Title: Detained at the Refugee Camp. Creator: Walter H. Horne, 1883 - 1921 Date: ca. 1910 - 1918 Southern Methodist University, Central University Libraries, DeGolyer Library.
The photographs startled me as I sat in the serene setting of the University of Arizona Library Special Collections that day, 23 years ago. The refugees stared at me from the black and white photographs. Women and men and children stood still for the photographer. Some serious. Some with confusion in their eyes. The children sometimes looking blank and sometimes smiling. There were photos of their preparing food on camp fires. Photos of families and children standing in front of tents or accompanied by soldiers. The captions told me that the location was Fort Bliss in 1914.
Following Pancho Villa's victory against federal forces in the Battle of Ojinaga, a battle with over 1,000 casualties, in the winter of 1913, thousands of federal troops and civilians crossed the Rio Grande at Presidio. Throwing themselves at the mercy of the US government, this "steady stream of suffering humanity," as one government official put it, walked four days to Marfa, accompanied by US troops. There they were transported to El Paso via train. Fifty babies were born along the way.
According to historian Nicolas Villanueva's The Lynching of Mexicans (University of New Mexico Press, 2017), 5,000 refugees were "corralled behind barbed wire as 'guests' of the United States." Why place refugees behind a barbed wire fence? Villanueva writes that Americans feared that the thousands of refugees would enter the nation and "swell the impoverished neighborhoods in El Paso." He writes that the American press characterized the internment camp as so wonderful that hundreds of El Paso's Mexicans tried to break into camp. There is no evidence of this other than the English language media's propaganda. Historian Ligia Arguilez has uncovered another history-- one of fear, trauma, escape attempts.
This is the history that came rushing back when I heard the news that on Tuesday Fort Bliss had been chosen by the Department of Homeland Security to house 12,000 asylum seekers, families. Fort Bliss will house families while Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo has been chosen to house children. This is not the first time in recent history that children have been detained on military bases. In 2016, Fort Bliss housed hundreds of unaccompanied minors. Under the Obama administration, numerous military bases were used to house children crossing the border.
A century after the "steady stream of suffering humanity" was corralled behind barbed wire at Fort Bliss, we are witnessing the upcoming internment of possibly 12,000 refugees on the same military base.
"How close can I get to you and yet do I really want to get that close?"
Art work by Lucia Martinez (2004)
On Saturday, July 30, hundreds of thousands of people will march in "Families Belong Together" rallies. In DC, 300,000 are expected to participate. The rallies have been organized in every state of the Union as well as at international locations. It is a strong response to the question posed by Melania Trump in her recent visit to a children's detention center in Texas on June 21. "I don't care. Do u?" Yes, hundreds of thousands of us care enough to rally in public for families and children. As I sat in the offices of the Border Network for Human Rights last night in a room full of people making posters for the upcoming rally, I knew the answer.
Here on the border, in El Paso where Fort Bliss engulfs us more and more with each passing decade, we know we have to be vigilant beyond the rally. Growing up less than two miles from Fort Bliss, I thought of it as the place my daddy went to work every day to inspect the clothing and items left behind by soldiers who had left. Today, I know it is the largest Army base with 1.2 million acres that spread from West Texas to Southern New Mexico. It is located in the Chihuahuan Desert. In the summers, it is unbearably hot. 12,000 refugees can easily disappear into this behemoth.
Rallies are important-- we've seen the impact that they have. Beyond the rally is just as important. People have asked me how to help, especially if they are far from the border. Keep up with the news. Donate if you can. Spread the word.
For more information, check out these orgs.
Families Belong Together
Border Network for Human Rights (El Paso)
Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services
This Saturday I will march with my 12 year old grandson and hundreds of thousands of others to tell the federal government that Families Belong Together and not behind barbed wire.