St. Louisan Elizabeth Vega loads up a rental van with screen printing materials, Sharpie markers, and a box of flowers. She’s packing for a protest more than 1,000 miles away.
The Chicana poet and artist has become one of the region’s most recognizable activists in the years since the shooting death of Michael Brown sparked an ongoing protest movement. Alongside a collective of artists and activists, Vega often demonstrates against police violence using big banners, colorful drawings and papier-mâché puppets.
Now, she’s one of dozens of St. Louis protesters using community organizing skills they learned on the streets of Ferguson and St. Louis to help build a movement in El Paso, Texas, against the Trump administration’s immigration policies at the southern U.S. border.
This past winter, Vega watched from afar as national news reports detailed the effects of a “zero-tolerance” policy that led to widespread family separations and a rise in the number of children held in immigration detention facilities.
She said the reports outraged her.
“It’s state-sanctioned violence,” said Vega, who grew up in Las Cruces, New Mexico. “And state-sanctioned violence is state-sanctioned violence — whether it’s against black people or brown people or indigenous folks.”
From St. Louis, Vega wondered why activists in El Paso weren’t holding regular demonstrations at detention facilities or ports of entry.
“One of the questions that I had was like, 'Where is the resistance?'” she said. “You know, like, 'Why aren’t there like more people out here?'”
So she decided to reach out to activists in El Paso and begin planning a trip to the border to raise public awareness the best way she knows how — through protest.
‘The context of the city’
When reports of the Trump administration’s family-separation policy flooded the news cycle last year, immigrant advocacy groups in border cities like El Paso saw an increase in donations and attention. Groups from across the country reached out to local activists and asked for help planning events and rallies.
But some El Paso activists felt those events were more focused on celebrities and politicians than the people most directly affected by anti-immigration policies.
“The problem with having groups from out of town wanting to do actions or hold rallies without really understanding the context of the city is that it ends up being a waste of our time,” said Jennifer Apodaca, an organizer with the Detained Migrant Solidarity Committee.
Immigrants’ rights advocates in El Paso spend most of their time working directly with people coming out of immigration detention. Volunteers and nonprofits run a network of shelters for asylum seekers, who often need food, housing and medical attention.
“We’re stretching ourselves to the limit just trying to make sure people have the basics,” said Alan Dicker, who often coordinates volunteer efforts in El Paso.
Advocates also track allegations of abuse at detention facilities, connect people with legal services and keep up with ever-changing federal policy directives that affect immigration-enforcement activity in the region.
“The government has concentrated so many operations designed to damage and disempower migrant families in our community that we feel like we’re constantly in a disaster zone,” Dicker said.
Many El Paso activists said having the time to plan protests and rallies would be a luxury. Their priority is ensuring that people entering the U.S. are safe and off the streets, they said.
Learning to ‘assist and resist’
When Apodaca first heard from Vega, she was hesitant about participating in the group’s protests.
“Those things are kind of exhausting and taxing on a community that is doing direct service work,” Apodaca told her.
“I don’t entirely think direct action and protests and different types of campaigns are useless,” she added. “We just don’t have the capacity to build the ability to do that.”
But when Vega asked about the community’s needs — and how activists from St. Louis could support the efforts of those in El Paso — Apodaca agreed to meet.
A few weeks later, Vega arrived in Texas with a caravan of about two dozen people. They soon found out Immigration and Customs Enforcement had just dropped off nearly 300 asylum seekers at a Greyhound bus station in downtown El Paso.
Even with a well-oiled network of shelters spread across the city, the unexpected mass release left advocates in El Paso scrambling.
“If you want to see how crazy it is down here and why we get caught up in doing direct work all the time and why it’s hard to participate in direct action and rallies and protests — it’s because of this,” Apodaca told the St. Louis activists.
What Vega saw and heard that night still haunts her, she said.
Mothers told of their breast milk drying up from dehydration. They fed their babies ramen noodles as they begged for water. One woman said she’d been forced to wear the same sanitary pad for five days. A father said his holding cell was so crowded, he had to sleep alongside a toilet while cradling his toddler.
“The condition of the children was just horrific. As a mother and a grandmother and a veteran, I was completely outraged,” Vega said. “They were dehydrated. They were hungry. Some of them had temps of 101 and 102.”
The St. Louis activists soon realized where their help was needed most.
“Our original goal for going down was to occupy,” said Cathy “Mama Cat” Daniels. “And when we got there and all this kicked off, it went from 'occupy' to 'assist and resist.'”
Daniels is known in St. Louis for feeding protesters and cooking weekly meals for people experiencing homelessness. She set up shop inside an El Paso church kitchen and started cooking while the rest of the group helped local activists run a pop-up shelter at a nearby motel.
‘These are our babies’
Two weeks earlier, a 7-year-old named Jakelin Caal Maquin died in U.S. Customs and Border Protection custody. Her death was a big part of the reason Vega wanted to protest in southwest Texas, where an increasing number of children were being detained.
Jakelin’s death was not an isolated incident. The day after the St. Louis activists arrived, 8-year-old Felipe Gómez Alonzo died after a week in custody.
For Daniels, her fight for children in immigration custody — like Jakelin Caal Maquin and Felipe Gómez Alonzo — is connected to her fight for justice for Michael Brown and Vonderrit Myers, a black 18-year-old killed in 2014 by an off-duty police officer in south St. Louis.
“These are our babies, and I gotta fight for our babies,” she said. “It doesn't matter if it’s in St. Louis or El Paso or Tornillo. This is my community — it’s just a little further from my address.”
The group eventually found time to plan a handful of protests. On Christmas Day, they circled the Tornillo detention center, a sprawling compound where the government was holding thousands of children.
“We were really strategic about the ways in which we could highlight what was happening there,” said St. Louis activist Amanda Tello. “But we also wanted to let the children know that there were people who saw them and heard them and were present for them.”
They chanted loudly enough for the children inside to hear and carried enormous puppets that towered above the fencing and razor wire. A stilt walker joined them, waving to the children from her perch.
When Vega returned to El Paso in February to help lead another series of actions, more locals showed up to protest.
Vega plans to continue visiting El Paso, in hopes of watching their emerging protest movement grow.
“It was crazy and chaotic and emergent but completely beautiful,” she said. “And out of that has formed this really radical, powerful collective of folks. It’s beyond what I envisioned when I first planted the seed and started contacting people.”
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This reporting was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation as part of its Adelante Latin America Reporting Initiative. Elaine Cromie contributed reporting.