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Christmas in Tornillo: Activists, Lawmakers Demand Trump Shut Down Prison Camp for Migrant Children

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As the government shutdown heads into its 14th day and Trump doubles down on his demands for a border wall, we turn to look at the ongoing crisis unfolding at the U.S. border and the protesters on the ground fighting back. In West Texas, immigrant rights activists are staging daily actions to shut down the Tornillo prison camp, where thousands of immigrant youth are being detained. The organizers call themselves the “Christmas in Tornillo” occupation. On New Year’s Eve, they shut down the entrance of the sprawling prison camp, where 2,300 children are being held in more than 150 tents. We speak with Juan Ortiz, immigrant rights activist and lead organizer with the Christmas in Tornillo occupation, and Democratic Congressmember Judy Chu from California.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. As the government shutdown heads into its 14th day and Trump doubles down on his demands for a wall, we turn to look at the ongoing crisis on the border and the protesters on the ground fighting back. In West Texas, immigrant rights activists are staging daily actions to shut down the Tornillo prison camp, where thousands of immigrant youth are being detained. The organizers call themselves the Christmas in Tornillo occupation. On New Year’s Eve, they shut down the entrance of the sprawling prison camp, where 2,300 children are being held in more than 150 tents.

DENISE BENAVIDES: So, my name is Denise Benavides. I am a Dallas County community organizer. And we are here at the Tornillo port of entry in front of a concentration camp for Central American minors who are teenagers between the ages of 12 and 17. … This is the only way we’re going to shut this place down, is with resistance, is with action. It’s with our voices, is with the stories that we hear. We’re tired of this. This should not be happening in America. We are the most incarcerated country in the world. And it’s sad that we celebrate freedom.

AMY GOODMAN: Tornillo has become a flashpoint in the fight against the Trump administration’s immigration policies and the growing number of detained children in the U.S. The tent prison opened operations in June with capacity for 360 children, has since expanded to hold thousands. In November, a Trump administration memo revealed rigorous staff background checks at Tornillo were waived. The facility was supposed to close December 31st but will remain open into 2019, according to [HHS], the Department of Health and Human Services.

For more, we’re going to El Paso, Texas, where we’re joined by Juan Ortiz, immigrant and indigenous rights activist, lead organizer with the Christmas in Tornillo occupation. Still with us in Washington, D.C., Democratic Congressmember Judy Chu, who represents Pasadena and other areas. Along with Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley, she’s introduced the Shut Down Child Prison Camps Act.

Congressmember Chu, explain what this act would do.

REP. JUDY CHU: It would shut down child prisons camps, such as in Tornillo, so that this cannot happen again. I was shocked when I went in December on a congressional trip led by Senator Jeff Merkley. I was shocked that such camps existed.

And let me say something about what I saw. We drove for an hour, past civilization, past dead cotton fields. It seemed like there was nothing. And then, emerging out of nowhere was a whole tent city of these gigantic white tents.

And as it turned out, these tent cities were started because it was a way of getting around the Flores agreement, which required that children should not be detained for more than 20 days. So, it was set up as an emergency facility. They didn’t have running electricity or running water. Everything had to be turned in and brought in. And there was a deliberate reason for it. That was so that they could have this detention facility be deemed an emergency facility, where they could keep these children in prison-like settings indefinitely.

These children didn’t know when they were going to leave. And they had a way out, actually: 1,300 of them already had sponsors. And yet they were being kept there because Trump, at that time, had increased the requirements for these children to be able to leave. But there they stayed, indefinitely, until the point that they could be released.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I’d like to bring in Juan Ortiz. You’re an immigrant rights activist, indigenous organizer, from El Paso, lead organizer with the Christmas in Tornillo occupation. But we’re way past Christmas right now, Juan. So what are you doing there? What are you calling for?

JUAN ORTIZ: So, basically, what we’re doing now is occupying space. But since—it originally had started under the auspices of being there during the Christmas season and doing actions of resistance there. It wound up morphing into something greater, because we walked in, straight into—well, the people from outside of town—into humanitarian crisis.

And so, we were there at the Greyhound station, where people were dropped off in the cold without any ability to be able to fend the weather or the conditions in which they were released. So we wound up becoming a camp that was also, aside from resisting, also assisting the community in the humanitarian needs that came up during that time. And now we’re occupying space to make sure it closes and to be present and assist the community ongoingly in terms of whatever it is that comes up during out—with our network of partners, because these things are ongoing. DHS continues to drop people off at the different—now not only Greyhound stations, but also in hotels and other facilities that have been brought up just to be able to deal with the overflow, the massive overflow, of people that are being released into the streets.

But this is going to be an ongoing problem, and so both we are present and directing folks and resources from our base in Tornillo to the city, but we’re also doing acts of resistance, like the day we shut down the shift change in Tornillo to highlight how many—as the senator [sic] was saying before, how unsustainable and remote it is that they have to be bringing in 25 different busloads of personnel every single night, from all over the area, just to be able to sustain it, and the constant flow of water, potable water, just to be able to maintain the facility, because it’s that remote. The conditions are that draconian, and it’s that isolated from the rest of El Paso, that just to have a presence there is really taxing even to us, who are from the city, just to be able to camp out there. Lots of our people have gotten sick. The conditions are harsh. And that’s just from outside—like, just outside the encampment.

AMY GOODMAN: Juan Ortiz, if you can describe—I mean, in this last month, two children have died, that we know of, in U.S. custody, actually in a remote area of New Mexico. We heard about the dumping of hundreds of people by the U.S. border officials in El Paso. You were there. Describe what you saw and the condition of the children.

JUAN ORTIZ: Yes, I and Denise Benavides, who spoke earlier, and Elizabeth Vega, who are from Ferguson and different parts of Texas and Dallas, we all converged there on the day everyone arrived, because we’re part of networks that give us a heads-up when these humanitarian crises are happening. So, I live not too far from the Greyhound station. And what we ran into there was a situation in which DHS had left a lot—and ICE had left a lot of people at the Greyhound stations. It was becoming increasingly colder. There was a lot of people already sick. They hadn’t eaten probably in days, from what we can tell. The children were thirsty. All these different conditions, on top of people already—their immune systems were compromised by not eating adequately. Adults were sick.

So I recognized what it was. And, in essence, what it was is it was the exact conditions that DHS were denying existed in their facilities and under their custody that caused the deaths of Jakelin and then, afterwards, Felipe. And then, actually, Jakelin died in El Paso not even two miles from the Greyhound station in which the rest of the migrants were abandoned, and she died after a long battle of exposure. And that just, for me, reified that situation there, proved—it became demonstrable what the administration was denying, that they were creating conditions in which children died. Anyone who was there that day—and we were there that day assisting—could understand that the structural violence that was enacted against those children and continues to be enacted against those children in places like Tornillo, that was proof positive for us and anyone who was there to witness that, that those conditions are indeed real, and they’re indeed ongoing.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Congressmember Judy Chu, now that the Democrats are in charge of the House, though the co-sponsor, Senator Merkley, of course, is in a Republican Senate, how are you going to push the closing of Tornillo legislation?

REP. JUDY CHU: We need to make sure that the American public knows that this is going on, so that they have the same outrage that there was when the child separations was occurring. I think that most Americans do not know about these kind of tent cities. In fact, the outrage so far has resulted in at least the Trump administration saying that they are going to close it down mid-January. But we do not trust it, and the Shut Tornillo Down Coalition does not trust it, because they could create this emergency tent city elsewhere, and they could just have it spring up somewhere, just like they did with this, in which they started with hundreds, but by the time we got there, there were 2,700 children that were being detained in that particular facility. So we want to make sure that there is a permanent solution to this problem. We want to have hearings on this. We want to create as much pressure as possible so that we can ensure that this will not happen again.

AMY GOODMAN: According to the Associated Press, the government also plans to house more teenagers in another temporary facility in Homestead, Florida, expanding the total number of beds from 1,300 to more than 2,300.

REP. JUDY CHU: So you see what is going on. They are just simply moving these facilities around, and the very same thing could occur in Homestead, Florida, where you have thousands of children that are being detained. It is inhumane. And I could not believe it. When I went to Tornillo, I saw these children walking around in single file, with a guard at the front and a guard in the back. Just to go to the restroom, they had to have a guard accompany them. Even in prisons, I have not seen that kind of strict control over the children. These are children. So, it is intolerable. We just cannot let this continue.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Juan Ortiz, your message—we just have 30 seconds—to people around the world, from the border, as President Trump has shut down the government? We’re now entering the third week, 800,000 workers not being paid or on furlough, demanding $5 million for a border wall. Your thoughts?

JUAN ORTIZ: And it’s important to know that this is part of a process. Like the senator [sic] was mentioning, Tornillo is there because of family separations. Family separations are there because of zero tolerance. Zero tolerance was there because of the criminalization of immigration.

And what’s not part of the process is this humanitarian aid that border communities have had to step up with. Our partners in Immigrant Families Together, at Movimiento Cosecha, have all been taxed—Migrant Solidarity Committee in El Paso—have had to step up double of their amount of humanitarian aid that they are able to assist folks. And communities like ours are being overstretched. And the system shouldn’t depend on humanitarian aid to be able to save lives.

That just is proof positive that the system and the state apparatus is broken, and that we, as a community, are tired of all these policies that are being enacted with no infrastructure, and all these remote and desolate places along the border were not built to house, and don’t have the capacity to be able to house, human beings in a way that’s sustainable. And so you’ll have more deaths. More people on the border will have to sacrifice more and more. And it’s all part of a process which is due to all these reactionary and xenophobic and racist policies directed at our community on both sides. And we recognize that.

And I thank all the border communities and the rest of our partners that have helped us out through this process, because we are being overwhelmed. And our communities are showing their true nature, are stepping up to the plate to fill in a void that they shouldn’t have to, because the state apparatus shouldn’t have to depend on charity, and the charity of people along the border who are already impoverished, who come from communities that are already challenged, to be able to function in a system that’s simply not functioning. Tornillo is just proof positive of a system in—the system itself is in chaos, not the border. The border is the one that’s been stepping up and filling in the void that the—and the chaos, and ordering the chaos that the administration is creating.

AMY GOODMAN: Juan Ortiz, I want to thank you for being with us, indigenous and immigrant rights activist, speaking to us from El Paso, one of the lead organizers of Christmas in Tornillo occupation. And thank you so much to Democratic Congressmember Judy Chu of Pasadena and surrounding areas in California, chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, also a member of the Ways and Means Committee, has introduced legislation to shut down child prison camps.

This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. When we come back, one secretary after another, one Cabinet member after another, has been forced out of Trump’s Cabinet. Will Alex Acosta, the labor secretary, be next? A number of congressmembers are calling for an investigation into his past activities. Stay with us.

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