Friday, November 7, 2008

Disappeared in Philadelphia, Part 2

(Read the first part of this story in the Oct. 23 post.)

The 26-year-old who sits before me on the sofa of a Philadelphia parish rectory is small and slight. Her young face is framed by loose, dark curls, and she smiles a lot – mostly when she turns to look at the 5-year-old seated beside her on the sofa.

Though he fidgets, he’s been remarkably good during the two hours it’s taken me to interview his mother. He follows the volley of Spanish conversation with his eyes, answers my few questions to him in both Spanish and English. Dressed neatly in dark trousers and a light shirt, and carrying a child-sized backpack he won’t remove even when he sits down, Jesús reminds me of my nephew or of my older brother at that age. Same dark hair and eyes; same precocious gravity amid childish smiles.

“Do you like school?” I ask him.

He attends a bilingual Head Start program, and an afterschool program at one of the local Catholic churches.

He nods, a serious expression on his face.

His mother watches him answer the question with that look mothers get – admixed pride and wonder and concern.

He is the reason this quiet young woman crossed the border into the United States about four years ago. She carried him over in her arms.

“My motive [for coming here] was my son,” she says to me. “Para sacarlo adelante.”

So that he has a chance. A future.

I think of my own daughter, at that moment probably just getting home from school and sitting down at the computer to do her homework. When she was little I would tuck her into bed telling her I loved her more than the sun and the moon and stars. And I meant it. Still do.

And yet, I find myself thinking, could I have done for her as this young woman did for her son?

A modern immigration story
“I come from a humble town,” Erica says to me, describing a town in Mexico where most of the parents cannot afford to buy their children shoes.

Erica and her baby lived with her parents, and two of her brothers, 15 and 7 years old.
“There was no work there, no way to make money,” Erica continues. “My parents didn’t have enough for food.”

A few minutes later she adds: “No hay prestamo para comer.”

There’s no loan you can get for food.

Getting a visa to come into the U.S. to work is nearly impossible for someone like Erica. An unskilled laborer, she fits into the lowest priority category of applicants for a pool of only 40,000 visas granted annually.

Even to visit the U.S. with a tourist visa isn’t an option for someone like her, I learn.
It costs $100 to get an interview to see about a visa. And to qualify for the visa, you have to give proof of substantial savings, or hold title to real estate in Mexico.

Erica didn’t have a hope of savings or real estate. But she had hope.

Several of Erica’s brothers had already crossed the border and settled into restaurant jobs in the Philadelphia area. She knew they worked 12-hour days, making about $8 per hour -- enough, she thought, for her son to have something better in his future.

Erica came across the border the way so many of the poor do – by hiring a “coyote” to lead her through some of the toughest terrain in Mexico and the United States.

“No se si aguante,” she tells me the coyote told her when she first approached him. He doubted she could make it across with a child in tow.

Somehow, she convinced him.

She carried her son – and his powdered formula and diapers – through forests and steep gorges and cornfields. She slogged through mud when it rained, and through cold nights.
Others made the journey also, following the same coyote on his trek to, and through, Nogales – a town about 60 miles south of Tucson on the U.S.-Mexico border.

The border patrol caught them, and returned them to Nogales, where the coyote ditched them.

“No se va poder,” he said to them, shaking his head. “It’s not going to be possible.”

But Erica and the others did try to cross again. And got caught by the border patrol again.

It’s not clear to me what side of the border she and the others were on when they were assaulted by a gang of what Erica describes as “cholos” – young men in their 20s who stripped them of their rings, their jackets and shoes, and any money they had.

“They took the diaper off Jesús, and spilled out the powdered formula looking for money,” she tells me.

When they didn’t find any, they wrested the baby from her, beat her and tried to strip off her clothing.

She tells me she believes she might have been raped if a 16-year-old immigrant boy had not stood up to the gang. He claimed her as a sister, and was beaten by the gang in her stead.
Eventually they crossed the border into the United States, and after a 13-day ride in the back of a van, Erica and Jesús arrived in Philadelphia.

Within days Erica is working, Jesús is in his new home with uncles and aunts, and the prayers Erica intoned every night on her long and hope-filled journey seem to have been answered.

It should end this way, her story. Prayers answered are a good end.

But if you read the first “Disappeared in Philadelphia” entry you know this is no end.

Thinking out loud
Some 20-odd years ago, when I was in college, a writing professor handed back one of my short stories with this comment on it: “Honor everybody in the story.”

“I didn’t?” I asked him, incredulous.

“How many times did you let this character say what he said directly to us, the readers?” is how I remember my professor answering my question with a question. I think he was fond of doing that.

Then, less than a year ago I found myself in the archdiocesan office for Hispanic Catholics, ranting to the vicar, Msgr. Hugh Shields. Poor Monsignor, he suffers my rants rather more often than anybody else these days because he is kind, and reasonable, and doesn’t really have an effective escape route charted out.

As I recall, I was going on and on about how I didn’t understand why people judged undocumented immigrants so harshly.

“So few people hear their stories,” he said. “You know, if they could see their faces and hear their voices I believe it would be different.”

I trust their judgment, these two men of different vocations but similar insight.

Erica's voice:

“I wish people knew that we’re good people. That we don’t come here to harm anyone. That we’re willing to work hard, to do heavy work. That we just want to help our families, and get a little bit ahead.

“I wish there were work visas that would allow us to go back and forth to Mexico. I haven’t seen my parents in five years.

“You know what I dream of? Bringing my parents here.
“Being able to get them visas, and bringing them here the right way.”


  1. I remember watching one of the Spanish channels back in 2005 when they were showing the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. As the channel crew was going around New Orleans, they entered a supermarket, which was almost empty: just a couple of things scattered on the shelves. Two Mexican young men were inside trying to find something to buy. After some comments on how hard the city had been hit, the reporter asked them: "have you thought of going back to Mexico after this?" They answered in one voice: "no! Even like this it is better here than in Mexico".
    I always remember that dialogue when I think of all the people who, driven by desperation, risk their lives and their loved ones' lives, just like Erica did with her son, to cross the border. No judgment here, at all. I feel deep sympathy in my heart: I have read, listened to and watched lots of stories about the things they experience while crossing, the things women and children go through, how many people are abandoned or get lost and are never found. And even though I know I will never get the whole picture that undergoing this modern Hell gives you, I understand that only in total despair can they pluck up the courage to take the first step. And it is so hard that your own country pushes you into that first step…!
    A couple of years ago, I talked about this with a co-worker of mine. What started with a simple comment went on her rosary of things like "those people crossing the border are, no doubt, criminals. They may not come to steal or sell drugs, but they break our laws when crossing without permission". I could just sigh deeply and say 'they are desperate, with no chances whatsoever of a better future'. To be honest, as I was giving her an answer trying to appeal to her mercy, I was thinking 'damn, they are, in fact, breaking the law...' And then she gave me the final bead asking me "why are we judged like monsters? Because we want them to respect our laws? Lots of countries have strict immigration rules! Why doesn't anybody say something about Canada, for example? Or Switzerland? Why do they want to force us to accept the whole world?" With another sigh, I left her in her angry litany of complaints and criticism; thinking that the US government must think in the same way.
    Doing what Erica did or not doing it out of fear of jeopardizing your child’s life (I would feel this way) are both expressions of immense love for one’s son or daughter. Some of us were lucky, though, we didn't have to do it.

  2. Thanks for posting your comment -- I'm always thankful for thoughtful and considered responses to my posts.
    The aspect of breaking the law to come to the country is certainly one of the thorniest in terms of public perception. What I've come to realize after my conversations with lawyers on the topic of undocumented immigrants is that immigration law is very complex (and ever-changing) -- and not every infraction is a criminal one. For example, overstaying a visa -- as many of our undocumented Irish, European and African immigrants have done -- I've been told, is a civil infraction. Likewise, I've been told that some instances of crossing over the border are "civil infractions with criminal aspects."

    I am certainly no lawyer, and am deeply uncomfortable with the idea of breaking any law -- still, not all laws are equal in weight. We know innately that exceeding the speed limit or making copies of CDs for our friends break the law -- but no one would put them on the par with burglary or assault. For some reason we've criminalized undocumented immigrants far beyond the measure of the actual offense -- in my opinion.

    I don't know what measures I'd take if I were in Erica's situation. Like you, I'm not sure I would risk crossing with my child. Thankfully, I never have been in such a situation, and although I have, at times, faced dire financial circumstances, I have never felt there was no future. And that is the promise of the United States.


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