REFLECTING ON THE TRIP FROM THE OTHER SIDE
Two Stories of Crossing the Border
“What mother doesn’t want to do what is best for her child?”
Editor’s Note: My partner and I have heard many Salvadorans recount migration stories into the U.S. All are heart-wrenching. Each person has a different reason for leaving the country – gang extortion, gang recruitment of their children, and death threats being the ones we hear most often. A new wave of migrants are farmers leaving in search of work due to climate change’s devastation of the farm crops that their livelihood depends on. None of them wants to leave their families and country. They are desperate to avoid death and starvation.
My response to the question many Americans ask about, “Why don’t they come legally?” is a complicated question involving immigration issues which is a paper in and of itself, and for my purposes, I am not a political person. I am a listener and recorder of the stories I hear. And what we hear is that these people DO TRY to come to the U.S. legally. AFTER waiting for three months for an appointment at the U.S. Embassy and paying between $160-$190 to APPLY for a visa, nearly everyone is turned down over and over again, other than a very select few on study or tourist visas. (We have personally even involved our senators to try to help and have not gotten any better results.) Poor, endangered people do not have the luxury of time to wait only to be turned down. The reality is their families often pool their resources and turn to hiring a series of “coyotes” to guide them across the border in groups. Some coyotes are more ethical than others. Some of the coyotes this woman describe in this story were unethical.
In the previous stories we have heard, there was a wide range of results after leaving El Salvador. One in a group never made it to the border. Her entire group was killed by a Mexican drug cartel. Their bodies were eventually discovered in a mass grave. A few others were caught by immigration officials and turned back. One youth left home and was never heard from again, leaving his family to forever wonder where he is and what happened. Two threatened families we know emigrated across the ocean and successfully assimilated and work in other countries. One girl we know was welcomed into her host family and sanctuary church where the organization AMMPARO, a church-affiliated group that accompanies minors, and immigration lawyers helped her become a documented, productive American citizen. It took many years of persistent jumping through the monumental, cumbersome judicial system that she could only manage with the help of her dedicated American adopted family that was willing to assist her by housing her, feeding her, and financially helping with the high legal costs involved.
Most, like our storyteller today, remain undocumented and live in the shadows, always looking over their shoulders while working long hours without benefits. They often have employers who take advantage of them threatening to report them to ICE if they don’t do as they are told. When ICE shows up at the place of employment, these people run and scatter to the wind.
The story we heard today was different from any of those previous stories. It touched a nerve. The resolve it takes to make this Herculean journey is difficult to put into words without seeing the tear-streaked face of this young mother dabbing her eyes with a tissue as she shares her story. I grew squeamish just hearing the horrible details of this woman’s harrowing trip. She was only 22 years old with the weight of the world on her when facing the obstacles she did, but with a dogged determination to reach her goal. She not only had to take care of herself, but also was responsible for her sister-in-law to make sure she made this trip successfully. Neither one of them had any idea what they were getting in to when their journey began.
She recalled each day of their three-month journey – 15 years ago – as if it were yesterday, and her ‘tween son could quote it word for word right along with his mother like a mantra he has memorized, obviously having heard the story many times before. For the most part she was smiling and animated, but the first tears came when she recalled having to drink her own urine in the desert when they ran out of water.
When she finished, I was exhausted just listening, and my heart was pounding. I had to grab her across the table to hug her and apologize for the extreme insensitivity and inhumane treatment she received along the way. I felt a need to apologize for the way others including Americans treated her. Is this how we are meant to welcome refugees into our country? I was embarrassed.
Although she gave permission to use her name, I am reluctant to do so. She remains undocumented and could be deported at any moment. For that reason I will call her Morena. This is not simply one story of crossing the border but two separate stories – each with its own trauma and angst.
It was NEVER my dream to come to the U.S. from El Salvador. My husband came first and felt it would be best for our four-year old daughter who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. We were told she would never walk or talk. My husband felt she could receive better treatment here in the U.S. for her special needs. What mother doesn’t want to do what is best for her child?
The decision was for me to come next, and then we would send for our daughter. The price to hire a coyote/guide was $7,000 at that point. [It is double or higher now.] We had to pay the coyote half the money up front before we started and the final half at the completion of our trip by Western Union.
My sister-in-law and I made the trip together under the guise of going on vacation in Guatemala. That is the story I told my employer at the doctor’s office where I worked, and we continued to use that line on the first leg of our trip on the van with eight other people composed of Salvadorans mixed with Guatemalans. We would pretend to be sleeping at borders to avoid being questioned or removed from the bus which we saw happen with others. This was a two-day journey.
When we reached the border of Guatemala and Mexico, we got into a small boat to cross into Mexico. We all had to lie down flat to avoid being detected. It was a three-hour crossing, and we got very numb and sore lying in that position. As soon as we got out, the coyotes instructed us to walk to the top of a hill which took us four hours; a huge group of others was waiting. The line was as long as the eye could see from one side to the other. There were approximately 5,000 people waiting until between midnight and 1 AM for a series of vans to pick us up for the next step of the journey. Only 30 people could fit into one van so as soon as one van filled, it took off, and another one pulled up and it continued. People moved very quickly to try to get into those vans as soon as possible.
A police car was behind the van my sister-in-law and I were in, so the driver stopped in a small town instructing us to get out and hide. The people in the town gave us each a machete for our protection. An hour or so later after the police left, we returned to the van and got back on the road quickly. We proceeded to drive away when someone took attendance and realized we were missing one person and I saw it was my sister-in-law who was not with us. None of us had cell phones, but I begged the driver to turn around. We found her along the side of the road. She had hidden in a hole.
We continued driving for four to five hours to a barn where we spent three days. At that point they divided groups of 3,000 of us in many long, closed farm trailers to drive us to Pueblo, Mexico. Seeing what we were getting inside, I grabbed my shirt and saturated it in water and found one lemon to sneak along with me. Conditions in the truck were crowded and hot, and I kept squeezing a tiny bit of water out of my shirt at a time to wet my mouth. My sister-in-law was getting dizzy, and I gave her my lemon. She got sick and vomited but stayed hydrated by sucking on the lemon.
When we reached Pueblo, we remained in houses where we ate for three days. Then a bus took a mixed group of us to the border. We faked sleep on the bus once again when police would stop us. At one point a Salvadoran was taken off the bus by the police, but the driver bribed the officer to let him back on again. The police asked where he came from, and the guy answered, “from the back of the bus.” When they asked where he was going, his answer was “to the front of the bus.” (She laughed.) Their password was “eagle” at the border.
At that point the worst part of the journey was about to begin. We would be walking on foot across the Mexican desert. Each person received one bag containing 2 gallons of water, 3 flip-top cans of beans, 3 oranges, 3 cans of tuna, some crackers. We were told this would be a 3-DAY journey. They lied. It was a 4-WEEK journey. Two coyotes were assigned to ten people. As we walked in the sand, we would walk forward and then need to walk backwards in their same footprints in the sand to confuse authorities of our whereabouts. Some people ran out of water quickly and disposed of the water containers.
It didn’t take long to run out of provisions. In order to stay alive, we soon had to drink our own urine. The coyotes would offer spicey pieces of their sandwiches with no water and then require the women to trade sex for water. Most did it because they were so parched and desperate for a drink. I did not.
When we were in cattle country, some of us filled our empty water bottles with the water from the cattle troughs. It was awful, but it was water. Days are hot and nights are cold in the desert. It was more comfortable walking at night. The coyotes gave us pills (drugs) to keep us moving. I was so high that I wasn’t even aware that my legs were covered in cactus spines until the drugs wore off and the pain began.
At one point in the desert, we found two women. One was pounding nonstop on a rock unable to talk. She had gone crazy. We gave her water and took her along with us. The other was a pregnant woman who was lying there dead. We assume they had been traveling together. We walked all night long and were totally exhausted. My sister-in-law begged us to go on without her and just let her there. I refused to leave without her. We put a belt around her and pulled her along.
When we all complained that we could no longer walk, the coyotes pulled out venomous snakes to taunt and threaten us if we did not continue. They also had a whip which they would use for those who were slow or non-compliant.
After three months we reached a series of cars in Mexico. They took five of us at a time. We had to jump in very quickly before they even came to a stop, and they took off immediately. Once we got across the border into Arizona, ****they drove us to our Houston destination where they required the final half of our payment. If we didn’t pay them by Western Union, we could be killed. My husband paid.
We were divided into groups headed to Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, and West Virginia.
MORENA’S DAUGHTER’S STORY –
Six months later it was time to begin the process all over again for our four-year-old daughter. She had been living with my mother-in-law in El Salvador at this point and was experiencing trauma from the absence of both parents. I had spoken to a group in Maryland that brings only children and does it in fifteen days with a court order. I talked with some of the parents and the kids who were satisfied with the results and felt reasonably comfortable in using this group. It was $5,000. My husband and I made the decision that regardless of what happened, we would not blame one another for the outcome.
What was supposed to be a short trip with positive results ended up in a nightmare. The group leaders told us they LOST our daughter! Yes, she made it into the U.S., but they called us to say that when the driver stopped at a gas station, our daughter was crying in the car; the police showed up and called immigration. The driver did not want to give information.
Somehow we were alerted, and I spent all night on the phone trying to find out the details. Of course, I was unable to say that I paid to have our daughter sent to the U.S. and so instead said “a friend” was bringing her. They were suspicious, asking if I was legal and asked what kind of a friend would lose our daughter and how could we trust this person with our daughter? I asked if an uncle could pick her up and the answer was a firm “NO, YOU can pick her up and return to El Salvador!” The police knew where our daughter was and were just trying to coerce us to come for her in order to deport us. They had taken her to Arizona to a church that helps find sponsors.
Through a series of contacts in Maryland, Atlanta, and Houston, these contacts and I got roundtrip plane tickets to Houston, and we drove to Arizona where our daughter had been adopted by a couple. I was told that if you take more than one week to find your child, you lose your parental rights, and the child can be legally adopted. (At this point my partner is dumbfounded- “That is illegal!” he blurts out.)
I was given the address of the adoptive parents and told I could see my daughter behind a glass window but had to remain neutral. When I saw my daughter, all bets were off. I burst into the room and grabbed my daughter.
We reached the airport, the other travel companions told us to just slip in between them in line and hope for the best. They didn’t realize my four-year old had a tube of toothpaste in her backpack which set off security and flagged her. However, thanks to an understanding gate agent at the airport, after he heard our story, he allowed us to board the plane together.
My luck was finally changing! At least some people are understanding and follow their hearts and not official guidelines.
AND NOW –
The most important thing I have learned is no matter how bad things are or what bad news you have been told – in my case that my daughter would probably never live, or walk or talk if she did live – I was going to try to save her life. At the beginning lots of doors were closed, but God has a purpose.
My daughter graduated from high school and is successful in life.
Both my husband and I have obtained lawyers. Our family is healthy. We are hopeful.
We are blessed that God has surrounded us with caring people.
Editor’s Note: We live in an area in south central Pennsylvania bisected by a vast network of interstate highways and turnpike linking our area to major cities along the East Coast. The trucking industry moving merchandise through here has resulted in the building of hundreds of large manufacturing warehouses in recent years where employment opportunities are abundant. The same is true for neighboring farming communities growing orchard fruits requiring seasonal workers.
We are seeing more and more Hispanics from the Caribbean, Central America, and even South America arriving in our area to fill these job positions. They are hard workers. They do not come for a handout. Every one of them comes with a different story. By sharing a few of these stories, we hope you, our readers, have a better understanding of their situations.