Photo by Kirsten Luce.

Inside the Slow-Motion Disaster on
the Southern Border

Testimony from the Rio Grande Valley

By  Laura Tillman

In 2014, waves of unaccompanied children approaching the U.S.-Mexico border from countries in Central America’s Northern Triangle—Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador—spent time at shelters in Northern Mexico before attempting to cross the Rio Grande. As they tried to figure out how to raise the funds and summon the courage to complete the final leg of their journeys, some killed time by talking to reporters. Among them was a 14-year-old named Brian, or maybe Brayan, depending on how he spelled it out for the news outlet. He was small, thin, bored, and friendly. You can form a whole narrative of his life by reading the articles and watching the TV segments that eventually featured his story, heavily covered since he was one of the few children at the shelter willing to talk to media during the months he spent there penniless, weighing his options. He told one reporter he’d sold rodents called agoutis to earn money for his trip north. He imagined a future job in an office, where he would wear “fancy clothes.”

At the Senda de la Vida shelter, Brian could climb to the top of a small ridge and see the United States, the two river banks virtually identical in appearance, but signifying two destinies. Brian wasn’t sure what the future held. Had he made the trip in vain? Gangs hovered near the shelter, extorting migrants if they tried to cross. Boys like Brian were stuck there, fish in a barrel.

In time, the number of unaccompanied children abated, the shelters grew less crowded, and Brian eventually left. What happened to him? What happened to all those migrants we talked to? Some were children, some were adults. Some stayed in the U.S. Some made the return trip. Some are now dead.

Elizabeth Kennedy, a researcher based in Tegucigalpa, has been tracking cases of asylum seekers rejected in the U.S. who returned to their countries in the Northern Triangle and were then murdered. Amid the confusion over the last month about family separations, and debates about who “deserves” asylum and who does not, Kennedy is placing in relief the stark fact of how these stories can and do end. Migrants make a long and treacherous journey and arrive at the U.S. border, either on bridges or by crossing illegally. Many of those from Central America ask for asylum, a right enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in domestic law. Some warn they fear certain death and then, upon returning to the countries and people they have learned to fear, that certainty is proven out.

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“We’re told that in the Northern Triangle there’s such generalized violence that you can be in the wrong place at the wrong time, a bullet is shot and just happens to hit you. But that’s not the situation. You’re in this place, your killer is in the same place, and they shoot a bullet that is meant for you,” Kennedy said.

To qualify for asylum, migrants must show they have a well-founded fear of persecution based on their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. The slight malleability of the term “particular social group” has left a tiny opening for immigration attorneys to argue on their clients’ behalf when they seek refuge from gangs or abusive partners and authorities in their own countries are unable or unwilling to protect them. The vast majority of these cases have been rejected by immigration judges. Then, last month, Attorney General Jeff Sessions reversed an immigration court’s ruling in an especially heinous case of domestic violence, in which a Salvadoran woman had been brutally abused and repeatedly raped by her husband, and said that most domestic and gang violence cases will no longer qualify asylum seekers for refuge in the U.S. The reversal virtually guarantees that Kennedy’s death count will continue its uptick

Many communities in the Rio Grande Valley, the region in South Texas where the family separation issue has centered in recent weeks, are upwards of 95 percent Hispanic. The RGV is also one of the poorest regions in the country, and jobs in immigration enforcement and detention are attractive options. When the immigration debate periodically puts the region in the spotlight, when Border Patrol agents find their work criticized as overly lax one day and excessively cruel the next, when immigration attorneys are defunded one day and celebrated as heroes the next, vertigo is inevitable. Whether arresting migrants, representing them in court, caring for children in detention or collecting supplies to bring to a migrant shelter, people in the region often wonder why the nation seems to care about the plight of immigrants one day and forget it the next.

Why is a single researcher in Tegucigalpa tallying the death count on a shoestring budget? Why is the nation told that Brian’s story is important one day, only to lose track of him the next?

When I called Senda de la Vida, the shelter where Brian had spent several months, Pastor Hector Silva immediately knew who I was talking about. “We know he went back to Honduras, but we never heard anything from him after that.” He’d never returned. Whether that was good news—that Brian had found some respite in Honduras or elsewhere, or whether it was a sign of something graver—Silva couldn’t say. Kennedy searched her database and turned up no articles with his name, but sent along a handful of news stories detailing unnamed young men who had been gunned down after returning to Honduras from their attempts to make a life in the U.S.

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“People in the region often wonder why the nation seems to care about the plight of immigrants one day and forget it the next.”

In June, I went back to the border, where I had lived and worked as a journalist from 2007 to 2014. During that time, immigration was almost a mundane topic for many of the people I interviewed. It was a fact of life, enmeshed in daily comings and goings, whether it be shopping trips to buy certain products, or seeing the clothes and shoes left behind by migrants by the river, or sitting at traffic lights behind Border Patrol trucks. Sure, there was a fight over the border wall when it was erected in sections of the region, and certainly there was concern about the children crossing on their own from Central America. But these were facts of border life.

In the past few years, as Donald Trump made the shunning of immigrants and the funding of the border wall his signature issues, our divisions over what to do about both legal and illegal immigration have seemed to be at the heart of national discord. But the immigration issue has also competed with a cavalcade of national dramas too numerous and dizzying to detail here. Breaking through the noise were the voices caught on tape of a few children who had just been separated from their parents, crying to a Border Patrol agent who quipped, “…now we have an orchestra.” Some read malice into this comment, while others saw it as unfortunate but ultimately benign. In Brownsville, I played this tape for a former Border Patrol agent who now polices the boundary in the Gulf of Mexico during boat patrols at night. Where other folks listened to the kids, the child crying “papa” over and over, or the girl who had memorized the phone number of her aunt, this man zoned in on the agent.

“He’s actually being very calm and trying to be helpful,” he told me. “Just, you know, put yourself in his shoes. You hear all this crying, there’s a lot of stress, and, you know, he has to do his job.”

I thought of the recording again when I was interviewing Sister Norma Pimentel, the nun who put together the massive relief effort in McAllen that provides migrants in transit from detention to the bus station with a place to stop for a shower, food, change of clothes, place to rest, and legal advice before going on their way to places like Albany or Raleigh. As we did the interview, a baby clinging to his mother’s breast and toddlers scaling the tired bodies of their parents like jungle gyms alternately cried with hunger, joy, anguish and exhaustion.

“Now we have a chorus!” Sister Norma said.

I began to listen for these parallels: where the experiences, thought patterns and stories of Border Patrol agents and nuns, migrants and attorneys, converged and overlapped. Some were the common landscapes of experience: a Border Patrol agent alone next to the river, listening to the darkness, and a migrant woman looking out across the same river, battling a fear of water with an image she summoned of Jesus walking on the Sea of Galilee. I listened for the way people talked about their children: the immigration attorney whose days had grown long and arduous, but who kept a nighttime ritual of talking with her kids through every moment they’d been apart, and the Honduran mother who hoped her daughter would be somebody important, “like her,” indicating a young woman sitting across the room, working on a laptop.

What follows are voices from the border. They include immigration attorney Jodi Goodwin, who allowed me to spend a day at her law office in Harlingen, Texas, the beige walls unadorned apart from a calendar still pinned to April. Goodwin has been the organizer of an effort to bring pro-bono attorneys to the detention centers in South Texas and help parents reunite with their children.

I spent time with a former Border Patrol agent who now polices the invisible line in the ocean between Mexico and the U.S. for DHS. A son of migrant farm workers, he told me he was proud that his mother had achieved an advanced degree, as we sat in the foyer of his fine home on the edge of Brownsville.

Sister Norma Pimentel, the nun in McAllen, Texas, made a few minutes for me and other reporters in her hectic schedule. She continues to corral volunteer efforts to provide a space of safety to thousands of immigrants after they are released from detention and before they get on buses headed North. At Sister Norma’s shelter, a Honduran mother, a Guatemalan mother, and a Salvadoran father spoke with me in the common area while their children played. Each adult had a black monitor strapped around his or her ankle, and each was tired from a long journey, the threat of being separated from their children, and the years of struggles that had driven them from their homes.

In McAllen, Kathy Casillas, who had stopped to donate clothes and water to the migrants after the Lord told her to do so earlier that day, explained that she believes God uses unusual people who aren’t “on the straight and narrow,” like Donald Trump, for a greater purpose.

At a Brownsville bar along the expressway, a customs officer told me that asylum was a “beautiful thing,” that should not be awarded to migrants from Central America simply in search of a better life. When I got home, I called Elizabeth Kennedy in Tegucigalpa, to learn more about what happens when asylum claims are rejected. Some of these names are withheld, either for the comfort and security of migrants, or for government employees unauthorized to speak with the media.

Honduran mother: I’m aware that this country isn’t mine. I’m aware that my family is back there. But I’ll tell you honestly that returning is the last thing I want. I suffered a lot to come here. I’m aware that this isn’t the place for us. But if God lets me stay here, then this is where I’ll be. As long as I don’t cause people any trouble and as long as I can work.

Sister Norma Pimentel: In 2014, when you walked into the bus station, you saw families everywhere. And you saw them dirty, muddy, crying, on the floor sitting down, disoriented, scared, frightened. They didn’t want to let anybody help them because they were afraid. They didn’t know who was out there to help them and who was going to take advantage of them. So, it helped—the fact that I was a nun—and I was going to go to them and say, “OK, you give us permission to help you. These families, these people who are here with me would really like to help you. We would like to invite you to a parish that’s very close by where you can take a shower, get cleaned up, we can eat, and then help you get back to the bus so you can go.”

Attorney Jodi Goodwin: I feel like every day I wake up in a fresh new hell. What are they going to come up with today? I don’t know… In the past, although immigration had to detain children, those children were unaccompanied, so they were children who didn’t come with their parents in the first place. We’re talking about sort of inflicting the trauma of separation on the children. That’s new.

Border Patrol Agent: My parents, you know, when I was young they were… they were migrant workers, so they would commute to California, you know for the season—for the grape season. So, my dad actually was born in Mexico in Matamoros and then he immigrated with my grandfather back in the day, immigrated to Brownsville as a resident alien and then, you know, my parents, you know, they got married, money was hard, right? So, they’d have to go, you know, work the fields and do that hard labor, right, to make ends meet. So, my upbringing here and being with them, you know, it’s always been about hard work and doing things the right way.

Honduran mother: Look… if you have no work, you have no food. And if you have no food, your kids starve to death. So, I mean, it’s impossible to live there. No matter how you look at it, you can’t live. If you’re looking for work, there isn’t any. If you have even just a little, a small business, whatever, you’re being extorted. If you don’t pay the extortion with what little you sell, they kill you. You can’t live. No matter how you look at it, there’s no way out. There’s no way out. There’s no security. There’s no security. None. It’s traumatic because, I mean, Honduras is a beautiful country, very beautiful, but it’s too dangerous. We’re killing each other. There are bodies every day. Bodies in bags every day. I don’t want that for my daughter, I don’t want her to see all that.

“I’m aware that this country isn’t mine. I’m aware that my family is back there. But I’ll tell you honestly that returning is the last thing I want.”

Customs Officer: I thank God for Trump every day man. Every day. You don’t understand, especially in my job. This is ridiculous, we can’t let these people in, cause number one we don’t know who they are. Number two, it’s not valid. Asylum is a beautiful thing, asylum is something beautiful, it should be for someone who is really hurting. We get people from Africa and other countries, I’m like, they don’t really deserve asylum, the people that deserve asylum are ones that are still there. They can’t leave, they don’t have the means to leave. They’re the ones that we should go be in there and be like, “hey you know what, let’s go help you guys.” Because they don’t have the means.

Honduran mother: Dead bodies, chopped up, of people who were murdered. It’s horrible. It’s traumatic to live there. Every day. Every day. Not just one or two or three—fifteen, twenty bodies. Every day. All over the country. So, I don’t see, I mean, I don’t see anything good there.

Customs Officer: If you’re at your house, right, and you’re barely making it—cause the United States is in debt right now, we’re barely making it—are you going to let someone come live with you and you’re gonna support them and pay for them knowing that you can’t do it? It’s not smart, it’s not intelligent. That’s my thing, is like, dude, we have so many things that are wrong with our country right now, why are we focusing on this? This is something that we shouldn’t worry about. Why don’t their countries do something for them? Why isn’t Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico, saying “Hey we’ll take our people back? Hold them there, we’re going to send our people over there, verify that they are citizens and we’re going to bring them back. We’re going to give them housing, we’re going to help them find jobs.” Why don’t they do that?

Elizabeth Kennedy: The answers you get are only as good as the questions you ask.

Kathy Casillas: My heart goes out to those who are truly in need, who are in a desperate situation, and on the other hand I’m frustrated because there’s not enough people trying to figure their own way. What can I do to help my situation? I think government sometimes does more harm than good, because it’s like we’re always looking to the government. What happened to the church? What happened to the body of Christ? Well that’s really our job, not the government.

Border Patrol: You go down to the Rio Grande River it’s, you know, there’s brush. There’s the unknown there and then, you know, you’re working the graveyard shift so you get called: go check this out. There might be some activity here. So now you’re walking, most of the time by yourself, in the middle of the pitch black. You’re using night vision goggles. And yeah, you don’t know what you’re going to run into. It might be, you know, a family that just wants to, you know, come across and make a better life for them. Or it might be drug smugglers with bundles of narcotics on their backs. And you know, a lot of times with narcotics they need to get across and they’ll do it at whatever cost so there’s always that danger. You know, you can—you can get shot, you can get attacked because they’re going to make sure that they don’t lose that drug load, because then they get to answer to somebody back in Mexico and that usually doesn’t go well for them. It can be scary. I’ll tell you I was scared. When you’re out there in the middle of the dark and you can barely see what’s in front of you… and you start hearing all this wildlife out there. You’ve got to deal with all that stuff, there’s snakes out there. Your senses are heightened. And you hear everything.

”When we reached the bridge, here at the border, it looked so beautiful. Everything looks beautiful and calm to me here.”

Guatemalan mother: Water scares me a lot. But in that moment I remembered when Christ crossed the sea and put his disciples in the middle of the sea… I was yelling because the water put me in a panic. But I closed my eyes and thanked God. I started to pray: I’m going the same way you went, in the middle of the sea, parting the sea so that your disciples could cross. Then suddenly I realized I was on the other side, and I hadn’t felt anything. As much panic as I felt before crossing, I felt fearless afterwards.

Honduran mother: When my daughter couldn’t walk anymore, I’d carry her. She’d fall asleep in my arms and I’d keep walking. And when I couldn’t walk anymore, I’d sit down to rest. And yes, I’d cry. And I’d pray, too. I prayed a lot. Did you know I got lost? I got lost… I was told to follow a certain route, right? And I got lost. I spent maybe three hours walking through thorns, hills, water, and I couldn’t find the way out. What I did was I asked God to light my way, to show me the path. And then I found it. It was like a labyrinth, I just couldn’t get out. And in the end, I got out.

Border Patrol: I was transporting a mother and a child, so I’m taking them back to the office and the baby was crying, so I stopped at the Stripes and bought a half gallon of milk and I gave it to the lady. ”Give some milk to the baby, he’s probably hungry.” You know, “Oh thanks, appreciate that.” So, we have hearts. I didn’t have to do that, I could have just waited until we got to the office. But the baby was crying and crying. I’ve had children, so I know—the baby is hungry. So, probably hasn’t eaten in a long time. So I got him some whole milk and that… got him quiet. You can just tell, there’s a cry of scared, “I’m scared,” and there’s a cry of “feed me, I want to eat.”

Jodi Goodwin: When we had our kids we would just bring them to work with us and we’d have cribs in our offices, so we could nurse them during work.

Honduran mother: When we reached the bridge, here at the border, it looked so beautiful. Everything looks beautiful and calm to me here. There, you can’t have this kind of (glass) door because the thieves come in, the burglars, the thugs, whatever they’re called. And they kill everyone. They take money, anything of value, they take it all… If people had even a tiny bit of imagination, if they could visit my country even for just two days, if they could visit Tegucigalpa or San Pedro Sula, if they could look around for just a couple of days, they’d go crazy and run for the hills. They’d be traumatized.

Border Patrol: You know, a lot of people, they think we’re the bad guys because, you know, poor people, they’re trying to come to better their lives and we’re stopping them. And then you get the other people that they actually thank you. You’re like randomly buying a cup of coffee or you know at a restaurant and they come up and thank you. “Thanks for what you do.”

Guatemalan mother: What would I like to say to (Trump) is, “let us be here, let us work, give us the opportunity,” right? A lot of people come here because we have nothing. We don’t have anything, we don’t have a place to live or land, we just want to overcome that, for our kids. But in our country, we can’t do it the way we can here. “Give us the opportunity that we can’t have in our own country.” That’s what I’d say to him if I had him in front of me.

Kathy Casillas: I voted for Mr. Trump. Yes, I did. But, the reason I voted for him was because of Vice President Pence. I probably wouldn’t have voted at all if it hadn’t of been for him. Because I believe he’s a sincere Christian man and I believe his heart is in the right place, from what I can see of him, which isn’t a whole lot. But I just, that’s the reason I voted for Mr. Trump. It wasn’t for Mr. Trump. Do I regret it? No, I don’t regret it. Sometimes, God uses unusual people, people that are not exactly on the straight and narrow. And I believe God is using Mr. Trump. Like I said I don’t like his style, but I believe God is using him. He doesn’t answer to people, he does whatever. At least he’s got his open mind. He’s not stuck in the way we’ve always done our government, Democrat or Republican. I don’t claim either one of them. My heart is whatever God, by his grace. I’m not perfect and I don’t claim to be perfect by any means, but I just want to follow what he says. You know, I was thinking—what would Jesus do, if he was here?

“I got lost. I spent maybe three hours walking through thorns, hills, water, and I couldn’t find the way out. What I did was I asked God to light my way.”

Attorney Jodi Goodwin: We’ve been struggling uphill for quite some time, but this is the first time I have seen such outright lack of care and disregard for the human condition of people and worse—kids. Having to see the cruelty of a government that not only is willing to lie to the people they govern but willing to treat kids cruelly. I think there is a nice corner in hell for people that do that and it’s a sad state of our affairs whenever the powers that be in government sort of issue policies and then there are people in the field that have to carry those policies out. And those are the same people that your kids go to school with and that are at your church or on your baseball team, so it’s not any kind of personal attack because they feel like they’re doing what they have to do. But I think there certainly is a basis to say that I refuse to carry out the order because it’s immoral and it’s wrong and it’s cruel and it’s mean. I guess I wish that people would do that, but I think they want their jobs.

Sister Norma Pimentel: It’s important to know that families are not being attracted to our country, they simply are fleeing a reality in their homeland. Until that is safe, that’s why they’re coming. It’s not because we do something, or we separate them from their families, or whether we treat them with respect and dignity—no. They’re not coming because they love it here. They’re coming because they want to be safe.

Customs Officer: The world’s different now. People always tell me, “you’re anti-immigrants.” I say “No, I’m anti-illegal immigrants, illegal aliens.” I go, “plus these aren’t the same type of immigrants we had.” People always said the United States was built on immigrants. Yeah, but it was a different type of immigrant. They came here to be part of the United States, they came to the United States and they assimilated. They made this country better. Now they’re not coming for that.

Border Patrol: What these agents are doing right now, I’m sure they’re just trying to do the job as best as they can in a tough situation. You know, I’m sure a lot of them don’t like doing it. I heard the agent’s voice there. He’s actually being very calm and trying to be helpful. Just, you know, put yourself in his shoes. You hear all this crying, there’s a lot of stress, and, you know, he still has to do his job. You know, because that’s the policy that’s intact right now, Right? So, he can’t deviate from it, you know. So… it’s just… he has to do what he needs to do, his job. You can’t—you can’t blame the agent for trying to do his job.

Salvadoran Father: Some people, friends of mine who were already here, they told me that’s how it was: that the reality here is the law gets enforced. But I always hold on to the word of God, and where Jesus set the law, well, the person is worth more than the law. You’re discriminated against, but it’s because you broke the law. Because you crossed the border. But we’re in need. We really need this country. That’s why I did it… I suffer from gastritis, and it was really bad. I kept thinking, hopefully no one ends up dying here. So, all those things, right. And I said to myself, I’d been told this was such a developed country, and such a, well, such a mentally developed country, in everything. We’re used to an environment where, see, if you ask me to give you a hand, I give it to you. That’s what it’s like in my country. If you ask me for a tortilla, as we call it, right, I give it to you. And here, well, you run into reality. But you have to face it.

Guatemalan mother: If they took my child away, I don’t know. As a mother, you look for the best for your child, but you also don’t want to be separated from them. Because our children belong to us, and they continue to belong to you until you die. I tell my kids, “your mother is your mother until death.” And even if you die, whether they leave flowers on your grave or not, they’ll always remember you’re there.

Honduran mother: I’d kill myself. I’d kill myself. I’d take my own life if they took my daughter away from me. I wouldn’t think twice. That little girl is my reason for living. If they take her away, what will I do? We may be poor, but I know she’s with me. I’m telling you that I wouldn’t think twice. I’d take my own life. Even though it’s a sin in the eyes of God. I’d do it.

Elizabeth Kennedy: I do ultimately see it as a sign of hope that so many people have been angered by separating families, that they’re shocked and hurt and don’t know what to do and want to do something. I have to find hope in that. It’s frustrating the short attention span of almost everyone. I’m realistic that those upset now, in not too much time, are going to be upset about something else and more or less forget.

*

These interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.

Laura Tillman
Laura Tillman
Laura Tillman is a journalist and the author of The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts: Murder and Memory in an American City, which was published by Scribner in 2016. She began her career at The Brownsville Herald and has written for The Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, The Nation and Pacific Standard/, among others. She lives in Mexico City where she is at work on her next book.





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