TORNILLO, Texas—Somewhere past the gate at a border crossing named after an undocumented immigrant who became Texas’ most decorated soldier in World War I, undocumented immigrant sons were spending Fathers’ Day without their undocumented immigrant fathers.
All because a president who presumably spent Father’s Day with his own 11-year-old son says too many undocumented immigrants are coming into the country.
Outside the gate, a diverse crowd of more than 1,000 gathered to protest the separations, which are the result of a Trump administration policy to prosecute nearly everyone who crosses the border illegally. The crowd screamed loud enough for the kids inside to hear.
How many kids are there? We don’t know.
What will the conditions in the soon-to-be constructed facilities be like? Unclear.
How long will this go on? a group of local advocates and clergy demanded.
Is this who we are as Americans? asked two politicians whose forebears were once treated as bad or worse because of their Irish surnames.
“We would like to think, and we try to tell ourselves, ‘this is not America, this is not us, this is not what we do,’” said Rep. Beto O’Rourke, referencing the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy that has resulted in 2,000 children being taken away from their parents in just over a month. “But ladies and gentlemen, at this moment, this is America, this is us, this is what we are doing.”
Before Beto—and it is just Beto here; no need for the O’Rourke—the locals had their say. Ruben Garcia, the director of a shelter that houses the thousands of migrants who walk across bridges from Mexico into Texas each year, reminded Attorney General Jeff Sessions that he, too, could quote scripture.
The Bible “reminds me that the history of the mistreatment of children goes back to the Old Testament, it reminds me that children were used as pawns,” Garcia said.
The fathers made note of the fact that they were lucky enough to be able to tell their sons where they’d be going that day: Tornillo, just outside of El Paso, where the Trump administration announced it would build facilities to house children detained as a result of Trump and Sessions’ “zero tolerance” immigration policy.
Many in the crowd had walked the equivalent of several city blocks to get to this spot. All under a morning sun that was cooking already-cracked earth and everyone standing on it. They came to mark Father’s Day for the fathers who couldn’t, and they came for O’Rourke, chanting his name. Then came a murmur in the back of the crowd.
“It’s Kennedy,” someone said.
With handshakes and smiles came Joe Kennedy, congressman from Massachusetts and heir to the Kennedy family political dynasty. Together, O’Rourke and Kennedy represent some of Washington’s most vocal defenders of immigrants, documented or not. They’re the only politicians who have traveled to Tornillo since the administration announced it would build facilities to hold hundreds—and possibly thousands—of migrant children there.
They shared stories of immigrants’ struggles and successes in both specific and general terms: an O’Rourke tale about a 27-year-old mother at a detention center in McAllen, Texas, who had her child taken away; a Kennedy yarn about an unnamed family that fled discrimination and violence to come to America and find a better life.
“There are many of you whose own stories are the same as that one, be it Jimenez, Martinez, or O’Rourke,” Kennedy said on top of whatever it was he found in the middle of the scrum surrounding him and O’Rourke. He then paused for what will surely become a regular stump occurrence should he—as one woman screamed for him to do—run in 2020.
“This one,” he paused again, pointing to himself, “is Kennedy.”
O’Rourke’s turn on top of the makeshift stump came with Kennedy behind him bracing him in case the congressman lost his balance. He screamed into a microphone and two bullhorn receivers clustered in his hand as Kennedy held the speaker aloft.
“There is an open question about who we are as Americans, whether we are a country that would continue to do this,” he said. “Two thousand times so far in the last 45 days, kids have been taken from their moms, from their dads, detained at places just like this tent city here in Tornillo.”
The crowd screamed one last time but there was no reply.