Xiomara started dating him when she was 17. He was different then, not yet the man who pushed drugs and ran with a gang. Not the man who she says berated and raped her, who roused her out of bed some mornings only to beat her.
Not the man who choked her with an electrical cord, or put a gun to her head while she screamed, then begged, “‘Please, please don’t kill me — I love you.’”
Fleeing El Salvador with their daughter, then 4, the 23-year-old mother pleaded for help at a port of entry in El Paso on a chilly day in December 2016.
After nearly two years, her petition for asylum remains caught in a backlog of more than 310,000 other claims. But while she has waited for a ruling, her chance of success has plunged.
Trump administration officials on Tuesday sought to defend the immigration enforcement policy that allowed Border Patrol agents to separate more than 2,500 migrant families, but ran into sharp criticism from senators as one official compared detention centers for children to “summer camp.”
“These individuals have access to 24/7 food and water,” Matthew Albence, a top Immigration and Customs Enforcement official, said. “They have educational opportunities. They have recreational opportunities, both structured as well as unstructured, there’s basketball courts, there’s exercise classes, there’s soccer fields we put in there.”
"Would you send your children” to one of the centers, Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) demanded of the administration witnesses. None said they would.
The calls for help started coming in to immigration lawyers across the country just before Memorial Day. Immigrant detainees, many fleeing gangs and violence and seeking legal asylum in the U.S., were flooding courtrooms along the Southwest border.
Dozens were parents reporting that Border Patrol agents had taken away their children, and many were under the impression they would see their sons and daughters again within hours.
“We had to break the news to them that that wasn’t true,” said Efrén C. Olivares, who was among the attorneys with the Texas Civil Rights Project to come to the aid of public defenders in McAllen. “And then the question became, ‘If not today, then when?’
“We didn’t have an answer to that.”
Nine weeks of chaos and confusion later, many still don’t.
A 2-year-old girl, with red sneakers and dark hair, crying as a U.S. Border Patrol agent searches her mother. Boys filing along white tents against a desolate desert backdrop. Toddlers screaming for their parents in a detention center in South Texas.
As wrenching scenes of the more than 2,300 immigrant children pulled apart from their parents at the southwest border sparked anguish around the globe and a political backlash at home, President Trump said migrants illegally “infest our country,” framing his policy to separate families as a deterrent against drug smugglers and Central American gang members.
In a city most known for its prison and farmland, the modest, one-story home of Mary and Raul Gomez has the feel of the quintessential American dream with its trimmed green lawn, little porch and white picket fence. In the driveway, there’s even a remodeled 1968 black Chevrolet Biscayne visible from Dairy Avenue.
As national Democrats play up talk of a wave that could help them regain control of the House, more than a dozen of Democratic candidates are attempting to unseat GOP incumbents in California districts long considered unwinnable. It’s a bold move in a year when skeptics may soon accuse them of sapping resources Democrats need elsewhere.
Steven Motavita was 13 when he bought a mountain bicycle to compete in local road races. It was cheap, with a heavy aluminum frame and fat tires unsuited for competition, but it was all he could afford with the money he made harvesting potatoes with two uncles who once shared his great cycling ambitions.
Riding along steep highways in the Colombian countryside, he soon met another young cyclist and learned about the Santiago de Tunja cycling club, a ragtag group of aspiring riders who gather most Saturdays under the shadow of a towering concrete soccer stadium in this colonial city.
As the state has rolled back sentencing laws through legislation and voter initiatives, a growing victims' rights movement is pushing for alternatives to incarceration, with greater investment in rehabilitation services and a reevaluation of what it takes to make communities safe. On the other side, a smaller but visible coalition of crime survivors and law enforcement officials wants a return to tougher sentences and fewer people on parole.
Few cities have done as much as Oakland to examine and push back against the ways law enforcement, through new technology and shared databases, collects personal information, images and communications of criminal suspects and innocent bystanders alike. Over the last year, as city leaders found themselves at odds with President Trump's immigration agenda, the Oakland Privacy Advisory Commission has worked to ensure those surveillance tools aren't used to target immigrant or Muslim communities.
Until a few years ago, most students in Winters — a farming community of 7,000 west of Sacramento — did not have computers at home. So the city’s then-mayor, Cecilia Aguiar-Curry, pushed for a program that enabled the school district’s sixth-graders to check out laptops along with their textbooks.
Their parents were required to learn how to use the computers as well. For some, it was their first time surfing the web or sending an email.
“Now they could be a voice for their child,” said Aguiar-Curry, who grew up in Winters. She recalled that some parents were moved to tears. “Now they could work in the fields during the day, and at night they could come home and get on their child’s tablet and find out how they were doing in school.”
Over the last decade, California’s urban centers have become technology hubs, cities where free Wi-Fi and fiber optic lines are ubiquitous. But in low-income neighborhoods, across the state’s inland regions and in rural communities — often home to large migrant populations — families struggle to connect at all.
As a public defender in New York City, Gina Clayton realized the cash bail system used in most state courts across the country was placing a heavy burden on women. The grandmothers and mothers who visited her office bailed relatives out so often that they knew several bond agents by name.
Often the women navigated complicated contracts and paid high fees alone, she said. Many ended up swimming in debt. Some lost their homes.
Frustrated with the daily churn of cases, she moved back to her hometown, Los Angeles, four years ago. She had a mission.
The girls Ellen Parsons wants to help don’t tell.
They don’t trust adults. They don’t use words like pimp or prostitute. And they don’t view themselves as victims of an ugly, multimillion-dollar sex business that exploits hundreds of thousands of adolescents every day. Instead, Ellen says, they see the trade as a way to survive and remain independent in a system that has often misunderstood their struggles — and in the worst cases treated them as criminals.
Ellen and I sat in her office at Lifeworks, a youth advocacy center in South Austin where she works as a counselor. I shifted in my seat as I tried to grasp her words.
The term sex trafficking tends to conjure images of girls and young women brought into the country from faraway places, lured by opportunity, forced by abductors. But over the past decade, we have come to realize that some of the most vulnerable victims of the vicious rings that travel across the United States do not come from abroad. They were born and live here.
Right now in Austin and across the country, the two options these adolescents tend to face are time in juvenile detention or placement within the catchall net of shelters operated by state child protective services or private nonprofits. These places cater to abused and neglected children, domestic violence survivors and their families, but social workers say they are not equipped to handle the complex trauma of trafficking survivors.
And most have not yet developed ways to screen for sex trade victims.
Through special training and years of experience, Ellen has found her own ways to tell apart the young girls and teens caught in the life.
Sometimes, she listens for the subtext in their conversation. Often, she watches what they carry. Wads of cash they stuff under a mattress or in the dark corner of a drawer. Expensive cell phones. Brand-named clothing. “Those things they could not have afforded on their own,” she says.
Mexican poet Javier Sicilia and fellow activists under the Caravan for Peace with Justice and Dignity are expected to descend upon the steps of the state Capitol Sunday in protest of U.S. drug policies.
Their stop in Austin is one of 26 in an estimated 6,000-mile journey — from the Mexican border city of Tijuana to Washington, D.C. — where the group hopes to draw attention to the role they say the United States has played in fueling a struggle that has cost the lives of thousands, including Sicilia’s son and other loved ones.
The mission seems so far removed from a city that prides itself on live music festivals, green measures and shopping local. But it’s not if you look a little harder.
Back home in El Paso, where on Tuesday the caravan held a vigil for drug war victims, the effects of this battle are everywhere. There are students in classrooms coping with post-traumatic stress disorder. There are business owners who have opened shop on new ground after fleeing Ciudad Juarez. There are entire families who have been cut off from part of their culture after generations of living on both sides of the Rio Grande.
The news first came back to me in snippets, conversations with my family or pieces of Mexican newspapers snail-mailed by my grandmother. Gore in photos and headlines splashed across the front pages of newspapers. Decapitated heads, limp bodies and blood, pools of it, bright red spilled on the streets.
That is the sexy story. That is what some media outlets only seek to cover. Narco lords and their inconceivable wealth. The ruthlessness of the latest execution. And it is always Mexico’s Drug War.
But in recent months, I have been writing about this little corner in East Austin, where police say a trade of mostly marijuana and cocaine has for decades thrived. The steady stream of crime the business brings tends to be petty rather than fierce and a stark contrast from the shootouts that break out at all hours of the day in many Mexican cities. The players – both buyers and sellers – are typically the ones at the lowest rungs of the game.
And yet, every major city in the United States has a 12th and Chicon. The drug hub, like those across the country, provides another glimpse, another layer of the people most affected by this vicious, unrelenting monster. It is our burden in a shared fight.
My younger sister and I grew up in my mother’s red, beat-up little Escort, traveling the 15-hour plus ride between Texas and California, back and forth. Twelve childhood years packed up in brown, cardboard boxes.
First, it was my father’s new job that led us to the Golden State, and then it was the divorce that drove us back, followed by my mother’s new love and new marriage with a U.S. Marine that returned us to the Sun Valley in California. That didn’t work out. He left one cold morning, when the fog had just settled. He didn’t look back at us. Not a glance. And so we arrived again in El Paso, just the three of us.
For her sporadic changes of mind and heart and location, my mother has been described euphemistically as a “free spirit” and bluntly as, well, “crazy.” And maybe she is, a little. She likes to blast the music on the radio and revels in the open road. The odd jobs she has taken on have been as fickle and short lived as her hair color, which has gone from brown, to black, to red, to orange, to a mesh between dirty and metallic blonde. But she is beautiful, in my eyes, a curvy woman with disheveled tresses and soft painter’s hands. Don’t ask me why she does what she does. Like all else in her life, she just does.
And we have had our fights. Bitter ones. I have stormed out of the house in outrage. She has slammed the door in my face so hard the windowpanes shook.
Some times were rough. At 13 I thought I knew everything. I reproached her for everything. I wanted clothes and shoes and stuff she could not afford. I wanted her to be normal, whatever that was. To bake cookies or give me a curfew, or something. To stop moving us around. It wasn’t until I left for college that I realized she had given me more than I could possibly ever need. She gave me all her love, her adventurous spirit and her strength.
A few weeks ago, when I last visited my hometown of El Paso, she and I held each other close in one final embrace before I drove by myself from the western tip of Texas to the southern one, back down to Brownsville. All of our arguments and disputes were far behind us. It was only the two of us in my old room full of high school memories, a room that for a short while had stayed exactly as I left it, hoping for my return.
This year will be tough for my mother. My sister, now 18, also will leave soon to attend a university in Massachusetts. So many roads we have traveled together, and now we are each learning to travel them on our own. But we will always remain close.
On this Mexican Mother’s Day, I want to tell my mother that I love her, with all my heart, with everything I’ve got.
As published May 10, 2010 in The Brownsville Herald