In light of the President Obama’s recent bold step forward on immigration reform, many young undocumented Americans will now have the chance to come out of the shadows and live their lives openly, without the looming threat of deportation. However, many undocumented immigrants who still live and work in the United States, as they have for years, will still languish in a limbo of fear and uncertainty. It’s easy for those of us who were born here with all the opportunities that
U.S. citizenship affords us to sit in judgment of people who are living here without proper authorization. Many people don’t understand the dire circumstances that would drive people to a point where they are willing to risk their lives to escape a kind of abject poverty, most of us can’t begin to imagine, let alone relate to. Daniella P has been sharing with us her life experience as an undocumented American (Part I and Part II). While she is elated about the recent good news, which her children will benefit from, the rest of her story still needs to be shared. People need to be sensitized to the harsh realities she and people in her situation still face. I hope that in shedding light on her plight, people will come to realize we are far from done—there is still much more to be done to help resolve the immigration issues in country. Join me as I continue our conversation.
MI: After you were arrested and detained, did you eventually get to face a judge and explain the circumstances of your situation?
DP: Yes, but it’s not like you might imagine. There’s a whole group of people there in the same situation. You don’t get a chance to tell your side of anything. I didn’t even get a chance to speak to a judge. The attorney advised me to sign a voluntary self-deportation. He said there was nothing that he could do. The judge tells you how much time you will receive in jail as punishment. After the time is served you have to leave the country. The judge gave us 6 months, but I was released for time served after the 3 months, which is called ‘two for one’. It could have been three for one, if I was allowed to work inside. Being undocumented, they do not allow you to work inside. We were begging to be allowed to work! Anything– just to get out of that goddamned cell!
MI: So you were released, and then what happened?
DP: My husband and I were released at the same time, we were being transported in the same van but the guards didn’t know we were married. I wanted to speak to a judge, my husband was against it as he didn’t want to jeopardize our chances of being released. Everyone else was transported to the border and released. I was transferred around to several counties, spending several nights in a cell each time. They basically gave me the runaround, telling me it would take months of this before I would get the chance to see a judge. The worst thing about being transferred jail to jail, county to county, was the treatment I received from Mexican American guards. They act as if they hate you. They are negative, insulting, and deny you basic human comforts if they can. The first time I was treated with a small amount of dignity was by a white American guard. He saw me freezing, laying down on the floor and offered me a blanket, a small thin mattress and a pillow. It may not seem like much but the comfort was like heaven to me at that time. Just a basic human comfort that the Mexican American guards seemed to enjoy denying me.
MI: So you never saw the judge, and eventually were taken to the border and released?
DP: Yes, I agreed to sign the voluntary deportation papers. So they took me back to San Antonio, placed us in another cell. Then they allow you to speak with someone from the Mexican Consulate. They load you up in a bus full of other people, transport you to a horrible little border town and release you. This was at 1 am. I was the only woman on the bus surrounded by men. I went to a little pharmacy and made a collect call to my Mom to tell my husband where I was. I was completely out of touch. They didn’t where I was, what was going on with me. I hadn’t talked to my sister who had my kids, my mother, husband, nobody!
MI: So there you are in a little border town in Mexico. Having to start over from scratch. Did you know then that you would come back to the U.S.?
DP: Yes, but it wasn’t a desire to break the law, it was because of my children. I didn’t want my kids to have to go return to Mexico. My sister was threatening to send my kids back to Mexico to me. It had become too much for her and she just thought it would be best. My kids were in their early teens at this time. I just knew in my heart I had to get back to them. We had to stay as a family in the only country they had any memory of. We left Mexico because we were barely surviving. It’s different there. They openly discriminate in hiring of people because of age, looks and connections. In Mexico they want young people under 30, my husband and I were already over 40. There it’s show me who you know and I’ll tell you who you are. Tell me how much you have and I’ll see what I can do. There is rampant corruption and open discrimination there. It’s slowly getting better, maybe because more American companies have been moving to Mexico. But then, at our age it was not a good place to be.
MI: How long before you came back and how were you able to get back across the border?
DP: We were released in the middle of August. By the end of August, I had reconnected with my husband who had been there two weeks ahead of me. We made our first attempt to re-cross the border back into the United States in late August. We had to borrow money from family, because the smugglers want their money as soon as they bring you across. They hold you hostage, at gunpoint in an apartment with 20 or 30 other people, until you get the money you owe to them. After that time they release you. I wasn’t afraid there. I knew soon I would see my children, and we made it safely across the border. Getting here was another story.
MI: Can you share with our readers the process?
DP: There is a lot of secrecy and a very elaborate process, with many connections before you leave Mexico. But as bad as it is for us, we met people from Honduras, El Salvador, you know, Central America, who later told us their stories about crossing the Mexican border, before they even got to the U.S. border. They told us horror stories of rape, beatings, stealing what little money they had, horrible unimaginable things happened to them! We start out on a regular bus, like a Greyhound. The transporter tells you to look for a sign; when the bus driver gets off at a little store on this highway in the middle of nowhere to get a drink, you leave the bus and run away and hide. We were looking around at the other passengers, hoping no one knew what we were planning to do. But when we got the sign of the bus driver leaving to get a drink, everyone else got up too and high tailed it off the bus and ran to hide as we did! I don’t know where this was, but it must be somewhere close to the Rio Grande. This is on the way to meet “Los Caminadores” or “The Walkers” – what some people call coyotes. These are the actual escorts you follow. There are helicopters above, so you have to stay hidden. You have to first climb a barbed wire fence, get to the bushes and hide from the helicopters. This is in the daytime, in August, in very hot weather. You hide and move, hide and move, until finally you arrive at a little house where all the “walkers” are. There are chickens and pigs walking around, you wait your turn there, sweating, hungry and thirsty.
The walkers are playing cards and there is a cook. We are in small area behind a wall, all you can do is lie outside in the heat, in the dirt, while the walkers play cards and socialize, waiting your turn. They give you a small amount of food, that you have to make last. They take only 10 or so people at a time, small groups, so you have to wait your turn. We were there for more than 10 hours. Finally, a taxi arrives. All ten of us are crammed into the back and the walker is in the front with a taxi driver. The taxi takes you to a small store. There you are provided with a large black plastic trash bag and a gallon of water in a jug. We are then taken near the Rio Grande to a small town where the coyote pays the police to allow us through, closer to the river. By the time you get to this point, it was late evening, getting dark outside.
He leaves you there, under the cover of bushes, and tells you not to move until he returns. This took hours, until the middle of the night, like 3 am before he came back. While you’re laying there you have to be very quiet, but you can hear the horses from border patrol in the distance. The coyote must wait for a small window of time between shift changes of the border patrol. When he comes back for you, you have to follow him with your bag and gallon of water. He takes you to a place where you can cross over. You have to strip naked and put the clothes in the plastic bag. Thank God my husband was with me. I was one woman among 20 or so men.
You can’t ask questions, they are very abrupt and hurried us along. You get in a line and hold your clothes and gallon of water with one hand, with the other you hold the person in front of you. The tide is high, up to your neck and very strong. There are points where I had to be on tiptoe just to keep my head above water. I had the bad luck of losing my gallon of water in the middle of the river, it was either that or break the chain. The coyote yelled and swore at me “Let the goddamn thing go and keep it moving!” When you get to the other side you have to climb up several feet up a slippery, muddy embankment to get to the top. You are still naked, but everyone is just trying to get through the experience. After crossing the river, there is still a canal that you have to cross. That is where I thought I would surely die! You have to strip again to cross. You think it’s only water, but there is silt at the bottom that sucks you in, almost like quick sand. It pulls at you and you have to resist, just to make each step is a struggle. It was very frightening!
It’s such a rushed process, and if you don’t make it, they will leave you. IF you make it, you then begin the hardest part of the journey, walking through the desert for three days and nights. That is a kind of hell you can’t imagine unless you go through it.