This summer, there has been an unprecedented increase in the numbers of women with children and unaccompanied minors entering the U.S. from Central and South America. At Casa Juan Diego, we are often asked how this change has affected us. Although we are not able to house children traveling alone, we do accept mothers with children and currently have three families living with us who were part of this recent surge. There was, however, another woman who passed through our house over a month ago, and her short stay was one we will never forget.
She had three children and was from an indigenous community in Guatemala. Her husband had been living in Seattle and had sent for his family. With her young children in tow, she had made her way across Mexico, somehow navigating the trails and the weather and the people lying in wait for vulnerable travelers. We never found out how long it took her or the specifics of the trials she must have endured on that journey. Upon crossing the U.S-Mexico border, she was apprehended by immigration officials and placed in detention with her children, like thousands of families and children in recent weeks.
After a wait there, they were put on a bus, presumably headed for Seattle. It was here, under circumstances alien to her and speaking not a word of English and very little Spanish, that she lost her way. The bus stopped in Houston and she did not know how or when to get back on. She was found wandering in the street with her children under the midday sun, holding their bags. Someone called the police, who called us at Casa Juan Diego and attempted to get her into the police car to take her to the house. Terrified of police due to her experiences in Guatemala, and speaking only her indigenous language, it took her over an hour to get into their car.
She showed up at Casa Juan Diego just after noon on a Sunday with her children clinging to her legs. She was frightened of everything – of me and the other Catholic Workers, of the house, and of the street, where she said she had seen a man walking earlier. Several times she attempted to run away from us into that same street. After at least 30 minutes, with the police-men and myself pleading with her in Spanish and her husband on the phone urging her in their language, she walked through the door and sat in our entrance area. We were told that the husband was boarding a flight from Seattle and would arrive later in the afternoon.
The family looked hot and tired, so we brought some food- which they refused to touch- and tried to move them to the library, just ten feet away. At this point, she broke down completely. The children sobbed while their mother cried and repeated religious phrases over and over in Spanish- probably most of the Spanish that she knew. Madre, Jesús, ¿por qué murió?
We managed to move her into the comedor, the dining room. One of our guests, a woman from El Salvador who had been through a harrowing border crossing herself, happened to be there and took the woman into an embrace on her lap, comforting her. This woman held the newcomer, along with her three children, for several hours and never moved or said a word about the discomfort.
The mother alternately clung to our hands and gripped her children so tightly that their shirts strained tightly around their necks. Her smallest boy, 4 years old, began sliding to the floor with his eyes rolling back in his head and closing. We tried to give him water, food, anything, but he wouldn’t take it and the mother only pushed it away from him. Not knowing when they had last eaten or had something to drink, we began to fear for his immediate health. He was so small and seemed to be fading. For this reason, Louise called 911 for medical attention, explaining that the mother was hysterical and could not be calmed.
Not only paramedics and firemen arrived, but several police officers as well. We think they must have been from the mental health unit of the HPD because they were helpful and appro-priate, not forceful, in this difficult situation. It was quickly established that the mother was not thinking or behaving rationally, that she had been so traumatized by her trip and her experiences in the detention facility that she simply could not hold herself together any longer. The journey had been too exhausting, the detention stay too foreign and cold and miserable. The officers tried to ask her for the names and ages of her children, but she would only say “Saber, saber…” (Who knows?) and return to her religious phrases. The only break in those words came when she suddenly switched to her native language and spoke rapidly and intensely for almost ten minutes, looking directly at us. Although none of us could under-stand her, we felt that she was telling us her story of all that she had been through in arriving here. I wondered what her children thought, hearing it all again.
Finally, the officers decided to peel the children off her, one by one, and sit them at the table. I brought some beans and rice, but the youngest boy was the only one who ate. He spooned food into his mouth so fast that he vomited after only a few minutes. The police asked again for the children’s information, and her middle son, only 6 years old, summoned bravery that many little boys could not have found in his situation. He told the policeman, in Spanish, his name and age and those of his sister and brother.
By this time hours had passed, and the mother continued to be unrespon-sive to any attempts at interaction and seemingly unaware of her children’s suffering. After discussion with the officers and medical team, they decided that the best decision was to have the mother placed in the hospital for psychiatric observation. The children would wait for her at Child Protective Services (CPS) until she could be evaluated further.
Bilingual police women came to join in the effort. The officers wanted to remove the mother first for fear that if she saw her children being taken away, she would become even more upset. This meant that we had to carry the children into a side room as they screamed for their mother. She was put into an ambulance and CPS workers came for the children. The middle boy was emotionless and nodded when asked if he was okay; the girl, 9 years old, had not stopped crying since she arrived at the house and kept asking for her papá. One of the police-women promised to contact the husband and father with information on his family’s whereabouts. The CPS car drove away, and the house was quiet but for the lady from El Salvador, weeping as the woman’s pain reminded her of her own.
Impossibly enough, this story turned out as well as it could have. The father arrived in Houston that evening and the next day picked up his wife (now calm) from the hospital and his children from the CPS office, and then came to Casa Juan Diego to collect their bags and papers. The father seemed overjoyed to be with his family, as they were with him. They were given food and clothing for the trip, and they went on their way to Seattle.
This family was a tiny piece of the flood of women and children who are mentioned daily on the news in alternately kind and disparaging terms. Please remember, when you hear these reports and read the numbers, that each person has a story – and please pray for them.
Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXXV, No. 4, September-October 2014.