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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 the photo of a Border Patrol agent arresting an undocumented migrant mother while her sobbing toddler looking up in dismay went viral, the U.S. became acutely aware of our centuries-old border issues. Through memes and sound bites, social media spent the week in political harangues and posturing diatribes against our current Washington administration. But as a life-long resident of the Mexican border, I was annoyed with the sudden burst of attention. What the media outlets were offering as the crisis du jour has been going on for as long as I can remember.
Catholic Charities of The Rio Grande Valley Respite Center continued to host traveling immigrants throughout this week of media attention, but now with celebrity visitors looking to tour the facility: Melania Trump, Gayle King, and Kerry Kennedy to name a few.
The outpouring of outrage over children kept in cages was so overwhelming that I decided to stay away from the Respite Center until the dust settled, as it always does after a media firestorm, but what happened just before Trump issued his executive order regarding family separation stayed with me during my two-week absence from the center.
On that day, the talk had been about family separation and Glori, a volunteer and friend, explained that many times when there is a migrant mother and father with child(ren), one of the parents will be deported. For this reason, a single parent will usually bring one child, in order to increase both their chances of staying together in the US.
I told her that meeting Kevin with the chicken pox had a formidable impact on me, but being a married couple, Kevin and Ymelda had not been separated or deported. Glori said that it was probably because Kevin was sick. If a person arrives with an illness, they are allowed to travel with their family until their immigration status is determined.
When the photo of a Border Patrol agent arresting an undocumented migrant mother while her sobbing toddler looking up in dismay went viral, the U.S. became acutely aware of our centuries old border issues.
Our chat wound its way to the new ruling regarding political asylum that had just passed legislation. Once grounds for political asylum, harassment or threats received from community gangs no longer qualifies an individual for political asylum. Fear of gang or mafia threats are now redefined as a problem within a municipality. A national war would qualify a person for political asylum, but death threats from local thugs would not, Glori explained. This redefinition allowed for more people to be turned away at the U.S. border.
In the case of Ymelda, her brother had been murdered, and there was concern that since she knew the killer, she would be next. I hoped Ymelda had squeaked past the timing of that new ruling, and she was granted political asylum.
Rigo and I established a place for ourselves in the waiting chair room of the Respite Center, and looked for a person to speak with regarding their journey to the United States. Most of the migrant families had left the Center and headed to the bus station. There was a young girl traveling with her father named Juan, who Rigo began to sketch. Quickly, Juan made it known that he thought his hair looked too puffy, and after talking briefly about farming — Juan had farmed coffee, maize and beans in his native Honduras – and other small talk, he politely evaded our interview questions. We didn’t press. He had been through enough.
When the door of the Respite Center next opened, three women with children walked in, which was unusual. Migrants arrive in large groups from the detention center, always burdened with luggage and personal items. These women were clearly locals. One of their children was sleeping in one woman’s arms, while the other child was laughing and talking, quickly locating the play center in the corner of the room. The leader of the group of women asked for the volunteer in charge, which was Edna, and began to explain her situation as she located her.
“Lamentablemente…” I heard her say several times. Lamentably. Unfortunately. The beginnings of a practiced speech. Quickly, Edna called over to Glori, “I think you better take this one.”
The woman with Glori began to explain that her Honduran neighbor had been arrested and was now in jail, and that the arrested woman’s attorney had somehow taken custody of her children. No longer able to care for his client’s children in addition to his own, the attorney asked the woman to take one of the children, a boy, for a couple of days. Agreeing, as she had a son about the same age, a couple of days turned into a couple of weeks, and then a couple of months. Those couple of months became seven months.
“Hey chiquito, come here,” Glori called to the boy, simultaneously beckoning me to come towards her too. Knowing that I was at the Respite Center to gather stories, one was unfolding before her.
The boy ran towards the desk from the play center. “What’s your name, papito?” Glori asked cheerfully. “Joshua,” he said with a smile. Joshua repeated the story that his mother was in jail, and that his father was coming to get him. But when Glori asked the woman about the child’s father, the woman confirmed that he had been deported. Overhearing this, Joshua started to whimper. “You told me he was coming back…” Glori and the woman tried to reassure the boy that yes, his father was coming back.
Glori changed the subject. “Oyeme papito cosita linda?” “Do you like your auntie?” she asked pointing towards the woman who had been caring for him for the past seven months. “¡Si!” he said. “Is she nice to you?” Glori asked. “¡Si!” chirped Joshua. “Does she hit you?” Glori asked smiling, half joking. “¡No!” Joshua laughed. “But she told me that if I didn’t behave that she would string me up in a tree and beat me like a piñata!” Glori stopped a moment, looked up at the grinning five-year-old, and burst out laughing. All present, nervously listening to the conversation as well, immigrants and volunteers alike, began to laugh. The woman who was surrendering him looked at the boy with a modicum of motherly pride at his clever joke. Another volunteer took Joshua to get a hot meal while they sorted out his story while Glori called Sister Norma for advice.
I was taken aback by how possession of this boy was so malleable. The boy seemed like something, not someone. He could be delivered, given, taken, and re-gifted.
The Respite Center does not usually take surrendered children. Why did the attorney take the children into his own home to begin with? How did Joshua evade Child Protective Services? Where would he go now that his mother was in jail? Most important, was the woman’s rehearsed story true?
After he had eaten, Joshua sat and watched cartoons in the play center as the adults tried to develop a plan, difficult without any information about the jailed mother or the deported father. Ultimately, the woman was to take the boy home for the night and the next day Social Services would come and meet with the family. Sister Norma would speak with the Honduran consulate to see if the child’s parents, or any other family members, could be located.
As I turned to walk back to across the room, the woman looked directly at me. “Can you help me?” she asked, half laughing. I didn’t know what to say. Why did she pick me and not Glori, Edna or Rigo? Flustered by the question, I was taken aback by how possession of this boy was so malleable. The boy seemed like something, not someone. He could be delivered, given, taken, and regifted. The legend of his provenance included a mother, a father, an attorney, a neighbor, and potentially, his next caretaker.
During my two-week hiatus from the center, I thought a lot about Joshua. Things had quieted down, the world now focused on World Cup rather than immigration and family separation, so I called on Sister Norma to learn what had happened to Joshua.
“Oh yes, Joshua,” smiled Sister Norma. She pulled out her cell phone, and showed me a photo of the boy, secured in a transport van to the Honduran consulate authorities, who would escort him back to his home country. The little chap was grinning sheepishly as he waved to the camera. Still, he looked nervous.
Joshua’s mother had been a paid cook in a smuggling stash house, where she lived with Joshua, and his two U.S.-born sisters.
Joshua’s story was even more complicated than what I had overheard on the day he was brought to the Respite Center. Joshua’s mother had been a paid cook in a smuggling stash house, where she lived with Joshua, and his two U.S.-born sisters. When the stash house was raided, the mother was arrested along with the rest of the players in the smuggling ring.
How the three children were separated was unclear, but the two U.S.-born sisters were sent to live with relatives in San Antonio while the lawyer for the arrested mother had relinquished custody of Joshua to the neighbor woman. Because Joshua was born in Honduras, and because his father, along with his mother’s family was in Honduras, Joshua was deported. He was five years old.
Further, the neighbor woman had been reluctant to approach Child Protective Services or any other U.S. government agency regarding Joshua because she was affiliated with the smuggling ring, but living next door, she wasn’t arrested in the bust that took Joshua’s mother. She knew more than she could or would ever reveal, and any mention of the authorities was precarious to her. Taking Joshua to the Catholic Charities Respite Center felt safer than her other options. “We see this a lot,” Sister Norma sighed.
In order to avoid arrest, the neighbor had kept quiet about Joshua’s existence until she could no longer sustain his added household expense, especially since her source of income — the lucrative criminal enterprise of human smuggling — had dried up. Joshua had fallen through some cracks, but most created by those hiding from United States law. Only through Sister Norma’s diplomacy was the neighbor able to avoid arrest, while enabling the boy to return to his family members, albeit in Honduras.
Although impactful, Joshua’s tale is far from unique. In the Rio Grande sector alone, there were 20,000 unaccompanied minors that arrived in 2017. Thankfully, the projections for 2018 are lower, but only by 13%. Those manipulating Joshua’s fate was a village of government officials, public defenders, undetected criminals, and servants of God, but no intervening next of kin. His parents were unavailable, due to their alien status, their criminal endeavors, and deportation. It’s difficult to name the hero in this story, but among all, the role of martyr was given to the youngest.