Islam, Jan - Mar 2003

El Norte: One Man’s Journey

by Ghadah Ali Gutierrez

At the age of 23, my husband decided to head to America to look for work. He entered America as a “mojado,” an illegal alien. In a country where grinding poverty is a fact of life and the chance to improve one’s lot is slim, the only alternative is to seek work in “el norte” – the United States. In Mexico, he earned only about $10 per week at a factory. This did not go far towards supporting his elderly parents. Life in Mexico is difficult. This may sound like a simplistic statement, but the reality for the people cannot be underplayed. In a country where the average yearly income runs about $900, many things we take for granted are unheard of. Meat is a delicacy that is eaten very rarely, if at all. Most houses do not have running water or electricity. In many of the cities, the cost of a one bedroom apartment is more than double the average monthly wage. Only the very rich own a car, and the average citizen does not even know how to drive. Political corruption and graft have taken their toll as well, increasing coffers for the politicians while worsening the plight of the average Mexican citizen. When a person dies, they are buried in a simple pine box without any of procedures deemed necessary here in America.

My mother-in-law got her first washing machine at the age of 60. Before owning one, she had always done the laundry by hand in a washtub with cold water for her family of six boys and three girls. Her first bathroom was installed in 2000, the year before her death. Crooked real estate people forced them to pay for their house three different times. Each time the real estate people claimed that “the previous attorney must have stolen the money.” When one son-in-law was shot in a dispute over money owed for the sale of some cows, corrupt police officials merely took the money from the suspect’s family and refused to prosecute. This family of nine kids and two parents was left homeless because of medical bills and forced to move back home with my in-laws in order to survive. My husband was born into this world.

In August 1997, Lupe and his brother along with a couple of cousins left Aguasqualientes, Mexico and headed to Denver, Colorado to hopefully find work. They undertook a 1,500 mile journey with nothing but the clothes on their back. They wore their poorest-looking clothing, because wearing nice clothing and shoes was a sure way to get jumped and robbed by the cholos along the border. Food and water cannot be carried nor personal grooming items such as hairbrushes or toothbrushes. The trip is too long and arduous to carry bundles, and many “coyotes” who smuggle illegals make the immigrants throw them away anyway. On their first trip to America, both Lupe and his brother had to pay $750 for safe passage over the border and into Phoenix, Arizona.

Their first trip was more or less uneventful, and they arrived about ten days later in Denver. Upon arrival, they moved into their cousin’s apartment with eleven other guys. Life was good. Food was plentiful and cheap. Work was abundant. With many people living together, living expenses were low enough that they could send money back to Mexico and still have a little left over to save towards purchasing a car or go to the dances.

My husband and I met at a dance in January 1998. We were married about six months later and shortly afterward his mother became sick. For two years, she went from curandera to brujo and back again, but refused to see a doctor. An ingrained distrust of doctors is rampant in Mexico, most likely a result of the corruption that occurs in all aspects of Mexican society. The ricos get the best care and the pobres are pretty much ignored, no matter how sick they are. After much urging by her family members, she eventually went to a doctor and was diagnosed with cancer. The cancer had progressed too far for much hope of survival.

At the time we married, my husband could not hope to get permanent residency status in America because he had entered the country illegally. Luckily, alhamdulila, right before leaving office, Bill Clinton passed an act that allowed illegal immigrants who would otherwise not qualify for residency to apply. Because I am a citizen and we were legally married, he was eligible under this program. Overjoyed with the prospect of getting the coveted “papers,” we filed an application. One stipulation was that the applicant could not leave the country during the processing time nor any time thereafter without previous written approval of the INS, a process that could take up to 190 days.

Unfortunately, shortly after we applied for his residency, his mother took a turn for the worse and was to undergo surgery. Her surgery revealed that the cancer had spread down to a leg bone, and she was deemed terminal. In spite of everything, she seemed to improve somewhat and was still able to live a more or less normal life. With the installation of a bathroom, paid for by the sons working in America, her life was at least made a little easier. She no longer had to hike to the outhouse and owning a washing machine meant she did not have to spend hours on her knees bent over a washtub. These two tiny luxuries made a vast improvement in her quality of life. Life continued as normal for several months until the fateful phone call, Lupe’s mother was dying.

Despite the chance for papers, Lupe had no choice. He had to return to Mexico and risk not being able to get back across the border. Exactly one week after he left, the notice from the INS arrived. Unfortunately, with him out of the country, pretty much any and all chances were lost unless he was able to return before the date set by the INS for fingerprinting. All of our hopes and hard work seemed to had just gone up in smoke. It was heartbreaking to say the very least.

His mother held on for three more months. While he was gone, life in the United States had changed forever. The attacks of September 11 occurred. Overnight, the attitude of the entire country towards immigration seemed to change drastically. Although the terrorists were not Mexican nationals, the border was effectively closed down. The price paid to coyotes to smuggle workers across the border doubled and then nearly tripled. With the new political climate, the risk had increased substantially.

Lupe’s mother passed away on February 28, 2002. The very day that Lupe was supposed to leave Mexico to return, George W. Bush sent 1,600 National Guard troops to patrol the Mexican border. His logic still escapes me to this day. We had not been attacked by Mexico. So why was the president sending soldiers to the border? This was a huge setback, as I knew my husband’s chances of coming home were greatly reduced. There was no alternative; however, but to raise the $3,000 the coyote was demanding and pray for the best.

Lupe left his home on March 2, 2002. After riding a crowded, smelly bus for two days, they arrived at that border. They were hidden in the home of a coyote for another two days without food, water, or sanitary facilities. Finally, the word came, they would try for the border that night. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and the standard methods of getting illegals across the border were abandoned in favor of a mad dash by nearly 100 hopefulls. The logic was that some would make it across; the others would be returned to Mexico and would try again the next night. It sounded like a scene out of the movie, “Born in East L.A.”

Lupe and his brother were lucky enough to make it across on their first try. The coyote met them in a clump of bushes on the U.S. side. Then, they began the walk. For 350 miles, they walked across the desert with no food and very little water. Their only shelter was cactus and sagebrush, which they sleep under at night. It was now mid-March, and the desert at that time of year is brutal. Although the days have not yet achieved the full heat of summer, the days are nonetheless hot and the nights are bitterly cold. Lighting fires was not an option because the smoke could conceivably be seen by “la migra,” the border patrol. They walked by night through the treacherous landscape without a flashlight. The ever-present threat of snakes and scorpions never left their minds.

During the daytime as they slept, gunshots were frequently heard. Arizona ranchers between the border and Phoenix had taken to shooting immigrants walking across their property. The U.S. government to this day has not dealt with this issue despite the loss of human lives. The ranchers more or less have carte blanche to hunt humans to their hearts’ content. After all, these Mexicans are only wetbacks. They aren’t Americans, and they don’t have a right trying to come here!

After three days, the group finally arrived at a pre-arranged spot near Phoenix and was picked up by a truck. A collective sigh of relief rippled thorough the seventeen men who were stacked like many boards in the camper shell of the pickup. They had finally made it, or so they thought. Within a few miles, the truck suddenly stopped. They had been pulled over by police who had alerted the border patrol.

All of the passengers and the driver were arrested. They were taken to an INS holding and processing facility. Although this INS facility deals exclusively with Spanish-speaking immigrants, only one officer spoke Spanish. They were held for almost 48 hours before they were allowed to eat. The Spanish-speaking officer, who was Hispanic, finally took pity on them and brought a bag of hamburgers to their holding cell. Shortly after they started eating, another officer arrived to drive them back across the border. He was quite angry by the site of seventeen detainees eating hamburgers. They all quickly gulped down their food, because none knew when they would get a chance to eat again. My brother-in-law, however, has no teeth and could not eat as fast as the others could. The white guard grabbed my brother-in-law’s hamburger, threw it down, and stomped on it. This was the only food he’d had for nearly four days. He told me he wanted to cry.

While being detained, a search had revealed that one of the men in their group had somehow obtained a fake green card. The guards demanded that he tell them where he had gotten it. When he refused, he was handcuffed to the top bar of the cell, with one hand over his head. The guards told him they would release him only after he gave the name of the person who had sold him the card. They left him handcuffed like that for the entire time at the detention center, nearly two days. My husband said the man’s hand was purple, but no medical care was given or even offered to him. This type of treatment occurred in a country renowned for it’s work on behalf of civil rights.

After having their pictures taken, being fingerprinted, and their names written in a book, the group was eventually herded into a van and driven back across the border. At the border, they were let out of the van with strict warnings not to try it again. People from this group were from various South American countries. They had no money in their pockets. Yet, they were left in northern Mexico to fend for themselves. Because they lacked resources to return home, most decided to try for the border again. For two or three more days, they were hidden in a dirt basement under a shabby house in Ciudad Juarez. Then the signal was given again. This time, my husband and his brother made it. They were the lucky ones.

Hundreds of illegal aliens die attempting to cross each year. Most are never identified nor does the government make any attempt to notify their families. Even when an immigrant makes it up here and is later deported, their family in America is not notified. They simply disappear. Families are routinely ripped apart when the father, the sole breadwinner, is deported. There are cases on record where illegal immigrants have been held for ten to fifteen years in INS detention centers for simply trying to achieve a better life. A couple of hundred years ago, the southwest was part of Mexico, and yet our government has the arrogance to claim the right to determine who can and cannot choose to live here. In the aftermath of 9/11, the United States government feels it has the authority to trample the rights of anyone and everyone. Now they are requiring all men of Arab descent to register with the INS. Many people are being illegally deported. Even immigrants from Canada and Mexico are surreptitiously tracked. As for my husband, we do not know yet whether the INS is going to award him residency. Nine months and $2,500 in attorney’s fees later, we are still unable to get an answer. One can only trust in Allah and pray.