If I’m being honest, I did not know what to expect when I crossed the border for the first time. We were told, as we walked along the outside of what has been compared many times now to a “cattle chute” that leads deported migrants back over the border, that we would be heading to the “comedor”, which is a shelter for newly deported migrants. Some migrants had been there for weeks, some had just arrived this morning. The newest arrivals would be filling out surveys to document any abuses they may have endured.
The idea that we would be encountering people in such a freshly vulnerable state, people who had just experienced possibly the most traumatic experience of their lives, having been cuffed by hands and feet and thrown into a caged walkway by armed guards as early as an hour ago, was terrifying to me.
I imagined myself after some of the most traumatic moments of my life, but those were in no way comparable. So, I tried to put myself more directly in their shoes: if I had just been deported from a country after having lived there for years, or after having spent months of risking my life to get there, I imagine I would somewhat resent seeing people from that same country waltz over the border and then waltz back again. With that in mind, I prepared myself for discomfort and a certain degree of hostility.
Upon arriving, we were greeted by several mumbled “Buenos dias” and two tiny, Hispanic nuns, one whose black hair curled into a perfect bob, highlighted by sleek silver stripes, and one older one whose crown of white hair laid royally over her leathered, smiling face. Both whisked around the room like 20 year olds, ordering volunteers around in rapid Spanish, a group we were quickly added to. A Kino Border Initiative employee, Joanna, who had led us across the border, translated their orders.
We helped serve breakfast, and the two nuns went through a variety of exercises, leading the mob of migrants (all men except one woman at a table by herself) into laughter. “That’s what I like to see, I like to see those smiles,” the white haired nun said, (but in Spanish, so this is a rough memory of Joanna’s translation). After helping clear up, the nuns asked for eight volunteers to help with clean-up. The migrants quickly filled those positions.
I was assigned to dish-washing, along with another person from our group and a middle-aged man with a scruffy, gray/white beard whose English was impeccable. Joanna commented on this, and he snorted, “I’ve lived in the United States since I was four,” he said. I began to ask more about him and he told me his story. He told me he was left for dead in the middle of the desert and suffered over 40 bee stings. He told me he’d grown up in southern California, but he’d been all over the U.S., Chicago, Alaska, etc. He told me he used to be a chef at a country club in Santa Monica and that he’d driven a BMW. He told me had four kids, all currently still in the U.S.
After talking about these things, a helplessness and sense of bitterness began to creep into his voice. He spoke about how he’d tried to do things the legal way, but the U.S. “didn’t like” his papers. He said he was scared to cross illegally now because he didn’t want to be detained and charged, which could lose his chance of ever getting back. He’d lived in the U.S. all his life and didn’t know a soul in Mexico. I didn’t ask him his status as a U.S. resident, I didn’t ask him the circumstances surrounding his deportation. It was a somewhat brief conversation and I didn’t know how much I wanted to pry (although the journalist part of me, of course, wanted more detail). But towards the end of that conversation, in the midst of his despair and anger at the U.S. government, he said something that really stuck with me. He said thank you. He thanked us for being there. He thanked us for caring. He said most people didn’t care.
That really touched me because the purpose of this project, of most journalism projects, is to tell a story. However, it’s important to tell these stories with the respect and consent of the people whose story you’re telling. In other words, it’s important that the story’s subjects want it to be told. To have that reaffirmation on my first day, to realize I was working on a story that was not only worth telling, but one that needed and wanted to be told, was extremely touching and boosted my confidence in being there that day, and the days since.