely high rates of violent crime.

MARTIN SMITH:

Six months before the attack at Walmart, Trump singled out El Paso in his State of the Union address.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

One of our nation’s most dangerous cities—

MARTIN SMITH:

He exaggerated claims about the crime rate, touting the success of a reinforced fence along the border.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

Now, with a powerful barrier in place, El Paso is one of the safest cities in our country.

MARTIN SMITH:

El Paso’s Republican mayor was quick to respond.

MARTIN SMITH:

The president said, “Immediately after building the wall, El Paso is one of the safest cities in our country.”

DEE MARGO:

My response was, “Yes, we are one of the safest cities in the country, but we had been before the fence went up.” The fence had no direct impact on our overall crime rate.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

Thank you very much, El Paso, thank you very much.

MARTIN SMITH:

President Trump came to El Paso several days after his State of the Union address.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

They’ve been trying to say, “Oh, the wall didn’t make that much—” Well, you take a look at—

MARTIN SMITH:

He disputed the mayor’s assessment, even though El Paso has long been considered one of the safest cities in America, even before the fence was erected.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

But I don’t care whether a mayor is a Republican or a Democrat. They’re full of crap when they say it hasn’t made a big difference.

MARTIN SMITH:

And he just said, “You’re full of crap.”

DEE MARGO:

Well, he did at that time. But irrespective of that, I corrected the record from Day One.

MARTIN SMITH:

Still, El Paso had from the beginning of the Trump administration.

In April 2017, just three months into Trump’s presidency, Jeff Sessions, the attorney general, came to El Paso to address border security.

El Paso, Texas

April 2017

JEFF SESSIONS:

This sliver of land, this is ground zero. This is the front lines and this is where we are making our stand to reduce illegal immigration in America.

CYNTHIA POMPA, Immigration advocate, ACLU of Texas:

What is very frustrating to me is how decisions that are made very far away from here in Washington by people who sometimes haven’t even been here, they are making decisions about the places that we live in. We’ve seen an increase of border wall construction; it’s a monument that says “those who are on the other side of this wall are not welcomed.”

But the reality is that border communities are very welcoming.

Juárez, Mexico

CYNTHIA POMPA:

Juárez and El Paso are sister cities. A lot of us have family on both sides of the border. Many can cross back and forth to come to school, to go to work. For us this is a great place—this is a great place to live.

MARTIN SMITH:

El Paso has also been a place that has been used as a policy testing ground.

DYLAN CORBETT, Hope Border Initiative:

El Paso is used in order to beta test policies that get scaled up and used in other parts of the country. So for instance, El Paso was the first place where the border was hardened and militarized, going all the way back to that time in the ’90s

So whether it’s the wall, whether it’s practices in the court or whether it’s conditions in detention, here in El Paso, we unfortunately have been a laboratory for—in immigration enforcement here on the border.

MARTIN SMITH:

The first policy tested under President Trump followed an executive order calling for a general crackdown on immigration.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

The United States of America gets back control of its borders, gets back its borders.

MARTIN SMITH:

Spurred by the president, El Paso Border Patrol began to criminally prosecute families who crossed through their sector.

Parents were charged with illegal entry and detained.

JESSICA MILES, Immigration attorney:

Suddenly, families coming in claiming asylum were being criminally prosecuted for that for the first time.

MALE BORDER PATROL AGENT:

[Speaking Spanish] Do you have documents?

MARTIN SMITH:

But since children, under law, could not be locked up with their parents, they would be separated and sent to separate facilities.

This was the beginning of “zero tolerance.”

MALE BORDER PATROL AGENT:

Two-four, standby.

RONALD VITIELLO, Acting director, ICE, 2018-19:

It was a local initiative. The leadership in CBP in the field and the U.S. Attorney’s Office were having discussions based on the priorities being outlined in the executive order, and they decided to use that capability and it was essentially their own zero tolerance initiative.

MARTIN SMITH:

Public Defender Sergio Garcia suddenly had five separation cases.

SERGIO GARCIA:

I thought it was just a fluke. I was expecting to have long criminal history in these parents; I was expecting to find some evidence of maybe child trafficking or something, but instead, I found nothing. I found clean records, no prior removals. They had never been here in this country and they were being separated.

MARTIN SMITH:

In Washington, at the Department of Homeland Security’s civil rights division, they were blindsided. Scott Shuchart would eventually leave the department in protest.

Was your office consulted about this policy of family separation?

SCOTT SHUCHART, Adviser, DHS, 2010-18:

No. We got told that there was no such pilot; we got the runaround. CBP still wouldn’t confirm to my office that there was any such thing.

MARTIN SMITH:

A high-ranking officer with El Paso’s Border Patrol union, Wesley Farris, told us he objected to the initiative.

WESLEY FARRIS, National Border Patrol Council, El Paso Sector:

I had to separate children from their parents. That was the most horrible thing I’ve ever done. You can’t help but see your own kids.

MARTIN SMITH:

Well, put us there when you had to do that.

WESLEY FARRIS:

The last one I did, it was a young boy, I think he was about 2. The world was upside down to that kid. So when the contractor tried to take him away, he reached for me and he climbed up on me again and he was holding on to me. And so that one got me a little bit. That was tough.

I said at that one, “I’m not doing this anymore; I won’t do it.” I went back to the supervisor and I told him, “Don’t assign me to do that anymore.”

MARTIN SMITH:

Did you complain up the chain?

WESLEY FARRIS:

Well, I wanted to. I mean, none of us were happy about it. But everybody around me was just doing exactly what—we all were told to do this.

JEFF SESSIONS:

I have put in place a zero-tolerance policy—

MARTIN SMITH:

Then, in May 2018, six months after the El Paso child separation program ended, the Trump administration decided to scale up the program nationally.

FEMALE NEWSREADER:

At least 600 immigrant children were removed from their parents last month.

FEMALE NEWSREADER:

News coming in just now that so far the government has separated 2,000 kids from their parents.

REP. JERRY NADLER, D-N.Y.:

When a stranger rips a child from a parent’s arms without any plan to reunify them, it is called kidnapping.

FEMALE NEWSREADER:

Lawmakers in both parties condemning it as cruel and inhumane—

MARTIN SMITH:

Responding to fierce criticism, President Trump would sometimes defend his policy.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

If we took zero tolerance away, you would be overrun.

MARTIN SMITH:

Other times he would sidestep the controversy and blame it all on Democrats.

MALE REPORTER:

Do you agree with children being taken away from [inaudible] at the border?

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

No, I hate it. I hate the children being taken away. The Democrats have to change their law. That’s their law.

MALE REPORTER:

Sir, that’s not—

MARTIN SMITH:

But ultimately the policy backfired.

PROTESTORS:

[Chanting] Set them free! Set them free! Set them free!

MARTIN SMITH:

After protests nationwide, he reversed course.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

We’re signing an executive order. It’s about keeping families together. Anybody with a heart would feel very strongly about it—we don’t like to see families separated. At the same time, we don’t want people coming into our country illegally. This takes care of the problem. Thank you very much everybody. Thank you.

MALE NEWSREADER:

—in a migrant caravan heading from Central America to the U.S. border right now.

MALE NEWSREADER:

It’s a mass of about 1,000 people—

MARTIN SMITH:

Starting in October 2018, migrants joined together in a human caravan and headed to the U.S.- Mexico border.

FEMALE NEWSREADER:

The largest caravan reportedly made up of more than 4,000 people—

MARTIN SMITH:

Later, President Trump claimed the surge in migrants was a direct a result of canceling zero tolerance.

KEN CUCCINELLI:

People are coming across the border in droves to get into the system because they know that in the aggregate, together, they overwhelm the system and will then be released. That is a threat to our entire system of law and border security.

MALE NEWSREADER:

The caravan grows to an estimated 7,200—

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

We are sending a simple message to the lawless caravans marching toward our border: Turn back now. Go back home. We will not let you in.

MARTIN SMITH:

Human smugglers also saw in Trump’s rhetoric an opportunity.

ANGELA KOCHERGA:

Every time President Trump said, “We’re shutting down the border; the country is full; we’re not allowing anyone in,” that provided wonderful marketing for the coyotes to say, “You better come now. This is your last chance.”

MARTIN SMITH:

The president says the country is full, we can’t take any more people in; that there’s a crisis at the border.

SCOTT SHUCHART:

The president doesn’t care about the law. Our laws allow people to come and seek asylum.

MARTIN SMITH:

The right of refugees to apply for asylum has been protected by a U.S. statute for decades.

JESSICA MILES:

The statute is very clear: Any alien, regardless of how they got here, they are entitled to seek asylum protections. Not entitled to asylum, but they are entitled to go through the process that has been in place.

ROBERT MOORE, El Paso Matters:

It’s pretty clear that most of them don’t meet the traditional definition of asylum seekers. Most of them at root are trying to make lives better for their families. The challenge in Central America in particular becomes that you have all of these issues of violence and government impunity and corruption and gangs and climate change that are all coming together that you can’t just separate from poverty.

MARTIN SMITH:

In El Paso, authorities prepared for the possibility of a caravan by running drills.

When the migrants kept coming, Trump declared a national emergency.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

We’re going to be signing a national emergency to get rid of drugs and gangs and people. It’s an invasion! We have an invasion of drugs and criminals coming into our country.

FEMALE MILITIA MEMBER:

Yes, it is real. Yes, it is in our backyard. Somebody call Border Patrol!

MALE MILITIA MEMBER:

[Speaking Spanish] Sit down! Sit down!

MARTIN SMITH:

One vigilante group, the United Constitutional Patriots, heeded the call to fortify the border and began to livestream their encounters with migrants.

FEMALE MILITIA MEMBER:

Holy cow, you guys, they’re still coming. This is crazy.

MARTIN SMITH:

In this video, hundreds of migrants can be seen crossing near Monument 1, an historic marker next to El Paso.

JIM BENVIE:

An open border at Monument 1. Invasion, guys! Gotta build the wall. Gotta back Trump up. We gotta stop this asylum fraud.

MALE MILITIA MEMBER:

All the way, sit down! All the way!

ANGELA KOCHERGA:

This tends to flare up as rhetoric about the border heats up and there’s concern about large numbers of people coming across, and of course we’ve heard, you know, the word “invasion,” and—

MARTIN SMITH:

You’ve seen direct linkage between the rhetoric heating up in Washington and on the news programs and the emergence of these militias.

ANGELA KOCHERGA:

Well, the militia members will tell you that themselves. “We’re here because our president told us that we need to defend the border.”

April 2019

ANTHONY AGUERO:

[Speaking Spanish] Stop! Get down on the ground!

MARTIN SMITH:

This video was shot by Anthony Aguero, who often patrolled the area with the United Constitutional Patriots.

ANTHONY AGUERO:

[Speaking Spanish] Stop! Get down on the ground! Get down on the ground now!

MARTIN SMITH:

He posted it on Facebook.

ANTHONY AGUERO:

Look at this woman! [Speaking Spanish] Stop! Stop! Sit down! Sit down!

MARTIN SMITH:

The video was viewed over 160,000 times before he deleted it.

ANTHONY AGUERO:

You guys can thank Beto O’Rourke, Veronica Escobar for this crap. All of you watching, you all just became baby daddies to all these motherf—ers here. Come out like roaches, out of everywhere.

JIM BENVIE:

We wouldn’t be here if this wasn’t a national emergency. If the country wasn’t really being invaded, there would be no reason for us to be here.

MARTIN SMITH:

Jim Benvie was the spokesperson for the United Constitutional Patriots.

Stopping migration, that’s your goal, right?

JIM BENVIE:

What my goal is is to document the crisis in hopes that these people will wake up and put their politics to the side. Whether you’re left or right, the country is being invaded. Whether you want to call me racist, or whatever you want to call me, doesn’t matter. This country is being invaded.

MARTIN SMITH:

Later, Benvie invited us out on patrol.

MALE MILITIA MEMBER:

Still got people coming across right there. See them?

JIM BENVIE:

Yeah, they’re coming in. Yeah, let’s go. We got action again!

You guys see what’s going on here? No Border Patrol. This is just us. Anybody speak English?

MALE MILITIA MEMBER:

Hey! [Speaking Spanish] Stop!

BOB MOORE:

You’re talking about people who aren’t trying to evade anything. They want to be taken into custody. And they’re going to sit there and wait for the Border Patrol to come, whether there’s a militia there or not.

MALE MILITIA MEMBER:

[Speaking Spanish] Stop!

JIM BENVIE:

More people crossing. Obviously these people aren’t listening. And we’ve got a group sitting down over here cooperating.

BOB MOORE:

The truth is that although Border Patrol said, “We don’t need their help; we don’t encourage this kind of thing,” Border Patrol agents on the ground have long worked in partnership with these militia organizations. So there’s this “wink and nod” agreement between the militias and the Border Patrol that allows for this operation to go on.

MALE MILITIA MEMBER:

A bunch across the river, right over there.

MALE MILITIA MEMBER:

Yeah, we saw them.

MALE MILITIA MEMBER:

All right.

MARTIN SMITH:

Border Patrol says they do not endorse or condone private groups taking matters into their own hands, but they welcome assistance from the community.

RONALD VITIELLO:

They need the resources to solve the problem as it is currently. The front line is where this work gets done. Imagine coming to work every day and you have a thousand people that are waiting for you to book them into the procedure. That’s a difficult situation for our folks to be in. And it’s unfortunate that it’s not fixed.

MARTIN SMITH:

By May 2019, the situation had reached a breaking point.

In the first five months of 2019, El Paso’s Border Patrol had apprehended over 111,000 migrants, an 800% increase over the previous year.

They were now seeing an unprecedented number of families. In the past they had dealt with mostly single adult males.

WESLEY FARRIS:

Mexican males, mainly. The logistics of dealing with that are much different than they are of dealing with small children or entire family units all together. To put context into that, our facilities have never been updated, and so we still have smaller facilities. And all of a sudden, we were just at max numbers.

MALE BORDER PATROL AGENT:

I have 15 with me.

MARTIN SMITH:

Inside El Paso’s holding facilities there was now no space.

FEMALE NEWSREADER:

It’s numbers like these that had their facilities bursting at the seam, and they say El Paso is seeing the worst of it.

FEMALE NEWSREADER:

Recent inspections found 900 migrants housed in spaces that were only supposed to hold 125. Border Patrol—

MARTIN SMITH:

One 19-year-old Guatemalan, Sebastian, who crossed into El Paso with his siblings, described the conditions inside.

SEBASTIAN:

[Speaking Spanish] They put me in there, they put me in detention. I read a sign that said only 37 people were allowed inside, but they had more than 200 people in there.

I was locked up for eight days, standing all day and night, day and night. You couldn’t sleep because there were so many people. And you suffocate from the heat and all that. You get dizzy. You suffer in there. They treated us worse than animals.

WESLEY FARRIS:

It was not uncommon for a cell designed for 50 people for there to be 100, 200, 300 people in there.

MARTIN SMITH:

So, how do they sleep?

WESLEY FARRIS:

Any way they can, really. If they were going to stand up, they would all kind of have to collectively stand up together. If they were going to lay down, they would all have to kind of collectively lay down together. It’s not a comfortable situation.

MARTIN SMITH:

Advocates say the conditions were made worse by President Trump’s push to end a long-standing policy of releasing migrants pending their court dates.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

You will not be released into our country. As long as I am president of the United States, we will enforce our laws and protect our borders.

McAllen, Texas

JESSICA MILES:

Now there are hundreds of people being kept in chain-link cages, and they’re just made to wait. They don’t have access to hygiene. It smells. It stinks.

The way that we treat asylum seekers is horrific, and it is absolutely purposefully supposed to be that way, because the worse that we treat people in detention, the more likely they are to give up their case.

MARTIN SMITH:

With Border Patrol facilities over capacity, El Paso’s sector chief, Aaron Hull, started holding new arrivals for days at a time under a bridge right in the center of town.

DEBBIE NATHAN, The Intercept:

I discovered that situation because I just wanted to take a walk. I mean, it was a Sunday. All of a sudden I looked under the bridge and I saw about 30 people, and they were clearly refugees. I mean, there was a bunch of kids. And I’m like, “What are these people doing under here?”

MARTIN SMITH:

Two weeks later Nathan returned to the same spot.

DEBBIE NATHAN:

I’m really shocked because now instead of 30 or 50 people, there’s hundreds of people, and they were crammed up against each other. There were so many of them—you know, it was very disturbing. But I think the Border Patrol was eager for the press to see it. It was just—

MARTIN SMITH:

Why would they be eager to have the press see that?

DEBBIE NATHAN:

Just because I think they were doing their “we’re in a huge crisis” thing. You know, “We’re picking up all these people now and we don’t know what to do with them. This is a crisis.”

MARTIN SMITH:

Chief Hull would not speak with us, but Farris told us that Hull believed the conditions would deter people from coming again.

WESLEY FARRIS:

Hull and the manager below him thought, “We don’t want to entice more people to come. We don’t want to make it nice. We don’t want to make it easy for them.”

MARTIN SMITH:

But that ends up punishing women with children, families—

WESLEY FARRIS:

Everybody. Right.

MARTIN SMITH:

Putting those people in that situation is pretty heartless.

WESLEY FARRIS:

Right.

MARTIN SMITH:

The head of CBP, Kevin McAleenan, came to El Paso to see the chaos at the bridge firsthand.

KEVIN McALEENAN:

CBP is facing an unprecedented humanitarian and border security crisis all along our southwest border, and nowhere has that crisis manifested more acutely than here in El Paso.

MARTIN SMITH:

Border Patrol has seen more families coming since 2014. Yet advocates say CBP has failed to adequately handle the situation despite having more resources.

CYNTHIA POMPA, ACLU of Texas:

From about 2000 to 2006, Border Patrol was apprehending over a million people. In those years, the Border Patrol had half of the number of the agents they have now and way less money. So it is very hard for me to believe that with a double of the number of agents and budget they cannot humanely, quickly process the number of families that are arriving to our border and that are turning themselves in.

MARTIN SMITH:

To alleviate the overcrowding, the Department of Homeland Security decided to test another new program in El Paso.

They called it “Migrant Protection Protocols”; it is better known as “Remain in Mexico.”

FEMALE NEWSREADER:

A big change is coming for asylum seekers: The government is sending them back to Mexico. The controversial Remain in Mexico policy—

DYLAN CORBETT:

What the Remain in Mexico policy does is it forces asylum seekers to remain on the other side of the border while they make their asylum claims. Many migrants go to Ciudad Juárez, our sister city on the other side of the border. Folks know Ciudad Juárez because it’s been a place where there’s been major drug trafficking; trafficking of immigrants; extortion; robbery; assault. So Remain in Mexico is creating basically a long-term population of asylum seekers in a city that makes them vulnerable targets.

FEMALE NEWSREADER:

Across the border, a man was attacked and killed by dozens of gunshots in northeast Juárez.

FEMALE NEWSCASTER:

Another triple murder. It happened last night on the Pan-American Highway just outside of Juárez. According to the—

MARTIN SMITH:

In Juárez, we met Sebastian again—that young man who had spent eight days in an overcrowded detention holding cell. He had been separated from his siblings and sent back here, to Mexico.

SEBASTIAN:

[Speaking Spanish] My life here is suffering. I struggle to find work, to make money, to keep moving forward. It’s very tough.

MARCELA GAVIRIA, Writer/Producer:

[Speaking Spanish] And why don’t you go back?

SEBASTIAN:

[Speaking Spanish] If I go back, they’re going to kill me. I came here because my sister was raped by a gang back in Guatemala. It’s really dangerous where I lived. They told me that if I said anything, they would kill me. They raped my sister right in front of me. [Crying] There’s nothing I can do now, but wait to see what they tell me. That’s all I can do.

MARTIN SMITH:

Thousands of migrants end up stranded in Juárez awaiting their court date.

A number of people have criticized Remain In Mexico for essentially placing those that are seeking asylum back into Mexico, facing dangers.

KEN CUCCINELLI:

I don’t deny that there are parts of Mexico that are dangerous, but the families are not contained there, nor are they obligated to stay there, and I—

MARTIN SMITH:

But these are not people that have the wherewithal to go to Cancun while they wait for their hearing in El Paso.

KEN CUCCINELLI:

They do not have to stay in the dangerous area you describe, is the simple point. And you don’t have to go to Cancun to be safe in Mexico.

MARTIN SMITH:

One of the safest places for migrants is Casa del Migrante, the largest migrant shelter in Juárez. It’s run by the Catholic Church and was at capacity even before the Remain in Mexico program began.

In the courtyard I spoke to Sayda; she was five months pregnant.

MARTIN SMITH:

[Speaking Spanish] Where are you from?

SAYDA:

[Speaking Spanish] From Guatemala.

MARTIN SMITH:

[Speaking Spanish] From Guatemala.

SAYDA:

[Speaking Spanish] Yes, Guatemala.

MARTIN SMITH:

[Speaking Spanish] Why did you come here?

SAYDA:

[Speaking Spanish] It’s very dangerous there. They kill so many people every day. In Guatemala you go through a lot.

Look, one makes the decision to come here for many reasons. In my case it was out of necessity. I had to leave my daughter. And—[Crying] it makes me so sad to think about her.

MARTIN SMITH:

[Speaking Spanish] I’m sorry.

SAYDA:

[Speaking Spanish] Only God knows everything I’ve been through over there. I don’t want to go back. I love my daughter so much, but I’ve suffered so much there.

MARTIN SMITH:

On the day we visited, an immigration advocate counseled Sayda and three other pregnant women who had met each other in the so-called hieleras, or ice boxes, where Border Patrol officers hold and process recent arrivals.

SAYDA:

[Speaking Spanish] Yes, in the icebox.

LINDA RIVAS, Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center:

[Speaking Spanish] In the icebox?

WOMAN MIGRANT:

[Speaking Spanish] We were in the icebox for, like, 14 days.

LINDA RIVAS:

[Speaking Spanish] Fourteen days in the icebox—

And at any point did they give you a pregnancy test or ask about your pregnancy? Did they give you a special diet?

SAYDA:

[Speaking Spanish] Do you recommend that we look for a lawyer to go with us to court?

LINDA RIVAS:

[Speaking Spanish] I’m going to be honest with you. It’s going to be very difficult to find a lawyer. They don’t want to take these cases because it’s hard for them to come here to work. You can keep calling the names on that list but the only one giving legal advice is Las Americas.

WOMAN MIGRANT:

[Speaking Spanish] I called that number and they didn’t pick up.

LINDA RIVAS:

[Speaking Spanish] Because we’re overwhelmed with cases.

MARTIN SMITH:

How many are going to get attorneys?

LINDA RIVAS:

Very, very few. I see a huge impediment to due process. Attorneys don’t want to go down there; attorneys are unsure if they are able to legally work there. As a matter of fact, not one attorney that we know and trust has agreed to take those cases.

KEN CUCCINELLI:

It’s certainly not a denial of their due process right. You have the right to have access to a lawyer.

MARTIN SMITH:

But you reject the claim that the MPP program has made it difficult for the immigrants to receive adequate representation.

KEN CUCCINELLI:

I assume that—I understand that the NGO lawyers now have to go into Mexico, or call. I mean, a phone call will work, too. But there’s no denial of access to lawyers.

MARTIN SMITH:

Of the 57,000 migrants assigned to the Remain in Mexico program, only an estimated 4% have obtained attorneys.

LINDA RIVAS:

[Speaking Spanish] Who has already been to court? Have you stood in front of an American judge in El Paso?

MARTIN SMITH:

Many have given up their asylum claims and returned home.

The government would say MPP has worked.

SCOTT SHUCHART:

It has has shifted the problem physically from one side of the border to the other. It hasn’t addressed any problems—it’s created a new problems.

MARTIN SMITH:

But they would say it’s been an effective deterrent, would they not?

SCOTT SHUCHART:

They might say that, but what they mean is “out of sight, out of mind.”

MARTIN SMITH:

In El Paso, the crisis was far from over. Things would erupt in the summer of 2019 at a facility on the outskirts of town.

It was Clint, a small Border Patrol detention center that used to house adult males but was now holding children who were not deemed eligible for the Remain in Mexico program.

You’ve worked at Clint.

WESLEY FARRIS:

Yes.

MARTIN SMITH:

Clint has earned a very negative reputation.

WESLEY FARRIS:

Right. When Clint was designated as the holding facility for unaccompanied children, there was no mass training given to the agents there to verse them on our policy. It was thrust upon them. Somebody just arbitrarily decided, “Let’s make Clint Station.” With that decision, that station embarked on a horrible journey.

MARTIN SMITH:

Under a 1997 federal court ruling called the Flores settlement, detention facilities holding migrant children are to be regularly monitored to ensure that children are getting appropriate care.

ELORA MUKHERJEE, Flores settlement monitor:

We didn’t initially know that children were being detained there. And then we received information that there were children being held at Clint, and so we added it to our list of sites to visit.

MARTIN SMITH:

On the morning of June 17, 2019, 11 monitors showed up at the Clint facility, where over 350 children were being held.

CLARA LONG, Flores settlement monitor:

We later learned that weeks earlier there had been hundreds more, actually, detained in that same facility that had only had capacity for a bit over 100.

ELORA MUKHERJEE:

We demanded a tour of Clint and visits with the sickest children in custody who were in quarantine. We were denied both.

MARTIN SMITH:

Instead, the monitors met with the children in a series of conference rooms.

ELORA MUKHERJEE:

The children were wearing clothing that was covered in nasal mucous, in vomit. There was a strong stench. They weren’t given an opportunity to shower for days, sometimes weeks, sometimes not at all since crossing the border.

CLARA LONG:

It was obvious that there was infectious disease and not enough hygiene to address transmission of disease. And it just felt like an emergent situation and we just decided we have to go public about this.

MARTIN SMITH:

Two children had already died in El Paso Border Patrol custody. Concerned others could die at Clint, the monitors took their story to the media.

WARREN BINFORD:

This week at the Clint border facility we are seeing sick children; we are seeing dirty children; we are seeing hungry children; we’re seeing children who have been separated from their parents and other family members. We really have a dire situation here.

FEMALE NEWSREADER:

Outbreaks of scabies, shingles and chickenpox were spreading among the hundreds of children.

MALE NEWSREADER:

Toddlers walking inside cells. This is basically a jail setup, and it’s jarring.

AARON HULL:

Well, I would dispute that the conditions are so bad.

MARTIN SMITH:

El Paso’s Border Patrol chief repeatedly said that the facility had passed inspection.

AARON HULL:

We’re not keeping people in inhumane conditions. As I said, we are inspected constantly.

MARTIN SMITH:

President Trump said it was all “fake news.”

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

I think that the Border Patrol’s been treated very, very badly. I’ve seen some of those places, and they are run beautifully. They are clean, they are good—

MARTIN SMITH:

President Trump had not visited Clint.

PROTESTORS:

[Chanting] Shut it down! Shut it down! Shut it down! Shut it down! Shut it down! Shut it down! Shut it down! Shut it down! Shut it down! Shut it down!

WESLEY FARRIS:

The truth of the matter is Clint is a symbol for the whole Border Patrol right now. I would say that we were at the peak of our unreadiness for what was happening.

Most of us are fathers, mothers. We all knew that this isn’t how you should hold kids. We just didn’t have any choice.

MALE PROTESTOR:

—and shame on us as a country. No child should wake up in a cage.

DYLAN CORBETT:

I’ve met the mothers of children who have died in the custody of Border Patrol.

PROTESTORS:

[Chanting] Shut it down! Shut it down! Shut it down!

DYLAN CORBETT:

It’s not just another strategy like Remain in Mexico, like zero tolerance, like family separation. It’s saying, “You are not welcome. We are going to treat you like this, and you’re going to remember it, and you’re going to tell your relatives back home.”

REP. ELIJAH CUMMINGS, D-Maryland.:

The committee will come to order.

MARTIN SMITH:

Three and a half weeks after their initial visit to Clint, the Flores monitors brought their findings before the House Oversight Committee.

ELORA MUKHERJEE:

Thank you, Chairman Cummings, Ranking Member Jordan and distinguished members of the committee for having me here today. I was at the Clint CBP facility last month. I want to share with you what I heard, what I saw and what I smelled. Children were hungry. Children were traumatized. One 6-year-old girl, detained all alone, could only say, “I’m scared, I’m scared, I’m scared,” over and over again.

It was tense. I was making explosive allegations about the abject failure of our federal government to take care of babies.

A newborn detained for seven days.

And the administration had already come out by that point to say that our findings, our allegations, were unsubstantiated.

REP. JIM JORDAN, R-Ohio:

Fabricating stories of cruelty and besmirching the hardworking civil servants who are protecting the border does nothing to help solve the problem.

ELORA MUKHERJEE:

Not only am I lying, but all my colleagues are lying, and that the hundreds of pages of sworn testimony from children are “unsubstantiated”—are false.

MARTIN SMITH:

In depositions, the children described overcrowded cells. Several said they had to sleep on cement floors. They were hungry and were denied basic hygiene.

TOM HOMAN:

The holding facilities are overcrowded and there are not enough showers. This should be no surprise to anyone.

MARTIN SMITH:

At the hearing, Tom Homan, the former acting director of ICE and for years a Border Patrol agent himself, said that Border Patrol leadership had been warning Congress about overcrowding for months.

TOM HOMAN:

—that this system is overwhelmed. More funds are needed so these people can be moved quickly to a more appropriate facility designed for them.

MARTIN SMITH:

But, he said, the reports were overblown.

TOM HOMAN:

Most of these allegations have been found to be untrue after extensive investigation, but it’s too late when that happens—

MARTIN SMITH:

And morale among Border Patrol agents, he said, was at an all-time low.

TOM HOMAN:

They have to wake up every day and see news reports and comments from representatives in Congress that they’re Nazis; white supremacists; that they operate concentration camps; that they knowingly abuse women and children.

ELORA MUKHERJEE:

Putting CBP agents in a position where they are required to take care of children 2 years old and younger isn’t fair to them.

TOM HOMAN:

These agents deserve better.

ELORA MUKHERJEE:

But the Trump administration is trying to cover up among the worst human rights abuses that are taking place in the United States right now.

REP. JESÚS GARCIA, D-Illinois:

Mr. Homan, do you understand that the consequences of separation of many children will be lifelong trauma and carried across generations? Do you not care? Is it because these children don’t look like children that are around you? I don’t get it.

TOM HOMAN:

First of all, your comments are disgusting. I’ve served my country—I’ve served my country—

JESÚS GARCIA:

I find your comments—

TOM HOMAN:

—I’ve served my country for 34 years.

JESÚS GARCIA:

—I find your comments disgusting as well.

TOM HOMAN:

This is out of control. What I’ve been trying to do in my 34 years serving my nation is to save lives. So for you to sit there and insult my integrity and my love for children, that’s why this whole thing needs to be fixed.

JESÚS GARCIA:

We agree on that.

TOM HOMAN:

And you’re the member of Congress. Fix it!

DARIANA:

[Speaking Spanish] I don’t remember when they separated us. At first, they took us to Texas.

FEMALE VOICE:

[Speaking Spanish] Do you remember what the color the guards’ uniforms were?

DARIANA:

[Speaking Spanish] They were green. Green, but they had guns in their holsters.

MARTIN SMITH:

Last November we traveled to Honduras to interview one 9-year-old girl who had been separated from her father after crossing into El Paso.

Her name is Dariana.

After crossing, her father, Elder, was arrested and charged with illegal reentry. Dariana was then labeled as an unaccompanied minor, separated and sent to Clint.

This is the first time a child held inside Clint has been known to speak to the media about conditions there.

Dariana told us she was held for 11 days in a detention block with 50 other kids.

DARIANA:

[Speaking Spanish] I had to sleep on the floor with the other kids. We would shower every other day. They didn’t let us go out much. Maybe we’d go out about 15 minutes a day. And the rest of the time we were locked up.

FEMALE VOICE:

[Speaking Spanish] Was there any grownup taking care of you?

DARIANA:

[Speaking Spanish] No, there were only cameras.

MARTIN SMITH:

After Clint, Dariana was transferred to a facility in New York City called Cayuga, overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services. She said there she was treated better.

DARIANA:

[Speaking Spanish] When they took me to Cayuga, I met a social worker named Noris and a therapist named Nicole. But I was sad and lonely not to be with my family.

MARTIN SMITH:

After three months in Cayuga, Dariana appeared before a judge in New York City and asked to be sent back to her family.

DARIANA:

[Speaking Spanish] She asked if we wanted to leave or stay, and I told her I wanted to go back to my country. And she said, “Yes, you may.”

FEMALE VOICE:

[Speaking Spanish] Would you like to return to the United States?

DARIANA:

[Speaking Spanish] No. I didn’t like it there.

MARTIN SMITH:

Her father said Dariana was now angry at him for taking her on their journey.

ELDER:

[Speaking Spanish] She’s angry with me. She thinks that perhaps I’m responsible for the separation. Maybe she’s afraid that I’ll tell her we’re heading back again.

Our American dream is over, but at least we have her back. That’s the important thing.

MALE NEWSREADER:

A Border Patrol station in Clint, Texas, has become a major political talking point in Washington. Democratic lawmakers are now demanding something be done soon.

MARTIN SMITH:

Amid the controversy at Clint, Chief Aaron Hull was reassigned to a Border Patrol station in Detroit.

MALE NEWSREADER:

Late today, the House passed a hotly debated bill to ease the crisis at the border—

MARTIN SMITH:

Congress finally approved a $4.6 billion emergency border spending package; some of it went to improve detention facilities in El Paso.

What do you think our obligation is to housing and sheltering those who come knocking on our door?

KEN CUCCINELLI:

I think that America prides itself on continuing to be the most generous country in the world. The question is, where do you draw the line? It’s not generosity to accept a break-in, and we have a million-person break-in over the last fiscal year on the southern border. If you don’t have a border, you don’t have sovereignty or a nation, and we’re fighting to maintain that right now.

MARTIN SMITH:

The fact that people are coming across in these great numbers frightens many Americans, and there are many Americans who feel this is a president who’s actually doing something about it.

VERONICA ESCOBAR:

I would ask them, “What exactly is he doing?” Nothing that he has done has stemmed the flow of this exodus from Central America. Everything he’s done has made the situation worse.

FEMALE NEWSREADER:

In the wake of the shooting at a Walmart in Texas, President Trump will visit the community of El Paso on Wednesday.

MARTIN SMITH:

The president would return to El Paso one last time. It was four days after the attack at Walmart.

FEMALE NEWSREADER:

He should not come here while we are in mourning. This is the site of one of his rallies. Statistically, violence went up, hate crimes went up in communities where he had held rallies.

CROWD:

[Chanting] USA! USA! USA!

MARTIN SMITH:

Near a hospital where victims were being treated, Trump supporters clashed with demonstrators.

CROWD:

[Chanting] Trump 2020! Trump 2020! Trump 2020! Trump 2020!

MARTIN SMITH:

As President Trump left the city, he invited El Paso’s mayor, Dee Margo, to drive back with him to the airport. The mayor used the opportunity to press him on immigration reform.

DEE MARGO:

So on the way over there he brought up the wall and the fence, and I said, “Yes, CBP says there is a place for a physical barrier, but it’s not a panacea” and the whole thing.

MARTIN SMITH:

But the president did not want to discuss alternatives to a wall. He insulted the mayor, calling him a “Republican in Name Only”—a RINO.

DEE MARGO:

He said, “You’re a RINO.” I said, “No, sir. I’m not a RINO.”

MARTIN SMITH:

What did he say?

DEE MARGO:

He just kind of grinned.

MARTIN SMITH:

He didn’t really care?

DEE MARGO:

No, he understood. No, I think the grin was, “OK, I understand what you’re saying.” I’m not into drama; my position is, I’d rather light a candle than curse the darkness. So I’ll do the best I can in trying to convey who we are and what we’re about to the benefit of our culture, our binational culture. So, that’s the best I can do.