The last call Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins made at work on Thursday was to the Office of Refugee Resettlement. He wants to take in migrant children being detained at the border, after journalists poured out flustered accounts of prison-like living conditions at a converted Walmart in Brownsville upon finally being granted entry. “Dallas could do a better job,” Jenkins said. “[I told them], if we put the band back together, could you guys use some help?”
In 2014 Jenkins offered and prepped a hospital building and two closed schools as temporary shelters for children who had crossed the border from Central America, surviving the journey without their parents. The kids did not come after all. But Jenkins kept the area’s legal community—an effort led by Human Rights Initiative of North Texas—involved. Even after the decision, the groups helped migrants learn their rights and find housing.
Dallas was one of about 60 cities and towns across the United States on Thursday to protest our country’s federal policy of separating families at the border. Families Belong Together organized the demonstrations. They believe removing children from the arms of their mothers or fathers and detaining them in a former Walmart for all but two hours a day is not only unfair, or hard to watch on TV; it’s physical and psychological abuse.
For longtime activist Rev. Peter Johnson, who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, the fears were not just in the moment of arrest or the long hours of detainment. He compared the separation policy’s impending long-term effects to those of slavery. Outside City Hall as a small contingency of about 100 gathered under the full sun, Johnson shouted pained reminders of whole lineages that were disrupted when black mothers and fathers were sold to slaveowners in different states.
“Me and some of my friends, we’re going to Brownsville,” he said. He announced plans to go to the border and bring doctors and dentists with him, much like he did in the early 1960s as he helped register black voters across the South in buses with medical aid on board.
Last year U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents stationed at the Dallas office arrested more than 17,000 people in North Texas, more arrests than any other office in the country. The number increased throughout the country after President Donald Trump signed an executive order on Jan. 25, 2017 that redirected ICE’s resources to detaining immigrants in the U.S. without documentation, whether or not they had a criminal record.
There was sometimes an acknowledgement, in reactions to these arrests, that families were being torn apart, a distressing fact that should not negate the worth of detained individuals apart from their roles within those families. But now that we are seeing what this separation looks like from children, from parents, from dignity, and from self, an urgency is emerging for people within driving distance of the border.