Airport Soundwalk

About the Route

Amid the expanse of the Hueco Bolson, on the eastern side of what are now called the Franklin Mountains, at the southern tip of the Rocky Mountain range and on the northern shores of the historic course of the Rio Grande, is a square mile of asphalted runways, developed rubble, freight-tracking warehouses, and signage against trespass.

The square mile contains the El Paso International Airport Runway, the NASA Johnson Space Center Forward Operating Location, the United States Postal Service air mail exchange, and the El Paso Service Processing Center (ICE Detention).

How did these sites come to be here, one wall away from each other?

This is a square mile which at first sight appears to include an ironic confluence of disjointed histories and institutions— the USPS, NASA, ICE. When we pay closer attention, these sites are deeply intertwined: the location of the Post Office as a tool of territorial conquest abuts the tarmac where deportation flights take off, forcibly defending that same territorial claim. To walk between these sites with an eye towards their underlying connections is to braid back together a history of the settler state whose integrity has been occluded through the suggestion that each of the state’s institutions of continuous settlement are irrelevant to each other. The hope of this soundwalk is to look not only at but through these edifices, towards longer histories of this square mile of land as a means of imagining alternate futures.

This Soundwalk was created by Honora Spicer, EPCC Faculty Fellow, and accompanies the documentary poetry manuscript POST BOND.

Walk & Listen

This is an area currently monitored by multiple institutions of surveillance, which walkers should be aware of in choosing to walk the route, even while the route takes place entirely on public property (sidewalks).

The route begins and ends at 8401 Boeing Dr. in front of the USPS Post Office. This location can be reached by Bus Route 50 (down Montana Ave.) or by car.


This is a territory presently occupied by the United States of America, on the border of Juárez, Mexico, and on Indigenous land of the Tigua, Mescalero Apache, Mansos and Sumas. Immigrants detained at the ICE detention center can see the movements of NASA aircraft directly through the window, including the Super Guppy freight carrier, built to haul the Apollo rocket launcher for lunar exploration. Adjacent to the NASA office is the ICE deportation flight boarding site. This is a site that lays bare inequities and extremes produced by globalization and militarized settler colonization: the contrasts between rapid transit (passenger airplanes, military jets, rocket launchers, courier services) and human incarceration, contrasts between enclosed US Government Property and unenclosed 'public' space, and between undeveloped terrain of the Chihuahuan desert and the cement structures which flatten and seal an ecosystem and its ancient history.

This square mile is taken as a sample in the spirit of a field sampling: imagine the yellow perimeter on Google maps as rope strung between a square of posts for an archeological dig or forest survey. The square is a photo crop, a zoom and pixel-fixation. What is found here? What does it mean for these sites to be beside each other? Accounting for presence, for the ways sites touch and occlude visually and aurally, calls for a poetics of proximity. What does it mean that these sites touch? is a question inviting response from geography, geology, archeology and history, but also from poetics, a field which could be described as studying the meanings of proximities, by taking the proximities of words as essential laboratory. Explaining what is found in the site of the sample calls for a history in the style of longue-durée, which considers the tangible environment of clays and spines and winds, the recent occurrence of Anthropocene impacts in fuel and infill and reverberation, as well as the imminent possibility of alternate futures based on a view to the long-arc of history.

The archives available for study of this space are multiple, given that it is precisely a site that aims to replicate the precision and efficiency of its actions (take-off, detention, delivery) by way of apparently banal surveillance and documentation. These include, for example, the ICE Detainee Locator, Swiftair Deportation Flight Tracker, Post mail trackers, El Paso City Planning documents, ICE records, zoning regulations, and surveillance imagery. The study of the proximities of these technologies of movement and record-keeping hinges on the hunch that proximity is not incidental, but rather these technologies are part of a concomitant 'progress.' Walter Johnson makes this powerful argument in a distinct but not independent context, through discussion of the carceral landscapes of enslavement in Mississippi's Cotton Kingdom in the nineteenth century:

"For slaves, "transportation" (used in the eighteenth-century sense of "conveyance to prison colonies") was a form of spatial discipline— of incarceration.

The most advanced technology of the day (steamboats, turnpikes, trains— not to mention firearms, swords, whips, chains, prisons, and so on), the most sophisticated commercial instruments (banknotes, negotiable paper, insurance contracts), and the most advanced statecraft (bills of lading, interstate comity, risk-allocating commercial law) were employed to speed the one-way passage of enslaved people into ever-deeper slavery."

Johnson's argument addresses this hinge between the development of technologies of transportation, 'statecraft' and surveillance, and commercial interests, whose 'progress' was bound together through carceral motives. Histories of transportation in this site in El Paso most often take the tone of heroic progressivism, naming El Paso at the forefront of air and space transportation technologies. Seeing the proximities of this space fully allows us to understand ways in which this 'progress' in 'transportation' has played out hand-in-hand with the development of technologies of convict transportation, migrant incarceration, and the criminalization of human-powered movement.

In addition to themes of im/mobility, a key lens in understanding this site is through discourses of waste and surplus. The site is floodplain of the Rio Grande, which until 1904 was subject to flood and flux. As an El Paso Geologic Society publication describes, "Because water which flowed unused to the sea was wasted, El Paso in 1904 recommended the construction of a dam at Elephant Butte to impound the unused water for irrigation as well as to stop the floods. By 1916, the dam was completed, and flood waters no longer freely flowed to the sea." This imperial framework values so-called 'resources' based on use, thus labelling sites and sources un-used as waste or surplus. This prioritization of use-value was itself highly consequential in settler claims to apparently 'unused' Indigenous territory. A first airport was constructed in 1928 in a location that is now the Underwood Golf Complex, adjacent to Biggs Field. The municipal airport moved to its present site in 1936 following a trade with American Airlines, a site which was claimed by eminent domain for federal use in World War II. The land was granted back to the City of El Paso in 1948 and 1948 through a series of Surplus Land Acts, which considered the land itself surplus to the needs of the federal government. Carceral geographer Ruth Wilson Gilmore puts the capitalist mentality of surplus in conversation with the process of prison expansion: "surplus labor, surplus land, surplus state capacity, and surplus capital geographically distributed along the poles of urban & rural space all threaten to produce crisis in a capitalist system, either economically, through over-accumulation, or socially, as political unrest. Prison expansion offered not just a fix, but a specifically spatial fix."

Adjacent to the airport is now the El Paso Service Processing Center, ICE Detention. The present detention center was first used in 1984 but this location was first suggested after the 1964 Chamizal Treaty, when an immigration detention center along the Rio Grande became part of land conveyed to Mexico when the boundary line was modified. Bob Ybarra, Secretary of the International Boundary and Water Commission, reflected this mentality of marginal space in an interview in the UTEP Oral History archive:

“Y: ...I remember the controversy was that when the Chamizal was going to be relocated and there was going to be a swap of land, which was the lower end of the Chamizal. Actually, what happened is Mexico would give us a chunk of Cordova— 193 acres— and then we, in turn, would give them another 193 [acres] from another area. To get those 193 [acres] back to Mexico, we would have to give Mexico the old detention facility.

We would have to give Mexico the IDC trucking facility and we would give Mexico the Border Patrol building. In addition, there was chunks of the landfill. The landfill would go to Mexico and —

what else would go to Mexico— parts of the treatment facility, [the] water treatment plant. So all of that had to be relocated somewhere else. The question was, "Do you want to put those right here? Or do want to move them somewhere else?" And the conventional wisdom by the politicians was that, "Let's get these terrible-looking things with towers and all that.

Get them out as far as possible." So for that reason they were relocated over to Montana and what is now Hawkins Street.

G: Near the [El Paso Municipal] Airport?

Y: Yes”

It is unclear if the land that the EPSPC presently occupies, adjacent to the airport, is part of the surplus land repurposed after World War II. What is clear is that until very recently, this land has been understood as surplus, excess and auxiliary to central El Paso, and has been intentionally chosen as a space to be kept out of sight.

The land where airplane wheels set down on the asphalt is an ancient sea floor, where the Rio Grande flowed into an ephemeral lake called by settler geographers Lake Cabeza de Vaca 3.4 million years ago. The lake filled the valley between the Hueco Mountains in the East, and the Potrillo Mountains in the West (now in the territory called Doña Ana County, New Mexico). The valley floor was formed by these flood waters, which deposited sediment, causing the lake to spread "into a broad, shallow sheet of water which in dry seasons would completely evaporate, leaving only a broad flat valley floor." The sea overflowed into the Rio Conchos, which flows through what is now Presidio, near what is currently named Big Bend National Park, and from there to ocean.

While the Franklin Mountains, Hueco Mountains and Cristo Rey were all above the flood plain, the sedimentary formations of the valley accumulated into what is known as the Fort Hancock Formation. This formation underlies the El Paso International Airport and is exposed in some places, such as below Rim Road (near the El Paso High School) and along Alabama Street, which reveals itself as "horizontally layered river sand and clay deposited by the ancestral Rio Grande." The banding on the east side of the Franklin Mountains, viewed from this site, are sands that were once at the seashore, now uplifted to an angle of 35 degrees. These are composed of the metamorphic rock Precambrian Lanoria Quartzite, as well as limestone sedimentary rock, which is made of the calcite-rich skeletons of marine organisms— in this area, predominantly fossilized algae. The Rio Grande River then carved a valley channel into the Fort Hancock Formation about 1 million years ago.

The river at one time flowed east of the Franklin Mountains, on the side where the airport and its surroundings are now located; "Deposits of river sands almost 1,500 feet thick just beneath the surface are filled with fresh ground water; El Paso gets most of its city water from these old river deposits." Indeed, the present airport replaced the location of the El Paso water works and is site of numerous groundwater wells. Geologist Lovejoy remarked, "The roar of stormy sea surf crashing against rocky promontories or the quiet lapping of gentle wavelets on a sandy beach are sounds now absent in our desert; the seas now are hundreds of miles away, thousands of feet lower." This is a site marked across time by residues of transit.


Begin outside the USPS on Boeing Ave.

Walk east on Boeing Ave. to the intersection with Hawkins Boulevard

The Post Route

The municipal and federal institutions on this territory can primarily be read as instruments of continual colonization on land that is the ancestral homeland and territory of the Mansos, Mescalero Apache, Sumas, Tigua, Piro, and Lipan Apache. Understanding the placement of these institutions in proximity therefore requires a tracing of the tethers between early Spanish settlement and United States colonization to the present. The Post system was one of the foremost institutions involved in colonizing this site. It can be seen as primarily a statecraft technology for imperial communication; one among other imperial technologies that close time over distance.

In 1581, the Chamuscado-Rodríguez Expedition passed through the site as the first settler expedition, encountering a marshy valley. As a lower pass in the Rocky Mountains, the territory, claimed by Juan de Oñate in 1598, occupied by New Spain and subsequently by Mexico, became a site of colonial settlement. Many of the missions of El Paso were formed by Spanish missionaries who went south after their defeat in the Pueblo Revolt in 1680. As an outpost of New Spain with the missionary system serving as the essential veins of colonization, El Paso del Norte (centered in what is now known as Mission Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe in Juárez, Mexico), was connected by Spanish royal post in 1773 to the Spanish colonial centers further south. Post Roads were first conceived as routes specifically conveying information towards a monarch or emperor, and their routes marked the designation of the extent of territorial claim. As historian Wilbert Timmons describes,

"The royal postal system of New Spain had been extended to include the northern frontier in the 1770s and eventually reached the El Paso area in 1773. Santa Fe, however, remained outside the service and continued to depend upon the annual caravan for carrying both ordinary and official mail. Spanish officials therefore soon perceived the need for linking the provincial capital of New Mexico with the postal service of the Provincias Internas. A branch post office was established at the presidio of San Elizario, and by 1805 the mail service between Santa Fe and Chihuahua was operating on a fairly regular schedule. Four times a year mail left Santa Fe with the annual caravan and a military escort. The mail pouches were transported to the campsite of Fray Cristóbal north of El Paso del Norte, where a contingent from San Elizario was waiting. The bags were then exchanged and the party from upriver returned to deliver the mail from the south. Some years later a monthly postal service was organized to carry both public and official mail from Santa Fe to El Paso. By that time the transporting of mail and merchandise had been greatly facilitated with the building of a bridge at El Paso del Norte. It was over five hundred feet long and seventeen feet wide, supported by eight caissons and a bed of crosspoles. Like so many other bridges which had been built there in the past, this one washed away in 1815, but was replaced with a new one the following year."

The development of postal transportation and communication routes under New Spain can be primarily understood as a means of conveying imperial data across distances, a technology that like many others was then subsequently expanded towards quotidian, 'citizen' uses.

This territory became part of the new state of Mexico with Mexican independence from Spain in 1821, and was incorporated into the Republic of Texas, as an independent nation, in 1836. In 1848, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed, bringing the site under jurisdiction of the United States. Immediately thereafter, an expedition set out in 1849 to find a transcontinental post route. The expedition's quartermaster, Samuel G. French, described the role of El Paso as a site whose significance was tethered to its use-value in transcontinental nation-building:

"El Paso, from its geographical position, presents itself as a resting place on one of the great overland routes between the seaports of the Atlantic on one side and those of the Pacific on the other...A littler further to the north and west are the head-waters of the Gila; and should the route from El Paso to the seaboard on the west present no more difficulties than that from the east, there can easily be established between the Atlantic states and those that have so suddenly sprung into existence in the West—and which are destined to change, perhaps, the political institutions and commercial relations of half the world—a connexion that will strengthen the bonds of union by free and constant intercourse. The government has been a pioneer in the enterprise and the little labor bestowed may not be lost to the public weal."

The San Antonio-El Paso-Santa Fe route was the first post route to win a contract with the United States Post Office in 1851 for a monthly service. El Paso’s first United States post station was established in 1852, with first United States postmaster Benjamin Franklin Coons. The name ‘Franklin’ was given to the land in what is now downtown El Paso as well as the name of the Franklin Mountains. The establishment of post routes, here and elsewhere, was also a crucial step in the tethering of English names to the land, and in the creation of maps which affirmed these tethers.

A major motivation for the 1853 signing of the Gadsden Purchase, which granted an additional 29,670 square miles of Mexican territory to the United States, was to make possible the westward continuation of the transcontinental route. The establishment of long-distance stagecoach routes with El Paso as a crucial stopping point can again be seen as part of an imperial mission. The settler justification of plunder was the tangible charting of new routes of state communication. The Giddings Line stagecoach route won a government contract in 1857 for a semi-monthly delivery of mail from San Antonio to San Diego through El Paso, which operated only until the outbreak of the Civil War. The most significant of the stagecoach routes began in 1858 with the Butterfield Overland Mail Route between Tipton, Missouri and San Francisco, passing through the property that is now the El Paso International Airport. An Historical Marker plaque stands at 1858 Cottonwood Drive, conveying the way in which the mail route itself was an exertion of information technologies of the state against Indigenous defense of land:

"The Butterfield Overland Mail was a mail and passenger stagecoach service that linked the Western and Eastern states. John Butterfield, president of the Overland Mail Company, won a federal government contact in 1857 to take and deliver mail twice weekly in both directions between St. Louis, Missouri and San Francisco, California. The service ran from September 1858 until March 1861, when events leading to the Civil War ended its operations. The route had a number of stops, including a large, well-equipped one in Franklin (present El Paso). The route through West Texas, later known as the Upper Road, followed a path from Hueco Tanks into Franklin. Route changes led to the development of the Lower Road, which cut south and followed the Rio Grande through San Elizario and Ysleta. The Lower Road provided a more reliable source of water and better protection from Native American attacks than the Upper Road. Both paths converged at the Concordia settlement, where Concordia Cemetery is now located. The Butterfield Trail continued to Franklin and followed the river north to Cottonwoods (now Anthony, TX), then veered west. The route boosted commerce in El Paso and helped increase the town’s population. It also strengthened the city’s link to the U.S. Stage service along the Butterfield Overland Mail terminated in 1861, although a Confederate mail service used the trail until 1862. The path later became the base for other routes, including roads and highways. Today, traces of the Upper Road remain visible on Fort Bliss and El Paso International Airport property. The trail’s legacy continues to live through the commerce and people which it brought to El Paso, and its bonding of the town to the rest of the United States. (2008)”

EP County Surveyors Map showing ‘Old Butterfield Trail’ route through U.S.A. federal land plots and El Paso International Airport property

In 1857, the Butterfield stagecoach station was built over half a city block at the corners of Oregon, Overland and El Paso Streets. Across the street, in the current location of the old Paso del Norte Hotel, was the Post Office together with a store and bar. Walter Ormsby's account as the first passenger on the Butterfield Overland Mail Route describes a striking ecological panorama:

"As we neared the river the delightful aroma of the fruit and herbs was most grateful... The city of Franklin (NB: Named by Benjamin Franklin Coontz when he was appointed the first postmaster in 1852...), on the American side of the river, contains a few hundred inhabitants, and is in the midst of a fine agricultural district. The onions as well as the grapes of this locality are of world-wide celebrity, and El Paso wines are universally appreciated."

As a site that now draws national and international media attention, the Butterfield route can also be seen as a juncture in the dissemination of news and of media representations of this site, such that ways to 'see' the space from a distance proliferated alongside increasingly rapid technologies of conveying media.

Citizen communication with the eastern states was cut off during the Civil War, with no mail service between 1862-66, and Apache and Comanche continued to defend territory against incursions of the through-route in the Pecos River Valley in 1867. While a San Antonio route was revived in the 1870s, the stagecoach largely gave way to railroads, which began operating in El Paso in 1881. The railroad can be seen as an infrastructure that both facilitated the arrival of Anglo settlers from the East, as well as the exploitation of Chinese and Mexican immigrant labor, both demographic changes shaping the development of the militarized U.S.-Mexico border in El Paso. The railway station in El Paso became a site of transition between segregated railcars to the east of El Paso and unsegregated railcars to the west during the Jim Crow era. The El Paso Mail route should be acknowledged as underlying this transformation. As historian Austerman describes:

"Even though [the El Paso Mail] still served the vital function of uniting El Paso and the country to the west with the settled portions of Texas, it was obvious by the fall of 1875 that there was no longer any question that the railroads would span the state; the only unanswered question was when the task would be completed...The El Paso Mail had moved far beyond the role of a simple courier to act as a colonizing force on the frontier."

To maintain this site under the dominion of the settler state, the most advanced technologies of transportation and communication have repeatedly been used. That is to say, the colonization of this site should be read as a continuous project, demanding continuously more pervasive and 'efficient' means of conveying information about and through the site towards the state. The Royce Schedule detailing regional treaties includes the repeated statement: "No treaty of purchase was ever made with this tribe. The U.S. assumed title to their country, the boundary of which is here shown." At first sight, the existence of the USPS in this site is a banal bureaucratic normality— while moving through the contemporary site, we are more taken with the articulations of power in Department of Homeland Security signs and the triple-walled barbed wire of the adjacent detention center. Indeed, this USPS location on Boeing Ave. now becomes a sorting center for mail that comes and goes from the ICE detention center as the primary and most affordable means of communication for the minimum 600 people incarcerated there daily. Family letters, court documents, requests for release pass through hands at this USPS. But the argument of this walk is the argument that the site itself is making: the history of the Post Office and the routes of movement that it opened for Anglo settlers and eradicated for Indigenous people are themselves part of the same history of land settlement, enclosure, privatization, criminalization of trespass, displacement, and deportation.


In the early decades of the 20th century, air mail became increasingly widespread; the United States Postal Service claimed that cities without airports were "jerkwater towns." El Paso aviation history was defined by the demands of both air mail and military flight, before becoming a commercial flight hub for passenger services. El Paso's first flying field was in Fort Bliss in 1919 following Pancho Villa's raid on Juárez, and Biggs Field became the base of the Border Air Patrol until 1926, when it was moved to San Antonio. Many of the triumphal, progressivist accounts of flight in El Paso begin with accounting a performative visit from Charles A. Lindbergh, first pilot of a transatlantic flight, on September 24, 1927, who was received to record-breaking crowds. The swell in public support after this visit led the El Paso Aero Club to draw up plans for a municipal airport. The airport was built for Standard Airlines (later American Airlines) and dedicated September 8, 1928, above all for the creation of a transcontinental air mail route.

The Aero Club chose 260 acres of city-owned land at the site of an old waterworks (a site which is further west and closer to the Franklin Mountains than the contemporary airport). In order to fund the construction of the airport, County Attorney D.E. Mulcahy declared the airport a public highway, justifying the tactic by saying, “This Commissioner’s Court has in the past construed the term ‘court house’ and ‘jail’ to be broad enough to include an auditorium and a theatre and the term ‘road’ to include a levee, and the term ‘horse’ to be broad enough to include mules and jacks.” This is an incidentally foreboding quote given the myriad ways in which not only auditoriums and theatres but bridges, factory buildings, the coliseum, the military base, and more have been used as sites of internment in El Paso throughout the 20th century. Mayor R.E. Thomason underlined the progressivist language with imagery of post-setting at the airport dedication: “Today, we drive another stake in the progress of El Paso. This city today becomes one of the country’s future air centers.”

The first Air Mail day was October 15, 1930, and the air mail plane departed with 17,000 letters and cards weighing 246 pounds. El Paso won a government contract from the Department of Commerce to be a stop on an Air Mail route from Atlanta and the Pacific Coast, which became a guaranteed source of funding that sustained the airport. Due to increasing traffic and proximity to the Franklin Mountains of the Standard Airlines airport, the City announced an airport trade in 1936, and finished the runways at what is now the site of the El Paso Airport in 1939. The runways were constructed of asphalt and caliche, a natural cement of calcium carbonate found in the duricrust (a hard layer near the surface) and made from limestone which bonds with materials such as gravel, sand, clay and silt.

At the onset of World War II, the El Paso airport became a fueling station, the United States Army used airport property for the construction of military barracks for housing, and the airport was used as a major Air Force training base in 1942-44. The federal government had acquired land in 1940 to expand the airport runway to 7,000 feet through the Declarations of Taking, which gave the federal government the capacity to acquire private land for public purposes. The War Department then leased the land back to the airport. An El Paso Times article from April 7, 1944 described,

“In 1944, the City signed a contract with the United States Government in which the Government got the exclusive right to control air traffic and flight operations at the Airport for the “duration of the War, plus six months.” It was under this agreement that the Airport remained until after the surrender of Japan and the cessation of hostilities.”

This local space has been host to myriad federal government contracts. It is this economic input that has had a preservationist and expansionist impact on the space, defining the Airport's continued profitability and spatial growth. It is also a site that has grappled with that which is considered surplus, refuse or waste by the federal government— water, land, people. That surplus is left to the El Paso Municipal government to 'process.' This pattern established itself in this site particularly with the transformations of World War II.

Historian Patton applies this discourse of surplus to the government acquisition of property adjacent to the airport:

“A casual glance at the Airport property on the accompanying map will disclose that the Airport contains more land than is actually used for landing and operational purposes. The obvious questions should be then, Why does the Airport have this land if it doesn’t need it? Where did the City get it?, and What does it intend to do with it? This extra land in itself has quite a story which goes as far back as 1931. But the real or the big story begins in the years 1940 and 1941 when the United States Government, in anticipation of needing more training areas for troops, acquired thousands of acres of desert lands in condemnation suits in the U.S. District Court. This land was used for Military purposes until the end of World War II in 1945, after which time the Government decided to dispose of it through the War Assets Administration as Surplus Property."

Patton proceeds to describe the federal government's consideration of the 'unused' land as 'condemned' subsequent to the war:

“In Deeds dated April 2, 1948, and January 10, 1949, the U.S. Government conveyed to the City of El Paso 1991.47 acres of this condemned land, which became a part of the Airport lands, and placed certain restrictions and limitations upon its use and disposal. The major requirements the City had to meet were clearance of runway approaches and granting free use of Airport facilities (excluding fuels, oils, etc.) to Military planes. The major reservation by the Government was a claim to all radio-active or fissionable matters which might be discovered on the lands. This was due no doubt to the extreme interest displayed by this country in such materials after the development of the Atomic Bomb.”

The El Paso International Airport is located at the southernmost point of the Fort Bliss property, which includes the White Sands Missile range, the largest military airspace training area in the continental United States, which lies adjacent to development facilities of the Atomic bomb in Alamogordo.

Patton's A History of El Paso International Airport, written in 1952, culminates in a language mimicking early settler texts: an exhortation that land which is not being 'used' must not lie 'idle.'

“The City may put the land to any suitable and proper use so long as the terms of the Deeds are abided by. The City may not, however, dispose of any or all of the land without the written approval of the CAA. Such approval was given by that Agency in the latter part of 1951 or early in 1952 and certain sections have been sold to developers for housing areas and commercial enterprises. El Paso home builders want the City to sell more of these lands for development and 76 more acres were sold on August 8, 1952 for such purposes. Whether the City will eventually sell all or a major portion of this land is not certain at this time, but it seems that it would be folly to pass up $2,000 or more per acre when the City will gain nothing by letting the land lie idle.”

These post-War restrictions on use continue to frame the development of this space. A 1969 Airport Deed Indenture describes this legacy through the language of land being 'disposed' by the United States government. As recently as June 23, 2020, the El Paso Municipal Government sought partial release from the stipulations of the agreement for the purposes of developing properties in the vicinity of the airport:

"On July 8, 1969 the City of El Paso accepted surplus property from the United States government for use at the El Paso International Airport. The land was conveyed to the City with a restriction that the property would only be used for aeronautical purposes. The Airport is at this time seeking to release this restriction so that the property may be used for non-aeronautical purposes. Any proceeds or revenue derived from this property will continue to be governed by the original Indenture, specifically that it be used to advance the core aeronautical services of the Airport."

The zoning designation of neighborhoods around the airport is 'G3—Post-War', describing "transitional neighborhoods typically developed from the 1950s through the 1980s. Streets were laid out with curvilinear patterns without alleys and shopping centers are located at major intersections behind large parking lots. This sector is generally stable but would benefit from strategic suburban retrofits to supplement the limited housing stock and add missing civic and commercial uses." In localities closest to the airport, the zoning code describes under neighborhood character and compatibility that "Residential uses are not permitted on the subject properties, due to Federal Aviation Administration regulations." Nevertheless, as we will see, a site one fence away from the airport runway imprisons a minimum of 600 people, for sometimes as long as multiple years, while being excluded from applying to the environmental conditions of a ‘residence.’

After the War, El Paso won a bid to continue as a major military re-fueling station under Airport Manager Charles B. Moore, who became known for augmenting the airport's profitability and developing flying in the 1950s as a service industry competing in comfort and courtesy. In this sense, the airport became a site associated with 'daredevil' masculinity in the rapid onset of flight technologies. It was also an environment in which high-class manners of white society were performed in an industry materially and culturally fueling the expansion of the United States Empire.

The first Customs and Immigration Offices were opened at the airport on September 5, 1942, in coincidence with the first international flight, to Mexico City. The airport was declared an International Port of Entry in 1946, changing its name to El Paso International Airport in 1950 and opening offices at the airport for the United States Department of Public Health and the United States Department of Agriculture. As commercial air travel became more commonplace, airplanes became increasingly sites of policing and surveillance. A 1961 skyjacking event at El Paso International Airport led the Senate to define ‘air piracy’ as a crime punishable by life imprisonment. After this event, “President Kennedy also moved swiftly to authorize flight crews to be armed and to have plainclothesmen ‘ride shotgun’ protecting aircraft. The men who ultimately got this job were generally Border Patrol officers like the one who had performed so well in El Paso. The FAA also started a series of programs to tighten security at airports and on planes, culminating with the X-rays, metal detectors, and other security measures which are now commonplace.” The development of the El Paso International Airport and the transformations of this site after World War II must be understood as a crucial feature in understanding the United States federal government control of land, movement, and labor contracts in El Paso. This pattern of control, as we will shortly see, has its most recent manifestation in federal immigration agencies’ private contracting of management of space and movement in this site.

Hawkins Boulevard

Cross Hawkins Boulevard

El Paso Service Processing Center

Walk North on Hawkins Boulevard to the cul-de-sac

Immigration Detention

According to the organization Freedom for Immigrants, the first date of use of the El Paso Service Processing Center was April 4, 1984. EPSPC is one among a network of nearby immigration detention centers in West Texas and New Mexico, including Otero, Torrance, Cibola and Sierra Blanca, and is the only ICE detention center located in central El Paso. Currently, EPSPC has a guaranteed minimum of 600 people detained daily, and around 800- 1,100 people are imprisoned at EPSPC at any given time, with a male to female ration of 3:1.

Immigration detention has a long history which is foundational to the settler state. An administrative form of incarceration, many historians point to the arresting of steamboats of Chinese immigrants in west coast harbors in the 1880s as a point of departure for what is now known as immigration detention. García Hernández cites the economic burden that this customs procedure posed for steamboat transportation companies, requiring the boats to wait in harbor until all passengers on board were inspected. An 1891 act stipulated that a landing for the purposes of inspection was not considered entry, serving as a turning point in the legal use of ‘entry fiction.’ Legal historian Eunice Lee makes an argument which apologizes for the federal government’s use of tent camps for such purposes by describing the unsanitary conditions on steamboats and making the common but dubious argument that the first immigration detention was borne out of good will and a humanitarian mindset aimed at temporarily alleviating ‘unsanitary’ conditions.

An arriving steamboat of immigrants held the status of ships with material cargo: although having arrived within the boundary waters and to the shoreline of the territorial United States, the immigrants arriving were not considered ‘here’ for legal purposes until they passed inspection. This phenomenon, proper to all forms of administrative detention for the purpose of border processing, is known as ‘entry fiction’: the idea that someone, for legal purposes, is not actually ‘here.’ In such spaces, as is true within 150 miles of the territorial United States border, the Constitution of the United States does not universally apply. Throughout the 20th century, these administrative locations began in shoreline spaces— Ellis Island, which opened in 1892, and Angel Island, which opened in 1910— and have spread to inland islands of legal fictions.

Many historians see the years of Chinese Immigration as a major turning point in the history of immigration detention. The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act was the first exclusionary immigration law that was specifically race-based, and it also led to the 1896 Supreme Court case of Wong Wing v. United States, which litigated on the legality of immigration detention. The conclusion of that case was that “the detention of Chinese non-citizens was therefore not punishment in the eyes of the Supreme Court but a bureaucratic function of border control.” This of course, permitted increasing use of immigration detention as a tool considered by the Supreme Court to be bureaucratic, and developed concomitantly with the creation of the United States Border Patrol, established in 1929 most particularly to patrol the exclusion of Chinese immigrants.

From another perspective, immigration detention needs to be seen as part of a much longer project of the United States as a settler colonial state. Legal historian K-Sue Park takes this perspective in articulating ‘self-deportation’ as an indirect policy of making living conditions so intolerable for a targeted group of people that they are forced to remove themselves from a land. This practice was first used in the early northeastern English colonies, often allowing for colonial governments to purport friendliness and good relations with Indigenous nations, while creating conditions of disease, diminishment of game, and environmental alteration that make continued habitation in established ways of life impossible, and all of this short of direct warfare. Park then traces this pattern to calls for Black colonization throughout the 19th century— the idea, held too by some abolitionists, that free Black people could not co-exist in the United States after slavery, and should be deported to any number of suggested sites of colonization. Park sees immigration detention as not a new phenomenon of the 1880s, but rather an extension of this ‘self-deportation regime’: an experience of imprisonment that serves a deterrent function, and at once produces such suffering that immigrants are led to self-deport as a means of survival. This argument holds true in the El Paso Service Processing Center.

Immigration detention centers have come to exist through a series of exclusionary laws. The 1924 Immigration Act was the first act to limit immigration based on current population from countries of origin. New migrants were limited to 2% of the 1890 population figures from any one country, which resulted in 43% of new migrant allocations going to Great Britain. The 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act for the first time “regulated the conditions under which non-citizens may enter the US by setting forth a list of grounds of deportability, and a list of exclusive grounds of inadmissibility (formerly known as "excludability").”

The El Paso Service Processing Center is an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center (ICE was formed in 2003). It is administrative detention, meaning that those held have unresolved cases in immigration court, but have not necessarily committed any crime. Some of those imprisoned at EPSPC entered through the El Paso port of entry. Many entered through other ports— ICE maintains a practice of relocating immigrants at times erratically and without notice between immigration detention centers, which hampers the ability to maintain contact with family and friends, support organizations, and legal counsel as described in Heimstra’s analysis, ‘‘You don’t even know where you are’: Chaotic Geographies of US Migrant Detention and Deportation.’ Many others did not recently enter the territorial United States, but rather have lived within the territorial bounds for any amount of time but were arrested by ICE and entered deportation proceedings. While externally it is easy to see this site as an edge space, located about five miles from the US-Mexico border, it is best understood as an island within which constitutional law is withheld, and in recent years such islands have been replicated throughout the country.

Many immigration detention centers are part of a for-profit system based on federal contracts with private agencies. The El Paso Service Processing Center is currently administered by Global Precision Systems, LLC, a subsidiary of the Bering Straits Native Corporation. This corporation was formed under Nixon’s 1972 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, the largest Indigenous settlement act in United States history. Global Precision Systems is paid contracts with federal funds to provide guard services, transportation and food at EPSPC. Global Precision Systems sub-contracts about half of the officer positions to Asset Protection & Security Services, LP, based in Corpus Christi, Texas.

In 2016, the Detained Migrant Solidarity Committee created a report on the El Paso Service Processing Center, proposing, "With this letter, we would like to infuse our discontent in the way general populations at EPC located at 8915 Montana Ave El Paso, Texas 79925 are overall treated.” Through oral interviews, surveys and ICE records, DMSC highlighted ‘Physical and verbal abuse by ICE officers and security staff’, ‘Inhumane use of solitary confinement’, ‘Inadequate medical and mental health care’, ‘Unsanitary food preparation’, and ‘Prolonged detention and family separation.’ 86% of people detained at EPSPC are deported or self-deported from EPC compared to 55% nationally. People are often deported to border cities other from where they arrived, and those who choose to self-deport due to the intolerable conditions of confinement, often must wait through months of continued confinement due to administrative delays. EPSPC has in recent years been the site of prolonged hunger strikes protesting the conditions. Activists have noted ICE patterns of transferring people out of ICE detention only when necessary to protect ICE from responsibility for severe illness or death.

Deportations to countries other than Mexico take place through contracted flights which leave from the El Paso International Airport. ICE contracts out airline services to Classic Air Charters (CAC), which sub-contracts to Swift Air and World Atlantic charter airlines. Migrants are transported from regional detention centers in ICE buses, travel down Boeing Ave. past the Post Office, and board deportation flights shackled.

Airport Traffic Control Tower

Turn onto Shuttle Columbia Drive

Space Travel

This square mile has played a significant role not only in aviation history, but also in the history of space exploration. As a Senator, Lyndon B. Johnson had participated in hearings on United States space and missile activities in 1957, as part of the Preparedness Investigating Subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Johnson became the chairman of the Senate Special Committee on Space and Aeronautics in 1958, the same year that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was founded. As President, Johnson traveled to El Paso to settle the Chamizal treaty in 1964, which precipitated the relocation of the immigration detention center adjacent to the airport. The NASA Johnson Space Center was re-named for Lyndon B. Johnson in 1973, and a Forward Operating Location would be established down the street from that same immigration detention center. These legacies collide in the present proximities: immigrants detained at the El Paso Service Processing center can look out the window and see NASA shuttle-carriers taking off the runway. This pronounced example of im/mobility is more than a tragic or ironic coincidence. These developments are rather both part of projects of American exceptionalism and territorial control.

Development of the airport has gone hand in hand with the economic development of the region. Airport expansion proposals often cite population, income levels, and border crossings from Juárez to justify increased capacity. The Twin Plant program drew United States corporations to assembly plants in Mexico in the 1960s, which led also to the establishment of Foreign Trade zones in El Paso, one of which is in the El Paso International Airport. In 1960, a Radioplane plant in El Paso became responsible for manufacturing parachutes for the Apollo moon landing. The plant, located at 301 West Overland St. in downtown El Paso, is now across the street from a central bus stop, used by migrants to travel to and from the nonprofit shelter located adjacent to the Immigration Detention Center.

El Paso served as an early NASA stopover point, with Biggs Army Airfield supporting NASA space shuttle ferry flights beginning in 1979. In that year, the Shuttle Columbia rocket passed through El Paso while being transferred between California and Florida. Following the Shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003, street names in the 79925 zip code in El Paso were named in commemoration of the astronauts. The Johnson Space Center Forward Operating Location now houses the Super Guppy, an air freight carrier designed to haul a portion of the Apollo rocket launcher. The Forward Operating Location has come to be used as a site for simulating shuttle landings, with astronauts shuttling between El Paso and the White Sands Space Harbor. The novelty of shuttle travel was the use of a singular vehicle for both launch and atmospheric re-entry during space exploration. The investment of the most advanced transportation to rehearse re-entry through a boundary takes on a particular cruel, poetic irony when placed outside the window of the immigration detention center, where migrants are detained specifically for multiple attempts at re-entry, while viewing the vehicle carrying a launcher for lunar exploration.


Continue on Shuttle Columbia Drive past Postal Place. Conclude the walk by turning left back onto Boeing Ave.

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