December 2, 2019 | By Victoria Jorgensen
Witness at Tornillo
December 7 at 11 am
“If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”
This century-old philosophical question about observation and perception directly applies to the story of Josh Rubin and the documentary Witness At Tornillo.
Carbon Trace Productions Executive Producer, Andy Cline and his team traveled to Brownsville, Texas in 2018 for a National Day of Protest, where they met Josh through a friend of a friend. The next day, they traveled to Tornillo Detention Center, a temporary tent city created to detain immigrant children at the border.
The desolate facility, operated by BCFS, a global network of nonprofit organizations operating health and human services programs on behalf of the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement was in the middle of nowhere. When they arrived, Josh Rubin was standing there holding his cardboard sign “FREE THEM.”
Andy and crew were there to protest, but decided to do a quick hotel interview with Josh, not knowing how they would use it. Josh turned out to be an incredibly interesting subject who not only talked about protest, but followed with action — there was the story.
Other people influenced by Josh’s actions showed up to protest and that was an even better story.
Andy wants people to be outraged and spurred to action by this powerful story of the power of an individual.
The “subversive act of seeing” is the idea that observing anything changes it. You are seen watching and that affects the actions of others. Josh showed up by himself with one sign and influenced many to become “witnesses” which eventually led to the closure of Tornillo and other detention centers.
Since the 2016 election, there have been massive changes in immigration policies including the most apparent, separation of families at the border. This policy created a wave of unaccompanied minor children at the US Southern border, which lead to the creation of remote detention centers in places like Tornillo, Texas and Homestead, Florida.
President Trump’s statement, “These aren’t people, these are animals!” and his zero tolerance immigration policies framed an acute, mammoth crisis at the border. The U.S. government separated thousands of families and drove a wedge between ideologies of the American people.
Joshua Rubin traveled from Brooklyn to Tornillo to protest because he was “tired of sitting and watching the TV and yelling at it!”
. . .
In the film, Josh says, “The border between Mexico and the U.S. is made by a not very wide, dirty river. Coming together at the edge of that river and asking for refuge are people who are desperate enough to leave their homes and come and ask for help. Instead of opening our arms and offering them help, we started putting them in jails. We started separating families. It just seemed so horrendous, I figured I had to come down to the front lines here to the struggle against that!”
Josh stood with his handmade cardboard sign, motioning to anyone who passed by that this was the place where children were held, calling for their freedom. He continued his protest for two weeks before returning to Brooklyn.
He returned to Tornillo in four months with a motor home which he parked near the border patrol station. He stood in the middle of the desert with his sign, observing the expansion of the facility, trying to learn more about what was going on, on the other side of the fence. The guards, who were paid two to three times more than any local job, overcame issues of conscience and made his presence as difficult as possible by continuously calling the sheriffs and local farmers, making up stories about Josh interfering and trespassing on private land. Soon, the sheriffs stopped showing up as they could find no proof.
Josh microwaves soup in his motor home as he states, “Certain things happen in the world that are affected by people looking at them. It’s kind of a quantum notion, right? If we observe this, it changes the quality of it. People inside now, know that they are observed.”
The U.S. government spent over $750 per day per child to run the Tornillo facility. Everything had to be trucked in including water and generated electricity.
“It’s my hope that witnessing brings about that art of reflection that leads to the question I really want people who work here and support this financially and the government that makes this possible [to ask]. It’s the idea that people can look at themselves and say, ‘I might not be doing something right, I might be doing something really wrong.’”
Slowly, people began to show up and protest with Josh until the facility closed in January 2019. One month later, Josh left his home in Brooklyn again, to travel to another detention facility in Homestead, Florida, operated by the unlicensed, for-profit corporation Caliburn.
Caliburn operators came up with a plan to provide a stock offering which was then canceled after it was reported in the New York Times. Former White House chief of staff John F. Kelly was on the board of Caliburn.
There’s no denying and in any discussion you get to the point where people generally admit that being in a place where you can’t leave and you can’t be with your family and you can’t touch anybody else, and you can’t talk to the people you want to or hang out with the people you want to hang out with, makes it a prison. And a prison is not a good place, even with ice cream. – Joshua Rubin, Witness