On Friday, before I headed to Juarez to meet up with some student service-learners, I stopped off in El Paso for a hike with Neal Rosendorf, the professor I’d met on Wednesday, who had shared with me over wine the harrowing tale of how he had randomly stumbled upon a crowd of men behind chain link fence in the sun one day after walking through a hole in the CPB’s net. He had promised me to retrace his steps and show me where it happened. “The place is still just hiding in plain sight,” he had said.
That place turned out to be the bridge under the Paso del Norte port of entry. East of the bridge is a large stone-walled compound with barbed wire / concertini surrounding it – enough to keep folks out and in.
Beyond that forbidding edifice, El Pasoans go about their day to day life. There is public parking on the street next to the barbed wire. Steps away there are bustling shops. Folks walk over the bridge on foot and through the customs checkpoint and past the wall, heading to work or to visit or to buy.
As Rosendorf told me, “You can learn a lot when you walk a perimeter.” Rather than head to where foot traffic was most common, we circumnavigated the wall together, counter-clockwise, retracing Rosendorf’s steps from June 1, the day he had walked the perimeter of the Paso Del Norte Border Patrol Station just after the Office of the Inspector General released a report on overcrowding, partly in response to complaints about families being housed under this bridge.
On that day, Rosendorf had wandered through an open gate looking for a border guard to speak to, as he was writing an op-ed on the detention facilities for the New York Times. “All I wanted was a sound byte,” he said, “What did they think of the report? I was completely unprepared for what I found. When I saw those men, I stopped being an op-ed writer and became and activist.”
What he found and photographed he immediately described to local journalists and Congresswoman Veronica Escobar, and has been widely reported since. Over dinner that first night, he shared with me the photos he took that day, still on his phone. I asked him if I could pick a favorite to include in this post and it is this one, where the wide desert sky I so love contrasts with the vulnerable prisoners below, highlighting their exposure to the elements and to the political tides.
Nowadays, Rosendorf is sought out for interviews on his experience that day, first standing in shock trying to communicate with the men, later narrowly avoiding arrest when the guards apprehended him and nearly missing his chance to smuggle his photos to the press. Two hours earlier Rosendorf had made the same retracing with two Israeli journalists, here to view the concentration camps of the American southwest. “I’ve become a tour guide,” he told me ironically.
Our perambulation took us around the decrepit exterior of the facility, flanked by homeless drunks and trash heaps baking in the sun.
As we came around a corner Rosendorf showed me the still-open gate where he had wandered in that day. Now, however, there is a No-Trespassing sign, warning off intruders.
Officially, in the wake of some outcry earlier in the spring, many of the refugees imprisoned here were moved to other facilities. The area under the bridge that once contained hundreds was empty as we walked by, and the area where Neal had taken his pictures could not be seen from street view. But Neal told me on his earlier circumambulation with the Israelis that day, he had seen families outside in the parking lot beneath the bridge. On his Twitter feed he published this photo:
As we walked and talked, it was clear to me that Neal was preoccupied with what was going on inside the compound, hidden from sight, and that he had been deeply moved and changed by the experience of finding himself where ordinary Americans were meant not to tread two months ago. We talked about the lack of sanitary facilities inside some of these centers, how children couldn’t wash.
For me, though, equally fascinating were the banalities on the outside that subtly encouraged Americans not to look, not to touch, not to investigate, just to carry on comfortably with their own pedestrian lives.
For example, I found myself fixated on the public toilets just outside the walls. Perhaps it was the emphasis on sanitation in the public debates, the fact that House Oversight Chairman Elijah Cummings that very day had erupted at acting DHS head about children “sitting in their own feces,” but I couldn’t help but marvel at the preposterously out-sized cleanliness of these toilets provided for the passersby in the little park area outside the walls.
These toilets were straight out of Star Trek. I had never encountered such sterile, clean, sophisticated porta-potties in a public park. Even just approaching them you had the feeling you had stepped onto another planet. A planet far, far away from concentration camps. Surely the government who could provide such facilities for passersby could never deny children soap.
Inside, everything was scrubbed, sterile and designed to keep you from needing to touch anything – as if to subliminally remind us of the need to cleanse ourselves from ugly thoughts of sleepless thirsty children, or simply from proximity to the border as we returned to civilization.
The door locked and unlocked with a button. There were buttons for dispensing toilet paper, buttons for raising and lowering the toilet seat, plentiful soap and hot water and air to dry with.
Not that you needed to blow dry in the 101 degree heat. I gratefully washed my hands, noticing myself trying not to think of the families inside the center, without soap or sufficient water, sweltering in the stink of that desert sun.
And then I noticed myself noticing myself trying not to think. I pressed a button, stepped back into Texas, and with my colleague Neal we turned our backs to the compound, talked about the heat, and walked off to look for ice-cream.
We would talk, of course, as we walked away, about what Americans could do. We would talk about how to draw more attention to the compound, how to break the spell that kept people walking by a concentration camp, washing their hands without touching anything, and going about their daily lives. We would do it with our own freshly washed hands, while enjoying the thought of ice-cream.