Border crisis from the other side: One Guatemalan mother's journey

The story of Maria Vicente's trek to the US from Guatemala is at turns dramatic and mundane. But it's a portrait of a type of immigration that is becoming increasingly common – a mother's journey.

Juan Carlos Llorca/AP
A Guatemalan woman stands inside a dormitory in the Artesia Family Residential Center, a federal detention facility for undocumented immigrant mothers and children in Artesia, N.M.

With two children in tow and some trepidation, Maria Vicente climbed into a van in the early morning hours one day this summer and left her impoverished Guatemala village on the first leg of what would be a long, clandestine journey to the United States.

The young mother's decision to leave her home in Guatemala's Jacaltenango region near the Mexico border had not come easily. Was it right to expose her children to the perils of a trek that had proved risky, even deadly, for so many? She had asked herself that question numerous times.

Three weeks before the van picked her up, Ms. Vicente had put her American-born son, 8-year-old Manuel, on a US-bound flight to join his father in Florida. She then took out a mortgage loan on her modest house to finance the trip to the Sunshine State for the rest of the family. A US remittance helped complete the fee of $30,000 quetzales, about $4,000, that a smuggler charged to guide mother and sons over two borders.

On the day of her departure, Vicente hoisted the boys and a large, black duffel bag packed with drinks, snacks, and clothes into the van. As the vehicle rolled into the darkened road, she prayed silently.

"May God's will be done."

This is the story of one woman’s quest to leave the challenges of Central America and reach the promise of the US. Although much attention this summer was placed on an increasing number of Central American children crossing the border alone, more mothers like Vicente are also making the journey and bringing their young. Between Oct. 1, 2013, and Aug. 31 of this year, the US border patrol took into custody 66,142 families, up from 12,908 in the same period a year earlier. Most were from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras.

In the week it took for Vicente and her sons to cross two borders, they fled from a bus to elude immigration agents, dodged three diamondback rattlesnakes, and went hungry while stranded in Mexico's backcountry. The experiences that she shared show how dangerous and troubling the trek can be, yet they are also not the horrors that were widely publicized this summer – about individuals being subjected to violence and even raped during their journey.

For Vicente, the decision to come to the US was largely a pragmatic one, taking into account the risks of trip, the poverty she and her family endured in Guatemala, her yearning to keep her family together, and the potential for a better life. In fact, she had already lived in the US, working for five years in Florida before returning to Guatemala in 2010.

Still, when she and her sons crossed the US border this summer, she didn’t count on them being put in deportation proceedings.

But back to the trip, which began on a Friday, about 1:30 a.m.

The van, jampacked with Guatemalans, stopped in the remote town of Gracias a Dios. Without the legal documents that would allow entrance to Mexico through an official crossing, Vicente and her sons were left behind to make their way into the lowland jungles of the Mexican state of Chiapas through unmarked terrain. The route teemed with northbound travelers.

After a two-hour walk, a smuggler drove the family to the colonial city of San Cristóbal de las Casas, where some 40 other Guatemalans scurried in and out of a hotel.

The next day, someone drove the trio, along with 14 other travelers, to the nearby city of Tuxtla Gutiérrez and ushered them to a bus headed for the border state of Sonora, just south of Arizona. By the time the bus departed, the group of migrants had swollen to about 60. The Altar Valley, a well-worn, inhospitable stretch in the Sonoran Desert that spans both sides of the US-Mexico border, was their destination.

"But we had complications," Vicente recalls.

Just before dusk, as the bus approached Sonora's capital city of Hermosillo, a smuggler's lookout sent a warning that immigration agents stood nearby. The bus came to a halt, and the Central Americans without legal status in Mexico scampered into the desert grasslands.

At first, Vicente thought it would be a short-lived setback and that, within minutes, everyone would be guided back to the road and onto the bus. Instead, she and the others walked for about nine hours. Vicente’s youngest, 3-year-old José, was too little to walk the long journey.

"It started to get dark, and carrying the baby and the bag, I was getting tired," says Vicente, who is of medium build and about 5-foot-3.

An older man who had watched her struggles offered a large towel that she could wrap José in and carry him on her back, as she was accustomed to doing with her rebozo, or shawl, at home.

Then she heard Diego, her oldest son, scream: "Rattlesnake!"

She scrambled up to him and pulled the frightened, but unharmed, boy away from the diamondback – one of three they would encounter that night. When calm returned, she prayed again:

"Lord, if my fate is to stay, if I can't make it, I beg you to take care of my children. I'm leaving because of them, so that they can have a better life – because where I live, I can't provide for them."

In her village, a laborer earns $50 quetzales a day, about $6, "but work is not available every day. Sometimes you work two, or one day a week," she says.

Such earnings are not nearly enough to buy groceries, clothe the children, and pay for utilities, Vicente adds. In the US, she had worked as a cook, usually 60 hours over six days, and her weekly pay had topped $450 by the time she left. It was enough to send money home to relatives caring for Diego, who was 2-1/2 years old when she left him behind in 2005. When Vicente went home, the boy preferred to live with his grandmother.

In the summer heat of Sonora's backcountry, as Vicente walked in the moonlight with the other wandering travelers, she was overwhelmed by doubts: "I kept thinking we might not make it. No one knows what can happen along the way."

Her guide, an evangelist, led the group in prayer. The ones who still had water shared it with those who didn't, and all kept moving toward Hermosillo. Shortly after they reached the outskirts of the city, cabs arrived to take the migrants to a bus station.

Later, Vicente drew a deep breath as she and the boys boarded the bus that would take them to the US-Mexico border.

Hungry, exhausted, and covered in dust, Vicente and her sons finally made it to Altar, a town in northern Sonora built on the hopes of migrants who spend time there preparing to cross the border.

It would be another 100 miles before Vicente and the other mothers with children reached a preferred smuggler's spot along the international line.

It was about noon on Monday – or was it Tuesday? The days blur in her mind, but Vicente clearly remembers standing on the Mexican side of the border, listening to smugglers say it was a good time for women and children to enter the US illegally because they received special treatment by immigration authorities.

"In 10 minutes you will be in jail, and in one day you will be with your family," she heard a smuggler say.

Vicente and her boys – along with three other mothers with children and four minors traveling without a parent – crawled under pliable wire fencing into Arizona. Their work done, the smugglers stayed on the south side, assuring the migrants that the border patrol would soon pick them up.

But the group walked for another four hours. Federal agents didn’t nab everyone until the mothers went near a road to seek help for a toddler in the group who was feverish.

In a way, Vicente says, she felt relief when the agents thwarted her trip to Florida. Among other things, she was regretting what she had put her kids through.

In detention, she and her children hardly slept or ate the bean burritos they got for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The youngest boy had diarrhea, and the oldest wouldn't talk to his mother.

After a couple of days, Vicente and her children were freed to travel on their own, with a notice to appear in immigration court Oct. 7. Immigration authorities dropped them and others off at the Greyhound bus station in Tucson, Ariz.

On Thursday evening, at an intake room that volunteers set up at the bus station to welcome the mostly female migrants with children, Vicente and her boys sipped an electrolyte solution.

"Since you haven't had any regular food for days, this drink will help you before you eat something," said Sebastian Quinac, a local Guatemalan who provides orientation to the newcomers.

Before landing in federal custody, Vicente and her children had subsisted mostly on crackers, water, and orange juice. Now, at the bus station’s intake room, they were served a hot plate of beans, rice, pasta salad, and picadillo, a ground meat dish with spices.

That night, they slept in a good Samaritan's home, washed dirty laundry, and showered for the first time since leaving home.

On Friday – one week after their 1:30 a.m. departure from Guatemala – Vicente was back at the bus station, sitting pensively in the waiting room. José played with a brown plastic rosary and tugged at his mother's blouse. Diego stood quietly a short distance away, watching toddlers romp.

Vicente's hopes for her family's future are pinned on a favorable outcome in immigration court. Rather than receive a permit to stay long-term in the country, as smugglers had assured Vicente, she and her children were placed in deportation proceedings. And so a federal judge is expected to determine their legal fate.

"What if God's will is that we stay here?" she says.

That evening, Vicente and her boys left Arizona for Florida at 11.

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