Lucy Nicholson / Reuters

Families recall the hard choices behind decision to migrate

Beyond the rhetoric of the immigration debate, undocumented migrants tell their stories of danger and deliverance

SAN BERNARDINO, California — The protesters blocking busloads of Central American kids and families pouring into California and Arizona border towns are very vocal. So are the immigration advocates who chant and rally in support of compassion and immigration reform. Politicians on both sides of the aisle are churning out press statements. Pundits are exchanging barbs and analyzing the political consequences of the influx.

But the voices of those in the eye of the storm — the thousands of men, women and children who are stopped by the U.S. Border Patrol and end up in temporary shelters as they try to contact relatives while they await immigration hearings — are seldom part of the cacophony.

They’re people like María Antonia Reyes, who has been sending her sons on a treacherous journey to the U.S. one by one to shield them from gangs in El Salvador that wanted them to quit school and join their cartel. Finally, this year, things got so bad, she made the journey with her 11-year-old, Brian Fernando López Reyes.

“I didn’t want to leave,” María Reyes said, sitting in a room used for citizenship classes, next to the San Bernardino Community Services Center, which provides legal and social services to immigrants.

“Nobody wants to leave their country,” she said. She was a bit shy at first, but words quickly poured out as she shared her tragic story.

María Antonio Reyes tells the story of her journey from El Salvador to the United States.
Haya El Nasser

When gangs in Apopa, on the edge of the Salvadoran capital, San Salvador, told Reyes’ older sons that they would be killed if they went back to school, she felt she had no choice but to send them away. The gangs were forcing her to give them $50 every two weeks out of her paltry income selling perfume door to door. She had already lost a brother to gang murder.

“He went out to buy groceries and never came back,” she said.

Last year her 18-year-old, Milton Samuel López Reyes, made the journey, which included a three-day walk through the desert. Her 20-year-old son quickly followed.

When gangs approached Brian, she said she had no choice. She saved the $7,000 she needed to hire a coyote to guide her and Brian from El Salvador to Mexico and across the U.S. border.

“[The gangs] wanted me to join them,” Brian said. “They wanted me to give information” about money that his siblings in the U.S. might be sending home.

Brian and María Reyes’ journey from El Salvador included 12 days on a bus across mountains, a boat crossing of the Rio Grande and a long walk to a highway that led them to a Border Patrol station. The two were booked, fingerprinted and detained.

“I was afraid they would send me back,” Reyes said. Luckily, she has two sisters in San Bernardino, California, which meant she could leave while awaiting a court hearing, which is not scheduled until next April because of backlogs.

Border Patrol drove them to a spot where they could get transportation. They paid $50 for a taxi to San Antonio, where they bought bus tickets to California. They arrived May 10.

She’s safe. So is her son. And she is has been reunited with her older sister, Catalina — who still bears scars on her arm, shoulder and face from knife attacks by gangs back home — and nine other relatives in the area.

Reyes smiles. Brian smiles. They made it. but this is far from being a fairy tale with a happy ending. The two break down and cry when they talk about Reyes’ 1-year-old, Anderson Alejandro, whom they left behind with his father.

“On one hand, it feels good because my sons are here,” Reyes said. “But it feels bad because I’m thinking about my [other] son.”

She also worries that the gangs will pounce on her husband to get at any of the money his family in the U.S. may send him.

Brian Fernando López Reyes, 11, says that gangs tried to recruit him in El Salvador.
Haya El Nasser

For Homero Lobato and Jennaya Dunlap, volunteers with Immigration Raids Rapid Response Network, hear vivid tales such as Reyes’ daily.

“The biggest challenge is helping families who started arriving here and are detained,” Dunlap said. “We’re trying to find them.”

Children and adults who have been apprehended in the Rio Grande Valley had been flown to California, put on buses and taken to detention centers around the state. Relocations to California for now, but there are still thousands of people scattered in shelters from Kansas and Massachusetts to Georgia and Florida waiting to be reunited with families hundreds of miles away.

A few days ago, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said that four flights transporting recent border crossers — all of them single adults — arrested in Texas have landed in Massachusetts since April to take advantage of available detention space in New England. Most have since been deported, and the rest remain in detention awaiting asylum hearings.

Congress is considering a $3.7 billion supplemental budget request and debating how to speed up the processing of unaccompanied children fleeing violence in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.

But regardless of whether these immigrants are granted asylum or are deported, they’re here now.

A Guatemalan family got a call recently from the kids they had left behind almost six years ago. The children, now 10 and 6, had made the crossing into the U.S. and were in a detention center in El Paso, Texas, 750 miles away. They stayed in detention a month until the Justice for Immigrants Coalition, of which Rapid Response is part, raised money for transportation and the family was reunited.

“I’m a father with a family,” said Lobato, who drove the reunited family on the last leg of their trip. “I would go through the impossible to be with my family. I can identify with them.”

So much, “I cried when the families met each other” and the young children saw their U.S.-born baby brother for the first time, he said.

“When children come unaccompanied, they won’t release them” unless they have family that will take them in or someone agrees to sponsor them, Dunlap said.

Sending children alone seems incomprehensible to many, but Dunlap said one mother told her, “Maybe my kid will die on the way to the U.S., but it’s better than dying on my doorstep. At least my kid has a chance to be saved.”

What will happen to people like the Reyeses is uncertain. Being targeted by gang members may not qualify them for asylum because the burden of proof is very high.

So some will try to stay and join the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. Others will be deported, a bleak prospect for those who fear death back home.

“If there was a legal process to come here, they would wait,” Lobato said.

For Eileen Barner, a real estate agent who has joined the camp of protesters who blocked buses of immigrants from entering the Border Patrol station in Murrieta, California, the answer is clear: The families should not be here.

“As a mother of four, I would not put my children through this,” she said.

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