SAN DIEGO — “No podemos volver a Guatemala. We cannot return to Guatemala,” Elvina tells me. She’s just arrived at Border Angels, a local San Diego charity, with three of her four children. Her eldest son, an 18-year-old, is being held separately as an adult in a detention center. He may have already been deported back to Guatemala; Elvina has no way to find him or contact him.
She tells me about the amenaza de muerte—the death threats—that keep her from wanting to return home. “Los mareros”—the notorious MS-13 gang—“threatened us. They beat up my husband. They wanted my sons to join their gang.”
Elvina and her children are among thousands of Central Americans fleeing gang violence and extreme poverty and arriving at our borders (Honduras now has the highest murder rate in the world). Getting the most media attention are the children—about 44,000 unaccompanied minors have arrived from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador in the past 10 months. Many in Congress blame the surge on President Obama’s 2008 Human Trafficking Law, which grants a hearing to illegal immigrants to see if they qualify for asylum in the U.S. When I ask Elvina why she came here, and whether she’s heard of the law, she says no. She just wanted to save her children.
“Many people leave their homes, looking for a place to feel more secure,” Elvina tells me. “I just want my children to get ahead. And be safe.”
Elvina and her children started their long journey several months ago, hoping to make it across the border and find Elvina’s brother, a field-worker in North Carolina. Along the route north, on the train the immigrants call “The Beast,” the family saw “many things,” Elvira says. “People fall down on the tracks, people come on board and tell you that you have to give them money or they kill you. They throw you off the train. People can’t scream or say anything because who will listen?”
When the group arrived at the California border, they turned themselves in and spent 15 days in a detention center with many other immigrants. Why did she turn herself in? She has no idea. She simply did what she was told by the many coyotes and other immigrants she encountered along the way.
“Los mareros threatened us. They beat up my husband. They wanted my sons to join their gang.”
How were they treated in the detention center? Fine, she says, but they lived on three stale sandwiches a day. After they had an initial court hearing and were released, the family went to stay in a shelter run by an evangelical priest. There, Elvina’s oldest daughter was attacked. A man “started to touch her and tried to rape her,” Elvina says. “So we left at four in the morning.”
A good Samaritan at the shelter saw that the family was in distress and sent them to Enrique Morones, the director of Border Angels. At the shelter, they receive water, shoes, clothes and soap. It’s a lucky break to find Enrique, and he will do everything he can to help them. But he can only do so much, and he receives new families every week. The day I met Elvina, Enrique introduced her to a pro-bono immigration lawyer. He’s looking into legal options to get the family a visa, to see if they can qualify for asylum.
Naturally, Elvina is worried about the future. “We can’t work here, it’s not easy to find jobs. We don’t speak English. Finding work in the fields is the easiest way,” she says. “We want to speak English and we don’t know how. We want to buy thing and we have no money.” And yet, she is determined that she and her children will never go back to Guatemala.
“Ni dios quiere que volvamos. Even God doesn’t want us to go back.”