Dylan Corbett is a father and the founding director of the HOPE Border Institute, an independent community organization and non-profit that works in and around El Paso by monitoring the actions of the Border Patrol, ICE, and the conditions at detainment centers in the area. HOPE supports organizations that work on immigrant rights throughout the country and on the border, and uses their clout to work with Washington., D.C. and other border capitols like Austin to advocate for immigrants rights and propose meaningful policy change. Corbett started HOPE three years ago when he realized he had a real opportunity to work on the ground in El Paso, a city that is, in his words, indistinguishable from Juarez when you look at it from above.
Corbett lives in El Paso full time and has done his work through both the Obama and Trump administrations. What’s different with our current administration, he says, is that what was once perceived as abuse in the Obama administration, has become streamlined policy under Trump’s.
Here, in his own words, Corbett explains the challenges of monitoring detainment centers that are deliberately set far apart from communities, how the government deliberately makes migrant detainment invisible, and why border communities always bear the brunt of the policies.
My non-profit, HOPE Border Institute, has been documenting the effects of border militarization on our community. We have several thousand people on any given night detained in our community, who are asylum seekers from Central America and Mexico. We look at the conditions of detention, look at how long migrants are there; we look at whether their human or legal rights are being respected. We look at immigration courts, how they are treating people in that system.
People continue to arrive at the bridge. Right now, there are people who are coming and being stopped even though they have legal claims to come into the country as asylum seekers. Border agents are stopping them. We’re documenting all of those things.
Things were not good under the Obama administration. With Trump, it is different. Trump is detaining more people for longer periods of time. Border agents are discouraging and dissuading people from seeking legal, legitimate ways of coming into this country — especially people who are seeking asylum.
A helpful way to look at this is that a lot of things that were abusive in the old administration have now become streamlined. The use of detention, the use of family separation. All of these things have become tactics in order to seal the border and keep people out. The mainstreaming of these abuses: that’s what’s really new under President Trump. And the anti-immigrant rhetoric that he and his administration pushes, that trickles down into the way that agents on the line do their work. They are much more aggressive, they’re much more willing to split up families, they’re much more willing to deport people even though they have ties to the community. Deportations are up here.
A helpful way to look at this is that a lot of things that were abusive in the old administration have now become streamlined.
The government tries to invisibilize people. The fact that we’re throwing everybody who comes to the border right into detention, that’s a way of making them invisible to the general public. When you pile rhetoric on top of that, and say that these people are killers, rapists, criminals, and they’re going to take their jobs away, it’s really easy to dehumanize people that you’ve made invisible. Even in our community, there are people who don’t understand these dynamics, never mind in other parts of the country.
When you hear the rhetoric of people who are coming to the border and seeking asylum, you hear that they’re coming illegally. The majority of these folks are not coming illegally. The majority of these folks are turning themselves in at the border or at ports of entry. That’s not illegal under U.S. law. You’re coming and you’re making an asylum petition. To paint these people with a big, broad brush of illegality, again, is a way of dehumanizing people, and making them invisible.
There are four detention centers in our community and there are thousands of migrants between them. Three of those centers are managed by private detention companies. At Sierra Blanca, one of these centers, there are human rights abuses: Pregnant women being detained, having miscarriages, undergoing physical abuse. These aren’t hotels. They’re prisons. We call them detention centers, but they’re prisons.
We’ve done tours, recently, of two of them. Sierra Blanca is farther away than the rest of the centers and there’s a lot of abuse there, because people have not been looking over their shoulders, because they are so far away. The government often does that. They often build these things very far away from communities, so that people are separated from their communities. For example, if they have undocumented family members, those family members can’t cross the checkpoints to get to Sierra Blanca.
These aren’t hotels. They’re prisons. We call them detention centers, but they’re prisons.
Distance also separates them from the attorney communities. A lot of low-cost attorneys and community organizations don’t have the resources to be up there. So it separates them from attorneys, from their families, from community services. The government does that constantly. It’s hard to keep an eye. And these private companies, they’re not interested in human rights or following the law. Their interest is driven by profit.
The government puts up lots of roadblocks and obstacles to figure out who owns what. By nature and by design it’s opaque. That’s a strategy that comes from Washington. There are a lot of policies that come from Washington, or other capitals like Austin, where legislators and lawmakers are making decisions about the border, but they don’t have an accurate picture of what’s actually going on. They don’t realize how it impacts our communities. They have a partial, misconstrued understanding of what the border is.
You hear that we have a crisis in immigration. Well, not really. If you look at the numbers, we’re actually about at a 30 year low. There really isn’t a crisis at the border. You hear the fact that we need to send more border patrol or military down here. Well, in the last ten years, we’ve doubled the size of border patrol. People don’t understand what’s going on, but what’s happening is that politicians from Washington are painting a really grossly false picture of what the border is. Bad decisions are being made.
Border communities always bear the brunt of these policies. Y’all don’t have checkpoints. We have checkpoints. When you take the highway north or east or west out of El Paso, you have to go through checkpoints. We have massive prisons and law enforcement presence here. Texas has decided to invest so much in what they call the “border surge.” We have law enforcement here who are stopping people, and separating families and deporting people. That’s why they’re here. We’re about 75 percent Mexican American — which means that Border Patrol is able to do racial profiling, legally, under the law. Police officers can ask people to show them their papers. That is, in the name, again, of border security.
Border communities always bear the brunt of these policies.
That law is really destructive to the fabric of our community because we’re a migrant community. We’ve always been a migrant community. Legal immigrants are included, and citizens, U.S. citizens, who have Mexican-American backgrounds, they have to face the racial profiling that goes along with those laws. In a myriad of ways, people are impacted here, whether it’s by rhetoric, federal policy, or local laws.
When I think about my own children, and the possibility of being separated from them — of me not knowing where they are, or my children not knowing where I am — I know that everybody in my community, whether they are brown, white, documented, undocumented, or semi-documented, we all want the same thing. We all want opportunities for our children and we all want them to grow up in safe, healthy communities. I can’t imagine the pain and the trauma that deportation would bring to my family, and I don’t want that for any other family. It’s personal, as a father. This work is personal. I know that these policies are very destructive to families. It’s something that we can stop.