Conversations with Migrants

In her Stories From a Texas Border Ranch series, Melissa Guerra looked at the daily intricacies and deep contradictions of life in a South Texas border town. Sharing tradition, culture, and family with her Mexican neighbors, the narrative journey of her homeland veered away from politics to paint a powerful picture of daily life in the Rio Grande Valley. Now, Guerra returns with another border series, this time looking at life from the other side. A timely perspective that begs consideration, these are the stories of the migrants.

When he unlocked the glass door, I was automatically taken aback. His face was lined with scabs. Smiling shyly nonetheless, he beckoned me to follow him through the corridors of the Respite Center. The last time I was here, the center was much smaller, but it had taken over the office suite next door, whose former tenant had been an Evangelical church. Almost 200 people pass through the doors of the Respite Center daily, so the extra space was much needed. At the end of the corridor was the kitchen, where we found Sister Norma busy making chicken soup. Three young people were in the next room quietly focused on their ham-and-cheese-sandwich-making assembly line. One spoke; they had run out of cheese slices. Sister Norma quickly fetched them a new package and they returned to the neat production of pink, yellow and white squares on the Center’s plastic folding table.

Though it was a typical day at the Respite Center, we were glad to catch Sister there. She is a new kind of busy these days, with the world intensely focused on her efforts to help the recently immigrated as they continue their legal journey into the United States. Migrants that are trafficked by human smugglers arrive at the US-Mexico border every day by the thousands. Many immigrant hopefuls are turned away and deported to their home countries, but a portion of the immigrants will be allowed by the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) to follow the current immigration policies and court procedures for becoming a citizen of the Unites States.

The immigrant voice needs to be heard because it tells us a story. As local residents, we had the unique opportunity to listen to them.

These immigration candidates are under strict orders to meet their appointments with ICE and subsequent appearance before an immigration judge during their citizenship process. Their initial appointment with ICE is usually ten days after they are detained, and then released. However, as immigration judges exist in almost every city across the US, an immigrant can request residential sponsorship with a relative. The immigrant is then allowed to travel to stay with that relative and attend court in the city nearest to their family-member sponsor. Bus tickets are organized for candidates (usually paid for by the sponsorship family), and they continue their journey to their family’s home.

The Respite Center of Sister Norma provides a home base for the people that have been granted permission to travel to the home of their sponsor. The span of time from when they are released from the immigration court, to the time their bus departs can be a few hours or a couple of days. Immigrants were sleeping in the bus stations, in the streets, in parking garages, with no food, no shelter, and no sanitary facilities. Sister Norma recognized an opportunity to restore human dignity to the immigrants and formed the respite center to help those that only need a few hours of shelter, a change of clothing, help with their bus schedule, and perhaps a bowl of soup and a sandwich. State and federal immigration officials welcomed the outreach, and now automatically direct those released from the courts to the Catholic Charity Respite Center. Sister Norma’s commitment to human dignity is her contribution to immigration process.

The few immigrants at the Respite Center were exhausted, sleeping on the raised platform that had formerly been used as a stage when the space was the church. The Respite Center was understaffed for the day, and I was asked to briefly handle the phone desk.

Immediately, upon seeing a new person at the desk, a migrant named Luis approached me, asking if his ticket had been confirmed yet. I scrolled through the open spreadsheet on the computer. Names rolled by, mostly indigenous, spelled with x’s and double vowels, listed with the immigrants’ country of origin and their destinations within the USA. Honduras and Arkansas. El Salvador and Washington State. Guatemala and New Jersey. What information could I provide? Where was Luis going? Oklahoma. Was his ticket confirmed yet? I couldn’t tell.

Edna, a more experienced volunteer arrived, and I told her Luis had questions that I couldn’t answer. “He’ll keep asking every five minutes. They do that. He’s nervous that he will miss his bus, but his family hasn’t sent the money for the ticket yet,” said Edna. With firm assurance she told Luis to take a seat; as soon as the ticket was confirmed, she would notify him. He looked displeased from the scolding, but plopped down into a blue plastic school chair and folded his arms, momentarily resolving to trust us.

After collaborating on a border story last year, a very natural partnership with Rigoberto Gonzales, a fellow local whose artwork illustrated that story, evolved. Both of us have deep roots in this area, and have watched our long ignored riverside farming community evolve into a political talk point. Rigo was born in Reynosa, Tamaulipas, Mexico, just south of the international border. My husband is also from Reynosa and, interestingly enough, both paint scenes of realistic life in Mexico. My husband’s paintings and sculptures focus on regional history and romantic landscapes of days gone by, while Rigo’s paintings focus on the here and now. The violence. The kidnappings. The beheadings. The narcos. My husband paints what was. Rigo paints what is.

It often seems that those who live here in the Valley are voiceless. But there are other people that have an even less vocal presence than the Valley residents: the migrant.

Inasmuch as the national news media decries what they perceive is happening here, as locals, we see so much more. Just like survivors that live through a hurricane, the “boots on the ground” reality and the lesser-told human stories differ from what gets posted by the national newsfeeds. The news media chooses its stories. For us, the stories simply happen in front of our eyes. When we gather, we talk amongst ourselves, so we can be informed and aware of what is happening in our community. We also talk to those passing through. We compare notes from our neighbors, family and friends, patching together the fabric of our truth. After writing the first border series, I heard that people read (and liked!) what I wrote. But I had exhausted my sources — the few people that would talk candidly about living in the Rio Grande Valley. Not many locals wanted to be interviewed and I was becoming a bit of a nuisance at parties, asking too many heavy questions. Did I want to start a new career as a journalist? Not really. But as our nation becomes more invested in what happens at the border, I wanted to continue to tell our story.

It often seems that those who live here in the Valley are voiceless. We know that politicians, the professional decision makers that we elect, will make the tough choices that affect our community with little of our input, but it’s assumed that we won’t mind if an imposing wall is built in our community. We also don’t have much influence with the human smugglers that seem to think we are a bunch of sleepyheads that don’t mind human cargo being stashed in our neighborhoods or marched through our ranches. On both counts, we mind.

But there are other people that have an even less vocal presence than the Valley residents: the migrant.

Everyday, hundreds of immigrants arrive in our community. Stepping away from the heated conversations of politics, human rights, and refugee needs, I began to wonder if they would chat with me, the way I chat with my family and friends at our barbecues. The media talks about the immigrants, instead of talking to the immigrants. Rigo and I decided to see if we could capture the individual stories, stories which related directly to our community. Why were the migrants here? What did they leave behind? What was their course of their journey? Rigo and I are not politicians. But through my writing, and his artwork, we are storytellers. The immigrant voice needs to be heard because it tells us a story. As local residents, we had the unique opportunity to listen to them.

Sister Norma at the Respite Center was kind enough to allow me to talk to anyone willing to share their story.

We sat down with three migrants: Kevin and his wife Ymelda, and another man named Jaime. We made it clear that we weren’t going to share their names, nor their photos, with the press. We just wanted to hear their stories, and try to understand them a little bit better. I brought them some bottles of water and we began to talk.

Kevin and Ymelda were from Honduras and they had been married seven years. They were headed to California, as Kevin’s mother lived in Los Angeles. They left Honduras because of the gang violence. With every new president that entered office, there were more accusations, more conflicts, and more fighting among the Honduran population. In her hometown, Ymelda had been assaulted four times, and had a gun put to her head to rob her of her cell phone. There was no work where they lived, and when one did find work they risked being robbed or murdered for their salary. Even standing on a street corner was risky, as drive-by shootings were common and you could be killed in a case of mistaken identity.

Ymelda and Kevin had sold their house to make the journey to the United States. They paid their smugglers $5,000 apiece, plus another $5,000 for their six year-old daughter.

Ymelda and Kevin had sold their house to make the journey to the United States. They paid their smugglers $5,000 apiece, plus another $5,000 for their six year-old daughter. Their treatment at the hands of their well-paid smugglers was beyond inhumane. However, for the children there were extra bribes involved, because supposedly children required extra-special care. “They were abused the same as the adults,” Ymelda scoffed.

Kevin was shy and mumbled as he spoke. His Honduran accent was distinctly different from our Spanish accents here on the northern border of Mexico. He explained that his mother had lived in Los Angeles for 32 years. She was employed, had a home, and would send money back to their Honduran family, visiting when she could. Kevin, now 34, hadn’t lived with his mother since he was 2 years old, but would now be received into her home, along with his wife and daughter.

When I asked if they remembered more peaceful times, they said that life had been good up until 1985 when the power of gangs began to rise, approximately when Kevin’s mother left for the United States.

Kevin and Ymelda had traveled in a lightless, tarp covered farm truck across Guatemala. After sundown, they were unloaded into stash houses, and loaded back into the same trucks before daybreak. Eventually their trucks crossed illegally into a southern state in Mexico. They were housed in a hotel for 13 days, remarking that their accommodations and meals were rather nice. But soon after they were herded into what seemed like a sports arena by their smugglers. They estimated at least 1,000 other people gathered in the same space. Kevin added that it seemed impossible that local law enforcement could have been unaware of the gathering. They were held there by men with machine guns, bold enough to wear no masks. Eventually the group was divided into three 18-wheeler tractor trailers with the doors shut locked from the outside.

For three days, the vehicles traveled north across the Republic of Mexico. The migrants had no water, no light, no food, and no sanitary facilities. They shared the small amounts of fruit or crackers that they happened to bring with them. Many blacked out or fainted. “A baby almost died in our trailer.” Ymelda said quietly. “A man gave the baby mouth to mouth and she revived, but her heart had stopped beating.”

“I got sick in the trailer, and no one did anything to help me,” offered Kevin. “He got the chicken pox,” explained Ymelda, and when I looked I noticed the marks on his face, leftover from the virus that swept the 18-wheeler. Kevin had suffered a raging fever and flu-like aches. “They gave me some aspirin,” and explained that he was taken to a medical clinic once he crossed into the US.

Eventually they made it to the Mexican border town of Reynosa where their new smuggler, a boy of 16, led them to a river crossing trail. It was there that they were apprehended by US Customs and Border Patrol (CBP). They eventually went before an immigration judge where they were required to connect with their family back in Honduras to obtain proof of Kevin’s brothers’ murder. They were seeking asylum, as they could identify the murderer, who was threatening to kill them.

Kevin and Ymelda’s daughter was sitting in their lap, playing with a hairbrush she had received from the Respite Center hygiene pack. “We had to protect her,” Ymelda explained as she smoothed back her daughter’s hair from her face. Rape is commonplace on migrant journeys, with girls of any age as targets.

For three days, the vehicles traveled north across the Republic of Mexico. The migrants had no water, no light, no food, and no sanitary facilities.

At the far end of the table, Jaime sat stoic but quietly shared that his two brothers and nephew had been killed within three months of each other, and that he had to bring documented proof of the murders to seek asylum in the United States. He left his wife behind in Honduras. He added that he was lucky nothing happened to his daughter. She was a tall, beautiful 14 year-old girl, but avoided any assault. Jaime was clean cut, with a dark complexion and fine features. He seemed to be processing the trauma he had endured at the hands of his smugglers as he retold his story. He explained that he had wanted to turn back to Honduras once his group entered Mexico, but there was no way out. He said his heart still raced when he thought of his journey. Jaime didn’t like the rough way or bad language the smugglers used, and the lack of respect they had for children. He was man of few words, but shook his head several times repeating “They were animals.”

Kevin, Ymelda and Jaime agreed that on their journey there were good and bad people, but the bad ones were very bad. The smugglers would cover the mouths and noses of the children when they cried, even infants. And if a smuggler wanted to have sex with your daughter or your wife, there would be nothing you could do about it — they would rape them right in front of you.

Given that they were now in the United States, the gangs, the killers the extortionists and the smugglers behind them, I asked if they would they make this journey again? “Absolutely not!” they said almost in unison. They had called family back in Honduras to let them know that the journey north was more dangerous than gang violence and not to attempt it.

Like Kevin and Ymelda, Jaime had sold his house also to finance his journey. If he were to return to Honduras, he would be homeless and the likely target of a gang member looking for any money Jaime would have saved or acquired during his time in the United States.

Rigo and I thanked the Ymelda, Kevin and Jaime for talking to us and wished them well on their journey to the homes of their families. They emphasized that their treatment once they entered the United States had been very good, and they were grateful to US law enforcement and the legal system for handling them with more respect than they encountered on their journey.

They assured us that there were immigrants they had met with longer, more vivid stories of what had happened to them along the way. A complicated adventure, they seemed relieved and grateful to have arrived, but were uncertain of what the courts would decide.

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