Cruelty and heartbreak at the border


In May 2018, the news came out: our immigration system was separating parents from their children. As of June, the number was more than 2,300.


Like countless people, I was horrified and furious that my government was committing this crime against humanity. I read online that parents whose children were being taken away from them were required to wear a yellow bracelet. Of course, as a Jew, this gave me chills, as did anecdotal reports that when some children were led away, they were told they were going to take a shower.

Ever since the news of child separation broke, I have worn a yellow bracelet so that I would not forget. First it was crude, made out of duct tape from my basement. This quickly fell apart. So I bought one from a local gift shop, made of large, flat seeds and that has lasted.

A few weeks ago, I went to the border to volunteer, bear witness and protest the atrocities committed on immigrants by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Customs and Border Patrol, and the Department of Homeland Security. I was able to link up with other volunteers going to Texas through a wonderful project called Citizen Presence (CP), which was organized by Georgetown Law Prof. Heidi Li Feldman to provide a “constant, visible presence at a known epicenter” of “moral disaster.” We protested together, several of us lived in a house together, we volunteered together, and, over the course of several days, we became friends.

Upon my arrival, I joined other volunteers at Annunciation House, a hospitality nonprofit that receives immigrants after they are released from detention by Customs and Border Patrol. There, I helped out in the clinic.  In the afternoon, a nun with a long grey braid handed me a scissors and a bag of lollipops and gave me this task: “They don’t need the bracelets anymore. Go ahead and cut them off. And give each child a lollipop.”

I walked up and down the rows of chairs, carefully sliding a scissors blade against each wrist under the flimsy paper bracelets – some orange, some yellow, some green – and snipped. And I asked each child, “Chupa?,” for a brand of lollipops, and the child would nod and smile.

My time in El Paso was a whirlwind:  along with a bunch of CP volunteers and about 300 others, I protested with the Rev. William Barber’s Moral Monday group outside the El Paso Department of Homeland Security detention center. And we attended a rousing prayer meeting with Christian, Muslim and Jewish religious leaders, including Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, and with immigrant testimonials in Spanish and English. Reverend Barber proclaimed: “Someone’s hurting our people and we won’t be silent anymore.”

Two of us later visited the El Paso immigration court and spoke with attorneys, observers and immigrant families caught up in the senseless immigration machinery. There was a sense of a complete lack of accountability and needless cruelty. Those seeking the “Migration Protection Protocol,” a Trump policy through which migrants are forced to wait in Mexico for court dates.

At one point, we saw a group of about 15 elementary- and high school-aged immigrant children file in. We were told that the migrants, after their hearings, would be taken back to an “icebox,” a nickname for the freezing and cramped ICE holding cells, for 48 hours prior to being sent back to Juarez to wait.

We also saw a breathtaking exhibit at the University of Texas of art by the youth of the Tornillo tent city, in Tornillo, Texas. Tilted “Uncaged Art,” it showcased a variety of work, including paintings of the quetzal, the beautiful, magical bird of Central America.

One panel was like a punch in the gut and reminded me why I’d felt compelled to come to the border in the first place: The panel discussed art by children in internment camps throughout history, including the Terezin concentration camp.

Into my mind, immediately, came the poem, in song form, that I had learned as a child in Hebrew school: “The last, the very last, / So richly brightly, dazzlingly yellow. / Perhaps if the sun’s tears would sing / against a white stone. / Such, such a yellow / Is carried lightly way up high. / It went away I’m sure, because it wished to / kiss the world goodbye.” 

But I’d like to end with a different memory.

On my last afternoon, at Annunciation House, a young girl asked if I would open the playroom. I became the supervising volunteer in a large space filled with little cars, old Fisher Price play sets, coloring books, mini-bowling sets, action figures and other toys. A 4-year-old boy started following me around the room. He would pick up a blue Mustang or a flying Superman, for instance – cape blown out, head craned forward – and ask if he could take it with him. Other children asked the same thing as they loaded up their pockets. Always, the answer had to be no. The boy’s parents soon arrived in the room and helped me with the repeated responses: “No, mi amor, para jugar aqui.”

The children’s families told me their stories. One mother pointed to a wall in the playroom, saying that there had been frost on the wall of the icebox from which they had just come. It had made her sick, she said as she coughed.

After about two hours, I had to leave. A nun out in the hall told me that there was no one else to cover the playroom; all volunteers were deployed to paperwork and processing for a new busload of immigrants.

A young mother in a floral blouse helped me clean up the toys and usher the crestfallen children out. The boy who had followed me sobbed brokenheartedly. I gave him a hug and said goodbye.

I wear my living memory on my wrist. The sun’s tears.

To learn more about Citizen Presence: on twitter, search for #CitizenPresence or direct message Professor Feldman at @HeidiLiFeldman.

To learn more about Reverend Barber’s work with border actions or the Poor People’s Campaign, see or

A number of groups work locally to fight for immigrant rights, including AMOR ( and Never Again Action (to get involved, fill out the form at

Joanna Brown M.D. M.P.H., is a family physician living in Providence and a longtime member of Temple Emanu-El.