Protests have erupted around the country as Americans are increasingly alarmed at the conditions being reported in immigrant detention centers. The situation grows more dire as reports of injury, death, sexual assaults, and the separation of children from families reach the public through various advocacy groups and public officials. As the outcry grows through public protests, so too are reports of arrests for those who engage in these actions.
In New Jersey, hundreds of Jewish Americans organized under the #NeverAgainIsNow theme which resulted in 36 arrests for blocking a road to the Elizabeth, NJ detention center. Another 18 protesters were arrested in Boston and charged with trespassing while the District Attorney has declined to prosecute them. A year ago, over 600 women were arrested in Washington D.C. during an anti-ICE protest and in none of these were there allegations of law enforcement misconduct.
That is not the case for protests last week in Carrizo Springs, Texas.
On July 3, nearly 200 protesters gathered at a new detention center for children in Dimmit County, Texas. The facility is in a rural area among vast expanses of ranch land, just outside the county seat of Carrizo Springs, 45 miles north of the Mexico border. The entire county is home to just over 10,000 residents with most of these employed as laborers or the oil and gas industry and over 70% of the population is Hispanic with Mexican heritage.
The facility is well known to area activists who have been struggling to keep up with humanitarian aid for refugees for over a year, providing bus fare and support for immigrants awarded asylum status to help them reach family members across the country.
A Planned Protest Event
Many groups like the Children’s Defense Fund, Texas Organizing Project, the Brown Berets of San Antonio, and the indigenous Carrizo/Comecrudo Tribe of Texas organized the civil protest on July 3 hoping to bring awareness to the plight of migrant children at the facility.
“From the beginning, there was a heavy and intimidating presence of police special forces…”
Children’s Defense Fund -Texas Executive Director, Patrick Bresette called both the county sheriff and the facility before the planned event to help ensure a peaceful event and assure that attendees would not pose a nuisance to the facility, stating the event itself would last no more than two hours.
Bresette arrived an hour early and confirmed parking with the front gate officers.
“I was told that if we made sure people parked past the last fire lane in front of another business, there wouldn’t be a problem,” Bresette said. “Now, I feel like this whole thing had been orchestrated.”
Most participants arrived in two large coach buses, coming from Austin, Houston, San Antonio, and other areas. Some came in private vehicles and parked where directed or along the easement on the dirt access road. The event itself began late and organizers rushed through the planned agenda to ensure a conclusion by the 12:30 deadline. As the program went on, attendees and organizers sensed something was amiss.
John Wiesen published his observations in a DailyKos post:
“From the beginning, there was a heavy and intimidating presence of police special forces. They cruised slowly in large black SUVs, persistently driving back and forth inches away from protesters. They were so close that at one protester was hit by a side view mirror as they drove by, and felt she had to leave early to remove her children from this frightening situation.”
The event proceeded as planned and began wrapping up around 12:15. According to witnesses, law enforcement continued to escalate tension when more sheriff’s deputies arrived with tow trucks. That is when organizers realized something was very wrong.
Bresette says he immediately rushed to the detention center gate to investigate the issue and spoke to the center’s Public Information Officer. “I asked if there was a problem and reminded them that it was their instructions we followed. No one ever denied it.”
Bresset said one of his staff member’s vehicles was towed and law enforcement was now blocking the road preventing some of the protesters from leaving, and, witness say, began provoking attendees.
It was at this time officers made their first arrest, Maureen, a young recent college graduate who witness said was tased twice before being handcuffed. Her arrest, according to witnesses, was staged by a deputy asking the tow truck driver if he was offended by Maureen’s comments. When the driver gave the officer a thumbs up, the officer drew his taser and fired at her. When her brother, Ahmed, objected, he too was arrested. The crowd became angry, chanting, “let them go!”
Rosey Abuabara, as she herself was being threatened with an officer who had a taser in hand, finger on the trigger, ”I thought of my kids. They were just kids… Everything just got so crazy so fast and I didn’t want them to just disappear.”
In seconds, Abuabara was thrown to the ground and surrounded by Dimmit County Sheriff Deputies. Once handcuffed, she was put into the van with the Maureen and Ahmed. The noon temperature that day was 97 degrees. With no open windows and no air-conditioning, the internal temperature inside the van was already sweltering. Abuabara said she watched in horror as time passed and Ahmed began to struggle to breathe.
“I saw him and just…my mind went to…you can’t even leave a dog in a car like that without something happening. Then I remembered they put those old-fashioned metal hand cuffs on us.”
She instructed Maureen and Ahmed to make noise and hit the side of the van wall to make as much noise as possible, “It was maybe ten minutes later finally someone came and started up the van and put the air conditioning on.”
Abuabara says they were then driven to the county jail and were never read their Miranda Rights nor informed of what they were being charged with.
Withholding Public Information
For the next twenty-four hours, the sheriff’s office would withhold that information from organizers, family members, and attorney David Van Oss.
Van Oss says he called the Dimmit County Sheriff whose staff were reluctant to provide information and were hostile to his questioning.
“It was really odd to call the sheriff’s office and have them act like that and for them to withhold public information. It led me to suspect that they didn’t have a legitimate reason for an arrest. It made me very suspicious.”
Van Oss was also concerned about a possible civil rights violation. “Freedom of Assembly is guaranteed. If they were on public property, like on the side of a road, then the First Amendment is in play, the right to speak is all in full force,” he said.
Even vulgarities and profanity are protected free speech. “No local ordinance has the authority to override the Constitution, which is the supreme law of the land.”
Texas Organizing Project issued a statement on Facebook saying, “The three activists who were arrested were treated harshly by deputies who were clearly agitated by our powerful presence. One was reportedly tased and another was thrown to the ground. After their arrests, the Dimmit County Sheriff’s Office slow-walked the case, forcing them to spend a night in jail when they should have been back home with their families.”
After 1:00 pm the following day, all three were released. Maureen and Ahmed were charged with disorderly conduct while Abuabara was charged with interference with an officer.
Abuabara is recovering from injuries she sustained from the arrest. She is also a candidate for U.S. Congress, running for the House seat in the 23rd Congressional District.
- Watch the Video (viewer discretion advised): https://youtu.be/x89G-tbRXPo
The House that Beto Built
William “Will” Hurd is the Republican who holds the Texas Congressional House seat today and narrowly won his race in 2018, bolstered by help from then Democratic Congressional Candidate Beto O’Rourke. O’Rourke elevated Hurd’s profile when they shared a rental car to return to Washington after a snowstorm grounded flights across Texas. They live-streamed their drive on social media while taking questions from constituents.
“Our party leadership is probably not super excited that we’re doing this,” O’Rourke said during the broadcast.
In fact, Texas GOP leaders were thrilled with the stunt. The New York Times quoted Mark McKinnon, a former adviser to George W. Bush, as describing the event as, “life preserver for Hurd and launchpad for Beto.”
Hurd went on to defeat the heavily funded DCCC-backed Democratic nominee, Gina Ortiz Jones, by less than 2%. Jones, herself the daughter of a Filipino immigrant, is an Iraq War veteran and intelligence officer who worked in Washington under both the Obama and Trump administrations. Hilary Clinton won the district in 2016, so it was expected that the seat would be flippable.
Jones had all the right endorsements, was touted as the first openly gay woman of color to run, and raised $6.2 million, breaking fundraising records in the process. It came as a shock for her to be handed a defeat by just 1,150 votes.
“In a district that is 75% Mexican Latino, we should have that representation in Congress.”
The core argument against Jones focused on her Washington bureaucratic ties and outsider status in the district. The strategy worked as nearly half of the district’s 446,000 eligible voters did not vote in that race. Undeterred, Jones has already started campaigning again.
Another Washington candidate, Lisa Wahl, has also thrown her hat into the ring. Wahl was a journalist on the Russian RT network until she resigned on air over the network’s biased coverage of the 2014 Russian Crimea crisis. Wahl’s father is Hungarian while her mother is Filipino and she felt the bias in reporting was unfair.
Wahl then signed on as a Washington correspondent for Newsy, a media outlet owned by The E. W. Scripps Company, joining the outlet in 2015. Wahl was also at the July 3 detention center location briefly, posting photos to social media, but did not participate in the protest itself and left before tow trucks arrived. Neither she nor her campaign responded to requests for comment.
Abuabara says she decided to step up and run for office herself, “In a district that is 75% Mexican Latino, we should have that representation in Congress.”
She also cites her activism in the district and along the border for an intimate understanding of the complex issues the area will continue to face.
“Look, the [Mexican] cartels have changed from drug smuggling as their number one goal. Today, they are focused on smuggling immigrants across the border at $2,500 per person. This is where the violence across the border comes from.”
Human Rights Watch, an independent international advocacy group, released a scathing report on July 2, saying, “The US government has advanced a dangerous fiction that asylum seekers returned to Mexico will have access to work and shelter and a fair chance in US immigration courts,” said Clara Long, senior US researcher at Human Rights Watch and co-author of the report. “Instead, US border officials are stranding mothers with small children and other vulnerable migrants in Mexican border cities where their safety and security are at risk.”
Abuabara points to the December 2018 Trump Administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) as a source of growing crime and tension. That policy includes housing South American asylum seekers in Mexico after they have presented themselves to U.S. border agents. The U.S. has pledged funds to support housing these refugees, but conditions in these Mexican camps are dire as overcrowding is significantly worse than what is evident at U.S. detention centers.
Conditions are so bleak that a union-backed lawsuit was filed in California in response to human rights and US law violations, citing the policy, “violates our nation’s obligations to not return asylum seekers to where they may face persecution,” and that, “the MPP is not designed to redress the challenges facing our immigration system.”
Among the human rights violations alleged are American border patrol agents confiscating personal identification documents that prevent them from being able to receive money sent by relatives or prove family relationship status. These seizures also prevent refugees from traveling to other countries to seek asylum there or even able to return home. Once they are stranded in Mexican border cities, Abuabara says they can fall prey to cartels who threaten them, kidnap them, and take advantage of their circumstances.
Abuabara related the story she heard from a priest who regularly crosses the border into Mexico to provide aid to the refugees. “He told me about one man who had gotten stabbed and pleaded with a Mexican police officer for help. He said the officer refused to help him saying, ‘you are not Mexican.’”
Refugees can wait months, if not a full year or more, for a hearing on their asylum status with U.S. immigration courts. The Human Rights Watch report cited the dire findings of Edith Tapia, a policy analyst reviewing the effects of MPP in Ciudad Juarez for the Hope Border Institute, “Sending asylum seekers to Mexico has left them with little to no meaningful access to legal representation in the United States, contrary to US government claims.”
Newsweek broke the story just days ago about yet another detention center for children in Congressman Hurd’s district, this one in Clint, Texas. That facility has been documented with outbreaks of scabies, chicken pox, and shingles as well as cited for significant overcrowding issues as documented in acting Department of Homeland Security Inspector General Jennifer Costello’s report where she wrote, “Urgent issues… require immediate attention and action…Specifically, we encourage the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to take immediate steps to alleviate dangerous overcrowding and prolonged detention of children and adults in the Rio Grande Valley.”
Hearings will begin this week before a Congressional panel to reconcile the DHS report with the contradictory statements made by Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan, who maintains the facilities are adequate and operating according to standard.
As grim as the situation at the border seems today, Abuabara remains optimistic and pledges to keep fighting for the children.
“How are people looking the other way? My grandfather came here…what’s the difference between them and me?” she says.
She is reminded of one refugee who had been granted asylum a year ago and was stranded at a bus station with her children with just $10 to sustain all of them for a cross country journey over several days.
“I was happy to help her so she could buy food for her children along the way, but then she looked at me and said, ‘Don’t lose faith in humanity. There are still good people in this world’.” Abuabara paused, still emotional from the memory, “That really got to me considering what she had just been through. I will never forget that. She gave me hope.”
Volunteers and adovcates have pledged to continue fighting for refugees until the detention centers have been closed and families are reunited with their children.