The Otay Mesa Detention Center

Joel Tauber bears witness to the Otay Mesa Detention Center everyday, as part of Border-Ball: A 40-Day Pilgrimage Along The U.S. - Mexico border.

The Otay Mesa Detention Center troubles me. I walk there everyday from the Otay Mesa Port of Entry as part of my 40-day pilgrimage. Guards slowly circle the Detention Center in vans. They stare at me. I meet their gaze. They tell me that I have to remain on the sidewalk. The large private prison company that owns and operates the Detention Center, CoreCivic, maintains the dirt pathway that surrounds it. I cannot film, or even stand, on this pathway—or on the very large parking lot where the multitude of Detention Center employees park their cars.

I stand on the sidewalk and bear witness. I toss a ball, repetitively and meditatively, contemplating the expanse of concrete “pods” holding the detainees. Three layers of barbed wire and electric fencing separate me from the people locked inside. I cannot see them. I cannot talk with them or play catch with them. I cannot offer food or other forms of direct aid.

I try to imagine what it must be like for the detainees—especially those who are forced to remain in the Detention Center for years on end. Refugees. Dreamers. Most have no criminal records whatsoever. Treated like prisoners. In jumpsuits. Living in concrete cages. Breathing in terrible air from the power plant across the street. Suffering, according to multiple reports, from physical and sexual abuse. Medical neglect. Contaminated and insufficient food. Forced labor.

I toss the ball and I think about how my paternal grandparents survived the Holocaust. How my grandfather’s brother died in a labor camp. How I am a descendant of immigrants who came to this country because they believed, like I do, that it is a welcoming place that values people from all ethnic backgrounds and religious beliefs. A compassionate country that finds homes for refugees, that cares for those that need help.

I’m still shocked by the march in Charlottesville, so close to where I live with my wife and two young boys. Klansmen without hoods, shouting openly about killing Jews and African Americans. I’m frightened by the rise of racist rhetoric and the rise of hate crimes. And I’m terrified by white nationalism.

But, I have hope nonetheless. I continue to believe in our country. I’m confident that we will rediscover our values. So, I toss a ball and declare:

Walk with me along the border. Play catch with me in front of the wall. Share some hot dogs and salsa. I don’t care what part of the world you’re from. Let’s root, root, root for teamwork. If we don’t find some, it’s a shame. For it’s one, two, three strikes, we’re out at the old ball game.

On Thanksgiving, a guard stops his van and tells me that he sees me everyday. We discuss the Detention Center, the Border, the Wall. The value of compassion. A friend who has walked with me that day adds his thoughts. Then the guard asks: “we need this place, right?” I thank him for asking such an important question. He thanks me. Then the guard resumes circling the Detention Center in his van. And I start walking back to the Port of Entry with my friend, as the conversation circles over and over again in my mind.