When I started blogging a year ago, this is the story I most wanted to get out into the blogosphere. I interviewed Erica, initially, because her brother had been disappeared right off the platform at Market Street station in Philadelphia. But as I interviewed Erica I realized her story of migration to the U.S., though in some ways less dramatic than her brother’s story of detention and deportation, was equally resonant.
I’ve come to think of them as “bookend” immigration stories: Erica’s hopeful, difficult trek into the U.S.; Beto’s efficient, pitiless ejection from it.
I’d like to report that Erica’s life has improved in the intervening year, but the latest news is that her boyfriend was also detained, and has now been deported. Another loss for her, another loved one she will not easily see again.
She and her son are still in Philadelphia.
(Originally posted Oct. 23, 2008)
“Some people have disappeared on their way to work.”
It is one sentence among many during an interview I am conducting about outreach to immigrants in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. The people sitting at the table with me are a priest, a nun and a layperson – all remarkable advocates for the communities they serve.
I wonder if they notice that the sentence makes me flinch.
When I was 15, my family moved to the United States from Guatemala – a country that was then escalating from civil war to genocide. Hundreds of thousands of people were disappeared during those years – on their way to work, or school, or the corner store. I can’t hear a sentence like the one that opens this piece without thinking about life in those days – of how our ordinary routines were flanked by fear, limned by caution.
“What do you mean, ‘people have disappeared?’” I ask. “In Philadelphia?”
“Let me see if I can get someone to talk to you about it,” Sister Lorena says.
Several weeks later I find myself in the rectory of a church in Philadelphia of which I am not a parishioner. Erica, a 26-year-old woman dressed in jeans and sneakers, sits across from me, her 5-year-old son fidgeting on the sofa next to her. They’re not parishioners of this church either. Sister Lorena has brought us together here so I can hear about Beto, Erica’s 18-year-old brother.
The story begins on Thursday, March 15, 2007. Erica shares an apartment with her three sisters and two brothers. She is still asleep that morning when Beto gets up to go to work at the restaurant where he is a cook.
Usually he leaves for work in the early morning and doesn’t get home until 1 or 2 a.m. He speaks some English, and Erica describes him as “tranquilo” (even-tempered) and “muy cumplido” (reliable).
On that day, he wears a jacket and carries a backpack. He has his cell phone on him, and his pay for the past week, some $500 in cash, by Erica’s accounting. He calls from the subway platform on his way to work, speaks briefly to one of the family members and ends the call by saying he’ll call again later.
At 1 p.m., a co-worker at the restaurant calls the apartment.
“What happened to Beto?” he asks. “He didn’t show up for work.”
The family tries to find him. They call the police, who ask for a description, what clothing and shoes he was wearing. One of the family members runs a photo of him down to the station.
They worry that he might be hurt or dead – that his girlfriend’s ex has killed him in some fit of jealousy. The next day, they seek her out and she refuses to open the door or answer any of their questions. It seems to confirm their worst fears.
Still, they spend the rest of that day, and Saturday and Sunday also, posting flyers with his photo, and asking around whether anyone has seen him. They call hospitals and inquire about every John Doe. At 3 a.m. on Sunday, a friend of the family, utterly desperate, calls Sister Lorena.
“None of us thought about ‘la migra,’” Erica says to me, referring to Immigration and Customs Enforcement by its nickname. “It hadn’t even crossed our minds.”
But it crosses Sister Lorena’s mind. At 8:30 a.m. on Monday, March 19 she calls the York County Prison where most undocumented immigrants from the Philadelphia area are taken.
By the time they ascertain he was taken there, he’s already gone.
What happened to Beto?
Erica recounts the detention story Beto tells her when he is finally able to make a call to them: He’s on the platform at 15th and Market waiting for his usual train. He notices Philadelphia police on the platform checking people’s backpacks, but doesn’t think much about it.
At some point, a policeman approaches him, asks him what time it is. When he hears Beto respond, the policeman asks him if he has documents proving he’s a legal immigrant.
Beto, Erica continues, tells the policeman he has papers, even though he really doesn’t. He is loaded into a van with 15 other young Latino men from the train platform, and taken to the local precinct.
The police turn him over to immigration authorities in Philadelphia. There, the I.C.E. agents take his watch, his jacket, his wallet and his cell phone.
Before Beto is shipped off to the detention center in York, his wallet is returned to him with approximately $100 of his original $500. He has to plead with them to get his cell phone back.
He’s not at York long. Within days he’s taken first to Texas, and then to Arizona, where he is finally able to contact Erica. He’s on his way to be dropped across the border -- Ciudad Juárez, Sister Lorena guesses – to find his way back to their hometown in Puebla.
“Another waitress where I work [as a busboy] knows someone who was picked up the same way, at the same station,” Erica tells me when she finishes recounting her brother’s story.
Then simply, with no drama: “I no longer take the trains.”
Nothing but questions
As I try to find my way through a section of Philadelphia I don’t know after my two-hour conversation with Erica, I’m struck by her poise. She’s managed to tell me her brother’s story, as well as her own (look for subsequent blog entries) calmly and with a self-possession I don’t feel after talking to her.
I seethe with questions.
Are there really police staked out at certain train stations in Philadelphia doing immigration checks?
On what basis are people being asked to present documents – on that train platform or anywhere else in the city and suburbs for that matter? Their “Latino” look? Their accents? Their “immigrant” backpacks?
Are immigration officials temporarily confiscating the cell phones of detainees to deprive them of legal counsel? Or to pull the telephone numbers in the memories of those phones so they can chase down other potential “illegals?”
Mostly I ask myself how anyone endures the anguish of having a loved one disappear so inexplicably. As I wrote at the beginning of this piece, this is not a new question for me. What is new is that I’m asking it in the United States.
(Originally posted Nov. 7, 2008)
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.
“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.”
* * *
These are not the original images that ran with these posts. I've chosen two images of the Holy Family's flight into Egypt to illustrate this update.
There has been a lot of talk, as the immigration debate has gotten nastier, about the "quality" of immigrants.
"I wouldn't be opposed to easing immigration restrictions, but only for professionals" is one comment I've heard, and, "it'd be different if it weren't just a bunch of primitives immigrating" is another. Yes, I've actually heard otherwise fairly reasonable people make these exact arguments.
For those Catholics and Christians, I'd issue this gentle reminder: Mary was a teen mother; Joseph, a simple carpenter. Neither of them would have gotten a green card under current visa issuing requirements.