This past Sunday, around noon, I was sitting across from a woman named Erica at a table in a shelter in Brownsville. It had been “twenty-six, no, twenty-seven days” since Erica had fled her home in Central America. I was helping her figure out the complicated bus trip between Brownsville and southern Florida where her sister lived.
“You will have a layover of four hours in Houston,” I told her, tracing the route on a small map. “Then you will get on a bus that will take you to a place called Mobile…yes, it is difficult to pronounce in Spanish. There you will only have a half hour before you take your next bus to a place called Tallahassee. You don’t have to pronounce that, just show them your ticket.”
She processed that information for a bit, and then she said, “I am very worried about my twelve year old (daughter).”
I asked her why, and she said, in a low voice, “Well, just in the past six months everyone in our family has been murdered by a gang. They killed my dad and my mom. Then my two uncles. Then they killed my girl’s father. Now all that is left is me, her, her little brother, and my sister in Florida. They killed our entire family…and she saw every last murder. My little girl is not doing well. If she sees a policeman with a gun, she throws up.”
Erica then called her daughter over and introduced me to her. The girl was thin, and shivering in the air-conditioned room. Her mother took one of her hands and said to me, “Look at her fingers.”
Her daughter had chewed her fingernails down to the cuticles. The girl snatched her hand back from her mom and went to another place to sit down.
I said to her, “Well, about an hour and half’s drive from here there is a border patrol check point, and an armed agent will get on the bus to look at your papers. So you need to know that. But, in any case, she will be fine—you have very good papers. And you then are going to be in a big city that has many resources. You will find someone who can help her with her trauma.”
The woman got very quiet. Then she said, “Thank you. You have been kind to us.”
This particular family had left Central America three weeks ago. They got to the border where they crossed the river in a rowboat (as there are 752 people waiting on a list to cross over the international bridge, and, as the US is only letting in two or three people a week, most people take their chances crossing the river). Erica’s family surrendered to the first Border Patrol agent that they could find. They spent five days in a processing center, where they were given a cold ham sandwich in the morning, another one at noon, and a third one at 8pm. The family was separated from each other by hurricane fencing. They slept for four nights on a cement floor under the glare of overhead lights that were never turned off. They were each given a mylar (foil) “space blanket” to keep warm with.
I asked Erica if she wanted to register a complaint about her time in custody, and she said, “No, the food was horrible, inedible, really—and we were hungry! The water had so much chlorine that it was hard to drink, and the guards were rude—but we were safe. That is all that matters, right?”
I rummaged up a thin sweater and a blanket for the twelve year old. She took my offering, her head still down.
This morning I heard on the news that Kirstjen Nielsen, the Secretary of Homeland Security, was resigning. The president apparently did not find her tough enough, and, in the interim, has chosen Kevin McAleenan, the head of Customs and Border Patrol, as her (standing) replacement.
The president apparently likes McAleenan’s suggestion of a “binary” approach to families seeking asylum. Upon apprehension by border patrol, a parent would get to choose between being incarcerated with their children, or having their children taken from them. If Erica had arrived a month or so from now, she may well have been faced with this 2019 version of Sophie’s Choice.
But on Monday, Erica boarded the bus that would take her to Florida and to her sister. Erica was concerned to know about her court date and the next steps in the asylum process. She believes that her sister, and her sister’s larger American community can save her and her family.
When I left the shelter on Sunday, I looked back and waved at Erica. Her girl was sitting beside her, chewing on her nails. But she looked up me, and she smiled.
It seemed that she had hope.