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Protesters heading home after journey to detention center housing juvenile migrants

People from Michigan and a dozen other states are returning home Friday after traveling hundreds of miles to protest the Tornillo detention center in Texas.

That’s where the federal government is holding hundreds of juvenile immigrants. But the group’s leaders hope the protest sparks a national campaign to shut down Tornillo. That’s even as the Trump administration plans to dramatically expand it. 

Most days, Joshua Rubin is alone at his self-appointed vigil outside the Tornillo detention center.  He’s a software engineer who is felt compelled to leave his job to bear witness to what’s happening here.   

I can't help standing here. I ask myself if that was my child in there, how long would I stand here?

Many of the kids are imprisoned at Tornillo for months longer than the 20 days the law says they can be held. That’s in large part because Immigration and Customs Enforcement deported some people who tried to pick up a relative. Now many are too afraid to come.

Rubin says there’s a new and alarming development. Tornillo is growing.

“In the last couple of days, new construction materials have been coming like crazy, he says.”

Credit Tracy Samilton / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Rabbi Josh Whinston of Temple Beth Emeth of Ann Arbor organized the caravan and protest at Tornillo detention center

Rubin got some extra company this week when more than 70 people from across the country, many of them Jews, traveled to Tornillo, led by Michigan rabbi Josh Whinston. Homeland Security closely monitored the group’s movements. That’s because one of the Jewish congregations involved had received death threats.

Buses continued to roll into the detention center during the rally. The windows were covered. The huge white tent housing the detained kids was obscured by an earthen berm and surrounded by barbed wire.

As the buses arrive, people at the rally cheer, “we want to shut this place down.”

Local activists like Ashley Heidebrecht says this rally is a good start – a chance to tell the nation what’s going on here.

“It’s in this remote area,” she says. “It’s secluded and that’s done by design. It’s to keep it from being in front of your eyes so it’s easy to forget. Tornillo is not the exception. It is the blue print for what is to come if we allow that to happen."

The rally ends with a firm rebuff of the group’s request to visit with the kids. Protestors then volunteer to help shelters in El Paso, overwhelmed by a recent spike in immigrants.

package of tinfoil blanket
Credit Tracy Samilton / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Mylar blanket are distributed by ICE to families it detains in frigid concrete cells.

Many of them arrive deeply traumatized. That’s because ICE holds moms, dads and children in frigid concrete cells for days before releasing them. They sleep on the floor, huddled under paper-thin Mylar sheets.

A woman, who asked not to be identified, told me she fled Honduras after a relative was killed by a gang. She and her two children spent four days in an ICE cell.

“She says that it’s pretty terrible,” says a translator. “They did not imagine they would go through this. It’s even worse than prison.”

Other women said ICE agents used the F-word and called them prostitutes in front of their kids.

All these abuses are intentional, according to immigration attorney Carlos Spector, to deter people from seeking asylum at all. He says the immigration crackdown is not new, but it’s escalating.

"The latest manifestation is the criminalization of immigrants which means incarcerating them, not just the parents, the parents with the children, but now the children alone," he says.

Spector says having protesters come from out of town was encouraging to those in El Paso who’ve been trying for years to make U.S. immigration policies more humane.

Meanwhile, back at the detention center, Joshua Rubin says it’s encouraging to see people from Michigan and elsewhere coming here to witness what’s happening. He hopes more people come.

Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Public. She began her career at Michigan Public as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.
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