When I arrived at the Homestead Detention Center, as I have on every other morning, we went right over to the field to see the girls outside. The girls only seem to enjoy the field in the morning. Just as every other day, it was not long before security vehicles and guards joined us. We always greet the guards. Most often, they ignore us. Sometimes, they say a curt “hello.” Very, very rarely they speak to us. Today was a day of speaking. One woman in a golf cart drove by slowly, stopped, and told us that it was illegal to take pictures. It is not. When Josh Rubin, the founder of Witness: Tornillo: Target Homestead, explained to her as much, she let out a puff of air. I smiled at her. It looked like she might engage further, so I tried my luck and asked her the question that had been nagging at me, “Can you tell us if the children are brought inside when we arrive? We wouldn’t want to cause that.”
She dismissed my question, “No, we do not move them because of you.” She continued with what felt like a punch to my gut, “But, you do frighten them.”
I was stunned. Frighten them? We stand with signs that say, “You are not alone.” We have signs with hearts on them. The children wave back and make heart signs at us. They yell, “We love you” and “Thank you”.
I walked into the road and closer to the golf cart, “Can you say more about that?”
“No,” she said angrily.
“Why are they afraid,” I asked. “Frightening them is the last thing we would want to do.”
“They think you hate them,” she said and drove off. They think we hate them? I turned to Josh, who had become my touchstone during the four days I was there. Reading my distress he said quickly, “She is lying. Think about it, they are so excited when they see us. Our signs are ones of love and encouragement. They wave, they jump, they shout. They don’t think we hate them. She’s lying. The staff wants us to go away. They want us discouraged.”
At the time, I figured Josh did not know me well enough to realize how much I would obsess about this (I found out later in the day that I was wrong about that). I kept returning to the question, “Why would she say that?” Aside from me, there were seven others standing outside Homestead today (one was an old, old friend…more about that later). I discussed it with each of them, “Maybe the staff tells the children we hate them. Maybe she is lying. Maybe they think all Americans hate them and that’s why they are in jail. Could they be afraid of us even as they jump to see us, shout, and wave?” Each person in turn said roughly the same thing as Josh, “The staff are trying to discourage us from being here. The kids would not react like that if they were afraid of us.”
One of the other rare conversations we had was with a mental health clinician. We have seen him each day we have been here. He spoke with us on Monday and assured us that his clients are his priority, not the center, not the government, not his employers. The fact that he stood and brazenly spoke to us in front of the main gate, despite the fact he signed a non-disclosure agreement, made me believe him.
We saw him a few hours after the distressing conversation about us scaring the children. As he walked by, I asked him, “Are the children afraid of us?”
He laughed, “What? No, of course not!” I was flooded with relief.
Much later, when I was stowing my items on the plane before take off, my cell phone rang and I was surprised to see Josh Rubin calling. Something happened. “Josh?”
“I just want you to know that we went back to the field to see the kids. They were so excited to see us! They were waving and shouting, just like always. I know you were worried. They are clearly not afraid of us. They don’t think we hate them.” When I left Melissa Bowen Rubin standing on the sidewalk as I headed to my car for the airport, I turned back and looked at her. I felt we had known each other far longer than four days. When Josh called me as I sat on the tarmac, it occurred to me that maybe somehow we have.
All evidence points to this staff person making up a lie that the children think we hate them. We know from other detention centers that one of the ways staff keeps detainees in check is by lying to them. Detainees are told that if they do not do as the staff wishes, they will not get out of the center, they will not go to their sponsors, or that they will be deported. Our experience with the guards and security has been chaotic. Until Officer Dallas told security to stop calling the police, we were given conflicting information. Josh and Melissa were told one day they could not stand on the road and the next day that they could not stand on the grass. They were moved from place to place. Guards that knew otherwise, tried to intimidate us by telling us we could not take pictures or that they would have us arrested for standing on county property (they only have jurisdiction over federal property).
Josh pointed out that if they manage us this way to try to get us to do what they wanted, how were they managing the kids? If the rules were inconsistent and confusing for us, what were they like for the kids? Remember the reporter I mentioned I had interrogated when he came out from the tour? He told me that the center explained they only use positive discipline with the kids. I balked, “1,600 teenagers are marching in single file, not touching each other, and meekly obeying commands and you’re telling me it’s the result of positive discipline?”
He laughed, “No, I am telling you what they told us. That’s what you want to know, right?” I am not a child psychologist. However, I have been around teenagers my entire life: as a teenager, as a professional, and as a mother. It is hard for me to imagine that many teenagers corralled into one place behaving like sheep without being threatened by something. They do behave like sheep, or at least they do on the field, the place you would think they are most likely to play and shout.
Is this what staff learns in their trainings? The last 3 days we have seen lines (again, mostly single file) of plain clothed adults in badges walking from the employment center to the main gate. Some days they hold new shirts and hats (hats!). One day when Josh asked what the groups were about, he actually got an answer: training.
Aside from my old friend showing up (I am still getting to that), the other excitement was another couple from Brooklyn (Josh and Melissa are also from Brooklyn), Richard and Ann. Richard is a filmmaker and is making a documentary about Josh’s work. I asked Richard to send me the 3 minute interview he did with me and will post it as part of this work.
So, my friend. Coming to Homestead was pretty much a spur of the minute decision. I saw Josh’s posts on Facebook and then about a month later was on a plane. Usually when I travel, I look to see which one of my colleagues is in the area as there is a good chance it is someone I enjoy and would want to see. I did not do this coming to Homestead, there was not time beforehand and I assumed there would not be time on the ground. Besides, the whole point of me being on the ground was to stake it out, so to speak, before I asked my colleagues to get involved (after my first day with Josh and Melissa, I reached out to some local connections). It turns out that one of our fellow witnesses, Marty Levine, is an active member of Rabbi Jonathan Tabachnikoff’s synagogue. When Jonathan heard I was there, he came to join us for a bit. Jonathan and I did our chaplain training together, an intense course that forces participants to get to know each other exceedingly well. We had not seen each other in 20 years. So, it was a great bonus to spend a couple hours catching up with him. Kelli, an organizer with The New Florida Majority, also joined again. She is a knowledgeable organizer with great connections and will be real asset to the effort. She also coined the best chant I have heard in a while, “Home instead! Home instead!” Keep in mind; we were standing in front of Homestead. Get it?
There is so much more to share. I will work on it over the weekend.