Home / General / Summer Vacation in an Age of Concentration Camps, Part 4: “Hanging With the Gate Guards”

Summer Vacation in an Age of Concentration Camps, Part 4: “Hanging With the Gate Guards”

Debating international and constitutional law with guards
outside a detention center in El Paso, TX.

I spoke to this guard yesterday at Paso del Norte Port of Entry detention center. He asked I edit his face out of the photo I took. (Apparently you can just talk to these guards by strolling up to the gate with a smile and open hands and not going away. They seem to have more than enough time on their hands and are eager to tell you why they are doing the right thing for our country.)

I used the term “concentration camp” freely as we conversed, and the guards objected that this was not the same as a Nazi camp. “Of course,” I agreed pleasantly. “It’s not a death camp. You’ve had some kids die in custody, but I know that wasn’t intentional. I’m just using the term ‘concentration camp’ like it’s defined in the dictionary, as a ‘large number of people deliberately confined in a relatively small space with inadequate facilities.'”

But the guards objected to that too. “This situation is fluid,” said one. “We did have a surge and it was overcrowded, but now we’re in a lull.” He had a point. Today, I saw no direct evidence of overcrowding, so perhaps today this was a “detention facility” but not a “concentration camp.”

Admittedly, two months ago this center was at ground zero of the overcrowding scandal, but now, this guard told me, there were just a few people in here and they were being cared for well: three meals a day, “solar blankets” (to avoid lice and infection), regular doctor appointments, even ventilation (he wouldn’t allow me to enter but pointed out the swamp coolers blowing air through military-grade tarps set up in the interior, to shield the detained refugees from the sun).

The guard who greeted me, and a few of his colleagues who walked up to join the conversation, seemed determined to convince me all was on the level at their facility. “You shouldn’t trust everything you read in the news,” they told me. “Of course not,” I said, “That’s why I came to talk to you guys myself.”

Naturally, you also shouldn’t believe everything a gate guard tells you about whether or not human rights violations are happening at their facility. The night before, I had wandered casually into the same facility, on my way back through the checkpoint from a day in Juarez interviewing human rights activists. That evening, this gate was wide open, and I strolled on through.

A burly, scary-looking CPB agent had intercepted me. “You can’t be in here,” he said. “This is private property.”

“No it isn’t,” I said to him. “It’s public property. You’re one of my public servants, right? I just wanted to ask you a few questions.”

“No, no, you’re trespassing. There’s a sign.”

“I looked for one. I didn’t see it. I’ll walk back and check.”

I did. No sign. I brought a photo of no sign back to the burly agent.

“Why are you trying to scare me away, a fellow American? We’re all in this together. Who’s your supervisor?”

That worked pretty well. That evening, the supervisor I spoke with was Officer Sandoval. I respectfully waited for him outside the gate, and he came on out to talk to me. I introduced myself as a concerned citizen and mother of a child at home who was distressed at what he read in the papers. “What should I tell my son about what’s going on here, when I go home and tell him I spoke to you? What should I tell him about the children in your facility?”

“There are no children in this facility,” Sandoval said. “Not anymore.”

“Are you sure?” I said. “I saw it in the paper, and when I walked by earlier on the other side, I saw kids out there under the bridge.”

“I’m the supervisor here, I’m pretty sure I would know if there were kids in this facility,” he said. “There were before, but they’ve been moved out.”

By morning, however, it was Officer Sandoval who had been moved out. When I returned, I found the interior gate closed – though I could still walk up the long driveway from the street, where local El Pasoans parked in the public meters just outside the barbed wire. This Sunday morning it was a different officer, Officer Mason, who came out to speak with me. When I asked for Sandoval I was told he wasn’t there.

“Is he in church?” I asked. No, had returned to Wisconsin. “We’re just down here on a temporary basis, helping out,” Mason told me. “Today’s my last day as well, in fact. I’ll be going back to Wisconsin tomorrow.”

Sandoval had been polite but cagey; by contrast Mason was downright pleasant and forthcoming. I thanked him for being willing to stand out there in the sun talking with me. I started off explaining my concerns, and asking for information and his perspective, just as I’d asked dozens of Americans I’d encountered their perspectives on these camps and how to better welcome refugees into our country.

The conversation went on and on as we grew thirstier under the midday desert sun, but he never stopped respectfully answering my questions. On Twitter (where you can follow me to receive more live-tweets over the next few days), I shared a few highlights from our conversation:

While we spoke, I watched three boys maybe age twelve apprehended behind the guards into the detention facility. They new detainees arrived in vans rented from Enterprise (I had learned earlier, upon chatting with the Enterprise agent who saw me to my own rental car). The first arrived in handcuffs, and my voice trailed off from whatever I was saying at that point to Officer Mason: “Is that a kid…?”

A different guard told me, who had joined our conversation, “Yeah, he’s obviously a smuggler. You can tell by looking at him.”

“I’m looking at him and I’m seeing a child in handcuffs,” I said. “How do you tell who is a refugee and who is a smuggler?”

“You can tell by how they’re dressed,” said Guard #2. “A real refugee will be in jeans, he’ll look like he came in from the fields, he’ll have every possession he owns on his back.” When the second two adolescent boys arrived, in jeans and backpacks, Guard #2 said earnestly, “See? They’re not in handcuffs. Next they’ll be getting lunch, and a medical checkup. That’s more humane treatment than they would have where they came from. Some of them only get one meal a day there and have no toothbrushes. Detention here is like a palace to them.”

I listened to these two men dismiss the reports I’d read of ill-treatment and assure me about the humanity of their facility. I remembered how the guard I spoke to the day before at this same spot swore to me there were no children at Paso del Norte. But I didn’t confront them on that. I just said, “Well, that breaks my heart to see kids coming in here. I just want to welcome refugees and make sure they’re cared for. I believe there are a lot of Americans like me who feel we’re a nation of immigrants and that’s what makes America great, that’s what Jesus wanted.”

Guard #2 was a bit more strident than Officer Mason and argued for awhile, especially about the definition of refugee. “These people aren’t fleeing a war, maybe they’re fleeing violence but that’s not the same thing,” he said. “Is there anywhere in the world that you don’t have some risk of violence? You could be subject to violence right here in this country, right here in this spot. That’s not a reason to seek asylum.”

“Actually I think I feel pretty safe in this country,” I said, realizing with some irony how remarkable it felt to be able to say that in all confidence, a woman all alone standing out there in the sun by a detention camp gate with only a purse, a water bottle and a cell phone, arguing with a guard who was unrepentantly presiding over what the United Nations considered human rights violations. I had honestly never felt prouder to be an American. “I feel safe,” I continued, “because I’m free and not in detention. And these refugees should be free too.”

Guard #2 gave up after awhile, but Officer Mason stood there patiently conversing until I decided I was ready to leave.
For three hours, this border patrol officer stood there in good faith and blazing sun, engaging in respectful political deliberation. Though there was a fence between us, it felt as if we were engaged in a tiny act of crossing borders ourselves, working hard to find common ground despite our ocean of differences.

But I had to leave, because I was headed to Phoenix to speak with friends of mine who voted for Trump and for Gary Johnson in the last election about Jesus and economic anxiety and children in concentration camps.

“Thank you for speaking with me, Officer Mason,” I said. “I appreciate the chance to hear your perspective. I’ll share it with my son, my neighbors, my students, my friends. I’d shake your hand if I could reach it through this fence.”

“Well, nice to meet you too,” he said, “It’s pretty innocuous when you don’t show up with a bunch of cameras and you’re not secretly recording me, and we can have a conversation between two human beings and not yell and scream at each other.”

“Well,” I added with a smile. “I do have a photographic memory so in my brain I’m secretly recording everything you say.”

Officer Mason laughed nervously.

P.S. Follow me @charlicarpenter on Twitter for more dispatches.

P.S.S. Apologies for typos, these posts are written on the fly.

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