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A Mexican feminist living in the United States wanted to know what was really going on down at the Southern border, so she went to find out for herself

The message comes in as I pack donations in my New York City apartment. For the last two months, I have been organizing a volunteer trip on Facebook to help asylum seekers on the U.S.-Mexico border. And since this is the night before the trip, I know I’ll be getting last-minute questions from my group of 20 volunteers—a potpourri of close friends from New York, Utah, and Atlanta, and some friends of friends who saw the deteriorating situation at the border and wanted to help.

But this Facebook message is unexpected. “What are they running away from, anyway?” reads the post from a man I don’t know. I suddenly feel like a spokesperson for the hundreds of thousands of migrants who have fled their homes in the Northern Triangle of Central American countries—El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala—in search of refuge in the United States.

I start typing what I have heard on the news, that asylum seekers are often escaping from poverty, war, and other dangerous conditions. I start researching and find that, in 2018 alone, there were over 223,604 migrants who reached the border, but over 60 percent were denied asylum in the United States. It seems that even if a migrant makes the journey, if an official decides their asylum claim isn’t “credible,” they’re ordered for an expedited removal. I decide to send this stranger a more robust explanation after the trip. 

A few days later, my group of scrappy, passionate, and dedicated volunteers and I are hard at work at a respite center in the Rio Grande Valley. Every day, ICE releases hundreds of asylum seekers from the nearby “Ursula” Detention Center in McAllen, TX—the largest immigration processing center run by U.S. Border Patrol. Volunteers at the independently run respite center take them in and give them meals, clothes, and a place to shower. Our group’s goal is simple: to give asylum seekers a warm welcome as they take their first steps into the United States. 

Every day for 10 hours or more, we are on our feet, cooking and cleaning, fixing broken pipes, and handing out sanitary pads and diapers. There are many, many babies and toddlers at the respite center. We draw with kids while their parents get their first shower in weeks. One of our volunteers sets up a braiding station where women and girls can get their hair done in what becomes the first type of self-care they’ve had in a very long time. We see women’s shoulders become a little less tense as they realize they are finally somewhere safe. After their night or two at the shelter, we help the migrants get on the right bus, where most will be headed to meet their sponsors (often family members) somewhere in the States. If there’s time, we try to sit with asylum seekers and listen to their stories. 

The shelter itself is a converted nightclub run by the Catholic Charities Humanitarian Respite Center of the Rio Grande Valley, which is helmed by a generous group of nuns. The big open space, which I imagine was once a packed dance floor, is now filled with blue mats for the migrants to sleep on at night. What used to be a bar is what we now call the “supply bar,” where we give away toilet paper, diapers, and medicine. There’s a kitchen in the back where we try to serve three meals a day. There are makeshift showers and a room where we give migrants a change of clothes. The center is dimly lit, but it’s a clean and quiet environment; a nice refuge for people who’ve dealt with weeks of travel, uncertainty, and often an intense stay at a detention center. 

The volunteers who work there come from all walks of life. We meet a church group from North Carolina and a retired atheist couple from California. We meet college friends and individuals who made the trek alone. People come to help for days, sometimes weeks. Usually, we greet about 200 migrants a day. But some days bring up to 500 and other days only 5. The ebb and flow of migrants is largely determined by whatever policy decisions are being enacted by the Trump administration.

One day, between food service shifts, I notice a woman sitting in a row of plastic chairs. She has a youthful face, wavy brown hair, and a baby who alternates between vomiting on the floor and bouncing in her lap. I notice how happy he is between puke sessions. I grab cleaning supplies and wipe up the floor around her, introducing myself as a volunteer. The baby is one year old and has been throwing up since Mexico, she says. He is unbothered and continues to smile. 

After I finish cleaning, I’m called to do other tasks around the shelter. As a native Spanish speaker from Mexico, I’m pulled in many directions to translate. The question, “What are they running away from, anyway?” returns to mind, as it was something people asked me when my family moved to the United States when I was nine. Mexico simply became too dangerous for us. I had one family member who was kidnapped, another narrowly missed an attempted kidnapping, and a lot of my family members were robbed at gunpoint by unknown assailants looking for money during the time we lived there. My parents wanted to give us a chance at a better education and a better life, so we came to America. 

Between tasks, I make it a point to check back on the woman and her baby, each short chat session unraveling a new piece of her life. Her name is Carla* (changed to protect her identity and asylum claim status). She’s from Honduras. It took her two months to reach the United States, alternating between walking, taking buses, and hitchhiking. I ask her where she stayed along the way, expecting to hear about cheap hotels and couches, being extremely naive to the situation. She says she slept in abandoned houses, alleyways, anywhere she could, all with her one-year-old baby. 

She tracks her journey by important, often-tragic milestones. Her phone was stolen in a town in Mexico. Her last bit of money ran out in another Mexican town. When she got close to the border, a group of men tried to kidnap her and her baby in a blacked-out van. Luckily, two other men, who saw what was going on, helped her get away. She says she considered seeking asylum in Mexico, but the day she tried to apply for it, a group approached her and tried to buy her baby. I watch this same baby continue to bounce on her lap, smiling from ear to ear. They said they could offer good money for both children. 

Both? I ask. 

She holds her baby higher up, revealing her belly. She’s nine-months pregnant. She says this was not the only time she was almost separated her from her children. They were crossing the Rio Grande river, she explains, the last big hurdle in their journey. She swam across at nine-months pregnant (at its deepest point, the river can reach 60 feet), with her baby in her arms. But when she was about to touch American soil for the first time, her foot got wedged in a tree root deep beneath the water. She couldn’t move. She knew she had to make a choice. 

I try to keep a calm face as she continues to explain. Engulfed in dirty water and trapped, she used all her strength to throw her baby boy to the other side. She says he somehow held on to a fence—even she can’t explain it. Once she saw him securely reach the other side, she tells me, she resigned herself to the fact that she was about to die. Many asylum seekers have died trying to cross the Rio Grande; a photo of a father and his daughter killed while trying to cross made the cover of The New York Times this past June. Carla’s son was safe, and that’s all that mattered, she says. With her foot stuck below, she knew this was where her journey that had started 1,600 miles away, would end. 

But then, out of nowhere, a man jumped into the river and pulled her so hard she had bruises on her arms, but she was free. She doesn’t know if he was a Border Patrol Agent, a U.S. citizen, or a Mexican. It didn’t matter. For a few minutes, wet and afraid, she held her son tightly on the edge of the Rio Grande. Not long after that, she was picked up by Border Patrol and sent to a detention center. “I’m just blessed to be here,” she says. 

I excuse myself and go cry in the bathroom. Then I grab three bags full of diapers, baby formula, and food for her. Even though we’re only supposed to give one bag per family, I feel like she deserves everything and more. Then I ask, “Why did you decide to come here?” echoing the question from my Facebook message. 

She tells me that when she got married, her husband begged for children. She gave him two—a girl, now three, who she had to leave with her mother in Honduras—and a boy, who she held in her arms. Once she got pregnant again, she says, he got scared and abandoned them. The economy tanked and the country she loved became too dangerous for a single mom, or really, for anyone. 

She sleeps at the shelter overnight and I come back the next morning and greet her—the baby boy still bouncing happily on her lap. I walk her over to the bus station across the street and help her carry the bags I made for her, realizing she can’t hold her son and the bags with her belly bouncing in front of her. 

Then we sit in silence waiting for her bus. It’s during this time that I realize she’ll have to tell her story again and again. When she shows up to her court hearing a few months later, she’ll have to give her story in detail to prove that she deserves asylum—that she deserves to be safe. She’ll have to talk about the husband who left her, the people who wanted to buy her baby, the people who attempted to kidnap her, the root in the river that almost took her life. Every time she tells her story, she’ll have to re-live that trauma. And worse, she’ll have to use it to prove that her story is credible, that she deserves a chance for a new life. 

As I help carry her things on the bus, I tell her I wish there was a way we could stay in touch. From the bottom of my heart, I know I would do anything to help her succeed, and try to help her reunite with her three-year-old daughter. 

“Facebook!” she says gleefully. 

I feel like an idiot. Somehow I’d assumed that this was not a thing that existed in Honduras. She pulls up her profile on my phone. I see photos of her kids, her family, the life she left behind. She adds herself and tells me she’ll add me once she reaches her destination. I send her a Facebook message so she doesn’t forget. 

As the days go by, we help hundreds more asylum seekers, and I come to understand that it’s just as important to sit and talk with them as it is to get them clothes and a shower. Migrants—the ones from the stories we see on the news—have the same dreams that we do: they want a safe place to live with their families. That’s it. 

I talk to a father fleeing war who told his daughter they were leaving as a birthday present to her, and that they would reach the United States by her birthday. They didn’t make it in time, though, because they passed out in a covered truck that got overheated and ran low on oxygen somewhere in Mexico. As we casually chat about his trek in the supply bar, an English-speaking volunteer offers him money, and at first, he declines. 

“How about to buy your daughter a late birthday cake?” asks the volunteer, as they both look at his daughter dancing in the middle of the room, her brown curls bouncing everywhere. She’s probably around 9 or 10. The father laughs and takes the money. “Alright, for the cake,” he says. 

I talk to another man, slim, in his 30s, but who looks much older, who tells me he was in a  van that flipped over during his journey. His arm has a tremendous gash in it. The wound is green in parts, stitched together with different colors of string. He says he sewed it himself. “Why didn’t you go to a hospital?” I ask. 

“Two other people who were in the car accident did get in the ambulance,” he says. “They were both deported back to Nicaragua.” If he hadn’t hidden behind a bush, he says, that would have been his fate as well. So he patched up his arm as well as he could, and had been traveling that way for weeks. 

Next, I speak with a woman who looks like an average college student. She’s in her 20s, wearing leggings and a hoodie, and says she had been traveling with three friends. They had all stayed together until they reached the detention center, where the authorities released her, but deported the others. Her stare is blank and dark. She blames herself and doesn’t look forward to her freedom. 

As I listen to each story, I’m convinced that I’m talking to the bravest people I’ve ever met. I’m also convinced that I would absolutely not be able to make the same journey. With no money, phones, or connections, these asylum seekers have traveled for months in buses, vans, and on foot, in dangerous conditions. Risking death, kidnapping, and being separated from their families, they are all vying for a chance at a new life. I am embarrassed, because they deserve a medal for finishing their long, arduous journeys, and all I can offer is chicken noodle soup in a cup and a change of clothing. 

On the last day of the trip, I thank and hug my group of volunteers, telling them that although change won’t happen overnight, we certainly made a dent in the situation. 

The next day, I sit at a coffee shop and open my laptop. Everything around me seems like a stupid luxury. I open my Facebook messages again. “What are they running away from, anyway?” stares me dead in the face. I start typing, but then I realize that, in the same way that asylum seekers have to prove they’re worthy enough to be here, I somehow feel I have to prove to a stranger that someone in a terrible situation is worthy of a new life. I delete the message. I don’t owe him anything. 

Instead, I open the message I had started with Carla. “Did you make it safely?” reads my message, dated seven days back. It’s unread. I sit and stare and wonder if she’s met her sponsor yet; if her baby has stopped vomiting; if she’s given birth to a new life in this big, big country. 

Weeks later, as my life in New York returns to normal, my Facebook messages suddenly light up. I’ve been sent pictures of a new baby, a yard with bright green grass, and a one-year-old boy with a smile bigger than the one I remember. Carla made it, and she and I now talk almost every day.  

If you’d like to donate to the Respite Center in McAllen, TX, visit catholiccharitiesrgv.org/Donations.aspx. If you’d like to help Carla directly, the writer has set up a registry for her at amzn.to/2WaM1KF.

By Ana Bretón
Illustrated by Leia Kaprov
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2020 print edition of BUST Magazine. Subscribe today!

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