Originally published on The Intercept
September 5 2020, 4:00 a.m.
A short walk from the border, in the Mexican city of Nogales, Sonora, sits a modest building packed with long, cafeteria-style tables. The comedor, as it’s known locally, is clean and inviting, with space for up to 60 guests. The walls are decorated with hand-painted images of Christ and his apostles, done in the style of a children’s book. Tucked away in one corner of the room are medical supplies, stacked and organized in plastic bins. Sister María Engracia Robles Robles, a nun with the Missionary Sisters of the Eucharist, floats from the kitchen into the common area, serving hot breakfast and lunch to anyone who needs it.
The comedor was born out of work Robles and two other nuns began in 2006. At the time, Arizona was the epicenter of migration along the border and the site of a major humanitarian crisis. While people headed north were dying in the desert in record numbers, a growing deportation machine was sending a steady flow of survivors to Nogales. The nuns began feeding the deportees out of the trunks of their cars. In 2008, they secured the property where the comedor now stands. Officially run by a coalition of organizations known as the Kino Border Initiative, its first iteration had no walls. There was no relief from the desert heat. When the monsoons came, the nuns walked through standing water to serve food.
In years past, the guests were almost all recently deported Mexican men. That’s no longer the case. Sitting in the corner of the comedor on a bright, clear morning in late February, I watched as a long line of families from Guatemala, Honduras, and other countries in Latin America and across the world walked through the front door. They filled the benches, packed shoulder to shoulder. Many came by bus from Ciudad Juarez, crossing contested cartel territory where a Mormon family was massacred just a few months prior.
Once the parents and kids were settled in, Sister Robles went around the room asking them what they were thankful for. As I scribbled a man’s answer in my notebook — to be with his daughter — a little girl in a pink jumper handed me an empty tube of Chapstick, then a tiny figurine of a woman in a green dress, then a broken blue crayon. She smiled as she shared her treasures one by one. The girl and her sister were from Chilpancingo, her mother later told me, a Mexican city in the state of Guerrero, not far from the town where 43 students were disappeared by police in 2014. It was the violence, the mother said, that caused them to leave.
I was halfway through a three-week reporting trip from one end of the border to the other when I stopped at the comedor. The aim of the trip was to take stock of the Trump administration’s impact after three and a half years in office, to spend time with those caught in the crosshairs of the president’s policies, and to check in with the border-wide network of immigration attorneys, humanitarian aid workers, and asylum advocates by their side. From Matamoros to Juarez, from Nogales to Tijuana, I had heard stories from asylum-seeking families who were drowning in a system of punishment, power, and exclusion, vast in both its scope and viciousness. They were running from one form of violence into another, slamming headfirst into the most gleefully anti-immigrant government in modern American history. Across the border, everyone seemed to agree: This moment was different, and it was hard to imagine that things could get any worse.The coronavirus presented the architects of Trump’s border policies with the pretext to shut down the border and choke off asylum once and for all.
The months that followed upended that notion. The coronavirus presented the architects of Donald Trump’s border policies with a remarkable opportunity, a real-world emergency that would provide the pretext to shut down the border and choke off asylum once and for all. With Covid-19 swiftly cast as a foreign invader, the president, vying for reelection, returned to the narrative that helped land him in the White House in the first place. Border Patrol agents began throwing people back by the thousands, tossing men, women, and children across the international divide without a trace of due process. With hearings postponed and canceled, the wait grew increasingly indefinite and uncertain for the roughly 60,000 individuals in the administration’s Remain in Mexico program, many of them young families stuck in the continent’s most dangerous cities — places where more than 1,000 people had already been kidnapped, assaulted, or murdered.
With the administration pushing asylum-seekers back into Mexico, jails and detention centers run by Immigration and Customs Enforcement were becoming blackholes where it seemed the only way out was deportation. By late February, three weeks before Trump declared the coronavirus a national emergency, Linda Rivas, executive director of the legal advocacy organization Las Americas in El Paso, Texas, was among a small group of attorneys still making trips into Juarez to meet with clients. “There are no eyes on the detention centers right now,” she told me at the time. “The conditions are really deteriorating.”
For more than three decades, Las Americas has provided legal representation to migrants. Rivas and her colleagues have seen their share of suffering on the border. Still, she said, the Trump years had managed to produce “some of the hardest, darkest, most difficult times in our history.” Front-line advocates were reaching a breaking point. “We need some level of hope,” Rivas said. “The question of what comes next is utterly terrifying.”
An Unsettling Reality
A U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent standing in the U.S. is seen from the Mexican side of the international bridge as people wait to be allowed to cross into the country in Matamoros, Mexico, on Feb. 13, 2020.
Photo: Veronica G. Cardenas for The Intercept
Standing outside the comedor, I met Hushbaht Fahriev, a 29-year-old Muslim man from Siberia. Fahriev explained how Islamophobic policing and skinhead violence prompted him and his wife to grab their two toddler-aged children and flee halfway around the world. Fahriev had been in Nogales with the kids for five months. From a rented room not far from the comedor, he was making progress teaching himself English and Spanish, but there was no hiding that he was a foreigner. Just a couple weeks earlier, five men wearing tactical vests and carrying assault rifles stopped Fahriev as he was walking out of a corner store. They asked where he was from.
“I told them I don’t speak Spanish well and I keep walking,” Fahriev recalled. One of the men bashed him over the head with his weapon. The man continued striking him as Fahriev tried to explain that he could not communicate. The beating eventually stopped, and the men jumped into a truck and sped off. Fahriev called the police and gave them the make and model of the vehicle, as well as its license number. The police did nothing with the information, he said. “Be careful,” Fahriev recalled the cops saying. “Here is dangerous.”The fact that a scaled-up, permanent base of operations was now considered necessary confirmed an unsettling reality: The crisis wasn’t going anywhere.
Across the street from Kino’s old comedor stood the organization’s new, soon-to-be-opened facility. The men’s dorm could house 70 people overnight. There was an additional dorm for women and children, and another for transgender travelers. A local quilting group donated handmade blankets for the beds, and there were dedicated spaces for computer-aided job and English training, mental health counseling, and legal support. Walking the empty halls of the state-of-the-art shelter, it was clear that the humanitarian community of Nogales had much to celebrate. Compared to the refugee camp in Matamoros that I had visited a few days earlier, this was like something from another dimension. Still, when volunteers began their work in the city more than a decade ago, there was hope was that the need would be temporary. The fact that a scaled-up, permanent base of operations was now considered necessary confirmed an unsettling reality: The crisis wasn’t going anywhere.
At around 2 p.m., a car pulled up outside the new shelter. The woman I was waiting for had arrived.
Dora Rodriguez was smiling as she opened her door. With chestnut hair pulled back behind her head, she wore a royal blue shirt emblazoned with the name of her organization: Salvavision.
“I’m never at my work!” Rodriguez said with a laugh, as she stepped into the midday sun. Rodriguez is a full-time social worker. The border work is her voluntary, chosen vocation. It was a Monday, which meant that the 60-year-old was in the midst of her weekly routine, visiting southern Arizona detention centers, where she provides translation services for legal advocates and takes supplies across the border to migrant shelters in Nogales. Through the windshield, I could see her vehicle was stuffed with boxes and bags, overflowing with children’s toys and personal hygiene items. Across the street, a line for lunch was beginning to form at the comedor. Normally, Rodriguez radiates with a warm and glowing smile, but when she turned to look at the growing crowd of families, her demeanor turned grave. She had never seen anything like it, she told me. Driving to a shelter deeper in Nogales, Rodriguez pointed to a graveyard where a group of Honduran men had been sleeping the last time she was in town. She recalled how one of the men told her that his number in the Remain in Mexico waiting line was 4,425. She knew his case was likely to fail. It was the same for just about everybody coming to the border these days. It seemed nobody had the kind of evidence the government was requiring.
Dora Rodriguez keeps donated items for asylum-seekers in her home in Tucson, Ariz., on March 13, 2020. She makes individual care packages from the donated items and then distributes them on a weekly basis to asylum-seekers in Nogales, Mexico.
Photo: Kitra Cahana/MAPS for The Intercept
“And even if they have it,” Rodriguez said, “it’s not enough — it’s just not what they’re doing at this moment.”
Winding through the back streets of the border town, Rodriguez described a call she received last winter, when she was driving home from one of the detention centers. It was a Tucson humanitarian aid volunteer seeking help on a case involving an asylum-seeking family from Venezuela. The family had managed to get paroled into the U.S., but their daughter, who happened to turn 18 that day, did not, on the grounds that she was now an adult. She was separated from her parents and taken to detention. Nearly two months later, that’s where she remained. “It was Christmas Eve,” Rodriguez said.
“There is no mercy,” she told me. “None.”
Mercy and Hardship
When Dora Rodriguez speaks of mercy and hardship on the border, she does so from personal experience. The efforts she makes in the shelters and the detention centers is her way of working through that experience.
In 1980, when Rodriguez was 19 years old, she fled El Salvador in hopes of finding refuge in the United States. A civil war was raging. The U.S.-backed regime was torturing, disappearing, and killing civilians by the thousands. Rodriguez’s town came under government attack. The head of her church youth group was murdered in front of her. With three of her friends already disappeared, Rodriguez knew there was no time to waste. She joined up with a group of refugees who were told that, for a price, they could be safely taken across the border in Arizona and flown to California.
On a scorching hot Fourth of July weekend, Rodriguez and more than two dozen other refugees, including three sisters, ages 12, 14, and 16, were taken into the Sonoran Desert. Expecting to be flown west, some of the women brought rolling luggage and wore dresses and high heels. The young sisters were told that they would be reunited with their mother.
The refugees were abandoned by their guide soon after they crossed. They spent days wandering the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, one of the most unforgiving landscapes in the Western hemisphere, in 120-degree temperatures. Their water was gone in no time, and they resorted to drinking lotion, shaving cream, and their own urine. Hallucination set in, and one by one they began to die. The hair on Rodriguez’s head burned from the heat. Desperate and delirious, she awoke on the sixth day to the sound of hooves and helicopters — a Border Patrol rescue party. Of the 26 refugees who set off on the journey, 13 were dead. A photographer on hand for their dramatic rescue snapped an image of Rodriguez, limp in a Border Patrol agent’s arms, that made newspapers around the world.
Left/Top: Detail of a bracelet that says, “DORITA” that an asylum-seeker in an ICE detention facility made out of plastic bags for Dora Rodriguez. Right/Bottom: Rodriguez holds the only photograph she has of herself from the days following her grueling journey through the Sonoran Desert as a young asylum-seeker.Photos: Kitra Cahana/MAPS for The Intercept
The deaths on Organ Pipe were a turning point in southern Arizona. The tragedy exposed how the U.S. government was systematically and illegally denying asylum to Salvadorans and Guatemalans — people fleeing governments the United States was backing. Those denials sparked the Sanctuary Movement, a campaign modeled after the Underground Railroad in which faith leaders in Tucson defied the federal government and moved thousands of refugees into houses of worship across the United States. The movement’s founders went on to create some of Arizona’s most well-established humanitarian organizations, which today work alongside the Kino Border Initiative and Casas Alitas, a Tucson-based organization, to provide care for border crossers in the Sonoran Desert. Among them is No More Deaths, a collective of volunteers who leave water for migrants crossing the desert and conduct search-and-recovery operations in the borderlands, and whom Trump administration prosecutors have repeatedly tried — and failed — to shut down and imprison.
Rodriguez’s integration into Arizona’s humanitarian scene was slow at first. In the wake of their rescue, she and the other refugees were held as material witnesses against their smugglers, before the government moved to deport them back to El Salvador. None were given asylum, though Rodriguez eventually gained citizenship through marriage. She worked in fast-food restaurants and warehouses, took night classes, and taught herself English. She put herself through college and had five children, all U.S. citizens. For years, Rodriguez stayed quiet about her story, a fact she attributes to an abusive marriage. When she left that relationship, some 13 years ago, she began to find her voice.“This is how I really heal from my own experience. There is no way I would ever not do this.”
On matters of immigration policy, Rodriguez’s view of Trump’s predecessor is hardly rosy. The Obama administration deported more people than any government in U.S. history, including more than 150,000 Salvadorans, many with deep roots in the country. But when Trump descended his golden escalator in Manhattan in 2015, announcing his run for president by claiming that Mexico was sending “rapists” and criminals across the border, Rodriguez felt a shift. Drawing from a politically potent well of anti-immigrant hate, Trump would fuse racist rhetoric, including his later talk of “shit-hole countries,” with a real-world crackdown. Rodriguez wasn’t having it.
The election, for Rodriguez, was a turning point. In the spring of 2019, she returned to the patch of desert where she was rescued — this time with a local news crew. “I told myself I cannot just keep my story to myself anymore because my story brings volunteers, it brings people,” she explained. That fall, Rodriguez flew to Washington, D.C. with No More Deaths volunteer Scott Warren, a geographer whom the government was then trying to send to prison on felony smuggling charges. The case fell apart in November, and the government abruptly dropped its remaining charges in February. Rodriguez told lawmakers and human rights groups about her experience of the humanitarian crisis on the border, both as an asylum-seeker and an advocate. The moment was as urgent as any she had ever seen and for her, inaction was out of the question.
“This is how I really heal from my own experience,” she told me. “There is no way I would ever not do this.”
Voices From the Desert
Dora Rodriguez receives donations from Peggie Felici-Gessner, a volunteer at the Casa Alitas shelter that caters to asylum-seekers in Tucson, Ariz., on March 14, 2020.
Photo: Kitra Cahana/MAPS for The Intercept
The disembodied voices were piped in from private jails in the desert outside of town. The judge stared into his lap, looking half-dead as he repeated the same script over and over, pausing to allow a Spanish translator to relay his words for each new detainee.
The voice that Rodriguez was waiting for would come from the shrublands between Phoenix and Tucson, from a dusty community where incarceration keeps the economy afloat and the biggest employer in town is a for-profit prison corporation.
In the years leading up to Trump’s inauguration, La Palma Correctional Center, run by the private prison giant CoreCivic and located in the town of Eloy, Arizona, saw more deaths in custody than any ICE detention center in the country — 15 in a 14-year period, several of them suicides. Rodriguez was a regular visitor to the facility through her translation work with Keep Tucson Together, an immigrant rights legal collective. In the past year, she had become particularly invested in the fate of one young man being held there, a Salvadoran asylum-seeker named Francisco.
Rodriguez first learned of Francisco’s case through a documentary film crew, who had uncovered the tragic story of a young man who died attempting to cross Organ Pipe in 2019 — the same deadly stretch of desert where Rodriguez and the others were rescued. In addition to a wife and two young children, Oscar Alfredo Gomez left behind his best friend at a shelter in the Mexican border town of Sonoyta — 26-year-old Francisco. It was rare, Rodriguez told me, that she found a Salvadoran in as dire of straits as Francisco. She insisted upon meeting the young man.RelatedMass Immigration Prosecutions on the Border Are Currently on Hold. What Comes Next Is Uncertain.
“This could be my son,” Rodriguez told herself last August, when the two finally met. “I have to help him.” From her home in Tucson, Rodriguez kept up with Francisco in the weeks that followed, explaining through text messages how she could help him get on his feet if he returned to El Salvador. She implored him not to attempt a crossing — if anyone understood the dangers of the desert, it was her. Francisco promised that he wouldn’t do it but in late September, his messages stopped coming. Days passed without word. “I went nuts,” Rodriguez recalled. She called every organization she could think of. “I knew he was lost in the desert.” Finally, in early October, she received a call from the Salvadoran consulate: Francisco was alive and in U.S. custody at La Palma. “That was, oh my God, the best news ever,” Rodriguez said, but when she tried to reach Francisco’s uncle — who was living in the U.S. and who Francisco believed would step forward as a legal sponsor — her calls went unreturned and unanswered. Francisco, it seemed, was on his own.
When Rodriguez first came to the U.S. as a traumatized 19-year-old with nobody to turn to, a Mexican family in Tucson took her in. She lived with them for more than year. “They became my second family,” she said. The kindness she was shown made the life she now lives possible. Considering the situation Francisco was facing, Rodriguez asked the legal team at No More Deaths, with whom she volunteers much of her time, if she could step forward as a sponsor for an asylum-seeker. The answer she received was yes.
Sitting on a bench in a window-less room in a courthouse in downtown Tucson, waiting for Francisco’s name to be called, Rodriguez rustled through her paperwork and took notes when the cases of men she knew came up. She winced when a young man she had spoken to the day before quietly requested his deportation — he couldn’t take it anymore, she whispered to me.
Detail of items that Dora Rodriguez collected in July 2019 from the site where she was rescued in 1980 as a young asylum-seeker crossing the Sonoran Desert. Rodriguez went back to the location with artist Alvaro Enciso in order to lay a cross at the site.Photo: Kitra Cahana/MAPS for The Intercept
Finally, the judge read Francisco’s name out loud. Rodriguez sat up tall when his attorney noted her presence in the courtroom, an affirmation of her willingness to act as his legal sponsor — of all the detainees whose cases would be heard that day, Francisco was the only one with a lawyer or support network present.
Rodriguez hoped her presence would sway the court to set a bond that would be realistically payable. Her odds were not good — under Trump, ICE’s propensity for keeping detainees locked up had exploded, and immigration judges had shown themselves to be crucial allies in the agency’s efforts. Francisco’s attorney implored the judge to set bond at $3,000. The ICE prosecutor sought a payment of more than three times that. The judge split the difference, setting a $7,000 bond.
Rodriguez was elated as she headed for the courthouse elevators — this was an amount that could conceivably be raised. The question now was how.For the people I met, the virus was background noise, barely audible over the roar of the primary emergency: the state of the border itself.
While Rodriguez applied herself to the task at hand, the country was slipping ever faster into a moment of historic change. The implications of the coronavirus were coming into focus. Deaths in Washington state were mounting. The White House was receiving alarming intelligence detailing the threat the Covid-19 posed, though the public wouldn’t learn about the reports until weeks later. Still, for the people I met — from Matamoros to Nogales to Tijuana — the virus was background noise, barely audible over the roar of the primary emergency: the state of the border itself.
When I drove out of Tucson on the final weekend of February, bound for the West Coast, news broke of a major federal injunction halting the Remain in Mexico program. Across the border, advocates and asylum-seekers scrambled to respond. In Matamoros, families staying in the refugee camp headed for the bridge to Brownsville, Texas. The force field the Trump government was using to repel asylum-seekers had gone down — how long it would last was anybody’s guess. Racing west along Interstate 8, I drove straight for Tijuana.
It was dark by the time the families appeared at the El Chaparral port of entry, asylum-seekers from across Central and South America. With children bundled in their warmest winter coats, they hurried down the corridor that led to the U.S. Many of the parents carried plastic folders, stuffed with the critical documents that told their story. Several clutched printed copies of the injunction. As they approached the port entrance, a friend and fellow reporter read a piece of breaking news aloud off his phone: The injunction had been stayed. Remain in Mexico was back on. A handful of the families with grave medical conditions were permitted entry. Most were not.
The weekend began with asylum-seekers across the border believing that change had finally come. By Monday, the hope was all but gone. The White House was pushing forward with an ambitious plan to achieve a longstanding goal: lockdown of the U.S. border with Mexico. Stephen Miller, a senior White House adviser and principle architect of the president’s immigration and border enforcement policies, had been angling for way to link immigrants and disease as pretext for closing off immigration to the U.S. for years. His trademark fearmongering was all over Trump’s first major address on the coronavirus, broadcast from the Oval Office on March 12, which began by establishing that the virus was “foreign” before detailing a series of “sweeping travel restrictions” and laying blame on China and the European Union.
After weeks of ignoring and downplaying the disease, Miller and Trump had returned to the framing they knew best.
A Pandemic Pretext
Three days after Trump’s Oval Office address, Rodriguez hosted a pair of film screenings at a church in Tucson, showcasing the documentary that had first led her to Francisco’s story.
The fundraising efforts had been slow-going. If the people of Tucson could just see Francisco’s face and hear his words, Rodriguez thought, surely they would be moved to donate to his release. Unfortunately for her, the fundraiser coincided with Gov. Doug Ducey’s declaration of a state of emergency in Arizona. Just seven people showed up for the first screening. Disappointed and believing that no one would show up for the second, Rodriguez called it off.
The following day, the Trump administration suspended all social visits to ICE detention centers. For those on the inside, it meant being cut off from the outside world at a moment of skyrocketing fear and anxiety, a time when the federal government’s own experts were warning that immigration detention was a “tinderbox” for the spread of Covid-19. For Rodriguez, it meant the loss of face-to-face interactions with people she cared about, including Francisco.
If she could not physically visit the detention centers, Rodriguez reasoned, she would organize a letter-writing campaign to assure the people inside that they had not been forgotten, and she would keep taking their phone calls.Do you have a coronavirus story you want to share? Email us at email@example.com or use one of these secure methods to contact a reporter.
Listening to desperate people at the end of their rope had always been the most difficult part of Rodriguez’s work. As news of the virus reached the people locked in ICE jails, it became all the more draining. Rodriguez could hear the fear in their voices. With up to 150 people in a single unit, the arrival of the virus was not a matter of if, but when. There was no social distancing. Protests were met with retaliation. Meanwhile, Rodriguez’s goal of securing Francisco’s freedom was still far out of reach. After weeks of fundraising, she had pulled together about $3,000 in donations, a healthy sum but still far from what she needed.
As Rodriguez was pressing forward with her humanitarian work, the White House announced that it would suspend all nonessential travel across the border, citing a rule issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In the 19 days after the rule was activated, the Border Patrol expelled nearly 10,000 people from the country, including asylum-seekers, families, and unaccompanied children, who in the past would have been protected from due process-free removal under federal law. For the first time since 1980, when Rodriguez and her companions fled north, asylum-seekers would be summarily expelled from the country without an opportunity to make their case. The interwoven cities of Nogales, Arizona, and Nogales, Sonora, braced to see how the rule would impact their binational lives. “The latest announcement uses the pandemic as a pretext to advance dangerous goals,” the advocates at the Kino Border Initiative said in a statement. “This is a moment to come together, recognize the ways in which we are connected, and care for one another.”
Attendees watch a screening of the documentary “Deserted” by filmmaker Jason Motlagh at the Grace St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Tucson, Ariz., during a fundraiser on March 14, 2020 to help raise $7,000 to cover the bond for a young Salvadoran man in ICE detention.Photo: Kitra Cahana/MAPS for The Intercept’
Rodriguez wasn’t following the day’s news. On the morning Trump announced the border shutdown, she received a call from No More Deaths: The humanitarian group had decided to put up the remaining $4,000 for Francisco’s bond. Overjoyed, Rodriguez collected the donations and headed straight for La Palma. Sitting in her car in the detention center parking lot, the hours ticked away. Day turned to night. At approximately 9 p.m., a van pulled up. More than a half-dozen men were piled inside, shackled at the wrists and ankles, despite the fact that all were scheduled for release. Francisco was one of them.The decision to take Francisco in during the middle of a pandemic was logistically complicated but morally straightforward.
ICE had stuffed the sum total of his belongings into a small plastic bag. He was released without shoelaces or socks, which meant that his first stop was the local Walmart. From there, Francisco was taken to his new home, where Rodriguez already had a room ready. He broke down as he took the space in. “I just can’t believe I’m out,” he said. “I can’t believe I’m here.” Francisco had emerged from La Palma physically and emotionally exhausted. For months, he worked in the detention center kitchen earning $1 a day. With her children grown and moved out, Rodriguez shares her small Tucson home with her husband. For the next two weeks, all three stayed inside, quarantining themselves, talking and telling stories.
For Rodriguez, the decision to take Francisco in during the middle of a pandemic was logistically complicated — “We took the risk,” she acknowledged — but morally straightforward. She didn’t think twice about it.
Dora Rodriguez participates in a car rally in front of the CoreCivic detention center in Eloy, Ariz., on April 10, 2020. Activists demand that federal immigration authorities release all detainees from the CoreCivic detention centre.
Photo: Kitra Cahana/MAPS for The Intercept
By the time Francisco left La Palma, the men in his unit believed that the coronavirus had already arrived. Their fears were soon confirmed. In the weeks after Francisco’s release, La Palma and the adjacent Eloy Detention Center became two of the country’s leading hot spots for confirmed cases of Covid-19 in ICE custody, with more than 611 confirmed cases as of this reporting.
In April, Rodriguez pulled on a mask and gloves and hopped in a car with her husband. Together, they joined a raucous caravan of more than 100 vehicles that descended on the detention center. As the demonstrators banged on pots and shouted to the people inside, Rodriguez’s phone rang — it was Nicaraguan man, one of Francisco’s friends, who was still locked inside. “Dorita!” he exclaimed. “We can hear you guys!”
Day after day in the weeks that followed, ICE’s running tally of confirmed Covid-19 cases grew and grew, just as everyone with the faintest understanding of the agency’s record on controlling infectious disease predicted it would.RelatedAmid Coronavirus, Trump Moved to Expel Immigrants — But Border Patrol Didn’t Test Any of Them
Outside the detention centers’ walls, advocates fought an uphill battle against soaring bonds and a system already predisposed to detention and deportation. Along the way, Francisco practiced his English with a woman Rodriguez knew from the humanitarian aid community. He spent a good deal of time in the kitchen, showcasing his cooking skills for Rodriguez and her husband. They bought him a bicycle, and he began to make friends in Tucson. Eventually, Rodriguez helped Francisco find an apartment and on June 1, he struck out on his own. He’s hoping to receive a work permit this month. For Rodriguez, the work goes on.
At both Eloy and La Palma, more than 100 people in ICE custody wrote desperate letters in May and June, undercutting the agency’s claims that the coronavirus was under control and begging that they not be left to die. They described the numerous health conditions that placed those in custody at heightened risk and detailed detention center officials use of tear gas and pepper balls to coerce compliance from detainees. “It’s so heartbreaking getting those letters,” Rodriguez said. “You know they went through hell in there, and they’re still there and we’re still fighting to get them out.”
Activists from across Arizona hold a car rally in front of the CoreCivic detention center in Eloy, Ariz., on April 10, 2020.Photo: Kitra Cahana/MAPS for The Intercept
“It’s systematic and it’s punishment,” she added. “They want to break them. They want to break the pattern of them coming and asking for protection.” In the days of the Sanctuary Movement, asylum advocates referred to the bonds immigration authorities placed on asylum-seekers as “ransom money.” Forty years later, they remain one of the biggest challenges Rodriguez and the organizations she volunteers with face. In a conversation mid-summer, Rodriguez told me about the case of another young man from El Salvador that she was working on. “He’s only 19,” she said. “His bond is $30,000.”Paying bonds remains one of the biggest challenges Rodriguez and the organizations she volunteers with face.
“Where in the hell are these people going to get this money?” she asked. “Even us, as volunteers, as humanitarians, it’s impossible. I’m willing to sign my credit, my bank account, whatever, and I tell them, I will sign to get you out, but the down payment is $10,000.”
Not only is that an enormous amount of money for small, volunteer-driven organizations to pull together, but it must now also be raised at a time when tens of millions of Americans are out of work and millions of others are justifiably worried about their own financial security and the health and well-being of their own families.
Dora Rodriguez spends time with her grandson, Elijah, in her home in Tucson, Ariz., on March 13, 2020.
Photo: Kitra Cahana/MAPS for The Intercept
The challenge is immense and it would be easy to look out at a network of largely for-profit jails that chooses to lock away tens of thousands of people, many of them asylum-seekers seeking refuge, in the middle of global pandemic and conclude that nobody cares, but Rodriguez believes that doing so would be a mistake. “There’s a whole army behind these people,” she said. She is not wrong. The volunteers who pour time and energy into a collective effort to resist the detention and deportation machine are as much a fact of life on the border in the past four years as anything Stephen Miller has accomplished so far. In the end, their efforts might not be enough, but they are there and they are trying — they were doing it before Trump came to office and they will continue the work, if they must, when he’s gone. “That’s what really keeps me going,” Rodriguez said. “I am not in this alone. I do this with a community. I would never be able to do this alone.”
On Fourth of July weekend, Rodriguez returned to the stretch of desert where she was rescued, and where the 13 men, women, and children she was traveling with lost their lives 40 years ago. With the sun blazing overhead, she retraced their steps the best she could and left a cross to honor their memories. “It was a promise that we’re going to continue,” she said. “We’re going to continue the fight. We cannot stop.”
With the virus ripping through ICE facilities, Rodriguez’s phone hasn’t stopped ringing since we parted ways earlier this year — she estimates that she receives an average of 20 calls from people locked inside the detention centers each day. Not knowing if or when those individuals might call again, if it will be the last call they will ever make, she finds it impossible not to answer. She tells each of them the same thing: “You are not alone. We are here.”