Home / General / Summer Vacation in an Age of Concentration Camps, Part 2: “Making Small Talk With My Fellow Americans”

Summer Vacation in an Age of Concentration Camps, Part 2: “Making Small Talk With My Fellow Americans”


On the first day of my Concentration-Camp-Resisting Vacation, I focused on speaking to every possible random American I could about the children being held without parents on the border. It began with a question by the 50-something African-American airport convenience store clerk on my Atlanta layover: “Would you like to make a donation to our troops?”

And the spirit moved me to say neither yes nor not today but “I’m sorry, I’m giving all my donations to those children being held in concentration camps on our border.” Her face changed instantly and what had been a formulaic trope she spouted to all customers became the spark for a real a human conversation. She reached out and touched me. “Oh, thank you honey,” she said. “You know, when 2020 comes we gon throw that fool out!”

On the day that Eric Trump had claimed 95% of Americans agree with his Dad, this was cheering to say the least. Afterward, I mentioned the camps to everyone I met: the jetway staff who helped me with my bag and said, “Yeah, that’s fucked up.” The flight attendant while I waited by the bathroom at 30,000 feet, who admitted he needed to read more news but that he sure hoped rumors like that weren’t true. The Mexican-American bartender at the airport cantina, who offered to have a beer with me after work and told me how he’d felt when he saw the photo of the drowned father Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his toddler Valeria, who died crossing the border. The Mexican-American rental car agent who saw me to my car and mentioned the camps before I did, “I can see them from my apartment,” he said. “I’ll show you if you want. They really are concentration camps.”

Different folks had different ideas about whether the camps were ok, and what if anything should be done, but we found common ground as Americans on the idea that babies shouldn’t be ripped from their mothers’ arms.

On the second day of my trip, I connected with professors from New Mexico State University, where twenty years ago I went to school. Neal Rosendorf talked my ear off well past midnight upon landing at a pizzeria, describing how he stumbled quite accidentally onto an open-air concentration camp in the center of El Paso where men were packed in like cattle. “It wasn’t a crematorium. But it was awful.” Later the following morning, after a few hours of sleep, I breakfasted with retired NMSU professor Yosef Lapid, someone I remember taking classes on War and Peace and Nationalism, who lost family in the Holocaust and introduced me to Elie Wiesel as a student. Nowadays, his activism focuses on writing award-winning children’s books to disseminate messages on how to live justly to the next generation.

In the evening, I sat down with Professor Neil Harvey and his wife over fish and chips at the Bosque Brewery just off University Drive. There I got details on the numerous good works happening all over the border: Know Your Rights trainings, local protests, the mobilization of relief and supplies through the Lutheran and Methodist churches, the coordination of volunteer legal support for asylum seekers. Harvey himself was leaving the next morning for a trip to Juarez with his students to assist in the shelters, speak at a conference and learn more about the Migrant Protection Protocols, which have made it harder for asylum-seekers to cross the border and over-stretched Mexican capacity. 

He invited me to come on the bus, but I stayed back to talk to local activists with the Border Network for Human Rights and join Rosendorf for a visit to an ICE facility where I hoped to speak with some border guards. So Day Three has been conversations with activists here and (later) from the Hope Border Institute in El Paso. Plus I needed to make time for an impromptu vist with my neighbor at the Days Inn, a Hispanic man in his late 50s who had fled from Chihuahua as a child and who, when I chatted him up, mentioned he was on his way to the Immigration office to finally take his citizenship test after being a legal resident for many years. We made friends, and promised to meet up later to celebrate.

In each conversation, whether with scholars, activists or ordinary folk, my questions have been the same: What can Americans do to protect asylum seekers, who have the right under international law to flee war and violence? In this, I am channeling the questions I’ve heard from so many of my local and national friends through social media and correspondence this summer. “I want to do more,” they say, when they read about the suffering in the camps. “I’ve called my representatives but I want to do something more and I don’t know where to start.”

What I Found So Far

Here on the border, a lot is going on, but much of it is hard for outsiders to easily hook up with unless they have the time to make a long-term commitment. Harvey told me folks who come in from outside need more than a week of vacation time in the summer, they need that long just to train since, as a representative from the Border Network for Human Rights said to me, “otherwise they can revictimize the victims.” So, local organizations are looking for volunteers who can spend six months or a year. Harvey also pointed out Spanish skills are important, especially since the greatest needs will be on the other side of the border as Trump enacts more and more policies to prevent asylum-seekers from remaining here even while they’re awaiting asylum hearings. As Fernando Garcia, my BNHR contact said, “We are going to be seeing mass refugee camps on the Mexican side before very long.”

The advice I keep hearing from local activists is not for folks to parachute in to help the refugees unless they have specific skills to provide, like Charles Martel, my friend and colleague who just returned from a week of volunteer lawyering. And this is quite consistent with what conflict researchers know about how an influx of untrained outsiders can do more harm than good in refugee settings abroad.

Instead, says Garcia, for outsiders who want to come down and help, the best way to think about it is to work not on the refugee relief side but the denunciation side. Border Network for Human Rights is a good starting point because they focus on advocacy rather than service delivery – as XX said to me, “challenging the systems and strategies by this administration and any administration. We would welcome Americans from around the nation to join us in pushing back on these policies.”

And fortunately “bearing witness” of this type does not require Spanish, nor long-term investment. It could involve a simple trip down by plane for a specific focusing event or protest. As Erica Chenoweth, a political scientist and specialist in non-violent protest movements told me before I departed, solidarity encampments and sustained protest events can have an important signaling effect even if they don’t create immediate change. They signal to legislaters and media that the issue remains and agenda-item, to the imprisoned that they are not alone, and to the world that Americans are not standing by idly.

The obstacle, says Harvey, is that a lot of the local protests are spontaneous and and not well publicized in advance. That’s why Neal Rosendorf reported seeing only thirty or forty people at a time around some ICE facilities – fewer than the nearly half a million that turned out around the nation on July 12, because so many of the resisters here are busy in this area doing the refugee relief instead of standing with signs. When they do, it’s often impromptu. That makes mobilizing events that can draw the outsiders who have time and resources to travel a bit harder.  

Fortunately, for those of you in my tribe, (concerned-Americans-from-other-parts-w/vacation-time-and-big-heart), I have heard so far of one set of dates you could keep your eye on: next weekend, July Saturday the 27 thru Monday the 29th. Details are not yet publicized on the Border Network website, and are still being formulated, but I understand some kind of protest event will happen on Monday the 29th at one of the facilities near here. Warm bodies are always needed for these, the more the better. It could be an opportunity to “parachute in” in a way that could make an immediate, short-term difference. If you think you would do this, send me an email and I’ll add you to an email group to provide more information as I have it. And will say more on here when BNHR has made its plans public.

Meantime: Fernando’s final message to my readers is to a) keep calling your representatives and raising your voice – this is crucial he says and b) look to what you can do to support immigrants in your own communities! This can include vigils, direct relief and volunteering, or opening your home to a refugee as a sponsor. It may not get specific folks out of these camps but it is part of the wider continuum of stepping up to support our Southern neighbors in this time of political and climate crisis.

More dispatches as events warrant and time allow.

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