Carmen’s Journey Across the Border

Esta historia se escribe en Español = This story is also written in Spanish here.


Editor’s Note:  My partner and I met this lovely soft-spoken teenager two years ago on a trip to El Salvador.  She reached out after she and her father crossed our southern border a few months ago.  Her intention was merely to tell us where she was and to thank us for past support.  She didn’t ask for anything.  She had no ulterior motives.  My first question was, “Are you safe?”

After a few weeks passed, we asked her if she would consider sharing her migration story with us for our website.  She said she would be happy to do so.  We promised her anonymity and posting no photos of her.

Language is a barrier, and we needed to rely on written translators on both ends as well as her getting to a family member’s house who speaks English to serve as a translator for us.  We trust the information she provided is true and accurate.

Carmen (pseudonym) recognized her successful border crossing into the U.S. was a series of “miracles.”  She described when several times she and her dad were close to being captured or killed.  Each chilling episode she vividly described sounded like a scene from an action movie you prefer watching unfold on the big screen or Netflix, NOT live in real life! 

I want to emphasize that yes, she made it.  So many others DO NOT!

Our economic situation in El Salvador was not good, and we struggled day to day to survive.  Our large three-generation family lived together with my grandmother in a small house in a rural campesino community.  It was very crowded.  We made the difficult decision of splitting up our family in order for a couple of us to migrate north to find new chances and opportunities to improve our situation. 

Only a very few family members and friends knew ahead of time that my dad and I were planning to leave the country.  Having to say goodbye to my mom, five brothers, and two sisters was very hard for my dad and me.  I’m afraid my little sister will not remember me. 

The family chose me to make the journey because I am older. 

The whole family was unable to make the trip because we had only enough money for two of us to pay the high costs of hiring guides [coyotes].  The original cost was supposed to be $4,500 per person.  It took our entire extended family pulling together its resources to pay this nearly $10,000 fee.

All we were able to take with us on this journey north was a change of clothes, one pair of shoes, and a few personal care items like shampoo and soap.  We had to be able to move quickly when told to or remain in one place when instructed.  At one point we were stuck confined in a house for five days waiting until the next arrangements were made for our group to move on.

At first we were among a group of five traveling together.  Our phones did not work in Guatemala (different SIM cards), so there was no way to communicate with our families back home to let them know what was happening with us.  On some entire days no food was available to eat; at one point we went two consecutive days without food.

It was night when we crossed the Usumaciata River on the border between Guatemala and Mexico by boat [probably raft]. We then were in a frontier area of Mexico.  We spent one day in the desert.   The conditions in the desert were very hot, very few trees for shade, white powdery gravel, and lots of thorns.

Police were shooting at the cars of the smugglers traveling fast.  My dad and I were in the last car in the line of 14 in the group.  All the other 13 cars were shot and stopped by the police and immigration officials chasing them.  The one my dad and I were in got turned around in time to avoid being caught.  We don’t know what happened to the others.  I was praying for God to spare our lives, and it is a miracle to be alive.

Different guides were assigned to us at different points along the way.  Larger groups would join us, and we would be PACKED, sitting on one another’s laps in these small cars while traveling to the next location at high rates of speeds!  It was always around 200 km per hour (124 mph.) It was very dangerous and extremely scary!  [Presumably schedules needed to be met.]

The roads were very bad in Mexico, but the condition did not slow down the drivers who continued driving like crazy people at 200 km per hour.  The danger only increased when we were forced to join a group of 92 people, including elderly and children, in a house at midnight; it was guarded by the infamous Zeta drug cartel known for their cruel tactics.  It was surrounded by men carrying large weapons with lots of ammunition.  They threatened to shoot and kill anyone who didn’t pay their extortion fee.  We spent all day there while our guides were responsible for negotiating our release.  Altogether we spent seven days in Mexico.

When we finally reached the U.S. border at McAllen, Texas, at 9 PM, the group of 92 were divided into smaller groups of us who had gotten separated.   Then we were back with our original group of five members again.  We walked and walked and walked toward the lights of the city.  Immigration picked us up and moved us to an office where we were told to sit on the floor.  We were treated badly and given bad food. The other three members of our group got the last three seats on the bus to head to the plane for immediate deportation.

My dad and I continued to sit on the floor and wait for our fate.  For the first time on this journey, I felt like something good was going to happen for some reason.  Another bus came and took us to another bigger facility where we spent three days.  The conditions in this detention facility were like a jail.  Food was typically a frozen sandwich, apple, and water.  We slept on a concrete floor.  About forty others were in each cell.  We were separated by sex, so I didn’t know where my dad was.  It was very cold, and they provided only one aluminum [Mylar] blanket.  But I was a lucky one because others were in the “cold room” which sounded inhumane.  [We are unclear what she meant by the “cold room” but have heard this before from others in other immigration detention facilities.  We are unsure if this is used for punitive measures, harassment, degradation or what?]

Only the officers spoke Spanish.  The guards would periodically call out names to appear.  A guard finally called my name at 6 PM on the third night and ordered me to get my stuff and follow him.  The first thing I did was throw my aluminum [Mylar] blanket into the trash!  I told this guard I needed to find my dad, so he took me from room to room in the men’s section to look for him.  When I found him, I discovered that he hadn’t eaten for the three days we had been detained there.  He was badly dehydrated.  [Again, it is unclear whether her dad refused to eat or whether food was not offered to him.]

The guards put us on a bus to the local Catholic Church which provided us with food, clothing, shoes, and a shower.  We were able to call our family who live in the U.S., and they  arranged to send us bus fare to their home.  We rode many, many hours to get there without food or money to purchase food on the way even though the bus stopped periodically at bus stops with convenience stores to fill their gas tank. 

I miss my family and my friends.  I am very alone.  I have no friends or social life.   I had hoped to learn better English here in the U.S. but was unable to pass the tests to study for adult education classes.  My only family member living here who speaks some English does not live close by and is busy with her own young children, so she is unable to teach me enough English to be fluent.  In El Salvador I was studying health in the baccalaureate program to become a nurse.   I am forced to give up that dream in order to work a repetitive entry level job six days a week with only Sundays free.  It was the only job I could find.

Our goal is to return to El Salvador when we save enough money to be able to build a house so our family can live better.  I also want to be able to help my brother graduate.

We are safe; we are living among caring family members but still in cramped conditions because ten people live in this house.  We have paperwork from authorities saying we do not need to worry about ICE authorities or deportation.   [I hope the information they were given is accurate; they do not have a lawyer yet.  It sounds a bit overly optimistic to me, and I hope it is not giving them a false sense of security.  We know from others who have migrated that years and years of court appearances with costly lawyers are the norm for those seeking asylum, and the entire time threats of being picked up by ICE remain very real.]

It took us 18 days to travel from El Salvador to the U.S.  and was terribly frightening.  We could easily have been killed at so many points along the way.  We were literally three people away from being deported back to El Salvador when we arrived.  I could say that my dad and I are extremely lucky to have made it.  But it was more than luck; I prefer to focus on the miracles that saved us all along the way instead of the possible perils we could have experienced.   I feel that God protected us all along the way. 

Editor’s Note:  Asked if she would make the choice to migrate again or stay in El Salvador, Carmen quickly answers that she would stay in El Salvador.  Whenever we speak to our teenage scholarship students, we always discourage them from trying to migrate north.  Salvadoran adults will often tell us how glamorized the whole idea is presented to these kids.  “Look at these name-brand shoes and clothes I’m wearing.  These cost $500.  You can get these when you live in the U.S.”  The kids living in extreme poverty are constantly lured into a world of materialism causing them to want to flee north.  On American T.V. they see the lifestyle they want to live.   (And those are the ones who are NOT recruited or threatened by the gangs who have a far more urgent need to leave immediately!)  They also ignore the harsh realities involved in the journey itself.  They think they are invincible.  Some try to make the trip without spending the exorbitant cost the coyotes charge.  It typically doesn’t end well for them, and their families will never hear from them again.  

Instead we try to encourage our scholarship students to study hard, develop their talents in order to improve the situation in their community and country, and be a gift to their families by remaining in El Salvador.


    Afflicted with Hope / is one of many outreach ministries at
    Saint Stephen Evangelical Lutheran Church (ELCA)
    30 West Main Street, PO Box 266
    New Kingstown, PA 17072

    Tax deductible donations for support of this work in El Salvador may be sent to the above address.