Finding Hope and Humanity at the Border

By Jennifer De Leon

“I can’t stop thinking about those at the border. I can’t stop thinking about those at the border. I can’t stop thinking—dear God, don’t let the flaming arrow of COVID-19 hit the detention centers and the people inside the belly of this broken system.”—Jennifer De Leon

Freddie, a nine-year-old boy from Honduras, followed me around as I spoke to people on the maroon benches inside the McAllen bus station eight miles from the U.S.-Mexico border. He wore a sage-colored hoodie, jeans, and too-big-for-him-sneakers with bright yellow laces.

“My cousin has a PlayStation over there,” he said, referring to the United States. His black hair, wide eyes, and chatty demeanor reminded me of countless boys I have taught over the years in urban public schools. He could have been my son.

While he played with a yogurt wrapper, curling it and uncurling it around his thumb, he fired off facts in no particular order: I want to be a chef. I know I have to learn English. I hate lettuce. I will help my mother. They say there is snow in New Jersey. “I can make snow angels,” he said with a grin.

I was visiting the U.S.-Mexico border to talk with Central American migrants about their journeys north. I came as an author researching a novel and as an American of Guatemalan descent wanting to help. The families I spoke to had recently crossed the border at the Rio Grande, and they were all seeking asylum, and therefore considered “the lucky ones.” These are families from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, fleeing violence and poverty, who have sponsors in places like Oklahoma, South Carolina, New Jersey. They have not broken the law. They are not “illegal” or “bad hombres.” They seek refuge.

“Do you want any chips? A sandwich?” I asked Freddie.

“No, thanks. I just ate,” he said.

At this, the adults around us gasped. Some even laughed. Only a child buoyed by innocence would decline an offer for food. The adults knew to accept anything, even if it meant saving it for later—especially if it meant saving it for later.

Border Patrol took Freddie and his mother into custody, before bringing them to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center, what migrants refer to as “la hielera” because it is so cold.

“What is it like inside?” I asked Freddie.


“Were you able to sleep in a bed?”

“N’ombre!” he said like a little adult. He explained how they only gave him one blanket—an aluminum sheet—and that he had to sleep on the concrete floor. “It hurt,” he told me, touching the back of his head. “So I rolled up the sheet and made it into a small ball to use as a pillow.”

Migrants seeking asylum are allowed to travel while waiting for their court hearings. In this case—and because they are “lucky,” remember—ICE packed them on a big white bus and brought them to a Humanitarian Respite Center operated by Catholic Charities in McAllen. At other places along the border, asylum seekers would be dropped off at a bus station without so much as a granola bar.

In McAllen, ICE officials have a relationship with Sister Norma Pimentel, director of Catholic Charities for the Rio Grande Valley, and they let her know when they are sending a bus to the Respite Center. As many as 400 people a day pass through the center, seeking a shower, food, a change of clothes and help boarding buses that will take them to cities they’ve never been to. (The bus station is about a half a mile from the center.) This includes people like Freddie and his mother, who holds a manila envelope with a white piece of paper stapled to the outside with the words, in all capital letters: “PLEASE HELP ME. I DO NOT SPEAK ENGLISH. WHICH BUS DO I NEED TO TAKE? THANK YOU FOR YOUR HELP.”

Inside the Respite Center, migrants stand in a long line at the main booth to speak to a volunteer, who on this day is a woman who wears heavy make-up and a teal apron. People pace the halls. Or sit on blue mats inside the rooms. Showers are inside trailers in the back of the building. Bathrooms are port-a-potties. There are many babies. Toddlers. Kids. One mother is breastfeeding. People staring straight ahead, dazed. A man calling out names over the loudspeaker. They appear shaken, and yet, so, so quiet. Saving their energy, maybe. They all have this look in their eyes, like an almost extinguished hope, a fire on its last ember.

The Respite Center runs on donations. They are in constant need of basic supplies for migrants: deodorant, toothpaste, toothbrushes, combs, razors. The volunteers (many from Texas, but I also met one retired nurse from Oregon) make sandwiches for migrants to take on their long bus rides. They pack bottled water and snacks. Volunteers also sort clothes, help make bottles of formula for the babies, and provide migrants with shoelaces to replace the ones taken away by ICE.

“I write stories,” I told Freddie when he asked why I was there. “I’m a teacher and an author. I write books.”

“So do you have a book for me?” He pointed at my purple purse.

“Sorry,” I said, feeling deflated. Why didn’t I bring books?

“Hey,” I told him. “When you get to New Jersey, you’ll go to school. I bet you’ll learn English fast.”

“Howareyou? Iamhappy,” he said, beaming.

Just as Freddie was practicing his English, a man wearing a black sweatshirt and baseball cap sat beside us. He was a volunteer. He held a clipboard with maps of the United States to hand out to migrants—maps where he circled McAllen and then drew arrows to various destinations, as far as New York. He spoke in English with a Texas drawl. “I was born in Texas. My parents were born in Texas. My grandparents.”

His story spilled out. He told me about his 20 years as a Marine, his job as a truck driver, how he married his high school sweetheart who later died in a car accident. He had to raise their only daughter on his own. He brought his hand to his eyes and I could see he was fighting back tears.

Freddie watched. “What’s he saying?” he asked me in Spanish.

The man explained that he spends every day at the bus station, helping people. That he has a problem with his pancreas and that his doctor has given him six to eight months to live.

I covered my mouth with my hand.

“Tell me what he said,” Freddie begged.

The man wiped his eyes with his palm and moved on to help others. I thanked him for sharing his story. My heart was in my gut.

Freddie offered me a Cheeto.

My face must give away my emotions. “Muy emocionada,” says the man in the red fleece sitting with his toddler. Yes, I admit. I’ve always been this way. “,” Freddie says, like he’s known me more than an hour.

It’s time to go. When I say goodbye to Freddie, I hand him a meatball sub and a bottle of water I bought at the Subway inside the station.

Already, I want to go back. I want to work. And help. And translate. And bring people with me to bear witness, to see the migrant “crisis” with their own eyes and to play with the kids. And give them markers. And pass out notebooks and pens and snacks and scarves and hats. Because, if these are indeed the lucky ones, what does that mean for everyone else?

“Here,” I say, passing him a folded $20 bill. “Use it to buy your first book in the United States.”

Originally published in Cognoscenti, the ideas and opinion page of WBUR (Sep. 5, 2019)