When I told my mother that I had agreed to travel to El Salvador, she told me one thing, "No vayas. Es un país de pura violencia," or "Do not go. It's a country full of violence." Deep down, I knew she was right, but after spending time volunteering at the Sacred Heart Church in McAllen, TX and meeting women and children who were fleeing this violence that my mother spoke of, I knew I had to go.
But I never imagined that my first international trip since leaving Mexico 14 years ago would be to El Salvador, and much less under these circumstances. But after my time at the shelters in the Rio Grande Valley, I was overwhelmed with feelings of injustice, heartbreak, outrage and with a responsibility to find the truth. I saw firsthand the pain of refugees knocking at our nation's door trying to stay alive. We can't forget that this debate must be centered on the simple fact that they're human beings.
I traveled through San Salvador, Santa Ana and San Miguel and listened to heartbreaking stories like that of Luis, who is a young Salvadoran deportee who had recently been sent back from Mexico. He attempted to flee after La Mara Salvatrucha, the country's most powerful and notorious gang, killed one of his close friends in front of his eyes. Luis understood that being back in El Salvador could mean death.
Life for deportees is filled with uncertainty. Seeing 114 young men and women, who looked just like the Dreamers we fight for back home, "welcomed back" by police and immigration officials at the Salvadoran airport was overwhelming. I felt a knot form in my throat as I looked into their fear-filled eyes, many of them in shock that they were right back to the circumstances from which they had fled.
The deportees were processed, and one shared a poignant quote with me when he said, "If one makes it to the U.S. and they are able to send money back, you're seen as a hero. But if you fail, you're seen as a criminal, a failure and a burden on your family."
As my trip went along, the complexities of the crisis started becoming clear. I understood that the "coyotes", or smugglers, are not much different from the U.S.-based corporations that have the goal of making profits by operating private prisons, including those that hold and detain immigrants. The latter have quotas that they need to fill each day. They criminalize our families and take advantage of our community's moral crisis and circumstances. Similarly, the smugglers see the immigrant and refugee community as dollar signs, with smugglers charging anywhere from $7,000 to $10,000 per person, and they often further extort those with family members in the U.S.
But Josselyn, a 23-year-old woman who had been deported, shared that she had never felt more humiliated than while under U.S. immigration custody, meaning that even after enduring a brutal journey, on top of trains, under threat from drug cartels, is still dehumanized even after finally crossing the border into America.
She was placed in the horrendous "hieleras", or the ICE detention centers that are so frigid that they're nicknamed the "freezers", for 5 days, fed only twice a day and given water that tasted like Clorox. During the flight to El Salvador they were shackled until 10 minutes before landing, but she continue repeating she was just seeking a better life by fleeing poverty and violence. Deep down she knew she should not have been treated like way. Through it all, she still told me, "they couldn't break me down. I'm still human."
I witnessed firsthand family separation after meeting Sandra. Deported two years ago, and a mother of a four-year-old boy, who's named Barack ironically, Sandra was sending a care package to her child who stayed back in Los Angeles. Sandra broke down and asked if she could come back to the U.S. with the group.
The resilience and courage of El Salvador's youth, and those who decide to stay was inspiring. Many times I witnessed them say, "I am not only the future of our country. I'm also the present as well as the future of our country."
It was clear though that migration happens for many reasons, and Professor Jaime Rivas of the Universidad Centroamericana summed it up best when he told me, "the crisis is not only at the border. The crisis begins once a mother or father decides that they or their children must take this difficult journey."
As my trip was winding down, I realized that my mom was partially right about the violence. Many people rightly flee to avoid the same fate felt by thousands of people in El Salvador every year. But at the core, I was reminded of the love and courage my mother had when she herself decided to migrate.
Our parent's courage is the same courage Salvadorans have to keep their families alive. The solution to this humanitarian is not expedited mass deportation of children and families. This calls for our country to live up to its values of love and compassion. We're better than the loud minority of radical right wing politicians in Washington, D.C. who are seeking to deport refugees to their possible death. We can't forget they are human. They are children, mothers and fathers.