A bus full of children attempts to pull into McAllen’s Department of Homeland Security office. Children can be seen pressing their hands up against the windows of the bus. It is quickly stopped and surrounded by protesters fighting for the separated children. Photo by Diamon Garza.

Two weekends ago, the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol station in McAllen made headlines when people from all over Texas came to protest the Trump administration’s policy of separating migrant families crossing the border illegally. Similar demonstrations happened around the country that weekend and continue to this day, despite a weak executive order claiming to stop the separation. Various civil rights groups, nonprofits, and grassroots organizations hosted the Free the Children protest. One group, the North Texas chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) offered transportation by bus from Dallas, so I made the last-minute decision to catch a ride. 

Having just found out about the event through Facebook, I would have to find childcare and run it by my wife. She must have seen the eager and blazing glare in my eyes, as she didn’t need much convincing,  and, once a babysitter was found, I reserved a spot on one of the two buses heading to McAllen. Jumping on the first bus available was a bit of a mistake. The other had a restroom, Wi-Fi, and outlets to charge your phone. Mine didn’t even have a working air-conditioner. Either way, it was a free ride.

The buses loaded at 1 a.m. and left for South Texas shortly after. It was during this time that I began to question what my role was. Journalists are taught to report facts, be unbiased, and refrain from expressing personal emotions or opinions except when writing editorials or opinion articles. Part of me wanted to simply document the event, but another part of me wanted to participate. It is something that has gotten me into trouble at past events, so I told myself during the ride to keep my emotions in check. There was plenty of time to self-reflect, since there wasn’t much sleeping during the bumpy, scorching hot eight-hour ride. 

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The bus made a pit stop at a church in San Juan, Texas. Everyone was able to grab a bite to eat and freshen up after the long,  sweaty ride there. We made one more stop, this one at Archer Park in McAllen to hear speeches by Dolores Huerta, the Mexican-American activist who co-founded the National Farmworkers Association, and Kerry Kennedy, the daughter of Robert F. Kennedy and niece of former president John F. Kennedy. Shortly after, our group arrived at the border patrol station, fired up by the speeches. Reporters were everywhere, the crowd was chanting, “Let the children go,” and everyone was trying their best to stay somewhat cool in the Texas heat. Everything about the demonstration seemed routine, compared to other protests, but then something unexpected happened. 

A McAllen police officer tries to get protesters to leave, but the protesters sit in, forcing the bus filled with children to reverse.

In the midst of the chanting and speeches by organizers, a large bus driven by a border patrol agent came down the street, attempting to pull into the office. Suddenly, someone shouted, “The kids are in there! The kids are there!,” at which point everyone rushed to the bus and immediately surrounded it. After getting close enough, I was able to see for myself, and I couldn’t believe it. The bus was full of children, there were bars behind the windows, and inside the children could be seen pressing their hands against the tinted glass, as if to ask for help. Protesters sat down on the street to stop the bus. Border patrol agents and McAllen police came out to rush people off after an officer disguised as a protester called for reinforcements. Agents in full combat gear tried to get people out of the street, but the people resisted and stood fast. 

Amid all the scuffles, chanting, and screaming, the atmosphere shifted. People’s emotions and attitudes changed from anger to sorrow, mine included. Instantly, screaming turned to wailing and crying. Mothers and grandmothers broke down and yelled, “Why?” Christian, Islamic, and Jewish leaders began praying, holding hands up to the windows to try to connect with the kids through the glass. The bus had to reverse to leave the scene as officers threatened protesters with bodily harm to make them move. The children could be seen crying and pleading “ayúdame,” or “help me” in English. Meanwhile, the officer driving the bus laughed and shrugged, showing no remorse.

Let’s stop here. Our country’s leaders constantly brag about how free it is. It’s something I was told I should be proud of and thankful for since my youth. This was a freedom-loving, Christian nation blessed by God himself, so how could we reduce ourselves to this? Could a truly free nation have the highest incarceration rate in the world? Could it be in a constant state of war, or could it pull apart families looking for better life? These are questions the United States should ask itself. 

On July 4, many Americans will enjoy some time off work, burgers, hot dogs, drinks, and fireworks. They will celebrate the day this country gained its independence and won’t think twice about what others around the world are experiencing. Not that anyone shouldn’t enjoy their time with their families, but at the very least, we should also be able to acknowledge what some families are going through and strive to do better for them. While we celebrate our freedom, mothers and fathers on our land who want the same freedom will be crying themselves to sleep away from their children, who are afraid and need them.