A young boy, Carlos, from El Salvador gets help steadying himself on a rock as his father Eddy gets out of the raft after crossing the Rio Grande River on March 26, 2021, in Roma, Texas. Tribune News Service
Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Tribune News Service
A toddler’s muddy shoe. An empty wallet. A pink hairbrush. A line of Scripture.
These and other possessions litter the dirt path leading uphill from the Rio Grande. Bright spots quickly coated with dust, they are what was carried and what was dropped by mothers, fathers and children, like the boy whose size 6 Batman underwear lay in a clearing beyond a thicket.
Birth certificates. Scribbled phone numbers. Prized belongings hauled for weeks over hundreds of miles. These, too, are scattered along the trail by migrants, their footsteps quiet in the night after they’ve crossed the river. But what shine most are the plastic wristbands — a rainbow of yellow, gray, red and blue spreading through the brush — some cinched to fit the smallest arms.
Many are printed with a single word: entregas. Deliveries.
A smuggler’s code.
Mexican traffickers have been ferrying families and unaccompanied children, many from Central America, across the river on rafts and into Texas’ Rio Grande Valley. They affix the wristbands to migrants as proof of payment. The wristbands are migrants’ claves — their keys to safe passage — and those without them say they’ve been kidnapped by smugglers and held until relatives or friends agreed to pay their fee, at least $6,000.
The wristbands dangle from the brush like strange ornaments. Some who wore them would be sent back to Mexico. Others would die trying to find home in a new land.
State troopers who patrol the area with night vision goggles say a smuggler recently dropped a 2-year-old in the river to divert the troopers from seizing a raft. In March, a pregnant woman went into labour on the riverbank and lost her baby. More recently, about 200 miles upriver from Roma, a 9-year-old girl died while crossing the river with her Guatemalan mother and young brother.
When migrants near shore, troopers yank at their inflatable rafts, puncturing some and setting them aside like trophies. The migrants shed what they own as they hustle up the path from the river toward US Customs and Border Protection agents in a hilltop parking lot. From there, the migrants are taken to an overcrowded holding area, where more than 4,200 people are squeezed into a space designed for 250. Many crossed in March for the first time; they aren’t worried about what they might need if they’re sent back to Mexico.
Martha Ramirez Amaya has come north from Honduras after losing her home in Hurricane Eta. Smugglers force her and her 5-year-old son, Elvin, out of the raft. She tumbles into the shallows, soaking her black coat and jeans. When she makes it to shore, Ramirez, 20, feels for the gold medallion she wears around her neck for protection. It’s there. She hurries toward the Border Patrol flashlights on the hill.
Ramirez and others follow the trail as it splits and winds through the brush, their possessions often falling onto land owned by Jorge Barrera’s family. Barrera, who fishes from the riverbank at dusk, has called Border Patrol to complain about bags of Cheetos, powdered baby formula and other trash. But it continues to accumulate as migrants push on despite the pandemic, smugglers’ threats and the needle-sharp crown of thorn bushes.
The migrants begin to shed all but their most prized possessions once they reach shore. Jonatan Cruz, 31, and his Guatemalan family drop their expired Mexican residency permits. Others have left sweatshirts, size 23 toddler shoes, Avon strawberry lip balm, disposable diapers, masks, Garanimals khakis (size 2T), a red Hello Kitty purse and a Texas flag backpack. When their wet jackets snag on trees, they slip them off and leave them suspended in the dark, like ghosts.
They stumble forward without flashlights into the scrubby oak and sage. They clutch what they need most: valid identification and scraps of paper bearing the phone numbers of friends and family in the US. Youths travelling alone keep contact numbers tucked in their pockets, if not written on their chests by their parents before leaving home.
Bessy Yamileth Gómez Flores carries a notebook scribbled with Matthew 21:22: “If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.” Another woman drops a pink leather purse stuffed with a wad of wilted Honduran bills.
Others carry their hopes. Salvadoran Fatima Pineda Vasquez, 16, wants to be an architect. She has come with her 12-year-old nephew, who wants to be a surgeon. They plan to join his mother, Fatima’s older sister, in Missouri.
Many bring pruebas, or proof, of the threats and violence they’re fleeing in Central America. They hope to present them as evidence to request asylum. They also carry Central American birth certificates, precious to migrant parents anxious about being separated from their children by US authorities, and to youths traveling without adults. Those who can show they’re under 18 are released to friends and family in the US and can pursue their immigration claims. Those who can’t prove their age face potential expulsion to Mexico.
As migrants pick their way uphill, vital paperwork is lost, including two birth certificates tucked inside a black diaper bag discarded along the trail. They belong to Honduran migrant Maryi Jennifer Amaya Mejia, 22, and her 2-year-old daughter, Jenice Paola. Across the top of one of the papers, someone has printed a Connecticut phone number.
Amaya’s mother, Lidia Mejia, answers the call. She crossed into the US six years ago after her two sons were slain. When the men who killed them threatened the family again this year, she says, she sent for her daughter and granddaughter. Amaya and Jenice arrived in Waterbury, Connecticut, in late March, she says.
Before leaving the riverside, migrants receive plastic property bags labeled “Homeland Security” and government “baggage check” tags for their belongings. The night wind snatches a few, strewing them across the bushes, including one belonging to 9-year-old Jacsi Carranza Novoa of Honduras, whose tag says she arrived alone.
Some of the property bags accompany youths like Jacsi to federal shelters. Others are returned to migrant families being released to a local church, where they receive donated food, clothes and prayer cards that read: “I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end.”
At the foot of the bridge in Reynosa, Mexico, migrant families, many still wearing Border Patrol-issued wristbands, open their bags only to discover that they have lost more than a chance at a new life.
“We don’t have phones or anything to communicate with people. What can we do?” says Norma Najera Perez, 23, holding out her empty hands to her daughter, Sandy Ortega Najera. The 7-year-old wears a wristband that reads “Property: None.”
“We dropped everything at the river,” says Cesar Garcia, 50, a Guatemalan machine operator who crossed the Rio Grande with his three sons, ages 8, 10 and 12, hoping to join his wife in Los Angeles.
Scores of migrants camp together in a nearby park. They spread their few belongings across the concrete floor of a gazebo. They ponder what to do next.
And they long for the Mexican cellphones, snacks and pesos they dropped in haste in the dust of the opposite riverbank, in the land that wouldn’t take them.
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