It can happen here, and it already is

Sinclair Lewis wrote in 1935 that fascism could come to America. El Paso in June shows it's here.

June, El Paso


I woke to the sound of a Japanese motorcycle ripping it west on I-10. I’d listened to the traffic in my sleep all night. Now whoever was surging toward 10,000 RPM served as my alarm clock. WHEEEERRRRRRRNNNNNNnnnnnnn… It faded into the distance.

I couldn’t remember what day it was. I always have a hard time telling on these trips. Being a reporter is such a peculiar occupation, because unlike most jobs you’re not tethered at all to the Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. world that nearly everyone else is, the thing that keeps us more or less on the same clock. You work when there is work to do and leads to chase and you stop when you can simply no longer stay awake. At least that’s how it works on breaking news trips like this one to El Paso, where I’ve spent a week trying to make sense of the chaos and pain being caused by yet another policy coming out of the White House. This time, the president and his anti-immigrant allies have decided to separate migrant mothers and fathers from their children, regardless of their reasons for coming here, which include extreme violence, poverty and government corruption back home.

It was a sinister plan that was surely an attempt to deter people from coming here — although no one in the president’s inner circle or the Trump himself have the spine to come out and say it. (Attorney General Jeff Sessions briefly hinted at family separations-as-deterrence in announcing the plan; White House Chief of Staff John Kelly said as much in an interview prior to the implementation of the policy, called zero tolerance.) As it stood that morning in El Paso, the policy was just another fine example of the fact that compassion and decency left the Republican party fo good when its members chose as their leader a man who denigrated a goddamn war hero early in his campaign in Iowa. I was there that day as the farmers laughed and cheered when Donald Trump made fun of John McCain for being captured while fighting in Vietnam.

Few were laughing in El Paso.

At The Tap, a Formica dive in the city’s sleepy downtown that served as my desk on a scalding day in June, I sat hunched over my computer for hours as news broke that Trump would sign an executive order to “end” family separations. Like the implementation of the policy itself, the order was haphazard and not fully thought-out, a reaction to a week’s worth of bad press and images of children being walked into hastily-constructed facilities where they’d be held. Child prisoners. I took down the scene as I wrote. Our story about the Trump administration having no plan and doing little to prepare for zero tolerance — including not informing US attorneys offices, the US Marshals and federal public defenders that their arrests and caseloads would soon skyrocket thanks to the new policy — quickly morphed into a piece explaining how the executive order will do nothing for the more than 2,000 children already separated from their parents.

Outside the bar, a road-worn kid in his late 20s who looked like he was 40 asks if I have any change on my way in. “Maybe a million bucks’ worth?” Ha ha.

Inside, two old drunks are at the end of the bar. The first few notes of The Low Spark of the High-Heeled Boys comes through the speaker: Bass first, piano second, then the snare. The phone rings. “If that’s my wife, I’m not here,” one of the drunks says.

Then the Dead doing Fire on the Mountain live somewhere in the 70s. The old boys are jamming now — Green Grass and High Tides, That Smell — and talking in that frank and honest way that’s most potent when elbows are cradled by the worn wood or cheap plastic of a boozy sanctuary.

“I am very frustrated with what’s going on in the world today,” the guy on the right says. “I never paid that much attention to government, except now they’re doing bullshit.”

The man on the left, I find, is originally from New Haven, Connecticut. The guy on the right is the Dead fan. Both of them have silver straw hair pulled back into ponytails. New Haven has a rich smoker’s cough that rumbles from deep inside of him every time he lights up. His companion has a kind and mischievous smile and for some reason can’t get the doctor to give him Viagra anymore. He taught political science at some point. They begin talking about Trump with a young Mexican guy who has been mooching beers of them and tells me he’s a felon.

“I think he’s the most hated person on the planet,” New Haven says of the president. “And I think it’s getting to him. You look at him and… I think he regrets taking this job. I don’t think he wants to do any of this anymore.”

“Guy’s never worked a day in his life,” Dead says. “He got his start because his dad loaned him millions of dollars. All that stuff he did in real estate, that was because of his dad. He was born with a silver spoon but he’s trailer park trash. He’s a dumb, rich redneck”

By the time I leave, they’re beginning to fade, doing the old “Awww hell why not, one more!” thing. Drinks they won’t finish. New Haven’s head drops to his chest. “He’s taking his afternoon siesta,” Dead says to the Mexican felon.

When I tell them goodbye, they respond in unison, Take care.

That day began on the Santa Fe bridge at 8 a.m. — Paso del Norte. At the border line, I spotted the gathering I’d expected since the night before, when I was told that my plan to have some quiet time with a family of asylum-seekers that morning would be shattered because word had gotten out, and the TV people would be there.

“Sorry man, it’s probably gonna be a camera shitshow,” my source texted me.

But I went anyway because it was important work: since my arrival in El Paso I’d been hearing about asylum-seekers being denied the opportunity to apply for asylum at the two bridges spanning the border, the only legal ways in to the United States from Juarez. How can that be? Doesn’t asylum mean… asylum? It can be and it is because, the border agents kept telling desperate migrants, “there is no room.”

“We’re not turning people away or telling them they can’t apply for asylum. We’re telling them to come back later!”

This was screamed at me by a completely exasperated spokesperson for the Department of Homeland Security when I asked her how it’s possible people trying to legally enter the country and apply for asylum could be denied the opportunity to do so. Her breathless lie came just a few hours after an infamous press conference that White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders apparently didn’t even want to be a part of in which DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen torpedoed whatever was left of her career in moderate politics and public service by blaming the media for exposing the awfulness of family separations. In the seats in front of her: the White House press corps, armed to the teeth with horror stories about mothers having their babies being ripped out of their arms, audio of children crying out for their parents inside the facilities the administration insisted weren’t that bad—and that noted awful human being Laura Ingraham called “like summer camp”— and a general sense of controlled anger and disbelief at what they and the rest of the country were witnessing.

It was a fucking bloodbath. By the time the slaughter had ended, Nielsen walked off the dais with a look on her face that showed not only deep frustration over what she’d just been put through, but disgust in herself for towing the line of an administration that she may have, in that moment, lost any remaining respect for.[1]

The DHS spokesperson was lying, of course, when she told me asylum-seekers were being denied entry because there really was “no room” in holding facilities at Paso del Norte. She also probably had no idea what was actually happening there and was just spouting the talking points that had been passed down to her from on high. The reason people were being told there was no room is really quite simple. Although, again, no one within the administration or the anti-immigration wing of the Republican Party — which at this point it’s safe to say, through a failure to act or complicit agreement with Trump’s policies, is the entire party — had enough spine to say it: if you don’t let people in to apply for asylum then they can never get asylum. Secondly, it might also force them into the impossible decision of going back to their shithole of a country (the president’s words) or break the law and enter the United States illegally — thus making them easily-dismissible criminals. And the third leg of this twisted ordeal: after entering illegally and getting caught, their children would be taken from them. Finally, the horrors of being separated from your kids and having no idea where they are would spread through word of mouth and news stories all the way from ICE detention centers in Texas and elsewhere along the border to Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, deterring others from even thinking about coming here.

This was the plan and everyone knew it. Yet there was Nielsen and others in Trump’s soulless White House insisting it wasn’t, insisting they were just following the law. That was a lie.

The plan of deterrence through family separations might have worked, and maybe it did, for some. But for many others, even the prospect of having their children taken from them and put in some other state they’ve never even heard of while mom or dad was locked up in Texas or New Mexico or Arizona wasn’t enough to prevent them from taking the risk of jumping the border. That’s because what they were fleeing is far worse than what they were facing, Maureen Franco, head of the federal public defender’s office in El Paso told me.

“Terror overcomes deterrence,” she said.

It’s not violence that Americans live with or can even comprehend that migrants were fleeing, but actual, life-threatening terror. They were fleeing violence and poverty and murder that all but promised to consume themselves and their families.

Of the three Northern Triangle countries, El Salvador is by far the most violent, based on a comparison of homicide rates per capita (the number of people in a group of 100,000 who are murdered each year). In 2016, El Salvador’s per capita murder rate was 82.84, Guatemala’s was 27.26, and Honduras’ was 56.52. Perhaps the easiest way to compare that to American levels of violence is to get past the per capita rate and right to the hard numbers. With about a million more people than New York City, Honduras saw more than 5,000 murders in 2016. That same year, New York saw just 334. The comparison between El Salvador and New York is even more jarring. With 1.8 million fewer residents than New York City, El Salvador also saw more than 5,000 murders in 2016, or 93 times the number of New Yorkers killed that same year.

In other words, more than 31,000 New Yorkers would have to be murdered in a single year to reach El Salvadoran levels of violence. Extrapolated for the entire United States, that number jumps to 882,000 Americans murdered in a single year. Currently, the United States is in a downward trend of violent crime, averaging about 16,000 homicides a year.

And yet, many in the Trump administration and their supporters amongst the American public think they can deter people from coming to the United States in their attempt to flee such unthinkable violence. First, they proposed a wall, as if the natural barriers of desert and mountains without food or water resources for hundreds of miles along vast stretches of the southern border weren’t enough. Then came zero tolerance, which despite the administration’s insistence that it was not, was a policy of separating migrant parents from their children. There’s just one problem with that theory of family separations as deterrence, Franco said.

“I bet you news of zero tolerance hasn’t made its way into the mountains of Guatemala or the backroads of Mexico. Those people are not watching CNN or Fox News to know that if they come up here their children will be taken away.”

Such nuances are lost on Trump and his legion of ignorant supporters. Their lack of appreciation for the violence in Mexico and the Northern Triangle is compounded by their constant boasting that the economy is booming, another huge factor in migration to the United States. Such chest-thumping is adding to the flow of migrants, the former Guatemalan ambassador said in late June, during the height of the zero tolerance crisis when it lead news coverage every day for more than a week. The combination of violence and poverty — and the perceived promise of jobs and peace in the United States — means there is little that could actually deter people from coming here, the ambassador said.

“We’re trying to stop a phenomenon that can’t be stopped,” he said.

Iliana Holguin, an immigration attorney in El Paso similarly summed up the issue. Walls, family separations, arrest, deportation — none of it will stop people who are intent on seeking a better life, peace for their children or to be reunited with family who are already here.

“If you shoot people on sight crossing the Rio Grande,” she told me in her office one day, “that might deter people, too. But we have to ask ourselves where we are morally if we’re justifying separating families by saying it might deter people.”

The situation in the Northern Triangle — its violence, poverty and corruption — is, ironically and of course, largely a result of the United States’ own intervention in governments there. Our own violent penal system was a major factor in the creation of MS-13, whose members we then deported back to El Salvador where they carried out their terror. Our intervention in Guatemala’s government prompted decades of Civil War there. And Americans’ good, old-fashioned, voracious appetite for narcotics fuels the power of drug cartels in Honduras.

Since we’re largely responsible for the endemic problems those countries face, it seems a bit cruel to turn around and tell its people they can’t flee here from the very problems we caused. Like an abusive husband beating his wife, somehow the beatings always manage to be her fault.

Trying to get Trump and his supporters to understand, much less care about, these complexities presents as much a challenge as the issue of migration itself. They believe migrants should come here legally, without acknowledging the difficulties that that entails, and they believe people who come here should possess skills that add to America’s greatness. I often wonder, when I hear Trump say things like “they’re not sending their best,” how he and his supporters would fare if they applied for a visa in another country. What skills do they have? They would probably fill out the visa form by saying they would Make [insert country] great again!

My day in El Paso that ended at The Tap began by watching a mother cry in front of cameras who were mercilessly snapping away because the border agents wouldn’t let her, her four children and her mother past a line in the concrete of the Santa Fe bridge to apply for the asylum we have promised generations of immigrants before her. And it ended like many of my days do: by watching on television as the TV President talked up his achievements at a rally of mostly white Americans. That evening’s rally was in Duluth, Minnesota, thousands of miles away from the horrific threat of the poor Mexican woman seeking asylum. The white Americans there gleefully chanted, Build that wall!

Surely, if they weren’t vigilant, that Mexican mother on the bridge in El Paso would soon be coming up there to take their mining jobs in the Iron Range. Better to shut her out. And her kids too.

Lucky for them they have a leader who’s willing to be so brave. He also happens to be the most dangerous species of mammal to ever walk the earth, a sincere death threat to everyone on the planet for the past thousand years: an angry white man with enough money and power to do something about it.

The morning before the camera shitshow and Trump’s rally in Duluth, I met another woman on the bridge trying to claim asylum. For three days she, her granddaughter and her great-grandchildren had left their fixer’s home somewhere in Juarez and walked to the Santa Fe bridge only to be turned away each time with the familiar, There’s no room.

On the fourth day advocates showed up to help. Among them was Alan Dicker, a tall, lanky white guy in his late 20s whose deep voice had for some reason made me picture him as someone much older, heavier and wearing glasses. (We’d talked on the phone for almost two years for various stories before I finally met him in person in El Paso.) Dicker works as a volunteer for a non-profit, the Detained Migrant Solidarity Committee, whose members among other things serves as legal aides of sorts, monitoring the chaos of the immigration system to find out who’s being held where, what conditions are like inside facilities and sometimes helping lawyers find people, take statements and write declarations that may one day be used in court. Now that turning asylum-seekers back to Juarez — turnbacks — had become something of an unwritten yet official part of zero tolerance, Alan and others were now monitoring the bridges, and pushing back against border agents who insisted that there was no room in holding facilities at Paso del Norte to begin processing migrants’ asylum claims.

I met Alan on the bridge that day, where he was talking to the grandmother. The last time he saw her she was about to be taken into custody with the rest of her family. Now she was alone, clutching a manila folder with her official paperwork from Mexico.

As far as Alan could tell the woman was separated from her family once inside the holding facility. There, she was essentially interrogated, with officials asking her repeatedly why she was entering the United States. Confused, scared, alone, and without knowledge that she needed to use the magic word — asilo — she simply told them over and over again that she was there to be with her family, which was technically true. She just forgot to tell them that she and her family were fleeing a criminal gang that had taken over her village in the far southern Mexican state of Guerrero. The gang had taken her granddaughter’s home, she said, and had overrun the town. The authorities have either done nothing to stop it or are complicit in the coup.

The grandmother’s situation was indicative of the complexities of asylum claims, Alan said as we walked through Juarez. As much as he and others tried to help the grandmother the previous morning, she was no match for border agents whose job it is to turn away as many asylum-seekers as possible. From a legal perspective, they’re perfectly within their rights to do so if grandma doesn’t say the magic word. But from a moral perspective, it was simply wrong, Alan said. Both the government and the American public believe that asylum-seekers must fit into the category of the “perfect victim,” a narrow definition of someone who has spoken out against their government, been threatened for doing so, and has fled for fear of their very lives. Think Russians speaking out against Communism in the Soviet era, Cubans doing the same, Iraqis protesting the rule of Sadaam Hussein.

But very few people fit into that category, which Alan called a throwback to the 1950s, when the American government was battling Communism across the globe and more than willing to take in Democracy-supporting defectors. Instead, many asylum-seekers are fleeing violence enacted by criminal gangs and drug cartels in cities, states and towns where law enforcement and the government are unwilling or unable to do anything to stop it. Are those people any less deserving of asylum?

Alan was more forgiving about Trump’s understanding of these complexities than I was. I don’t think there’s any way Trump understands any of this: the history of U.S. intervention in Latin America, the rampant violence and poverty there, America’s drug addiction, the opportunities for work in the United States by businesses that are rarely if ever are punished for employing illegal immigrants. (It’s always the prostitutes who are arrested and charged; never the Johns.) Trump sees everything as a zero-sum game: What are they doing for us? If the answer is something high-minded like, Not much perhaps, other than paying millions of dollars in sales taxes and coming to America like millions of immigrants before them in search of a better life because that’s the promise this country was founded on, I think Trump is likely to say, Not good enough. Fuck them.

In addition to the disheartening effects of the turnbacks and confusion in the interview room, the grandmother from Guerrero wasn’t all there, Alan said. She had trouble articulating what she wanted to say. Maybe she was just old and tired. It was hard to tell. But she seemed to take to Alan and held his hand as we walked across the bridge toward Juarez. Cars whizzed by, pumping the gas to get up the steep incline that leads to apex of the bridge, the literal dividing line between Mexico and the United States, where border agents now stop people who look like asylum-seekers to tell them there’s no room. The grandmother cried and said she just wanted to go home. “I’m very sick. If they kill me, they kill me,” she told Alan.

“That’s verbatim,” he added for my reporting purposes.

We were able to teach the grandmother how to use her granddaughter’s phone, which for some unexplained reason was now in her possession (Alan could never get to the bottom of this). She called Jorge, the man they’d been staying with in Juarez. Was it safe for her to go back into the city with him? Was she or someone else in the family paying him? (She almost surely wasn’t paying. The only money she had was two American dollars in her wallet.) Who even was he? Alan couldn’t get much in the way of answers to these questions. So the three of us sat on the footing of the massive, concrete canopy that proclaims Paso del Norte just past the bridge’s turn-styles, feet into Juarez. Alan had been writing in my notepad for the last 15 minutes or so as he talked to the woman, gathering details from her story that would be important should her case ever make to a courtroom as part of an asylum claim or a lawsuit filed by advocates and lawyers like Alan himself. As he finished, he explained what he’d written. It was a “declaration,” he said, and he needed her signature.

By this time Jorge was there. A young, stylishly dressed man with a round face in his early 20s, Alan now asked him directly who he was, how he knew the woman and why she was staying with him. “He just says he’s a paisano, a friend of a friend of the family. Who knows…” Alan told me.

The woman added her signature to the bottom of Alan’s declaration, a barely-recognizable scrawl. She wiped the tears from her eyes and thanked us both, Jorge thanking us too. He took her hand and they walked down the street. She shuffled along and clutched her manila folder. This misadventure was finally, mercifully over.

*


[1] And yet, she continues to soldier on. After a brief round of media reports that Trump was looking to fire her for not being ghastly enough, she’s ramped up her anti-immigrant rhetoric and the lies that come with it. As I wait for my flight back to El Paso this morning, I have a document open that contains the various lies and mis-truths she’s told that I’ll be seeking to prove wrong through my reporting. I don’t know how she sleeps at night, but I hope it’s as poorly as I often do.

P.S. I accidentally lied before Christmas when I said I’d be in El Paso for New Years and that my story about the complexities of life in the El Paso borderland would be going live at VICE by then. But I’m definitely telling the truth now because I’m on a plane to ELP and the edits are in. The photos on this post are from my friend and colleague Zach Nelson, who shot my VICE story in El Paso and Juarez in late September. This trip, I’ll be in the region for at least four days, reporting for The Beast on whatever I find — and holding this administration accountable for the latest round of chaos and pain it’s causing.