The Tornillo 16: Reflections on Migrant Detention and Incarceration at the U.S.-Mexico Border

By Nicolás Cruz

On May 20th, 2019 16-year old Carlos Gregorio Hernandez Vasquez died in a concrete cell in McAllen, Texas of the flu. After travelling with his sister from Guatemala through Mexico and across the border near Hidalgo, Texas, Carlos was detained by Border Patrol agents on May 13th. That same day, about 600 miles away along the same border, I turned myself into the El Paso City Police Department after they put out nationally televised warrants for the arrest of 16 activists including myself. Our crime: protesting the actions of the Border Patrol and the mistreatment of migrants in detention.

The previous February, I and several members of The Red Nation took part in the weekend of Revolutionary Love held by Tornillo The Occupation, a collective of activists from around the country who gathered on Christmas 2018 to protest the child migrant open air prison in Tornillo, Texas. Along with a series of other actions around Valentines Day, we held a protest at the Border Patrol Museum in El Paso. 

The museum is funded and run by the union of Border Patrol agents along with a staff of their sympathizers, but is located on Fort Bliss Army Base property. We chose this museum because of what it represents: the celebration and dominant narrative of the colonial border and its so-called protectors. I told my father, who migrated to the US from Mexico as a child, about the museum and its exhibits of weapons, uniforms, and vehicles used by Border Patrol and the items confiscated from detained migrants. He exclaimed, “they would never build a museum celebrating the Nazi SS!” Yet they probably would, had it been the US who carried out the genocide, or if Germany had won the war. Yet both are exactly what has happened here.

The United States has more or less been successful in erasing the ongoing occupation and colonization of Indigenous lands. That most people living in America cannot name the tribe whose land they live on is a testament to the near-total replacement of hundreds of Indigenous nations with the European-American settler nation known as the United States, along with its mythologies of freedom and justice and divine providence. But Indigenous people are still here struggling against colonization and challenging the U.S. settler state as it oppresses others fleeing their homelands.

This is a reflection of how I came to share a cell with people who also went up against the Border Patrol and were criminalized for it. Our disparate experiences speak to the arbitrary nature of citizenship yet, also, in the case of Carlos and so many others who have died on their journey to the United States, its mortal impacts. I hope this will serve as a call to fellow U.S.-born people to take increased action in a time of escalating exploitation, detention, and deportation.

wanted

News report of my warrant that prompted my family to call me to ask what was going on.

Four of us self-surrendered to the El Paso Police Department in May 2019 after mobilizing legal representation and funds in response to our warrants. Many of us learned of our imminent arrest on the news or, in my case, from family and friends who saw my photo in the local news and called to ask what was going on. The police, working off the museum’s claim that we caused $3,000 in damage during our action, charged us with state felonies, which coincidentally require a minimum of $2,500 in damage but come with up to $10,000 in fines and two years in jail. Since many of us live out of state, we debated turning ourselves in or awaiting the signing of extradition orders and arrests in our state of residence. The four of us who turned ourselves in that day decided to initiate our case and self-surrender as a group, in solidarity.

When we arrived, the police officers immediately recognized us as the group who had “vandalized the border museum.” Many expressed knowing about our action and repeated the claim spread on the news. It has caused quite a commotion in El Paso, Texas, a border town city that our local comrades have pointed out rarely sees much protest beyond rallies.

Upon our arrest, police took us to the back of the substation, where they searched us, removed our shoelaces and hair ties, and handcuffed us to metal benches behind chain link fencing. These one- or two-person cages faced officers’ workspace, which allowed them to gawk at us while they worked. I remember the first time I was arrested. I was protesting the expansion of an oil refinery in Swinomish treaty land in Western Washington, sitting there in handcuffs and ankle chains realizing that the state had total control over my bodily autonomy. I also realized incarceration meant a whole lot of waiting at the mercy of arbitrary jailers.

As we sat there for almost three hours handcuffed, having a stare off with the police officers, some looked at us and asked what was going on. Their colleagues responded, “they’re 99’s from the Border museum”— self-surrenders. Others avoided eye contact even though I stared at them, most of them bilingual Latino men in uniform. Their patches, I noticed, included three side-by-side figures: a feathered Native man, a bearded conquistador, and a blonde cowboy. Which they imagined themselves to be, it was unclear.

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Wall of manacles and handcuffs used to chain prisoners in El Paso County Detention Facility.

Finally they fingerprinted us, took our first set of mugshots, and then walked us across the street to the county jail, what they call the Detention Facility. As we walked in handcuffs, flanked by two officers, passersby watched us with varying reactions of curiosity, indifference, and concern. It’s unlikely they recognized us as the people who took over the museum, but it’s interesting to think about how normal this was for them, to see four people in chains walking in downtown El Paso.

Border towns in Texas have likely become more familiar with life under occupation by Border Patrol, where migrants are being detained both in jails and in makeshift camps. We also were not the first activists arrested for protesting the injustices related to enforcement of exclusionary migration policy, escalating (though not beginning) with the current Trump administration. Several months before we surrendered, activists with No More Deaths were charged with felonies for leaving water for migrants crossing the desert. In a widely shared video, Border Patrol agents were filmed slashing and discarding gallons of water and food left for migrants who otherwise could starve or die of dehydration. As border patrol locks down on more accessible routes across the border, people are pushed to more and more isolated, and therefore dangerous, areas of the desert and mountain passes. For their crimes of providing life-saving aid, the No More Deaths activists were threatened with several decades of federal prison. Thankfully, they have all been either acquitted or their cases dropped before even reaching trial, but the message is clear: the settler government intends to freeze any and all resistance to its detention, deportation, and family separation policies. 

In fact, incarceration has long been a tool to contain dissent. On my way to El Paso from Oakland, California where I currently live, I pored through the writings of political prisoners in If They Come in the MorningVoices of Resistance. I found the tattered book randomly at a used book and record store in Alameda, California and bought it because I was seeking guidance from other political prisoners, which I was about to get a small glimpse of becoming. But as Angela Davis, a contributor to the book, explains, all prisoners are political prisoners “in the sense that they are largely the victims of an oppressive politico-economic order.” And the incarceration of disproportionate numbers of Black, Indigenous, and Chicanx people serves as both evidence and reinforcement of the colonial domination that structures this society. And before we even entered the jail, I met other political prisoners though they had not partaken in any protest like mine.

We were taken into the small magistrate courtroom where a judge was in the process of reading charges to multiple people— already in orange jumpers. One young man was brought in later and was sat next to me, both of us handcuffed behind our backs. Before our names were called, he asked me what would happen here. I told him what I knew, that they’d read the charges of the others and asked if they had a lawyer or needed to be assigned a public defender. He shared with me that he’d been arrested because of his baby, because he hadn’t been able to buy a car seat. A young woman in an orange jumper was charged with something similar, an older man for a minor traffic violation. I realized then that people were thrown into jail for the inability to pay off a speeding ticket before the next, or for otherwise minor infractions that, piled on top of each other with the continual harassment by police, led to incarceration. This, we know, often leads to loss of jobs, housing, and assistance benefits, keeping many already socioeconomically oppressed people in precarity.

Seeing that the four of us had gone up already, the young man asked me what he should say and all I could offer is that he should ask for a public defender, knowing that this often is a failing defense strategy with an over-stretched and sometimes unsympathetic public defense attorney system. We talked throughout the day, as we progressed through the labyrinth of holding cells, intake interviews, mugshots, and fingerprinting in the El Paso County Jail.

As I said earlier, waiting seemed to be a major part of incarceration. Waiting to be weighed and measured. Waiting to be fingerprinted. Waiting to be interviewed by a nurse who wanted to know every tattoo, scar, and health history to better identify you in the future. In our time waiting for the next step in the process, I had time to reflect on what I have learned about incarceration, about jails and policing, and the experiences of political prisoners.

I remembered one line in particular that James Baldwin wrote in his letter to Angela Davis while she was jailed in 1970. I was in the last and final holding cell awaiting either bail or intake to the upper level of the jail, when his words returned to me: “One might have hoped that, by this hour, the very sight of chains on Black flesh, or the very sight of chains, would be so intolerable a sight for the American people, and so unbearable a memory, that they would themselves spontaneously rise up and strike off the manacles. But, no, they appear to glory in their chains; now, more than ever, they appear to measure their safety in chains and corpses.” At that moment, a row of Latino men in blue and red jumpsuits chained together at the wrists, waists and ankles were marched past the window of our large holding cell. In the very back of this chain–many who my cellmates recognized as fellow migrants who were detained while crossing–were two young Black men, either my age or even younger, chained as their ancestors had been before them. And I knew that Baldwin was right, that the prison and the jail must be burned to the ground and abolished, that we cannot continue to allow so many thousands of people to be swallowed by its labyrinth of hallways and cells, hidden away and lost from public view. My commitment to prison abolition was solidified then and there, watching those two young Black men and the migrant and citizen Latino men chained alongside them. 

It was, however, also the people being detained alongside me that had a large impact on me. There were two cells, lined with two benches and a partially exposed toilet, of male-identified prisoners being held, and a smaller cell down the hall with four female-identified prisoners, including the two who surrendered with us. This was where we ended up, after at least five hours of being cuffed, released from our manacles only long enough to eat cold bologna sandwiches, apples, and a bag of chips. 

I shared my cell with four men from Cuba who had traveled through Mexico starting in Chiapas, all the way up to the desert between El Paso and Chihuahua, where they were detained. The youngest of them, a 17-year old Afro-Latino kid, sat huddled in his thin shirt, shivering and gloomy. I listened as his three older companions talked to a Mexican-American man about their journey, straining to keep up with their fast Spanish. I understood the most talkative one to say, “you know, they say America is all about freedom and justice and when you get here, it’s just— handcuffs right away,” holding his hands out in surrender.

He and some of the other detainees were in surprisingly good spirits, despite having been held for days or even, for some, weeks in that cell. I couldn’t imagine the agony of sitting, waiting and sleeping in that cold cell for so long. Still, they made jokes, were curious about me and my comrade (“You turned yourselves in?”), and shared stories and laughs. While I couldn’t share the details of our action, telling them that it was likely that our cell was being recorded, I did tell them that we were being detained for protesting the actions of the Border Patrol.

There were three young men, one of them 19 years old, who had come all the way from Guatemala. They had taken an arduous journey with one of the caravans through Mexico, and their solemn demeanor reflected the challenges they had faced. When I shared that I had been arrested for protesting a museum that celebrated la migra, they came and sat down next to me and one of them quietly asked me questions. Where are you from? Where’s your family from? Why did you turn yourself in? 

I asked them about their journey, how old they were, and where and how long they were detained. They had been in the cell with no shower, no beds, and no blankets for over a week. After we exchanged these questions, the young man said something that has stuck with me. “Este país es muy bonito para los que tienen papeles.” While I believe that this settler nation, this country built on slave plantations and stolen land, is not beautiful for all of its citizens, I knew what he meant. We were being detained side by side, but I would be bailed out to await trial while he would be either punitively incarcerated or deported. I had no words for him, nothing that I could say in response but nod my head. We sat in silence for a while and I think he eventually got up to move around and look out the large window like many of the men did. The prison guards, young Hispanic and older white men, watched us and talked amongst themselves outside the glass wall.

I remember several of the migrants sharing their surprise that so many of the Border Patrol and ICE agents, as well as prison guards and police, were brown like they were. So many of those young men in uniform, the other prison uniform, looked like they could have been my cousins or brothers. I was not surprised–but of course disappointed–that so many Hispanic men of Mexican-descent participated in the detention, incarceration, and deportation of Mexican, Central, and South American people. They were merely the latest generation of settlers, or wannabe settlers, in a white supremacist society that will never accept them fully, who were seduced by the promises of America at the cost of participating in its colonial genocide. They were willing to separate children from parents, brothers from sisters, and indeed kill migrants just as soldiers had done in the Indian Wars, in the campaigns of genocide and expansion of the American West. These Guatemalan migrants, themselves Indigenous peoples fleeing their homelands, were entering a society with a long history of anti-Indigenous violence. 

I wanted to tell them all of this. I wanted to learn all their names and try to track them through the bureaucratic maze of the El Paso County Jail and Immigration and Custom Enforcement systems. Instead I told them that we were a part of a movement against their detention and mistreatment, that there were people on the outside fighting for them inside. But while we sat there, a guard opened the sliding door and called my name. It happened quickly and I remember trying to form some words in Spanish about how I hoped the best for all of them. I wanted to say how sorry I was that I was leaving them, sorry that I was being bailed out after just hours. I nodded to each of them in shame mostly, but also in solidarity. 

Even to this day I look back to that moment, being guided by the guard out of the holding cell while the young men watched me, and feel a great flush of guilt. I think of the words of W. E. B. DuBois, quoted in the forward of If They Come in the Morning, who said, “What turns me cold in all this experience is the certainty that thousands of innocent victims are in jail today because they had neither money, experience nor friends to help them. The eyes of the world were on our trial despite the desperate effort of the press and radio to suppress the facts and cloud the real issues; the courage and money of friends and strangers who dared stand for a principle freed me; but God only knows how many who were as innocent as I and my colleagues are today in hell.” I, too, knew the disparity in attention that the 16 of us who received warrants for our protest received compared to the more than 42,000 adult migrants and 12,000 children being detained in this country (not to mention the millions of prisoners). I spent nine hours in the EL Paso County Jail while children have spent weeks or even months in detention. 

And while I believe that the criminalization of protestors of immigration policy is a waste of resources by the government, I don’t believe this has been for nothing. In their attempt to silence us with threats of incarceration and fines, they have actually strengthened our resolve. I have seen the interior of those looming structures that house so many stolen siblings, parents, and friends, and I know that they must fall. That the threat of incarceration, to be returned to the same holding cell as my distant kin, does not discourage me from acting out again is their ultimate failure. Baldwin spoke to Angela Davis as I wish I could to the migrants in detention, “If we know, then we must fight for your life as though it were our own—which it is—and render impassable with our bodies the corridor to the gas chamber. For, if they take you in the morning, they will be coming for us that night.”

And this is my call to all of you, those with citizenship and with the capacity to act. Make this injustice indefensible. Make the route to deportation and detention impassable. You do not need to be arrested. In fact, the work that so many others are doing beyond protest is the most critical. The ones feeding migrants as they’re dropped off by ICE on the streets, the ones defending their rights to trial, the migrants themselves who are speaking out against their own mistreatment, are doing the most necessary and long-term work. If you cannot throw your body into the corridor, then throw your energy, your time, and your mind into the movement. We cannot wait for more people to die. Never again must be now.