Over the course of multiple parts, our latest series will look at the daily intricacies and deep contradictions of life in a South Texas border town. Sharing tradition, culture, and family with our Mexican neighbors, writer Melissa Guerra takes us on a narrative journey of her homeland, sticking strictly to description and narrative and veering away from politics in a powerful collection of personal stories. Click here to catch up on all the stories in this series, Stories from a Texas Border Ranch.
The Little Cowboy
He was wearing blue jeans, some well-worn leather cowboy boots, and a long-sleeved green and blue striped Western style cowboy shirt with snaps, not buttons. His hair was cropped short against his head in a DIY-bowl style; the sides were about an inch long, likely buzzed only a few weeks prior. Maybe his mom had cut it.
His face was terrified and simultaneously blank. It wasn’t a kid’s usual expression. He ran in front of my car, from the left-hand side of my horizon to the right, quickly checking his head back and forth to survey the distance of the fast-moving oncoming highway traffic. I hastily hit the brakes to avoid him, although he didn’t notice. He reached the other side of the road, and to my surprise, he crouched low and crawled through an opening in a fence, disappearing into the heavy brush.
It was early morning, and I was driving my usual 250-mile route to San Antonio, passing through the Falfurrias checkpoint, about 90 miles from the Mexican border. The highway north endures the heavy traffic of passenger cars, pick-ups, campers, oilfield crew transporter vans, cattle trailers, horse trailers, 18-wheelers full of manufactured goods from the maquiladoras in Mexico, and refrigerated trucks filled with produce. All of these vehicles could be transporting smuggled or trafficked men, women or children, so there is a Border Patrol checkpoint where every northbound vehicle must stop for clearance before they continue their journey into the U.S.
When he ran in front of my speeding pick-up, I was startled out of the morning’s brain fog. I quickly glanced in my rearview and side mirrors to see if the boy’s family had pulled over their vehicle on the shoulders of the southbound, or northbound lanes. Sometimes kids need emergency pit stops along the highway, you know… But there were no parked vehicles to be seen. Why was he running across four lanes of traffic at 7:30AM? I was perplexed and anxious for this boy.
It was my first time seeing an unaccompanied child migrant. Since I drive to San Antonio from the ranch once a week, I have passed through this checkpoint well over 500 times in the last 10 years, and deep into the thousands over my lifetime. I have seen countless lost adult migrants along the road, but never a lost child. According to the Customs and Border Patrol website, 48,226 unaccompanied minor children were apprehended in 2016 in the Southwest region of Texas and Arizona. That’s 132 children per day. Out of those children, 61% came through my home town region of the Rio Grande Valley. Even so, seeing a youngster on the road spooked me.
When I stopped at the Falfurrias checkpoint, I let them know that I saw a young boy running across the highway. I thought the boy looked to be around 11 years old. At the time, I was very familiar with 11-year-old boys, as I had one at home. Part young adult, part cuddly baby. Border Patrol agents took my report, noted his approximate location, and waved me through the checkpoint.
Driving through a Border Patrol check point is like driving through a toll booth. Drivers must decelerate from maximum highway speed to a complete stop, and sometimes wait in a long line of passenger cars and heavy commercial trucks, as agents check each vehicle with sniffer dogs, and under carriage mirrors. License plate recognition cameras automatically record entrances.
Each vehicle is its own story – a family from Monterrey driving to a cousin’s wedding in a SUV, a gaggle of lady friends headed to Austin on a day trip to the outlet malls, oilfield contractors on their lunch break, lone men in curious sedans, teenager-filled vans on their way back from south of the border mission trips. Border Patrol agents are expertly trained to read the story hidden in each vehicle, and in the eyes of every driver and passenger. In a split second, a decision is made whether to pass a vehicle, or whether it will be pulled over for further inspection.
Instead of the typical toll booth search for loose change, one searches their conscience at a check point, as you know you will be questioned: Are you a U.S. citizen? Is there anyone traveling with you? Could you roll down your back window? What’s in the back, could you open your trunk? I fall into the category of always being waved on, but I do see other motorists nervously fumbling with documents, and occasionally pulling out of the traffic lane for further questioning. Checkpoints are like a toll booth and church confessional rolled into one.
As I accelerated to return to the highway, I saw a group of young teenagers sitting on the road shoulder. They looked a little grungy, a forgotten group of outsiders – posing, waiting, annoyed, worried. They had longer hair, and one wore a zippered hoodie with a white tee.
Like assembling clues in a mystery, I started to craft a possible scenario about what I was witnessing. Perhaps the group had somehow been separated from the little cowboy. He was south of the checkpoint, the group was just north, out of the line of sight of the Border Patrol agents. Maybe they had been pursued by Border Patrol agents, and their group had split and run in different directions. The little cowboy was the youngest and smallest, and maybe he couldn’t keep up with the bigger guys. While the little cowboy was diving back into the thick cover of brush, the group had completely abandoned caution, and were simply sitting on the road’s shoulder. Waiting.
The lane leaving the checkpoint is one-way traffic, and I thought about turning around to tell the agents on duty about the young men sitting on the side of the road. But I didn’t. I continued down the highway, merged with the other departing vehicles, accelerated back to 75mph, and set my pick-up truck on cruise control for the remaining 2.5-hour trip to San Antonio.
I saw unaccompanied children in distress and I chose to drive on.
While I was conflicted about driving on, it wasn’t enough to lose sleep later that evening. I was ashamed, but not deeply ashamed. I had reported the sighting of the little cowboy to Border Patrol. But I should have been more help to the other group of boys. But what could I have done? Like loose coins, my conscience must have slipped between the upholstered seats of my pick-up, as I reached to set my cruise control and turned up the air-conditioning.
My absolute first thought when I saw the boys was that it is illegal for me to pick up and transport an undocumented alien. But I was confused. In reality, the law’s finer point is that it is illegal to knowingly transport an undocumented alien in an attempt to further their illegal status. Rendering aid isn’t prohibited. But it’s rare to hear about locals stopping to help the undocumented. Locals never discuss their daily interactions with undocumented migrants – not even me. Don’t ask, don’t tell. And even though I better understand the law now, I certainly wouldn’t want to test the interpretation. The split-second decision I made in the chaos of the accelerating heavy traffic was to let Border Patrol do their job.
As a local resident that is accustomed to the skilled rescue abilities of Border Patrol, leaving the scene was simply intuitive. But if 132 unaccompanied minors are apprehended daily, it didn’t occur to me that more are trekking through our countryside, evading detection and apprehension. Maybe I could have taken a more active role in assuring the safety of these children. Should I? Obeying what I thought was the law won the tug of war with my conscience. And in the process, my self-respect fell into the murky waters between my obligation to be a law-abiding citizen and my commitment to be a good human.
My thoughts shift to my own sons at home – their sweet nature, determination, intelligence, adventurous spirits, and their terrible haircuts. I would do anything for them. My greatest blessing is that I live where I can advocate and provide for my kids. Because of time, space and perhaps political violence and crippling poverty, the mothers of the little cowboy and the outsiders of the group are powerless to help their own children. These are young journeys that should have never begun. But here they are, and their determination and adventurous spirits swiftly convert them into wards of our state.
Instead of spending time calling out politicians on their actions, or inactions, I am calling out myself. What could I have done for these boys? At the time, I didn’t even ask what I could do to help them. But, I am asking myself today. What could I have done then? What can I do now? And the more puzzling question, what will our laws permit me to do?
I have listened to the outrage and protest from other communities of the tragedies of their young people. In some cases, young men in hoodies. Mothers, families and communities have cried out for justice. I listened to the media reports, and stand with the families demanding an end to neglect and targeting of young people in our country. Solutions begin with listening. But in the case of undocumented migrant children, we express no national outrage. There is no outcry to hear, and for this reason, no solutions are being formulated. There was no media report on the little cowboy and the larger group. They are not U.S. citizens, and so, there was no outrage.
Not even from me, and I was an eyewitness.
When I transition from this life to the next I wonder if I will still fall into the category of one who is waved through the checkpoint, unquestioned. I know I will be will be searching my conscience as I slow down.