Why Now, More Than Ever, We Must Change Our Immigration Story

article | November 13, 2014

She was 14. She believed them when they told her that her future – her own family, a home, economic salvation – was just a few feet away. That lie – and the hours of hungry, dehydrated walking that would follow – was just one step of her American journey.

The journey began with a year of saving enough money for a ticket on a three-day bus ride north, to Tijuana.  A family friend there would shelter her along with an older sister and cousin until their “Coyote” (a smuggler) would pick them up with 10 others.

The Coyote arrived in a small bus and drove them to a deserted area.  From there, they walked for four hours, carrying only money and the clothes on their back.  They reached a hidden entrance to an underground room where they would wait until it was late enough to continue. The Coyote wanted them to sleep while he guarded, but the excitement and adrenaline would not allow them to rest.  So they took turns whispering frightening folktales and traditional stories to pass time.

Four more hours passed, and it was now dark and cold in the desert. Then, a hike to water. Their future lay ahead. But the moment was bittersweet: Alongside the river, she took some of her last steps on Mexican soil.

Then, a fence, and time began to race. The coyote said to move slowly, limit movement as they entered the cold water, to avoid being seen or heard. The water would eventually reach their necks. A light flashed.

Their future lay ahead. But the moment was bittersweet: Alongside the river, she took some of her last steps on Mexican soil.

The coyote told them to sink their heads under water until the light disappeared. After a few seconds the light disappeared but they stayed in the water until the border patrol van would move.

It didn’t move.  At 3am, they risked it, quietly exiting the water to lay in the sand until it did move.  Now cold and wet, they waited three more hours before they began to see the lights flashing once again but this time, the lights appeared closer and faster paced. They’d been spotted.

The coyote told them to split up and meet at a hotel near the beach where he was pointing.  She ran as fast as she could through the sand and about four blocks to the hotel. There, she rested.

At noon, with the desert sun its hottest but with a deadline to meet, they pressed on, again  dropped in a deserted area, with no sense of whether their goal was within reach or still days away.

Six more hours. Blisters. Sweat obscured her vision. One bottle of water left.

Four more hours. No place to stop; no option to go back.

Five more  hours, no water or food. Hallucinations of her mother’s voice telling her “God is with you.”

Another hour and they were standing beside a highway and told to hide behind a bush.  A pickup truck pulled up and handed everyone sips of water.  The coyote stacked her and the others like logs in the bed of the truck, one on top of the other in three rows. Heavier ones on bottom, thinner on top.

They were covered with a dark heavy carp with the only ventilation coming from holes at the very bottom of the truck bed.  She grew numb, hungry, thirsty. But the four-hour drive ended in Los Angeles, when my mom began her life as an illegal immigrant.

Her story is decades old. Her daughter, me, is now a grown woman.  But this story  -- of danger, of lies, of hope – has continued despite legislative victories and political shifts.  President Obama delayed any moves on immigration because of those shifts. Now that the midterms are over, I’m writing this to remind us all why we need something done.

Now more than ever, a migrant believes a successful journey to the U.S requires hiring a smuggler.  Conditions in Central America and Mexico have so deteriorated that potential migrants have no other choice but to turn to smugglers. The smuggler may own their own operation, work for a small mom and pop shop or belong to a major organized group. In any case, it’s a business, a $6.75 billion economy, according to United Nations office on Drugs and Crimes (UNODC). The price for each operation depends on the age of the migrant and the level of safety the smuggler will promise.  To keep costs down, a smuggler tries to get his clients into the U.S as quickly as possible and with minimal risk.  But underlying the transaction is a wide disparity of expertise, so a smuggler can lie to make everything go faster, and the customer has no recourse, leading to dramatic cases of suffering, including the 2003 case when a trailer truck with dozens of migrants – including a five year old boy – was abandoned near Victoria, Texas, leading to 19 deaths, including the boy.

Now more than ever, a migrant believes a successful journey to the U.S requires hiring a smuggler.

Migrants like my mom and that truckload of people still engage in that unequal transaction and risk their lives because the U.S is still the land of hope and dreams for emigrants fleeing similar situations.

A journey based on lies of a Coyote gave way to a life of fear.  I was six-years-old when one night uniformed men entered the apartment complex where we lived. My mother turned off all the lights and made my younger sister and I hide in the hallway. As we sat there, she prayed that they wouldn’t ask her any questions. She told us to close our eyes and sleep. We learned later it was a SWAT team after a neighbor of ours, but it sure seemed like immigration enforcement to our eyes.

Like millions of other first generation immigrants, we were living our lives quietly for fear of being separated.  Thankfully, this all changed for many immigrants in 1986 when President Reagan signed the Immigration Reform Control Act (IRCA). That same year, the long strenuous process began to finally become citizens.  Our invisible lives became visible. My parent’s weight lifted off their shoulders and we were able to begin living the American dream.

But that fear is still present for many of the young people immigrating today. While everyone would prefer a future in which the countries of Central America were not places that families want to flee, until that day, something must be done to change the story of immigration.