Singing and chanting as loud as they could, a few hundred feet from where thousands of children remain detained in a tent-like facility, activists and members of the public hoped their voices would find their way across fences and barbed wire. They wanted to let the children know people were thinking of them during this holiday season.
El Paso organizations put together the Christmas Caroling event in Tornillo, which began on Sunday and will continue daily until 1 January. The idea came from Joshua Rubin, an activist from Brooklyn who has spent the past two months at the border, monitoring the treatment of migrants held by the federal government.
Rubin first visited McAllen, Texas in the summer, when the Trump administration’s controversial family separation policy was in place. He came back in October, after learning about the expansion of the Tornillo facility.
“I decided to come down, sit here at the gates and watch what goes in and what goes out,” he said. “I gather what I see and report to people, and maybe if I’m here watching, the rest of the country might start watching and these kids won’t be forgotten.”
As of last week, more than 2,700 minors remained in custody at the temporary facility next to the Tornillo-Guadalupe port of entry. The camp lies to the east, surrounded by pecan fields and empty lots, away from the eyes of the public.
The caroling attracted a strong contingent of locals. Supporters also came from New York, Ohio, Dallas, Houston, San Marcos and elsewhere.
Martin Bates and his wife had driven from Fort Collins, Colorado. Bates said they had wanted to come to the border for some time, to support the migrants. When they found out about the singing, it felt like a great opportunity. They planned to head to McAllen, too.
“These children have done nothing wrong,” Bates said. “They should be with their families.”
Attendees spoke about their dislike of Trump immigration policies, sang carols and chanted “No están solos” – “You’re not alone” – in an attempt to remind the migrant children they had a community behind them.
“I really hope they can hear us and that it would help them raise their spirit just a little during the holidays,” said Anna Diaz, from El Paso.
Texas state senator José Rodriguez thanked everyone who showed up and encouraged them to keep up the pressure, to make sure the facility closes sooner rather than later. Both the children in the camp and the White House should know Donald Trump’s hardline policies do not represent the values of the country, he said.
Diego Adame, an organizer for Hope Border Institute, told attendees to remember the thousands of other migrants held in similar facilities across the US.
“This is my home,” he said. “I’m happy that you are here but I’m ashamed to tell you that we let this happen at our community. What scares me the most is that Tornillo was put in place for the sake of greatness. This does not make us great. We are sick and Tornillo is just another symptom of ignorance and hate.”
The facility opened in the summer with a capacity of about 300. The government has extended its contract with BCFS, the operator, three times. The current contract expires on 31 December. BCFS officials told Texas Monthly they did not want to renew the contract, but with thousands of children still in detention it would take weeks before all of the minors could be released.
Last week, the Trump administration relaxed requirements for sponsors who wanted to look after the children. From May, the Department of Health and Human Services had asked all adults living in a sponsor’s home to submit fingerprints, information it shared with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Now only a sponsor must submit fingerprints.
The El Paso congressman Beto O’Rourke, who made a national name for himself in a narrow Senate defeat by Ted Cruz in November, was not scheduled to speak at the rally. But the potential presidential candidate showed up anyway and addressed the crowd, thanking them for their persistence.
“Let’s continue to show up here,” he said, “let’s continue to get behind Josh and others who have been here every single day so that we can witness with our own eyes, testify with our own words to our fellow Americans what is going on here. The fact that you are here is producing the change that these kids so desperately need.”
O’Rourke told the crowd he had spoken to the BCFS chief executive, Kevin Dinnin. He was told, he said, the company was no longer accepting children and had 300 ready to be reunified with their families as soon as flights and bus rides could be found. If BCFS stays strong, O’Rourke said, Tornillo could be shut down by mid- or late January. Late on Sunday, the New York Times reported that would happen.
Rubin disputed the BCFS claim, saying he had seen a bus carrying children come in on Saturday. But he said: “I think it’s possible that this place can close down. It’s possible that, if enough of us make a fuss and keep the pressure on, this place will close. If enough of these people are willing to stay here for a few days in a row, I think we can have an effect.”
Adame said rallies would continue so the press and public could be reminded that the children held at Tornillo are “human beings”.
“They are our brothers and sisters,” he said. “They are us.”