With the historic 2016 election only months away, I was curious to explore a hot topic in the political realm this year, Immigration. Opinions vary widely across the board and it seems no one can really agree on the topic. To understand what it’s like to live in the shadows of America, I had to talk to someone who is living that life. I had an opportunity to speak with a young man who made the journey and who was gracious enough to allow me to share it.
It was a Friday or Saturday night in January 2015. It was the day of his best friend’s wedding, and all seemed to point to a wonderful time. However, in the back of his mind, was a phone call that would forever change his life.
Ed, who asked to have his name withheld, 19, was about to make the journey that thousands of people seeking a better life in America take, the long walk from northern Mexico, across the Rio Grande and into Texas. It all began with the phone call that Ed thought he would never receive, for it came hours after it was supposed to. On the other side of that phone was a man asking him to pack his belongings and head towards the border town of Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. With only a few hours to prepare and an adventure to a new land ahead of him, Ed said goodbye to his mother for the last time. He kissed her on the cheek and asked for one last blessing – a traditional custom in Mexican culture.
Throughout the nearly nine-hour-long truck ride, he couldn’t help but think about the life he was leaving behind: a loving family, friends, education and work. Back home, in his small farm town of El Zapote, Mexico, he had a normal life – one that he would never go back to again. Taken over by the thought of a better life in America, Ed was ready to do whatever was necessary to make it to Texas.
Upon arrival, on a cold, rainy day in Nuevo Laredo, he, along with four others--one of which was his older brother, Tom, who also asked to have his name withheld--checked into a run-down motel, to which they had to provide a password to do so. The room was a single bed, single bath room, with a small ceiling fan that only helped circulate the smell of the five people crammed into the room. They were asked by the coyote – the man in charge of helping them cross the border – to “stay put and wait for the phone call” that would come later that night. Hungry, cold and tired, Ed, along with the four others, were given a bag of chicken-flavored ramen to “split between them.”
The phone call finally came, it was probably “two or three in the morning,” he recalled. They were asked to get their things together quickly, as they would soon be heading towards the Rio Grande. “Once I stepped outside, I had never been so cold,” Ed said. “At one point, I asked myself, ‘What am I doing here?’” With only their clothes and what they could carry on their backs, the on-foot journey to the Rio Grande began. Hours later, after a long walk in the woods, with a constant paranoia of being spotted by immigration officials, they arrived at the river. “The water was freezing,” he emphasized, using his hands to speak in an effort to make me understand how cold he was. “We all held each other by the forearm, and crossed.” The deep waters and dangerous currents have taken the lives of many people attempting the same journey. After crossing the river, soaking wet and cold, he and the other travelers were confronted by “strange men, who were probably working with the coyotes” and were robbed. They were asked to forego their belongings, some even had to “surrender their clothes,” Ed said.
Hours later, with the fear of what had taken place still on the back of his mind, he was on a ranch in southern Texas. There was a car waiting to pick them up and take them to their next destination. “I was surprised,” Ed said. “They were incredibly prepared and organized.” It wasn’t until a few short minutes into the drive that the local police began to follow the red Ford Explorer they were in. “It was like something out of a movie,” he explained. “I had never seen that many police officers before.” With a fleet of police officers behind them, the driver instructed the passengers to “hold on” as he made the sudden U-turn to head back in the direction of the border. With the gates of the border in sight and a blockade of other agents in front of it, the driver only stepped on the gas pedal harder. “The officers had no choice but to move out of the way,” Ed stressed. With the blockade now out of the way, the car only had one direction to go in, the river.
Stuck in the cramped trunk and slowly sinking into the frigid waters of the Rio Grande, Ed believed that his life had “come to and end.” Both the driver and the passenger--who were working together--had their windows open, and were ready to escape once the car began to sink. He, however, along with the others, was left to fend for his own safety as he felt the car slowly disappearing into the river. With his thoughts running wild and left with no other option, he kicked out the window of the truck for one last attempt at survival. Once out, with little visibility, Ed managed to swim out of the frigid waters and back to land. Separated from his brother, with immigration officials standing on the American side of the river, he ran back into the dark Mexican forest. On what seemed like a “blessing,” he managed to find his brother in the chaos. With no one else around them, they ran as fast and as far away as they could from the river. In the scramble, Ed and his brother found themselves tangled in a barbed wire fence “somewhere in the woods.” Having to work through the pain to get out, Ed’s brother then helped him untangle himself from the fence. Now bloody, with the sound of the Mexican military approaching, Ed and his brother found a tree, dug two holes and buried themselves to hide from the military and their dogs.
Two days later, they crawled out of the holes they were in, happy to see the light of day. Now lost, they had no other choice but to continue the journey on their own until they managed to find help. In what seemed like a miracle, Ed’s cell phone still worked and he managed to make a call to the people who were in charge of taking them to the United States. They told me “they couldn’t help us right now,” Ed said. “We were stranded. No food. No water. No shelter.” After multiple failed attempts to find help, with the thought of going back home in Ed’s mind, the call was answered and help finally came. An “associate” of the coyote arrived and the second strive to America began.
Still battling the cold winter and fighting back tears of fear and hunger, Ed and his brother, now only a two-person team followed the so-called associate north, towards the river. “Along the way, we picked up a group of people who were waiting beneath a water tower,” he said. “All I could see was the small, flashing red light at the top of the tower as we got closer.” Again facing the deadly river, the group of men held one another by the hand and crossed. With the currents “as strong as ever” one of the men let go of my hand and was carried away, Ed explained. With the others staring hopelessly at the man, he “felt a sense of responsibility” and swam towards him. With one hand clinging to a boulder protruding from the river and the other stretching to the last inch in an effort to reach the man, Ed managed to grab him, pull him in and returned him to the group. After crawling out of the river again, in what seemed like a “never-ending nightmare,” the group paused for a moment to gather their breath. With nothing left because of the chaotic events that took place days earlier, Ed only had in his possession the now-wet clothes that he was wearing. One of the group members, who noticed that Ed was trembling, gave him a dry shirt to wear in one of the “nicest acts of kindness anyone has ever done for me.” Finding himself in the dark, cold woods of southern Texas for the second time, they were asked to separate themselves into two groups and wait for transportation to arrive.
With no change in the streak of bad luck that followed Ed throughout his journey, he and his brother waited for days before transportation arrived. Battling the effects of hunger and thirst, battling the scorching heat during the day and bone-chilling cold at night, Ed and his brother faced a tough choice: continue to wait for transportation to arrive or risk going into town to ask for help. Electing to go with the latter, Ed’s brother, speaking only broken English, headed to town to ask for help. “Wait here,” Tom begged Ed. “No matter what happens. Even if I don’t come back.” Hours later, after Ed assumed the worst, Tom returned with good news. He managed to get access to a phone where he reached a contact for help. During the long walk to town, they were approached by “the man who probably owned the ranch” and were asked to leave as quickly as possible, as the owner “didn’t want to get into trouble.” Upon reaching the small, dusty corner store somewhere in southern Texas, a man who was willing to help them offered up his car, for Ed and Tom to sit in until help arrived. Minutes later, a child, “who was probably five to six years old” walked up and offered Tom and I a few pieces of bread, Ed said. “I have never been so happy.” Now fed and slightly relaxed for the first time in a week, they were anxious for their transportation to arrive so that they could finally reach their destination, Austin.
Facing the now-open door to the back of an 18-wheeler, that was “stuffed with so many people I couldn’t count,” they managed to squeeze themselves into a spot. “It was hot,” Ed said. “Very hot.” When the door opened again, Ed and Tom were in Austin. Finally managing to get out of the hot, dark and cramped 18-wheeler, Ed was able to take a sigh of relief for the first time in America.