We are able to identify changes in one’s own personal life by associating them to certain events that we either experienced or witnessed personally. We do this as a way to expand our sense of purpose and transcend our ordinary lives, consequently questioning and integrating beliefs and values with actions. This past weekend is one of those events. I’m speaking most directly to my recent visit to the T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Taylor, TX.
Williamson County’s Hutto Residential Center is a former high-security state prison that was converted into a detention center that is authorized to hold non-Mexican immigrant families and children on noncriminal charges. Its purpose is to hold immigrant families while their applications for asylum are being considered. It began operating in the summer of 2006 and currently holds 375 detainees, approximately 200 of which are children. Detainees are a diverse group, including single men with children, pregnant women, infants, and 17-year-old boys that house immigrant families.
It is widely reported that there are two facilities in the country that hold immigrant families and children on non-criminal charges in detention facilities. The other facility is the Berks Family Shelter Care Facility in Leesport, PA. Unlike Hutto, before Berks started detaining immigrants, the facility was a former nursing home. The site is supposed to be much more hospitable than the larger Texas facility, due to its sprawling dorm-like layout. Even though the facility may feel hospitable, this doesn’t suggest the conditions are better.
There is actually a third facility that also houses children; this unreported facility is located Aurora, CO. The Aurora ICE Processing Center is run and operated by the Geo Group (formerly the Wackenhut Corrections Corporation). According to Geo, the facility can currently hold up to “400 males, females, children (unsentenced).” The detainees being held in the Aurora Processing Center are the immigrants that have been picked up from Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, and Utah.
When Hutto opened last year, CCA told the public they were fixing up the place so it didn’t look like a prison and when I got there you can still tell this place looked like a former prison. From what I could see, the facility is surrounded on three sides by double-layered fencing. I wasnâ€™t able to see the back, so I am assuming that is where the playground set is located. From what I read, there used to be several layers of razor wire between the two fences. You can tell what part of the building the prison cells are located, by the thin rectangular window frames; it is the same window design when Houston opened the new courthouse. If you were facing the building from the outside, their cells would be on your left. After a while, you would also notice that someone from CCA is regularly circling the building.
When the protest began, two CCA vans rushed to block the main entrance of the facility. It was a bit weird, since this is the 11th vigil; I would have to assume there might be some history as to when this practice began. Another thing you notice, behind us, there is roughly about a half-dozen freight trains blocking the detention center from public view. When I actually arrived to Taylor, I had a hard time trying to find the street where I was supposed to turn on to; I may have imagined this and overlooked this, but after driving a couple blocks, I suddenly noticed there were no street sign indicating the name of street. The first time around, I ended up going to the next town over, so I had to turn around and even then, I still could not find it. I literally stopped and asked for directions. One of the places I used to live was outside Chicago in the town of Crystal Lake, Taylor reminded me of Crystal Lake. At that time, it was considered rural area of IL, I here things are much different now; the city has doubled in size. The first thing I noticed as I drove around Taylor looking for Hutto, the town is also going through similar changes as Crystal Lake as the City of Austin continues to grow.
I had heard freight trains blocking were being used to block the view, they are not joking. The parked fright trains are used for a couple of reasons; blocking the public view is one of them. The other reason, it serves as a good sound barrier. The first thing I noticed going to Hutto, I had crossed four sets of tracks. As I a got closer to Hutto, the freight trains were parked next to each other on tracks closer to the site. The other set of tracks are still being used by both AMTRAK and regular freight. There is an AMTRAK station in Taylor and it is very close to Hutto. From the aerial picture taken from Google map, you are able to see the how the freight cars are lined up.
I really don’t know how many people showed up, and in all honesty, I really don’t think it really matters, the vibe was still great. I met a lot of great people over there. I even had the pleasure of meeting a fellow blogger. I even had an opportunity to meet Jay Johnson-Castro of Del Rio, who gained attention in October for his 200-mile walk from Laredo to Brownsville to protest building a U.S.-Mexico border fence. I also had a chance to talk to him one on one. We discussed about the border wall that the Department of Homeland Security is planning to put up in Laredo. I had a chance to be interviewed by Nick Calzoncit from the Public Access television show the Mexican-American Advancement Project, which airs on Fridays in San Antonio. As I introduced myself, there were people there who actually heard of me through my blog. I discussed grassroots organizing with members from the San Antonio Brown Berets. Other people I met that I can remember off the top of my head were from the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), Cesar Chavez Legacy and Education Foundation, and Code Pink. There are so many people I met, talked, and shared a laugh or two, so I left somebody out, I really do apologize.
A stage was set up across from the facility for live entertainment and event speakers. Every one who spoke was fantastic and very energetic; however, there was something special about particular speaker. After listening to this person, I was reminded what I’m here fighting for and what it was that motivated me to blog. There was something about this speaker that touched me in a much more positive way than the other speakers, this speaker reaffirmed the principles and values I hold dearly. Such a reaffirmation is important and timely for me personally, it reminded me how important it is to continue to be true to myself. It reaffirm one of my treasured moral value – not to sell myself out or pretend to be something I’m not just to gain popularity or to get on some mystical A-list blog spot. So what if my blog is read by throngs of devoted, admiring readers, or be considered as a possible invite to blog in some presidential debate or invite to be part some of a yearly blogger conference; the people who matter are the people who are out there in the street everyday fighting the good fight, people like Rebecca Ruiz-Lichter, Nick Calzoncit, Jay Johnson-Castro, Jose Orta, and all those put on those Hutto Vigils, month after month.
I do have to admit, yours truly and a fellow blogger raised a little hell towards the end of the protest. As the protest was dying down and the San Antonio group was getting ready to leave, I figured I would go talk to the people in the vehicle. As this person and I were getting closer, one of CCA’s stormtroopers did not appreciate us walking towards them. It was strange because during the protest, a couple of other people where right next to the van, however, were not allowed. The closer we got towards them, one of CCA’s stormtrooper jumped out of the van to confront us. They demanded that we get off their property. However, we continued walking, while at the same time, I keep asking them if I could ask a couple of questions. The stormtrooper would have none of that; then out of nowhere, the crowd was re-energized and they started chanting again.
Thinking backing, the whole day felt like one of those magical moments we have in our lives; the ones where everything flows easily and effortlessly, as if the world was in some sort of perfect harmony. It was one those times when we are full of life, at peace, and we know all is good. To be honest, I don’t know why I did it, but what I do know, it was something in my heart that said it was the right thing to do. Could I have been arrested, probably, but that wasn’t a concern. My concerns were for the human beings who are treated worse than dogs behind those walls, for the voiceless who are locked up in one America’s concentration camps. The men, women, and children who are psychologically traumatized everyday; the families who are forced to split up, the ones who are sexually assaulted.
Going to the rally was the best thing I ever did. I have to thank a close friend who made that day a memorable one. If this confrontation did get out of hand, it would have been an honor being arrested together. There was something magical about that day, maybe it was the people I met or the energetic atmosphere, whatever it was, it brought back the spark that I thought I lost in my life. I have come to realize it was never lost; it was just buried underneath the negative emotions seeping into our lives in the form of sadness, disgust, anger and fear.
Life can get so hectic and tiring. So many people giving up on being good. Social influences through the media are constantly pushing us to live someone else’s idea of being, leading us to sell ourselves out to the highest bidder, while leaving humanity to defend for itself. It’s hard to watch all of this unfold before us. I guess the one comfort is that there is always the spark of hope. Hope for a better tomorrow. Hope that this chaos will end soon.