MCALLEN, Texas – Ana* arrives at the makeshift shelter, ten miles away from the Texas border, with detention papers in one hand and a badly sunburned infant in the other. She’s been wearing the same pair of pink pants and filthy white shirt for twenty days. A group of volunteer nuns sort through Ana’s papers and try to distract her wailing son with a raccoon hand puppet’s herky-jerky movements.
A few nights ago, Ana crossed illegally into the United States from Guatemala. Her husband paid a coyote $4,000 to smuggle Ana and their son through the lowland jungles of southern Mexico, up the San Pedro river to the Texas border. “A gang was after us,” Ana says in a daze, digging her knuckles into her cheeks to stay awake. She and her child were just released from a 48-hour stay at a detention center where it was too cold to sleep.
“[The gang] wanted us to give them money from our shop. They hurt other people we know if they did not pay. They said they would hurt us. And,” Ana sighs, “we believed him.” Other family members and neighbors vouched for the coyote. If they paid him in dollars, he would not rob and abandon them. He would not hand her over to the Zetas, one of Mexico’s most violent gangs. The coyote shepherded Ana, her son, and nine other migrants from Guatemala along a 2,000 mile van route through Mexico, hiding them in cramped stash houses along the way. Ana felt secure with the coyote until the last leg of their trip, when they boarded his motorboat. Three hours in, the boat broke down on a remote bend of the San Pedro river. When the coyote announced he would be setting off on foot to get help, Ana began to panic. “That’s when I was sure we were going to die,” she recalls. “I thought my baby would die first, and then I would kill myself.”
“By drowning,” Ana says flatly. “I can’t swim.”
When a coyote abandons his group, leaving them without money, food, or direction, death often comes for his pollos. In 2011, the remains of 155 migrants were found in the Rio Grande Valley south of Texas. The following year, the remains of 462 migrants were found near the Arizona border. Nobody knows how many bones are in riverbeds leading to El Norte.
The coyote did return, after 12 punishing hours. When the group arrived at the Texas border late that night, the coyote carried Ana’s baby up the last hill, then pointed the group in the direction of a border patrol post. They shuffled toward the floodlights when a guard materialized and said, “Hello. This is the United States.”
Ana’s story, and others like it, have become the late-summer staple of grim newscasts, with images of kids and families from Central America crowded into detention facilities. But the story is, in fact, decades old. For all the clamoring by the press and political class about the “border crisis” this summer, there is very little that is novel about the surge of migrants and the 50,000 unaccompanied minors who have arrived at the border since the spring.
Rich countries have always exercised a gravitational pull over poorer neighbors. The human migration away from poverty, tidal in its enormity, is something no immigration policy or enforcement mechanism will stop. The only twist this time around is that the smuggling networks that crisscross Mexico have now reached south to the client-rich markets of El Salvador and Honduras, two of the poorest and most violent countries in the hemisphere.
If you want a reason for why this tide has taken this particular course you can start in 1994 when President Bill Clinton tried to dam it up with Operation Gatekeeper. The strategy behind the misguided (at best) Operation was to fortify the border and seal off traditional urban crossing points for Mexican migrants in places like El Paso, Tucson, Nogales, and San Diego. Future migrants would then be pushed into such unpopulated, inhospitable areas that they would no longer cross. That assumption turned out to be totally wrong. What took place over the following decades was a balloon effect: squeezing off air at one point does not make it disappear; it only makes it surge into other pockets.
Twenty years later, blockades and border beef-ups have prompted coyotes to forge 3,000-mile van and train rides through seven distinct routes in Mexico—the tributary streams of what is a mighty and unstoppable human river. The flow eventually ends in the desolate ranch lands of Southern Texas. After paying smugglers, then dodging, bribing or colluding with the drug cartels that have a stranglehold on migrant routes through Northern Mexico, the families from Central America exit the desert hellscape, cross the river, then look for a border guard and turn themselves in.
Adding to the exodus is a 2008 tweak in U.S. law that enables a faster process for children to obtain visas if they can prove they were abused, abandoned, or neglected in their home country. “Word got back to their communities,” says pro-bono legal advocate David Walding, who is currently handling over 50 immigration cases involving Central American women and children. “If you come to the border, they won’t turn you back—at least not right away.”
This new influx of migrants will send money back home, those small headwaters of cash that flow back to Honduras and Guatemala are part of a greater transfer of wealth that’s been underway for years. Writer Charles Bowden, who has covered the border for twenty years, has described it as “the largest transfer of wealth to the poor in the history of the Western Hemisphere,” one that “dwarfs all the American gestures of aid and all the revolutions that have filled the plazas of Latin America with tired statues.”
The families come to Sacred Heart Church in McAllen, Texas, in waves of twenty and thirty—and the applause does not stop until they are through the doors. Volunteers dressed in teal vests line up and cheer, “bienvenidos!” Some of the women look embarrassed, they flash small smiles, a few chins begin to tremble. Some of the mothers are teenagers themselves, unmarried girls, exhausted and bewildered. Each mother clutches a thick manila envelope that holds her detainment papers, a notice to register with an immigration office, and a Greyhound bus ticket to a U.S. city where her sponsor, typically an aunt or a brother-in-law, lives. Once they reach their sponsor, the visa proceedings will wind their way through immigration and family court, a process that takes up to two years. During those two years the mothers can make money, enroll the kids in school, and gain refuge from the deprivation, violence, and dead-end future of a failed state.
The first wave comes in the morning—twenty families. There will be twenty more in afternoon. And then another thirty at dusk. It’s been going at this pace all summer.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) started dropping off busloads of young mothers and children at the McAllen Greyhound station since late Spring of this year. The families would wait in the parking lot for hours, sometimes overnight, without food or fresh clothes to make the next part of their journey. Eventually, the nuns from Sacred Heart took notice. Sister Norma, a Latina with a springy short hair cut and plump cheeks, started handing out clothes and snacks from the trunk of her car. Eventually the city began to offer a free shuttle ride two blocks down the street to Sacred Heart.
All the families enter the Sacred Heart recreation-room-turned-shelter with the same shuffle because they all had their shoelaces confiscated at the detention center. You stay in a detention center until you can make contact with your sponsor and your sponsor buys you a bus ticket. For families, this process usually takes one to four days.
The children range in age and temperament: A pot-bellied 8-year-old boy tears through the rec-room to join the other third-graders in the play area; a feverish infant with angry red blotches on his forehead will not take his mother’s breast. A 14-year-old girl with long eyelashes and a dingy T-shirt will not let go of a little plastic bag that carries the family’s passports.
The volunteers deploy. Four nuns from the Midwest bolt to the registration table. Three do-gooders from Oregon descend on the collection of donated jeans and shoes, sizing up the women, hunting for a size seven in the pile of sneakers. A group of bible students do some frantic sweeping and wiping, so the recreation room looks as immaculate as a neon-lit room of secondhand stuff can. Two parishioners, Latinas with beautiful manicures, plug in their smartphones so the mothers can make free phone calls back home. A silent Baptist couple digs through the impossibly small infant jackets and socks, while their daughter, a spindly blonde with a raspberry birthmark across her cheek, plays Twister with the boys from El Salvador.
At the registration table under an emerald green banner of the Virgin Mary, the nuns explain how much further the families have to go. They trace their fingers over a photocopied map, across state lines, to show the line of transit to Omaha. San Jose. Albany. One woman, a 23-year-old from El Salvador with two grade school daughters, starts to cry when a nun tells her that she must travel for two more days on four different buses. Many other women cry when they see the map.
A few families stay only a couple of hours until their bus departs. Others must stay overnight for next-day departures, sleeping in air-conditioned tents in the parking lot. Nobody wants to do this, but the nuns reassure the women that there is food here, fresh clothes, new underwear, baby formula, and clean sheets. Each family gets a sponsor who will make sure everything is in order for the next leg of the journey. They usher the families to the back of the rec-room to eat soup and bananas brought in by the Salvation Army. Their babies chug Pedialyte while Sister Julie, the nurse who examined Ana’s baby and who cared for AIDS patients in the 1980s, comes to see who needs treatment. Some of the women have bladder infections. One infant has a bad rash. There are headaches, dehydration, and fear.
The women only become themselves after they shower. This is done in mobile trailers provided by the city of McAllen. A twentysomething Franciscan priest from Michigan hoses each stall out, scrubs its floors, and sterilizes after each round. The women wash their children; the boys hate this, the infants wail. The mothers leave us with their children so they can enjoy warm water and aloe-scented shampoo in solitude.
Francisco, a 10-year old boy from El Salvador, crossed two nights ago with his mother. He says that his father will join them soon. Once his dad gets enough money, he will come to the states with Francisco’s two younger sisters. Tonight Francisco and his mother will board a bus to Indiana where they will stay with Francisco’s aunt. Francisco is dazzling. We walk around the aisles of clothes, picking outfits for him and his mother. His spirit is irrepressible. He is making jokes, teasing me about my poor Spanish grammar. We compare the differences in regional words for “underwear,” “jacket,” and “bird.” He is in the third grade. He knows his multiplication tables. He wants to get a pair of reading glasses so he looks more like a “profesor.” He asks me if I have Angry Birds on my phone. He is a master of Angry Birds. He will start public school in two weeks and will have to report to the local immigration office in Indiana within six weeks.
Francisco’s best chance of staying will be if a lawyer files for a Special Immigrant Juvenile visa on his behalf. The lawyer will need to prove to a family court judge—one who typically deals with divorces, custody disputes, and child support—that Francisco was either abused, abandoned, or neglected by one of his biological parents. If a judge finds this to be true, he can get a green card and stay. Lucero, a beautiful bespectacled lawyer who has taken a “radical sabbatical” from her job in D.C. to volunteer and work pro-bono on such cases, explains this to me.
“What about his mother?” I ask her.
“Let’s talk about it later,” Lucero says as she bounces a six-year-old girl on her knee. Lucero slept in an open cot in the parking lot tent last night. I originally came to McAllen to report on the relief efforts here. But they were short volunteers and Spanish speakers, so I am volunteering alongside Lucero. We don’t talk about our jobs. Neither one of us is here in our “professional” capacity. I’m not interviewing anybody, she is not doing intake. We are folding and feeding. Sometimes when the women get a little demanding, or ask us to bring them a different pair of jeans, maybe ones a little more fashionable, Lucero deflects with a preternatural grace that I fall short of. The women love her. I cling to her all weekend.
The families begin to board the 8:15 p.m. bus to Dallas. Several of the younger girls rush us for last-minute hugs. One of the girls smells like eucalyptus after Nurse Julie rubbed a salve on her temples to help with her headache. Lucero found her a matching Hello Kitty outfit and the girl is beaming. The kids are giddy and rejuvenated, their mothers thank us, everyone feels good for a little bit.
Tomorrow Lucero will drive two hours to San Antonio, where she will start the legal cases for other women and children who crossed earlier in the summer. “A lot of the women we met today,” Lucero tells me, “they will get sent home. And they may not see their kids for another ten years or ever again.” I don’t know why this has never occurred to me during my two days at the shelter. For some reason I assumed that if a child got a visa so would the child’s mother. Some of these women have made this painful dangerous journey just to shepherd their children safely to the U.S., then they will go home. Either on a commercial flight as dictated by ICE, or by a bus that goes along the foothills of the Sierra Madre, back through indifferent deserts of Mexico, to their homes at the font of the human wave. And as they are transported back south, just as many on the same day, will be flowing north.
*Some names have been changed and surnames omitted to protect subjects.
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