Sitkan Tory O’Connell (left) outside the US Customs and Border Protection detention center in Clint, Texas. O’Connell asked to visit the children being held there but was denied. “And they were very polite,” she added. Nevertheless, she believes the welfare of these children is the business of every American. “This is the United States,” she says, “and it’s (detaining children) is only allowed because it’s so remote. I thought, ‘I’m going to go down and stand in front of that facility.’ And so I did.” (Tory O’Connell photo)

A Sitka resident is at the US-Mexico border in Texas, to see for herself the conditions of children being detained at a US government facility.

Tory O’Connell spent the weekend outside a US Customs and Border Protection detention center in Clint, Texas. The center holds children under the age of 18 whose parents are seeking asylum in the United States.

Note: A group of Sitkans plans to hold a rally at the roundabout, noon on Tuesday, July 2, in support of the National Day of Action in response to inhumane conditions in child detention centers.

  Tory O’Connell says that she isn’t representing any group or special interest. Or perhaps she’s representing all of us, who have become numb to the relentless news and debate over US policy at the southern border.

So while she doesn’t have any backing or agenda, O’Connell does have strong convictions about locking up children.

“It’s just flat-out wrong,” she said. “It’s inhumane. It’s a crime against humanity. And yet it’s hard to know how to get your hands around it. I send money, and I do know about local groups, but that doesn’t seem like enough. We need to have eyes on the situation. I have a granddaughter who’s six months old. We’re a commercial fishing family. You know, family is everything.”

Although O’Connell visited Clint on her own initiative (as she did last year, when she traveled to the tent city in Tornillo, TX), she connected with groups who have organized to oppose the detention centers, as well as assist the people who have been cleared and granted asylum. “I made peanut-butter sandwiches in El Paso yesterday,” she said, “and drove some people to the airport.” She feels there are many volunteer opportunities on the border for citizens who want to help — “Especially if you speak Spanish,” she adds. (Tory O’Connell photo)

I speak with O’Connell while she’s waiting for a flight in El Paso. She had to come to the airport to charge her phone, because she’s been posting pictures steadily to social media since she arrived last Saturday.

The pictures are mostly of other like-minded people — some organized under the banner #citizenpresence, a hashtag started by Georgetown law professor Heidi Feldman — but nothing from inside the center.

O’Connell tried to visit the children detained in Clint, but wasn’t allowed. This is how she describes her attempt:

I knocked on the door and no one would answer, so I called and a nice receptionist answered and I said “I would like to come in. It says on the door Visitors Check In at Front Desk.” And she said, “Oh, well, you can’t come in.” And I said, “Who gets to visit?” And she said people who have a personal interest — personal business — can come in. And I said, “Well I have personal business here. I want to visit these children.” And of course I was not let in, but I think every American has personal business there to see for themselves.

And it wasn’t just O’Connell who was denied entry: She says presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke came and was turned away, as was former US Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro.

The only people to get in were members of congress — the Congressional Hispanic Caucus — and its superstar, first-term congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — whom a fellow demonstrator captured on video.

O’Connell’s friend and fellow demonstrator took this video as members of the Congressional Hispanic Congress left the Customs and Border Protection detention center in Clint, Texas. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is in the bright red dress. AOC’s visit to the border has generated considerable media attention — and some outright hostility on social media platforms. (Video from @honestlyvintage)

Wherever AOC goes is bound to be a media event, and her appearance at the border was no different. O’Connell, however, believes that it’s going to take more than 38 congressional Democrats to effect change in policy. It’s going to take Republicans, and O’Connell would like to start at home. 

“I would like our elected officials — Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan and Don Young to go down and tour these facilities, because this affects all of us,” said O’Connell. “And they have influence. They could change this policy. I don’t think the Democratic Hispanic Caucus can change policy — they can try — but right now the Republicans could.”

This is O’Connell’s second visit to US border detention facilities. Last year, she went to the huge tent camp in Tornillo, Texas. 

O’Connell says she’ll likely visit the border again, for reasons that are deeply personal. A new grandmother, O’Connell recalls being a young woman raising children herself during the genocide in Rwanda. “I was politically active,” she says, “but I didn’t call the White House, and I didn’t do anything — and our country let that happen. I don’t want to be that type of citizen the rest of my life.”