By Francisco Alvarado
This piece is an attempt to paint a panorama of the lives, deaths, and experiences I came across during a 5-day research trip to South Texas sponsored by the Robert Strauss Center’s Central America and Mexico Policy Initiative. The trip was ostensibly a simple exercise in data collection. In this case, migrants who died trying to circumvent two immigration checkpoints located approximately 65 miles inland from the border. It turned into a journey into an illicit underworld fought over by organized crime, as law enforcement attempts to stop the unstoppable, and a struggle between the most vulnerable and the full weight of the U.S. government. These conflicts are waged across two continents, in Washington D.C. conference rooms, and in a tent encampment within sight of the U.S.-Mexico border.
This piece is also an attempt to illustrate what policy looks like at ground level. For the Hatian who walked across the Darien Gap and the roughly 2,000 additional miles to the U.S. border, for the bored-looking Border Patrol agents staffing checkpoints, and for Sheriff Deputies who must document and collect human remains found in the South Texas ranchlands.
And for me, this is an intensely personal look at what my life could have been like had I been born on the other side of the border.
All names and identifying details have been removed to protect the identities of the individuals I spoke with, or whose police files I read. I have also redacted the names of the law enforcement agencies and officials I visited since I did not ask for them to go on the record but felt that their perspective was a vital part of the reality I am trying to describe, the reality of living and dying along the border.
The following contains descriptions of violence, human remains, death, and traumatic experiences.
This story takes place in one of the busiest smuggling corridors in the country. It is an illicit transportation network reaching into the depths of Mexico and Latin America dealing in humans, drugs, and guns controlled by El Cartel Del Golfo (the Gulf Cartel). The last section of the network runs along the main roads leading north from the border cities of McAllen and Brownsville, US 77 and 281. That is precisely why the Department of Homeland Security has located two interior checkpoints, slightly north of the towns of Armstrong and Encino, Texas.
In retrospect, I should have expected what happened when I pulled into the checkpoint on Highway 77, with the research lead, and my friend, Stephanie Leutert, CAMPI’s director, in the passenger seat. There was only one lane open, staffed by two U.S. Border Patrol agents, a dog handler, and one checking documents at a kiosk. Our first strike was driving a rental with Washington State plates, which immediately alerted the dog handler. Not only are rental cars routinely used by smugglers, the smells of all the people who have used it might have triggered the dog into believing I had people in the trunk.
Our second strike was letting me, the young Mexican-American with brown skin, drive. A local law enforcement official later explained that a lot of drivers smuggling loads through checkpoints are youngsters who are drawn to the opportunity of earning a few thousand dollars driving the exact 1.5-hour trip I was driving. When I pulled up to the kiosk I was asked the same question thousands of travelers are asked every day along the border, “Are you a United States citizen?”. In all of my previous encounters at checkpoints, a nod was enough to get the cursory response, “Thank you, sir, have a nice day.” So I nodded and took my foot off the brake when the agent said “ok” expecting that to be the end. Instead, the agent waved his hand in my face and said “Whoa there! Hold on.” Strike three.
The rest of the interaction was nothing to write home about. “Where are we going?” “Why?” “What’s in the trunk?” “Do we have any drugs or weapons?” “Can you open the trunk?” But the part that sticks with me was the third time the agent asked if I was a United States citizen. “You said you were a U.S. Citizen, right? Are you sure?” Am I sure? This came from an agent who looked just like me. Brown. Male. Mexican-American. The surname he wore on his chest was not all different sounding than mine. I can’t say why that agent felt the need to ask me if I was a citizen three times, or why he wanted to answer “yes” loudly to see if I had an accent. I have a feeling it’s because of the way I look, but I will never be able to prove it. I could not escape the biting irony of the situation, here was a government agent suspecting someone of committing a crime because of the way they look, while fitting the description themselves.
In the ensuing conversation between my colleague and me, a few facts were raised that might add some color to the situation I describe above. Border Patrol is plagued with a morale problem, as reported by the New York Times, that has lead to agents dying by suicide at a 30% higher rate than the average among American law enforcement officers. For many of the agents, Border Patrol represents the best opportunity at earning a living wage besides local law enforcement and enlisting in the military.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t the only negative interaction I had with U.S. officials along the border during my 5-day trip. U.S. Office of Field Operations officers (commonly referred to as CBP officials) have a practice that is as peculiar as Border Patrol inland checkpoints. When I was walking across a bridge over the Rio Grande to enter the United States, there were two Customs and Border Protection agents stationed halfway across the bridge, exactly where U.S. territory begins. They ask everyone for their passports, but the official passport control station is on the other side of the bridge. These agents are there to stop asylum seekers from stepping foot in U.S. territory because one cannot claim asylum in the United States if one is not in the United States.
I got to the front of the line and one of the agents waved me forward and gruffly said, “adelante” to me. I reached into my jacket pocket and pulled out a little dark blue booklet emblazoned with the golden seal of the republic, an eagle offering an olive branch with its right talon, but holding 13 arrows in its left. When the agent saw the golden letters “PASSPORT United States of America” he stood ramrod straight, looked me in the eyes, and said, “go ahead, sir.” I half expected him to salute me. He didn’t even check the passport to see if it was mine. Just flashing the little booklet was enough to get me almost home. I half-jokingly looked at my colleague and said, “Willy Wonka’s golden ticket,” while putting my passport back into my pocket.
Did the agent assume I was Mexican? That I spoke Spanish? I think he did. Both are bold assumptions since I have met my fair share of Texans who look as “Mexican” as I do but neither call themselves Mexican nor speak Spanish.
I didn’t bother looking up what the morale is for U.S. CBP officers, the agency responsible for stationing officials on wind-swiped bridges to stop asylum seekers from setting foot on U.S. soil. I imagine that they bake on the same bridges in the summer. They looked painfully bored so I assume it’s not good. The agent who checked my passport at the actual passport control station looked bored and told his co-workers that he was working overtime. I imagine his morale was pretty low too.
Is bad morale enough to explain why he asked a woman who admitted she and her two U.S.-born children (judging by the Texas birth certificates she handed him) were living with relatives because they didn’t have a home of their own, “Why are you coming to the United States if you have no place to stay?” Should Americans be held in suspicion because of the way they look? Should I have to answer whether I am an American citizen three times in flawless English?
It is not my place to answer any of those questions from my position as a graduate student moonlighting as a pseudo-journalist. It is up to you.
There are many ways for a person migrating to the United States to reach our southern border. Depending on where they start the journey, it can be as simple as a domestic plane ride to a border city, or a thousand-mile nightmare of walking, train-hopping, taxi rides, and buying spots on the back of trailers. Once they arrive at the border, their choices begin to dwindle.
In South Texas, migrants must pay a toll to local organized crime to even attempt to cross the Rio Grande. There are no group or family discounts. Children are charged full price. A young man in Matamoros told me that gang members are gracious enough to give you an inner tube for your first attempt. But most importantly, the toll buys you a “password,” a phrase or word that proves you’ve paid the toll. Depending on the organization level of the local cartel, these passwords can be unique to individuals or vary slightly over time.
Enforcement of these rules is ruthless. Cartel members are routinely posted at ports of entry waiting for groups of people to return to Mexico. Returning migrants are not hard to pick out. I was standing in line waiting to cross back into the United States when I witnessed a group of people being sent back over to Mexico. It was a group of about 25 to 30, men, women, and children expelled under Title 42. “Title 42” refers to a section of the United States Code, section 265, which gives the government the authority to suspend “the right to introduce such persons and property [if] required in the interest of the public health.” The group was most likely a mix of individuals who were attempting to evade Border Patrol and others who sought them out to ask for asylum. Both groups are treated the same and are expelled from the United States to stop the introduction of COVID-19 into the country— so the U.S. government’s story goes.
They were taken to the foot of the bridge in a Border Patrol van and then led out by an agent who walked them to the halfway point across the bridge. Some of them walked across the bridge with heads held high while others fought to hold back tears while holding each other. In any case, they all presented the signs of migrants recently trying to surreptitiously cross into the United States. Some of their clothes were caked with dirt, and they wore extra layers of clothing to keep warm. The most obvious sign was their lack of shoelaces, which the authorities confiscate to stop anyone from using them to commit suicide. Although I didn’t witness it during this trip, I have heard rumors of Border Patrol confiscating steel-toed boots and expelling people barefoot.
If someone presents any of these signs, a cartel member may pull them aside and ask for the password. If the individual does not have a password or provides one that was given to someone else, the consequences can range from kidnapping to murder. Mexican authorities are known to look on as migrants are pulled into waiting cars, many times they are in on the toll racket. Although it’s safe to say that even a police officer who isn’t on the take would think twice about interfering with organized crime. In Matamoros, there is a memorial wreath in a quiet park beside the Rio Grande. It’s for a man from Guatemala who crossed with his family and didn’t pay the toll. He was picked up after being returned back to Mexico and found dead in the river soon after. Among the community of aid workers and migrants, there is no doubt about what happened. You pay, or you die.
Other options in South Texas include sneaking across the port of entry in a car or with fake papers. These options are also likely controlled by organized crime.
Migrants are not free and clear once they make it across the border and to safe houses. There are Border Patrol checkpoints on the major highways heading north across the border, and specifically on the two major highways heading north from McAllen and Brownsville. The U.S. government even operates checkpoints on highways running east/west parallel to the border. So migrants must choose, do you go around or through them?
The two options are as follows. One is, as smugglers call it, “por la linea” literally meaning “through the line”. Migrants are packed in, three at a time, into the trunk of a car and driven through the checkpoint. The other option is to get jammed into a trailer being hauled by a semi-truck. Both methods can result in death from heatstroke, dehydration, suffocation, or hyperthermia. A smuggler my colleague once interviewed admitted to pulling unconscious people out of trunks after as little as an hour of driving.
The other option is walking. To many along the border, they are known as “walkers.” This is the cheapest method, and migrants pay thousands of dollars to be led through the private ranch land bordering highways 77 and 281. It can be a 3 to 5-day trek depending on how hard the guide pushes the group. The land is harsh, dense mesquite woods with thick underbrush and sandy soil that makes walking even harder. In some places, you can’t see more than a few feet into the brush from the side of the highway. You are guaranteed to run out of water. In Brooks County, a non-profit organization places oil drums full of water inside the private property when property owners allow them to, or along the sides of the highway when they are not. Although a migrant would have to be desperate to expose themselves to law enforcement on the side of a highway for water. In the summer, temperatures can climb above 105 degrees, in the winter they can plunge well below freezing at night. There is little shade and no shelter besides hunter cabins if the person is lucky.
Death follows groups of walkers. The group will not wait for a straggler, you walk or you are left behind. Police reports I reviewed revealed common patterns, stories that are replayed over and over again. Someone is not feeling well— heatstroke or maybe they drank from a cow trough and are fighting bacterial infection and someone else, a friend or a wife or maybe a stranger, may volunteer to stay behind. The guide might promise to come back, but they never do. Although even the guides aren’t impervious. It’s rare but you will find files of men who are wearing camouflage, high-end hiking gear, and were found to be carrying multiple phones. All tell-tell signs of being a coyote, or smuggler.
If the distressed migrants are lucky to be found quickly, or lucky enough to have cell service and dial 911, it can take authorities more than an hour to get to them. I saw many crime scene photos of recently deceased individuals still strapped to backboards with IV drips in their arms and tubes down their throats— help was never going to arrive in time for them. A Sheriff Deputy told me about a call reporting a group of walkers who were left behind and needed help. He sped down the highway at over 100 miles-per-hour for 40-minutes to reach the gate to enter the ranch and drove over caliche roads (a local type of gravel/dirt road) for another 30-minutes before he reached them.
Many are not found right away. Sometimes there is a friend, loved one, or stranger who is with the person when they die. Sometimes, the person dies alone. In any case, the body rapidly starts to decompose. The process is recorded in gruesome detail by crime scene photographers. At first, the bodies turn a pallid blueish-green and the skin takes on a waxy appearance. The bodies stiffen and often look like mannequins in the pictures if you can’t see their faces. (I distinctly remember one man who appears to have frozen to death while laying on the concrete wall of an irrigation pond. His pale right hand reaching into the water as if still wanting to take one last drink.) This happens within a few hours of death. After that, the transformations become more dramatic. Eyes turn black as the blood vessels in them burst. Insects colonize insides through noses, ears, and openings that form in the abdomen. Bodies start to bloat, so much so that skin tears open, and turn bright red as more blood vessels burst and organs liquify. The faces become contorted, monstrous, as if angry at having been left to such a horrible fate. Some turn dark purple and black. To my overwhelmed mind, it looked like blood sausage.
The bodies eventually accept their fates. The flesh that’s left begins to take on the color and consistency of vaseline and slips off onto the ground where it melts into the dirt. The bones that are left behind are often scattered by the elements or animals.
The transformation from life to death can also be much faster and even more traumatic. Migrants often choose to try to “train hop” and ride the rails past the checkpoints. Others decide to sleep on train tracks. The tracks are supposed to ward off snakes and stay warm at night, I can’t say why. There are many cases of people falling off trains, or being struck by them. I found the hand-written account of one conductor in a file I reviewed that read, “Saw a man sleeping on the tracks. Applied brakes and sounded the horn. To no avail.”
A meat grinder is the best way to describe what a train can do to a human. One of the first files I reviewed was a couple struck by a train in the early 1990s. The grainy photos, typewritten reports, and xerox copies of passports and death certificates were haunting. I spent 20-minutes flipping through it, reading the same lines over and over again unable to comprehend what was written down. I stared at the pictures and couldn’t make sense of the jumble of pink flesh and gray steel. The cause of death given on the death certificate of many of these cases is “gross trauma.”
I have spent a lot of time describing what these bodies look like in police files because if they are in those files it’s because someone found them. Sometimes it’s a hunter or a rancher or a ranch hand or a child. Other times it’s an especially observant deputy or Border Patrol agent who sees birds crowding around a body hidden in the ranchland. In all cases, once the body is found, multiple people have to go out to photograph and recover the body.
Over a 48-hour period, I reviewed roughly 100 files. I was overwhelmed for most of the first day, but on the second day, I went numb. My mind decided to shut off parts of itself in self-defense. Soon the people in the files became data points. GPS coordinates, name, age, country of origin, and on to the next one. I am shocked that I was capable of becoming so nonchalant so quickly, thinking about dinner or wondering what the hotel would be like that night. If that happens in just 48-hours of looking at files, what happens to someone who has spent years in the field? Smelling decomposed bodies, finding crying children holding onto a dead parent in the brush, and having to put remains in body bags. How does a Border Patrol agent or Sheriff’s Deputy spend hours standing near a human who has turned into something inhuman and then responds to a call about a group of people?
It bothers them, I know it does. One deputy spoke to me at length about recovering bodies. When he began his stories his eyes opened a little wider than usual and seldom blinked, the thousand-yard stare. He told his stories with his eyes scanning the floor as if he was back at the scene and scanning the brush with his trained eyes. Sometimes he’d crouch slightly and sweep an arm across him as if he was ducking under a mesquite tree and pushing aside low lying branches in search of evidence. When he finished his story his eyes reverted back to normal and he’d even crack a smile. Seems to me that he was able to emotionally detach and attach himself to his physical body at will.
How can those deputies go home and hug their loved ones with the same hands they used to pull parts of a person from under a train? Will they want to hug their loved ones after a day like that?
They can detach themselves from their surroundings but there will always be cases that hit home. One file contained photographs of a young man who was found hanging from a tree by his own t-shirt. The body had been hanging from the tree for a long time since the fat and flesh had started to slide off the bones. The faces of the men and women in the background of those photos all had a look of abject horror.
Even in my numb daze, cases still got to me. Although it wasn’t the pictures, it was the belongings of the dead that bothered me. One file contained a single piece of paper, a desperate letter addressed to the local Sheriff from a mother in Mexico. “My son was last seen with his coyote…. Their names are… The last time we spoke he said he was going to cross through your county… Please do everything you can to find my son or his coyote.” Another was the case of a couple from Honduras, both around my age (mid-20s) who decided to head north together. He died of heatstroke while waiting for his girlfriend to find help. The deputy cataloged his belongings, and after the report’s pictures of him strapped to a backboard with breathing tubes stuck down his throat were the pictures of his wallet contents. A single $1 bill, and a pocket-sized foldable photo album. It contained a dozen pictures of him and his girlfriend. He and her swimming in a river, kissing on a park bench, a selfie she must have taken for him. The report cooly noted that the “female companion” was in Border Patrol custody. She was probably sent back across the border the next day.
Had I been born in Mexico instead of California I might have died trying to cross hostile South Texas ranchland. It could have been my mother who was sending off desperate pleas to anyone she could. I could have a deputy go through my wallet and note that I was carrying a picture of a girlfriend (or my little sister’s high school graduation photo.)
The “belongings” are one way to connect loved ones with remains. Belongings are meticulously cataloged to provide as many leads are possible for possible identification. Clothing, watches, jewelry, and photos carried in wallets. Many bodies are found with ID cards on them and law enforcement officials contact local consulates who contact loved ones in other countries or even track down loved ones in the United States who can claim a body. Another resource used is the Border Patrol’s Missing Migrant Program, which can run fingerprints through U.S. and foreign databases to come up with an identity. In the cases where there isn’t an ID or matching fingerprints, authorities turn to DNA. Even the most decomposed bodies and bones can be sampled for DNA that can be compared against samples provided by parents and siblings of the deceased.
This is where another dimension of tragedy is added. Survivors are forced to go through a bureaucratic process spanning multiple jurisdictions to retrieve their loved one’s remains. The files often contain copies of the paperwork a loved one had to complete to claim remains and they always contained a copy of their ID cards. In almost all the cases that I reviewed, it was fathers claiming the remains of sons and daughters, or sons claiming the remains of their fathers.
There are cases where identification is impossible. This includes when there isn’t any ID on the body, or fingerprints on hands, or the face is too far gone. Or it’s possible that loved ones don’t know about submitting DNA samples, or can’t afford the bus ride to a place where they can submit a sample. It may also be the case that individuals don’t have any loved ones looking for them. The final resting place for them will be a county cemetery as Jane or John Doe. That is how the story ends. Of the two counties we visited, one had 34 deaths in 2020 and the other had 8 deaths, which are low numbers likely due to the pandemic. Deaths in 2021 rose to 119 and 20 respectively. A similar amount will probably die this year trying to make the trek.
As you read this, there are, as one Deputy told me, “30, 40, 50, 100 people walking out there right now.” If you are reading this in the evening they are out there trying to sleep or freezing to death. If it’s daytime they might be hiking or looking for water or dying from a heat stroke. Border Patrol agents and Sheriff Deputies are out there answering calls for help or tracking groups through sandy mesquite forests knowing they will eventually make contact with stragglers who will need medical attention. It doesn’t stop. It won’t stop.
The day after we finished reviewing police records, we visited a tent encampment in Mexico inhabited by the people who might end up in a police file.
Crossing the border into Reynosa in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas from McAllen, Texas stood in stark contrast to everything I thought I knew about border security.
The toll to walk across the bridge over El Rio Bravo is 25 cents or 5 pesos. If you, like me, aren’t carrying anything, the only security you contact is a stoic member of the Mexican National Guard (Guardia Nacional) in snow camouflage with an assault rifle strapped to his chest. Even then, questions aren’t asked. You aren’t even waved through. I never even had to take my passport out of my pocket.
Across the street from the port of entry, stands the product of the catch-22-esque asylum system the United States and Mexico have built. It’s a tent village of roughly 1,000 people from all over Latin America, although mostly Central America and Mexico, ironically situated on the Plaza de la Republica. The scene is something I have only ever seen on the news, and always in conflict zones halfway around the world. Families were squeezed into tents with their belongings and food. The air was thick with the acrid smoke from communal wood-burning stoves in the middle of the encampment. There were children of all ages everywhere. One scene that I remember vividly was a group of kids sitting on the sidewalk filling in worksheets kept in plastic sleeves with dry-erase markers so they could be reused. The only sanitation facilities I saw were two dozen portable toilets and three or four large tanks of potable water filled by Doctors Without Borders. I also saw garden hoses haphazardly connected to the municipal water supply under manhole covers. In addition to Spanish accents from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, I heard Creole and maybe English from somewhere in the Caribbean. For the first 20-minutes of our visit, I was completely overwhelmed. That morning I was eating a breakfast quesadilla on the patio of a historic hotel in downtown McAllen. An hour later, I was standing before a scene from a dystopian movie, except that the scene was within eyesight of the U.S.-Mexico border.
Tens of thousands of people have been returned to Mexico because of policies enacted by the Trump and the Biden administrations. In 2018, the Trump administration launched the infamous “Remain in Mexico” policy, officially known as the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP). Under MPP, asylum seekers who presented themselves at ports of entry or surrendered to Border Patrol were assigned court dates months into the future and returned to Mexico to wait for their day in court. They were returned to encampments like the one I visited in border cities like Matamoros, Nuevo Laredo, Ciudad Juárez, and others. These cities are among the most dangerous in Mexico, with the U.S. State Department giving the state of Tamaulipas its highest level of concern, “Level 4: Do Not Travel,” due to, “gun battles, murder, armed robbery, carjacking, kidnapping, forced disappearances, extortion, and sexual assault… Heavily armed members of criminal groups often patrol areas of the state and operate with impunity particularly along the border region from Reynosa to Nuevo Laredo.”
Asylum seekers are still being returned but under a different policy. When I visited the border in South Texas in January 2022, the U.S. government continued to process asylum seekers under Title 42, which gives the federal government the power to expel individuals to combat the spread of illness or disease. This meant that almost all Mexican and Central American single adults and families were being expelled back to Mexico or Central America without a chance to ask for asylum. Almost all of the individuals who were at the camp we visited in Reynosa were there because of Title 42.
The few exceptions to Title 42 processing were for individuals considered to be particularly vulnerable or people from certain countries that did not accept expulsions. Exactly who is vulnerable and why is unclear along the border. Information travels by word of mouth and it is nearly impossible to tell what is true, outdated, or plain wrong.
On April 1, the Biden Administration announced that it will lift Title 42 on May 23. Exactly what will happen to the people at the Reynosa camp remains unclear. The administration may decide to process their asylum claims normally or have them return to Mexico to wait for their court dates under MPP.
As awful as “Remain in Mexico” is, it represents a dim light at the end of a very long and dark tunnel. People we spoke to at the camp in January almost lit up when told that MPP would be making a comeback. It’s true that people who are returned to Mexico will have to wait months for their day in court, which will most likely be unsuccessful. They know all of this and yet still they hope. If only they could get before a judge and explain how their daughter with disabilities is harassed at school by gang members, or explain how they couldn’t afford to pay protection money to the local gang so they had to leave their little store and head north. If only they can make it to their relatives in North Carolina or Virginia or Houston. They could find work, send their kids to a school, and come out on top.
The people living at the camp were simultaneously the most hopeless and hopeful people I have ever met. Having faith that their case was good, that they’d be let in, if only they could get across and file a claim. They were hungry for any information we could give them. They were eager to share the details of their cases to see if they stood a chance in court. Of course, we are not lawyers and couldn’t give any opinions.
This patchwork of policies was confusing for me to understand. It is difficult to tell how someone sleeping in a tent encampment is expected to stay up to date with any of this. There were no government officials from any government at the camp explaining what the most recent policy changes mean. The task is left up to lawyers and advocates who try their best to shepherd people through the asylum process. Although there never seems to be enough of them.
One woman approached me on the sidewalk that day. She was from Honduras and traveled by bus, taxi, truck, and foot to Reynosa and was pregnant. Her husband thought it was a girl but she was certain, she felt, that it was a boy. The pregnancy was not going smoothly, she thought it was a persistent cold from sleeping outside for months and stomach problems from drinking questionable water.
I told her about myself. Born in California to parents from Mexico. I thought it was a good idea to move to Texas for graduate school and now I was on a research trip. I’ll be halfway done with the program in May.
She smiled and held her belly. “I want to give birth on the other side so when he is big like you he’ll study and he can visit me wherever I am.”
Here was a woman and an unborn child, at the end of a long line of a muddled tangle of politics, bureaucracy, and inaction who represented another tragedy. She might be eligible for an exemption due to her pregnancy, but nothing is guaranteed. What if she gets tired of waiting and crosses the border with a coyote? She will join the ranks of the millions of undocumented immigrants currently in the United States. And her son, if he is born in the United States, will join the millions of children in mixed-status families and will grow up knowing his parents can get detained and deported at any time.
The wheel keeps turning, people keep arriving at camps like the one I visited every day. The wheel will crush many, claims will be denied, they will die attempting to cross without documents, some will give up and go home. Lots of the young men and women at the camp will probably end up attempting to cross with a smuggler. And more young men and women will come after them and do the same. The woman from Honduras might be granted asylum, but the next day there will be another pregnant woman to take her place at the camp.
That’s where my mind went when I heard those words. All I could do was wish her luck and go our separate ways.
The people at the camp have waited months to cross the border. It took me a few hours to cross back to the United States on foot since the line was long. A few hours later I was eating a quesadilla and that night I slept on a hotel bed that was bigger than many of the tents I saw at the camp.
V. The End:
The situation at the border is a story of compounding tragedies. The law enforcement personnel who are tasked with the impossible task of treating people like humans after being desensitized to their suffering. The people who die in arid ranch land and are discovered or buried in a paupers grave. Family members who have to claim the bodies of their loved ones. The people who arrive at the border every day, ready to risk everything to get to the other side. And the worst part is that nothing is really being done to address any of these problems. Countries in Latin America continue to be dangerous, unstable, and poor. Our immigration policies are rife with unrealistic wait times, and requirements that few of the people who are waiting at the border can meet or even qualify for. All this pushes desperate people to take desperate measures. All the while more people go to the border, more people die, more cross without documents, and more officers, agents, and soldiers are sent to the border to meet them. There is little that is uplifting or positive about this situation. Even an advocate I met seemed resigned to her fate after facing threats and intimidation from organized crime and Mexican security forces for helping asylum seekers navigate a hopelessly complicated bureaucracy.
I don’t have any policy recommendations. Frankly, this is an issue I don’t ever want to work on. The people look too much like me. The language and culture are too familiar. It’s all too close to home. But I hope that by describing what I saw over the course of 5 days will shed a little light on what is happening a few hours from Austin, about what it’s like to live and die along the border.
I’d like to thank CAMPI and Robert S. Strauss Center for the opportunity to tag along on this research trip. I’d also like to extend an especially heartfelt thank you to Stephanie Leutert who is an exceptional travel companion and encouraged my affection for gas station coffee during a very long 5 days in January.