They made it here with a little help
Mateo and his mother Alma made it to America with perseverance and a little luck. Their story ends, for now, my tenure as an immigration reporter.
Mateo won’t remember any of this. He won’t remember the man in the big truck in the parking garage who jump-started my car. He won’t remember the Whataburger drive-through, or the couple in the front seats speaking a language he and his mother did not understand. Or the little bridge over the creek, or the art-filled house, the fluffy dog who was very interested in his sleeping body, the pull-out couch in the spare room, or the drive back to the airport a few hours later.
He will remember none of it. But it was how he made it to America.
I first saw him in the El Paso airport, tired and hungry and happy that he got a bottle of Coke and a bag of chips. His mother — who looked to me like a child herself — tended to him alongside another young migrant mother with her own young child. In the back of a jet from El Paso to Dallas I met Mateo and his mother, Alma. On the sidewalk outside a terminal in Dallas I realized she didn’t know where she was and had no place to go.
Que es la dirección de tu familia? I asked in broken Spanish, wondering why she was pacing on the sidewalk and who from Dallas was coming to pick her up.
“Birmingham,” she replied.
Birmingham? Fuck. She thinks she’s in Birmingham. She had been traveling there to meet her husband and their other child, a daughter, when her flight from El Paso to Dallas was delayed. Arriving at nearly midnight, her connecting flight to Alabama was long gone.
She may not have even known she had a connecting flight. She carried with her a small purse and a plastic bag with her tickets and identification, much like other migrants I’ve seen flying out of El Paso who are bound for friends or family in the interior of the United States. Alma had wandered past security and onto the sidewalk, and now she was stuck. Her options were to sleep on the floor near a baggage carousel, or come with us. I found someone who speaks better Spanish than I do and had him explain these options to her. She chose our offer of a place to sleep and a ride back to the airport for the next day’s flight.
After a few hour’s rest and some pleading with TSA agents the next morning, Mateo and Alma made their flight and are now in Alabama after living their whole lives in Guatemala. They made it here like generations of people before them, with a whole lot of persistence and perseverance, some luck, and a little of the kindness of strangers. Now they have a better chance in life than they might have ever had before.
They are as American as they come.
Here is where a quote would go to end this section, but Alma was so reserved and quiet in our time together that there is none to provide. Whatever the question was, her answer was Si. All she wanted was to get her and Mateo to her husband and daughter. Whatever it took to get there, the answer was Yes.
For the last two and a half years now I’ve lived in Texas and have seen many things. I have been to the border almost a dozen times in the last year and it has changed my perception of right and wrong and how some people in this country should be treated.
I have a very difficult time controlling my anger around people who are full-throated Trump supporters because of the things I have seen at the border. But those experiences are only in addition to being inundated each week with news of how so many people in power in this country degrade and denigrate migrants like Mateo and Alma — and how many regular people support those statements. Then there are the horror stories coming out of the detention centers where we’re holding more than 50,000 people whose only crime is seeking a better life. Then there’s the seven deaths, at least two of them children, that occurred under our government’s watch at those facilities.
Radical reshaping of asylum law to effectively shut it down, metering at ports of entry, detaining American citizens because of their skin color, daily vile statements from the president — all of it is too much to handle sometimes.
All of this hateful rhetoric and fear-mongering policy decisions came to their logical conclusion in early August when an angry white man shot and killed as many people as he could at a Walmart in El Paso simply because they were brown. The president is responsible for that, because he is constantly saying that white people should be angry at and afraid of brown people.
Do not believe people when they tell you that calling the president a racist is unfair or to call his supporters racist is also unfair because you can support a racist president but not be racist yourself. Do not listen to people who say calling Trump and his supporters racist is a slippery slope to calling anyone you disagree with regarding immigration a racist.
Don’t listen to this bad faith argument because what we’ve been living through in the past three years is not a traditional Democrat-versus-Republican policy dispute on immigration. What we have witnessed since Trump took office is a historic, extreme radicalization of American immigration policy, and our country’s stance towards refugees. Because that’s what these migrants are — refugees from failing states plagued by violence and corruption. Migrants move because they want to. Refugees flee because they have to.
This administration knows all of this and surely has access to even more detailed information about the deteriorating conditions in the Latin American countries many migrants are fleeing from. In response to this desperation the Trump administration has effectively shut down the asylum process as we’ve known it for the last 50 years. Putting salt in the wound, Trump and his lackeys in right-wing media have engaged in a full-throated campaign to portray migrants as criminals, free-loaders and job-takers. They have scapegoated migrants, and told White America that it need look no further than the nearest brown person to blame for all the problems in their own lives.
That is, by definition, racist.
Following the El Paso shooting, I thought that Republicans and Trump supporters would face a reckoning, that they would have to disavow the president because his words had turned into bloody bodies on the ground.
Less than a month later, El Paso is as forgotten and gone as Las Vegas was five months after 58 people were gunned down there by another dead-eyed white man.
I fear that it is only a matter of time before it happens again.
This will likely be my last post for some time that is focused on immigration and the border. Sarah and I have moved to Savannah, Georgia for her work. After two years of covering immigration I can honestly say this change is a relief. This is difficult work. Like I said in the first post about Rubén, the Central American asylum-seeker I met in February in Juárez, it is very difficult to watch someone cry because you asked them a question about the difficulties in their life. Rubén’s story is just one of dozens I’ve heard in the last few years, all just as heartbreaking and painful as the next.
But every one of those tragic stories is rooted in hope, because before bad things befell each one of those migrants, they had left their home with great hope in their heart that they would one day have a better life here. That’s why immigration reporting is so difficult — because for every migrant who makes it through there are 100 more who don’t, and every single day, our leaders are making it more difficult for them to come here. I can’t imagine how immigration attorneys do it, just getting knocked down day after day and always getting back up to fight.
It’s not people like Donald Trump who are tough and brave — as much as he and his supporters believe themselves to be — it’s people like Taylor Levy and Iliana Holguin in El Paso and Eileen Sterlock in Portland. They and other immigration advocates and attorneys battle forces several times their size every single day and always show up when the bell rings.
Cowards beat up people smaller than them, thus proving their own smallness. In this way, we know Donald Trump is the world’s smallest man.
But there is occasional good news on the immigration front.
Following the shooting in El Paso, citizens of Juárez shined the lights of their cell phones toward El Paso, a place many of them can’t go.
Readers of this newsletter recently raised another $1,000 for Rubén, which bought Rubén much-needed medical supplies. (A special thanks goes out to Jess Ann Kirby, an influencer friend of Sarah’s who shared Rubén’s fundraiser with her followers. That second push last month brought the total raised to almost $2,000 since I launched the fundraiser in April. Now, I am preparing Rubén’s asylum application ahead of his next check-in with immigration authorities.)
Migrant advocates also helped a Central American couple stuck in Juárez under Remain in Mexico nearly reach a goal of $2,500. They need the money to pay for travel around Juárez, where they’re looking for work, as well as for trips to El Paso for their asylum case hearings. Recently, the couple used some of the money to get married — a legal hoop they had to jump through that could affect their asylum case.
My friend Justin Hamel, the El Paso-based photographer who has been documenting the situation at the border for months, and who shot my story about Juárez for Heated Mag, was there to watch the couple tie the knot. Here they are, faces obscured to protect their privacy.
After a dead battery in my car, a stranger jumping it, a trip to Whataburger for much-needed sustenance and two hour’s sleep, Sarah and I took Alma and Mateo back to the airport that morning in late June. We got her a wheelchair to sit in with Mateo — you should have seen this tiny woman carrying the boy, who is big for his age. It was then that we realized the only identification she possessed was a Guatemalan ID card. No visa, no passport, no nothing. How did she get past security in El Paso? Unknown. How would she get past security to make it to Birmingham?
With a little luck, and TSA agents looking the other way.
“She has to be legal somehow,” I told them. “They let her get on the plane in El Paso, after all.”
Eventually, they waved Alma and Mateo through. She looked back one last time and we waved. They had made it.
All of the photos on this post are mine with the exception of the married couple in Juárez, which was provided by Justin Hamel. The first is of the canal separating El Paso and Juárez from my trip there for Heated Mag. The second is of a holding pen for migrants at Paso Del Norte, and the third is of myself and my fixer and friend, Julian Cardona, in Juárez. Many, many thanks are owed to Julian for his help navigating Juárez. Without him, I could not have done this work. Now thousands of miles from the border, this newsletter will soon go in a different direction. I’m interested in unsolved missing persons cases and homicides, which I’ll begin investigating here in Georgia. The New York Times will soon be publishing a piece of mine about members of Congress who are involved with private companies, so it’s also very likely that Where Do We Go From Here will take on a renewed focus on political corruption. As always, if you like what you see here, tell a friend. And if anyone has any tips on scandals, malfeasance or general wrongdoing in Georgia and the Low Country, please let me know. Here, I’ll continue my efforts to give a voice to those who usually don’t get one, and holding people in power accountable. Thanks for reading.