Voices on the wind… We freeze.
When we hear them again, they’re closer.
Without anyone saying a word, we began to slowly move to our left trying our best not make a sound as we bend low and make our way along a faint trail that disappears into the manzanita and chaparral. At most times these twisted, stunted scrub tree/ bushes that cover much of the Laguna Mountains are a hellish thing, chest high to an adult with thick, stiff branches that make a million sharp turns and rip thin strips of your skin from trunk and limb. It’s like breaking trail through an endless hedge. But for now, they are our hope.
We drop to our hands and knees and crawl beneath the thick canopy, which hides a perfect and infinite maze of three-foot-high tunnels through the roots and trunks that connect small room-like areas that can hold six to eight adults and a few kids. It’s a Hobbit-like world hidden from view in every direction.
We continue to move deeper into the maze of roots as the voices, which can now be heard clearly speaking English, get closer. It is as we feared; La Migra… Border Patrol.
We finally come to a room-like area beneath the roof of leaves and limbs. The voices are nearly upon us now. No one makes a sound. We’re a day and half of hard, mostly waterless hiking north of where we crossed the border east of Tecate. With only five to eight hours hiking left to reach I-8 and the van that will haul the migrants to a safe house in L.A. and allow me to hitchhike back to my car near San Diego, no one wants to get caught and have to start all over again.
For the very old and very young, such an outcome could prove too much. These crossings are hard and dangerous. Not so much for me, a reporter, now that I’m on my side of the border, but for these folks, it’s real life and death.
Twist an ankle and you get left behind. Maybe you live, maybe not. It’s 90 degrees and the coyotes only allow you to bring one quart of water for a two- to three-day trip over the mountains or across the desert — the time depends on a group’s speed, children and old people slow things down, and waiting out the Border Patrol can add a day.
It’s a trip the crossers thought would only take a few hours. That’s what they were told. Such deception is good for business. It’s how a smuggler convinces would-be crossers to give them their money instead of some other smuggler who is equally deceptive regarding the risks that will be encountered. It’s also another reason why so many people die crossing the border.
More than 6,000 bodies of those who didn’t make it have been found along the border since 2000 and some experts believe that the actual death toll could be three times that high. Who knows how many bones are hidden among the chaparrals or have been buried by the blowing sand?
They’re closer now. We can now hear the footsteps of two border patrol agents on the trail only a few yards away near the area where we crawled into the brush. The sound of their boots on sand and rock seems magnified by the tension. Then they stop. Fear and sweat become one and we are all drenched. I’m not breathing. People’s lives, their actual lives, are hanging by the thread of their silence. Will it be the better life they have dreamed of and risked so much for, or will a sneeze or cough or whimper give it all away?
They have to know we’re in here.
On my first trip out I did a few days of ride-alongs and tracking with Border Patrol agents in the region. Some of them can read sign like the cavalry scouts in old westerns. It’s just a matter of whether or not they want to bother crawling around in the brush until they find us, wait us out or try to outguess the guide and catch us with less effort somewhere else between here and the highway.
We catch a break. It’s a hot, dusty day and they opt for the latter. After a few minutes their voices begin to fade as they make their way back up the trail to the north. We remain silent and motionless in our sauna of a room in the scrub brush for several hours. We have to be sure they’re not watching from higher ground.
As I sit and listen as hard and far as I can, I hear a throat being cleared off to my right. I look deep into the shadows and modeled light and some 20 feet away through the limbs I see several sets of eyes staring back at me. It’s another group of migrants who have been here the entire time, hiding in silence just like us. They must have been ahead of us on the trail, heard the same voices and retreated back to the same cover before we got here.
I don’t know why, but it’s that image that haunts me most from my first border crossing, those eyes in the shadows. So much need, so much fear, all conveyed without a word.
* * * * Thanks for indulging me that story.
Current headlines about children crossing and dying while trying to cross the U.S./Mexican border have caused a few old memories of mine to resurface of late.
One of the worst things about the current immigration news cycle is having to listen to our reality-challenged elected leaders and TV talking heads coldly discussing the fate of these children migrants as if they were nothing more than another bargaining chip to be traded in the next round of elections.
These are real kids with real names and real families and real hopes and dreams and fears who are literally dying for a chance at a better life in this country. Most are risking the deadly one- to three-day gauntlet required to cross the deserts and mountains along the border because they are fleeing life-threatening conditions in their home countries that are unimaginable to most of us. They deserve better than to have their lives reduced to political theater for cable news.
Since last October, 52,000 unaccompanied children have been caught by the Border Patrol entering the U.S. along our border with Mexico. We don’t know how many have died trying to get in or how many have made it through. Most of these children are from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, three places that the life expectancy of a teenager unwilling to join a gang and do things like cut off people’s heads for failure to pay protection money is pretty short these days.
I honestly don’t think I know a single parent who, if confronted with the choice of having their child try to survive on the crime-ridden streets of El Salvador or sending them north in the hope that they might survive the arduous journey into the U.S., would not choose the latter.
It’s time that we quit talking about these children trying to seek asylum in our country in order to avoid the near certain death that stalks them in their homelands as if it has anything to do with Democrats, Republicans, elections or budgets. My God, is this what we have become?
Have we lost our compassion, our empathy, our ability to look a little harder, to see into the eyes in the shadows and offer help?
I hope not.
Deporting these children back to a place where they will quite likely die after they have endured the hardship and trauma of making the crossing is not immigration policy; it is a death sentence being carried out for the crime of being born poor in the wrong place at the wrong time. It needs to stop now. And it’s up to each of us to make that happen. Let your elected leaders know that playing politics with immigration in the real world too often equates to murder.