Detained and Shackled (El Paso Border Trip)

I’m sitting under the pixel-party ceiling light again on the basement floor of the hotel. My heart feels heavy and my mind exhausted. The day has been too full to digest yet, let alone share with any clarity. I yearn for truth to settle calmly in my gut and guide my steps, but right now the more honest evaluation is to say I’ll have to be patient as I sort through the perspectives I’ve heard and experiences I’ve witnessed today.

The Chassidic master Menachem Mendl of Kotzk has a teaching that I’ve held onto for years. In the V’ahavta prayer, the Hebrew reads literally, “You shall set these words [of Torah] on your heart…” The Kotzker points out how odd it is to say “on your heart” rather than “in your heart,” and suggests that our hearts are not always immediately open to what we take in. Instead of closing ourselves off, however, “hardening” our hearts, we can place what we are learning on our hearts, and when the time comes that our hearts soften and open, the teaching will slip in and become a part of us. The Kotzker was radically devoted to truth (Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote a book on him called A Passion for Truth), and so I must trust that the murky patient process is as much a part of understanding truths as that sudden flash of clarifying light I typically imagine.

Let me walk through the major visits on today’s journey. First, our team of clergy got on a bus to just on the other side of the border, well – the border between Texas and New Mexico. There we visited a detention center called Otero. We were not allowed to bring cell phones in, so these pictures only give a glimpse from the outside. We were greeted by Brian, an ICE Community Relations Officer who shared that photography was banned inside for the safety of the residents. Should their photos surface on social media, there could be danger to their families back home from gangs. Conveniently, it also means that no one can photo document the inner workings of this de facto prison.

Warden Dora Orozco gives the tour of the facility. ICE contracted with Otero County to build a facility, and Otero County contracts with MTC to staff the facility. So you know, MTC is a private company that earns $97 per person per day from the government. Right across the way is a full-on prison, run by the same company

This is the prison next door. The building and barbed wire chain link fence were identical from the outside as far as I could tell.

The average length of stay is 58 days. Almost everyone we saw was seeking asylum. Almost everyone we saw will be deported. El Paso has a 3% grant rate for asylum.

Almost everyone we saw has no criminal history whatsoever. The Otero Detention Center holds only people who have violated immigration law (meaning they have crossed the border through a port of entry seeking asylum or have crossed the border somewhere else and were apprehended). Anyone who is brought in for non-immigration related offenses goes elsewhere.

Otero from a distance. The side you can see is where visitors come. On the far left you can barely make out the chain link and barbed wire, which surrounds most of the rest of the building. This is where people who have been detained enter into the building for processing.

Otero has 1,089 beds, and this morning they were using 1,078 of them. This facility is only for men age 18 and up. Most of the people I saw were on the younger side. There are a lot of facts to share, some of them surprising (there is a program for learning guitar taught mostly by people who have been detained) and some appalling (there are some medical staff, but only one doctor present for 24 hours a week.)

There were a number of holding areas, for processing or health checkup or other reasons, all of which were fairly small with glass windows. Face after face stared out at us, some laughing (new arrivals or practiced bravado), some passive with longing hidden inside dark eyes. We couldn’t communicate, we were not allowed to interact, and by the end of the tour I felt like I had visited some sick version of a zoo, with these humans stripped of their voices, their stories, and the dignity.

The dorms each held 50 beds, four to each skimpy bunk bed frame. I’ve attempted a sketch to give you an idea. They were very thin, perhaps two feet wide.

There’s much more to share, but I am starting to fall asleep on my keyboard. In brief, after this depressing experience, we went back to El Paso and heard from an amazing panel of advocates with Las Americas.

These folks serve as legal counsel to as many refugees as they can reach. Although they shared how depressing it can be to keep representing cases that almost inevitably end in deportation right now, I was inspired by their passion, their expertise, and their commitment to building connections. Nico on the far right is their newest team member, joining them as a HIAS Border Fellow, a new role HIAS has created to boost organizations helping refugees along the border.

That was only half the day. I’ll post more about the afternoon in the days to come. A closing thought: Throughout the detention center tour, we had to leave our phones in the bus. I kept reaching for it anyway, at least once a minute or so. I felt deprived of an essential tool in my daily life. Once when I reached for my pocket my eyes caught the curious gaze of one of the people detained in a cell smaller than my bedroom. And I realized how little I know of deprivation. What had these refugees given up or had taken from them as they left home for somewhere safer? What was it like to spend days, weeks, even months inside a prison for no other reason than having crossed a border? May the hearts of those imprisoned hold tenderly the spark of human dignity, when all else seems gone.

Click here to read about my experience on the El Paso Border Trip Day 1 and Day 3.