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El Paso MARGIE IS A PARALEGAL for an agency that does amnesty work brought on by the new immigration reform law, which here in El Paso means work mostly on behalf of Mexicans. She does political asylum and refugee petitions, too, mostly for people from the more battered parts of Central America. Because Margie is government-approved, she’s one of the few people besides attorneys allowed into the “Processing Center” the Immigration and Naturalization Service’s official name for the local illegal alien jail. Even though I’m no Processing Center regular, my work with an immigrants’ rights group has given me a taste of the place. We get calls always collect, always desperate from men who have been in for months with no lawyer or money for bond, men who say their clothes were taken by guards, men who say they’ve been beaten. There used to be this Cuban who would get on the pay phone and dial random numbers in El Paso and Juarez, and when someone answered in Spanish, he’d ask for shirts. The INS guards laughingly recall how he was constantly getting parcels in the mail and running a regular haberdashery behind bars. It seems a lot of people around here have a soft spot for the detainees, though hardly anyone knows just where they’re kept since the center is hidden on the desiccated fringes of the city, behind the main Border Patrol office. For years, most illegal aliens have called these places “corralones.” It comes from the same word as “corral” a holding pen for animals. Before you get to the El Paso pen, you pass a huge lot filled with disabled Border Patrol Ram Chargers that broke down during street and desert chases. The vehicles are coated with dust, and on the windshields, fingers have rubbed the Spanish for “Fuck the INS.” Lately, the agency has tried to spruce up its image, be more user friendly. So they’ve put up a new welcoming sign at the center. It says “Corralon.” Debbie Nathan is a writer living in El Paso. Margie spends a lot of time there interviewing people who, when they got to the U.S., either turned themselves in to Customs at the airport or sneaked across the Rio Grande and got picked up because their clothes or their papers didn’t look right. She herself is chicana, youthful in her early forties. She keeps kiddie carseats in the trunk and tells you they’re for the grandchildren when they visit. The corralon guards flirted with her the Saturday morning we walked down the drab halls past the employees’ coke machine. She had told the INS bureaucrats that she would be bringing in “emergency assistants,” three sanctuary and immigration activists to help process nine Africans who she had told me on the phone the night before “need to be done real quick.” They wanted to emigrate to Toronto. So the four of us headed for the interviewing room to meet the Somalis, who sat at a table in a long room bisected by plexiglass laced with chicken wire. They were all young men in their twenties, lighter-skinned than I had expected more Semitic than Hamitic, with long bodies and faces. Their hair was softer and looser than that of subSaharan Africa, and with the sun in the exercise yard glaring behind them, you could see right down to their scalps. Except for what I had gleaned the night before from a garage-sale reference book, I knew nothing about these men or their country. The book said that in ancient times Somalia was called the Land of Punt, most of its people are still grouped into nomadic, Muslim tribes, and two principal exports are frankincense and myrrh. Frankincense and myrrh. I tried to imagine these nine young men as Magi. Or sheiks, sultans. Shakespeare would have said Moors and cast them as Othellos. But not today. Now, instead of robes and turbans, they wore identical navy blue polyester windbreakers, courtesy of the corralon. “Here’s your guys,” said McGuire, a chicano guard who sat at a little desk near the interview room. McGuire slumped over his cup of coffee and half closed his eyes he was used to refugee interviews and didn’t seem to notice that these were not your typical applicants. We’d all talked to the regulars before the Central Americans we knew the blacks and whites and greys of their reasons for seeking political asylum. But Somalis? We had no idea why, but we got down to work anyway. When you do an asylum or refugee application, you sit on one side of the chicken wire with your questions. On the other side is the detainee. with the answers. You read your part off the form: When were you born? How many years of schooling did you have? Tell me every address you’ve lived the last ten years. Where, exactly, did you enter America? What terrible things happened to you in your country? What awful things will probably happen if you return? And what horrible things will certainly happen? Then the detainee gives you his reasons. There are many, some transparent, or at least translucent. There’s the 17-year-old Guatemalan whose nuclear family has been decimated by Death Squads. He’s ridden and stumbled for months through Mexico and has a facial tic that won’t go away. There’s another Guatemalan, a woman \(released without bond because the corralon doesn’t have husband made her do S&M with him until she couldn’t take the rubber and the whips anymore, and besides, he’s got connections to the CIA and uses things worse than rubber and whips on his prisoners, and she’s ready to document that with Amnesty International. . But there are people with murkier reasons. Like the 25-year-old Salvadoran who’s been here off and on since age 17, speaks Cheech and Chong English, deported three times, the second time after he was busted for shoplifting, the third time after he served time for dealing coke in California. The last time he was home, the Death Squad mistook him for his guerrilla brother, imprisoned him for weeks, tortured him with wires, sliced him with a machete. He talks so calmly, shows you the long, deep scars with such a matter-of-fact absence of tics, that you wonder if the Death Squad wasn’t really some street gang in East L.A. And whatever his motives for leaving his country, whatever the ambiguities of his desire to come north, all the confusion and muddiness strains through the corralon’s chicken wire. And by the time the reasons get to your side, they are sieved pure and true. Sign here, you tell the detainee. He does. You aim the camera, he poses; now it is official. He is a seeker of political asylum or refuge. You staple his picture to a set of forms. So now there were these Somalis, and they were not Guatemalans or Salvado Nine Angry Men By Debbie Nathan THE TEXAS OBSERVER 11