Andrea and her son flee El Salvador and seek asylum in the USA, circa 2016.
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My son and I sat opposite a US Customs and Border Protection officer in El Paso, Texas. In the small, brightly lit office with white walls, the officer examined my passport.
She asked in Spanish, “Andrea, why are you and your son seeking asylum in the USA?”
From the time I’d left El Salvador, I’d thought about how I would explain my reasons. “Because gang members punched and kicked me. I was lying on the floor, trying to cover my face and breasts. My young son watched.”
“Why did the gang members do that?”
“They had killed four of my brothers.” I wiped my teary eyes. “I witnessed the last murder of a brother in 2014. And I testified against the killers in court. The gang threatened to kill me.”
“When was that, Andrea?”
“Last year. In 2015.”
“What’s your son’s name?”
“How old is he?”
“Andrea, the policy of this agency is to detain every person who arrives at a border crossing and wants to apply for asylum.”
“What does that mean?”
Feeling lightheaded, I grasped Manuel’s hand. “How long?”
“That varies for each applicant. I’ll show you where you and your son can wait.”
I never knew my father. When I was thirteen, my mother took me from our village to the city of Soyapango in El Salvador, where I did domestic work in the home of a wealthy family. They could afford to feed me. At seventeen, I met a bus driver who promised to marry me. A year later, Manuel was born, and his father disappeared. I continued to dust, sweep and mop with my son tied to my back in a sling. Often, I almost collapsed onto the tiled floor. At night, I would say to Manuel, “I’m your dad. I’m your mom. I’m your brother, your sister. I’m your friend.” The two of us were always together.
We had traveled in the heat and cold more than 1,000 miles by car, bus and foot from El Salvador to the States. We walked over the Bridge of the Americas and arrived at the El Paso government office. Our legs felt heavy, and our feet hurt. I was happy we had accomplished our goal, but fearful of what to expect.
To my surprise and anger, a female guard shackled my feet while I watched with tears in my eyes. I had not come to the States to be treated like a criminal while my son watched.
“Mijo, don’t worry,” I said to him in a quivering voice. “We’ll be good soon.”
The guard took us to a large, noisy room in another building that smelled of disinfectant. Most of the young women in the room had black hair and brown skin. Through a window, I saw that the building was surrounded by a high metal fence.
The guard took off the shackles, and that night, we tried to sleep on foam mats on the floor. But we were cold under the lightweight blankets. I held my son close to comfort him and warm us both.
At midnight, two female officers came to me and Manuel. The larger officer said, “Your son will be taken to a nearby processing center.” She wouldn’t tell me where the processing center was.
Manuel and I wanted to stay together. We hugged and cried.
“Mama,” he yelled.
Women woke up and stared at us. While the large officer held me tightly, the other officer pulled Manuel from my arms. She carried my struggling son out of the building. Terrified for his safety, I almost fainted.
When I was released from the officer’s grip, I rushed to a window and saw Manuel being forced toward a van. I stood paralyzed, staring at his twisted, pale face and wide eyes. He gripped a door handle and screamed, “Mama, Mama.” The officer jerked his arm from the handle and pushed him inside. I watched in horror.
The truck drove away with my only child. Despair overwhelmed me.
Never had I experienced someone forcing my child to leave me. During that night and many more nights, I sobbed like a broken woman until my sides hurt. I sank into a sea of darkness.
After nine awful months of detention without my boy, a woman named Margarita, from the American Civil Liberties Union, arrived to interview me. Her shiny, curly hair was so different from my tangled, greasy hair.
“How are you, Andrea?” she asked in Spanish.
“Bad. Very bad. My son, Manuel, has been taken from me. Where is he? I’ve been locked up. Sometimes kicked by a guard to wake me up.”
“That’s awful. That shouldn’t happen.”
“I asked God, ‘What have I done to deserve this?’ I came here for freedom.” I described how I’d been abused in El Salvador.
“I’m here to help you, Andrea.”
“Please tell me where they have taken my boy. I beg you. I’ve been separated from him for nine months. Every day I ask myself, ‘Is he safe? Is he hungry? How is he feeling?'”
“I’ll investigate and let you know as soon as possible.”
“Margarita, I must tell you something. I’m feeling low and anxious. My hair is falling out. I have terrible headaches. I can’t sleep.”
“I’m so sorry, Andrea. Please know that I’ll do what I can for you and your son.”
Margarita returned three weeks later. She told me Manuel was in a children’s shelter in Arizona, and she had arranged a five-minute phone call with him. I wanted to kiss her.
The phone call was hard. My son blamed me for our separation. He also said, “Mami, this shelter is the worst place I’ve ever been in.”
“I’m sorry, Manuel. I’m so sorry. I love you.”
I felt guilty for bringing him to the States. I knew I would never forgive myself.
After the phone call, I asked Margarita, “When can I see him?”
“Probably in ten days. You followed the proper procedure to gain admittance to the US. I’ll continue to help you get released from detention. Then I’ll ask a judge for asylum for Manuel and yourself.”
Two weeks later, I stood near the gate of the El Paso detention center in the shade of a wall and waited for my son. My hands trembled, and sweat slid down my back. He arrived in a white van, then ran to me shouting, “Mama, Mama.” I hugged him, wanting to hold onto him forever. Tears blurred my vision.
That day, I realized Manuel had changed. It was very hard for him to be with me. He wouldn’t listen when I talked to him. He wouldn’t look at me. We were changed people in a new place, trying to build a new relationship.
With Margarita’s help, Manuel and I were released from detention thirteen months after we arrived.
“Andrea,” Margarita said, “tomorrow I’ll apply for your and your son’s asylum.
On that hot, dry morning, Margarita came with Manuel and me on a bus to meet a short, elderly woman with white hair. The woman, Ana Gallegos, spoke Spanish. She lived alone in an old, two-bedroom house in Mesa Hills, near downtown El Paso. Ana said if I helped her with shopping, cooking and cleaning, my son and I could share meals with her. And we could sleep in her spare room. I agreed, happy to be in the home of a friendly woman.
Margarita left us, and Ana invited Manuel and me to eat chicken tacos with corn tortillas. After lunch, I told her the story of our journey from El Salvador.
I asked Ana, “Where were you born?”
“In Ecatepec, north of Mexico City.”
“And how did you get to the States?”
“When I was fourteen,” Ana said, “my parents and I crossed the San Ysidro border. We were lying on the floor of a van marked ‘Laundromat.'”
“You must have been so scared.”
“Yes, I was. Also, I did not speak English. I failed high school standardized tests, and my teacher told my parents I was mentally disabled.”
“Yes. But I studied a lot and eventually graduated with honors.”
“Congratulations,” I said.
“In El Salvador, my family was poor. We were always hungry. My mother took me to a rich family in the city to do domestic work.”
“I’ve heard many, many sad stories of children who were always hungry,” Ana said. “When you get your visa, work hard. My husband did that. He opened Gallegos Café in a small building. The business grew and became famous for enchiladas and chile rellenos. After he died, my three sons took over the restaurant. They bottled and sold red table salsa, a delicious version of traditional chile de arbol salsa. I’ll take you and Manuel there for lunch.”
Sometimes my son didn’t want to leave the house to play with other children. They were mostly born in the States. He cried at night. He panicked when he saw a police car with flashing emergency lights. He was afraid the police would arrest us and separate us.
When I got ready to go grocery shopping, Manuel would ask me, “Where are you going? Don’t leave me again.” I told him he could go shopping with me at the Downtown Mesa Farmers Market, and he usually accompanied me.
After waiting the required six months, I applied for a work permit. It was granted five months later. Then, I got a paid housekeeping job. I attended night classes to learn to read, write and speak English. My son attended elementary school. One year passed before we became legal immigrants.
It’s been three years since we arrived in the States. The separation of Manuel and me feels like it happened yesterday. That experience scarred us. Both of us have nightmares about that awful time. I never, never want to go through that again. I don’t want that to happen to anyone else.
Manuel still doesn’t trust me, and he has difficulty making friends.
I did reach my goal for my son and me to live in the States. Now we have opportunities for a better life. Every day I give thanks to God.