In early August, I walked through an open gate at the Paso del Norte detention facility in El Paso, one of the more notorious detention facilities for refugees on the southern border, and began talking to the guards. One of them threatened me and a colleague with arrest, but he was an outlier. Some of them were standoffish, but even those unwilling to answer questions were mostly polite and engaging. One man even told me he appreciated the chance to dialogue with a fellow American in a human way.
Several admitted, when pressed to speak as Americans instead of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents, that they didn’t think some of what was going on was right. One promised me that he would do everything he could to help change the policy that had him and his colleagues arbitrarily imprisoning refugee families. He hadn’t realized until our chat, he said, that the camps were unconstitutional. He had never heard about the Refugee Convention, but he said he’d look it up.
These men and women are the foot soldiers in Trump’s concentration camp–industrial complex, the ones whose resignations or refusal to carry out orders may be the one thing that could gum up the gears of this heinous enterprise. For ten days at the end of July, I traveled, interviewing activists and concerned citizens on the El Paso border and across the country about how to resist these camps. Many are protesting, or offering to supply the detainees. But very few citizens are approaching these detention facilities and politely asking the guards to explain and justify their conduct.
As Lauren Sukin, a Stanford Ph.D. candidate in political science, notes, detainees in these camps experience conditions not only worse than those of the country’s worst criminals, but worse even than the way we treat real enemies—prisoners of war. Struggling to find effective ways to resist, many Americans are doing what they can to oppose Trump’s network of concentration camps. Protests, advocacy research, and court proceedings are important. But these strategies also maintain a safe distance from the guards who are implementing directives from Washington.
At Paso del Norte, anyone brave enough to confront a guard can walk up that front driveway and go in that gate (or, as my colleague New Mexico State University professor Neal Rosendorf did two months ago, wander in a back gate and take photos of imprisoned refugees). When I spoke with the some of the guards, they gave me long explanations of why they thought the conditions in the camps were better than what the news media reported. Many of them think 800-calorie-a-day diets are humane because “it’s better than what they had in their own countries.”
I discovered their definition of a “refugee” is a bit different from what’s codified in the Refugee Convention. “These people’s countries are not at war, so they’re not refugees,” one guard told me. “Maybe they’re fleeing ‘violence’ but there is violence everywhere. You could get murdered in your own community.” Most of all I learned what mattered to these guards: To be seen as upholding an oath to protect the nation, to be able to convince themselves and hopefully all Americans that they were on the right side of history.
Many of my conversations with them involved debunking tropes, such as “We’re just enforcing the law,” by reminding them that they are, in fact, breaking the law. “Are you familiar with the Refugee Convention that the United States signed?” I asked. “Are you familiar with Article VI of the U.S. Constitution, that you swore to uphold, which says treaties are the supreme law of the land?” No executive order that violates constitutional protections can supersede these fundamental laws, I reminded them.
“That’s not for us to decide,” they would reply. “Our job is to follow orders.” “You have an obligation not to follow illegal orders,” I replied. “Camp guards from Nazi Germany were prosecuted at Nuremberg for following orders,” added Rosendorf, who had joined me for this particular visit.
There’s a breakthrough when guards deny rather than justify the stories you’re describing, when they talk of “bad apples” and ask that activists not paint them personally with the same broad brush as other people with more malevolent intentions. When guards feel that the actions of their colleagues make them personally look bad in the eyes of their fellow citizens, those norms still have some power to make them think about their actions in the camps.
Americans can engage these guards and remind them of the Nuremberg principles. We can remind them they are vulnerable to prosecution if they follow orders, but have power—and moral courage—when they resist. Activists can laud heroes like former CPB agent-turned-activist Jenn Budd, who resigned her post due to the cruelty she witnessed and has been speaking out ever since. Citizens can consider the other kinds of assistance that would make it easier for people working in these places to speak out—or turn in their badges— rather than remain loyal to a regime bent on violating the human rights of civilians fleeing conflicts in their home countries.
These kinds of conversations require respectful engagement. Accustomed to dealing with the news media, ACLU lawyers, and protesters chanting and waving signs, guards sometimes imagine they are protecting the detainees against the potential violence of angry protesters. By contrast, approaching a gate guard with open hands and a smile, instead of protest signs or accompanied by swarm of reporters and cameras, makes it much harder for them to fire at you or dismiss you. One person said to me, “It’s pretty innocuous when you come in here with no camera and can just have a conversation as two human beings without yelling and screaming.”
Of course, we also need protests—like the interfaith march led earlier this month by the Reverend William Barber II and the Border Network for Human Rights. In fact, my strategy is likely only effective in the context of persistent, more confrontational activism—but it is an underused one. At even peaceful protests I’ve attended, I have never seen someone walk up to a guard and converse, American to American, about what kind of country we want.
During my travels, I learned about other individuals who decided to go to the southern border region to bear witness to these human rights abuses. Georgetown Law professor Heidi Li Feldman coordinates a loose coalition of Americans through a Slack group for her community, #CitizenPresence. She specifically recommends that a “steady stream” of Americans show up at facilities and ask the guards questions like: “Are you holding detainees in your facility? How many? If not, when was the last time you did?” These are important questions. But I found that we can also talk to guards not just as public servants, but as parents, people of faith, and fellow Americans who think of themselves as law-abiding citizens.
When I spoke with these men, we talked about the law, the Office of the Inspector General’s Report on overcrowding at their facility, and trauma science, but we also just talked about our families. “Do you have children?” I’d ask. “What do you tell them about what they see in the newspaper? What do you want me to tell my child? What would you want for your family if you were fleeing a war zone? Would you want your child treated like these families here are treated? Even if you’re just following orders, do you personally think this is right?”
The guards I met were remarkably willing to struggle through these questions. They were also surprisingly willing to cede my points, check out my sources, and reconsider their own power. These conversations lower their defenses, allow us to find common ground, and plant seeds of humanity that can make a difference inside the walls, if only at the margins.
And when they are lying, these conversations can also expose their duplicity. On the final day of my El Paso visit, Rosendorf and I returned to the facility with pictures on Rosendorf’s phone that proved information I had received on my first visit was false. The supervisor I spoke to on that visit had said there were no children in the facility, but only 12 hours earlier Rosendorf had snapped a photo of children behind a fence, and the following day when I came back I had watched three adolescent boys taken into the facility, one in handcuffs. We came back to confront the agents about this lie.
When we arrived, we asked to see the supervisor on duty. But he refused to speak to us even through the fence and instructed us to leave. If we didn’t, he threatened to call the police. Willing to take the risk, we told him that in a democracy Americans had every right to question our public servants. A contingent of officers arrived. Now we had fresh advocacy targets, a new audience with whom to dialogue.
We talked with these three El Paso police officers about the Constitution and the human rights violations that were happening in this facility right under their noses. We talked with them about the Nuremberg principles. We asked why, if they had jurisdiction to protect the gate guards from curious citizens they did not also have jurisdiction to protect detainees from the gate guards? By the end, the police sergeant acknowledged we had grounds to file a complaint against Paso del Norte for having called the police at all on a false pretext—“disturbing the peace.” And the CPB agent on duty grudgingly agreed that he would do everything in his power to oppose policies that he now understood violated his oath under the Constitution.
Perhaps he will not follow through and was just trying to get rid of us. But human rights research shows these kinds of one-on-one, human conversations can have an impact, particularly if activists find common ground with guards through a shared national identity as Americans or through religious beliefs. History shows that when soldiers with guns refuse to shoot civilians, it is because they understand that there is power in disobeying unlawful orders. When the Egyptian military refused to fire on protesters during the Arab Spring, the Mubarak regime crumbled. When Tank Commander chose to disobey orders and not run down Tank Man, China began to change.
Perhaps these micro-dialogues will help remind CPB guards and local police that they do not just enforce laws, they are bound by those same laws: Even individual foot soldiers have legal and moral responsibilities. As long as there are concentration camps operating in the country, Americans have the right to go to these camps to ask questions and demand answers.