The Immigration Crisis In Texas Through The Eyes Of Ronny
Story and photos by Alejandra Garza
Exclusive to the GPHN
Ronny is 9 years old. He’s shy, polite and has a smile that lights up a room.
The first thing I noticed about him was the fact that he was wearing a wool sweater – on a 97-degree day in McAllen, Texas. When I got closer, I noticed that he was actually wearing two sweaters, three T-shirts and two pants. And worn out tennis shoes with no laces.
It was all he owned in the world and he wanted to keep it close.
A month ago, Ronny said goodbye to his mother and sister in San Salvador, El Salvador. He and his father, Juan, set off for the United States seeking to escape the brutal gangs that have assaulted the young boy, terrorizing him to join them.
It’s the rare bright spot during a time of stories about child separation and zero tolerance immigration policies. The center has a unique relationship with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials. Under an agreement, ICE contacts the center when they release detained immigrants from local processing centers under what’s known as personal recognizance, with a promise they will face charges in court at a later date.
To ensure this, each adult is wearing an ankle monitor and their whereabouts are carefully recorded. Then, and only then, are they released to the custody of a relative or family friend who agrees to assume responsibility.
Lest anyone think this is amnesty, remember there is still a long road ahead. Individuals must present their case to an immigration judge in order to win an asylum case. According to a recent New Yorker report, in 2017 fully 60 percent of people seeking asylum were rejected.
Stories of children
During the two days I was in McAllen, we saw about 300 people arrive at the center – all adults with young children. The youngest child was six months old. Most, including Ronny, ranged from 6 to 10 years old.
It’s the stories of these children that have moved us as a nation. We imagine their long journey across several countries, holding their parents’ hands, sleeping on streets, walking for days or weeks, begging for charity along the way, all while trying to escape desperate poverty, violence, or hunger. Only to arrive in this, the land of immigrants, and be forced into detention and then ripped from the arms of the only person they know – their parent. It is the stuff of nightmares.
I can offer no greater proof of this movement than the dozens of volunteers that I worked alongside at the shelter.
And it was also the reason that motivated my own trip to the border. I joined a group of friends from Denver, five in total, to make the trip to Texas, and help on the front lines of this crisis. We flew down on a late Thursday night to Austin – the closest and most affordable airport – where we rented an SUV and drove through the night to Brownsville.
Once there, we slept for an hour and then met up with my colleague from the ACLU of Texas, who explained the situation on the ground. The news was not good. Since we weren’t allowed to volunteer in an ICE detention center, I didn’t have high hopes of helping these children separated from their parents. So we decided to help at the humanitarian center, folding clothes, sweeping floors, and serving meals – doing whatever they needed.
We were not alone. The first day, there were two dozen church members from Austin. They were not Latino and not Catholic but there they were, feeding families, changing diapers and helping individuals fulfill their basic needs.
And then I saw Ronny.
Six days in la hielera
I’ll never forget the look of sorrow on his face when I explained that, for his own good, we would have to take off all the extra layers of clothing. It took me a moment but then I realized what he had done. You can travel much lighter if you wear all your clothes.
I reached for his hand and took him to find a shopping bag. We carefully folded each precious belonging as he pulled them off until he was wearing a sleeveless T-shirt and track pants. The only thing he wanted to get rid of were his shoes. They hurt his feet. Imagine walking for 17 days with shoes that hurt. I can’t.
Over the next few hours, Ronny and I talked. He described the horrors he experienced in his hometown at the hands of brutal gangs that controlled the streets of his neighborhood. How it was too dangerous to even go to school alone, but with both parents working, it was his only choice. How he left behind a little sister who cried as he walked out the door – not sure if they’d ever see each other again.
He spoke of his journey – long hot days full of new towns with dusty streets. Of friends he and his father made along the way. Of finally reaching the Rio Grande River and being very brave when his father placed him in an inner tube to cross. Of reaching the other side and searching for border officials to turn themselves in and explain why they had made the trip.
And then, the harrowing details of being separated from his father in the detention center and taken to “la hielera” – the icebox. He described a cell with other children where they slept on the floor and were given “plastic sheets like the ones you wrap chicken in” – I assumed he meant Mylar blankets.
He was separated from his father for six days. He said he didn’t care what the other children thought, he cried constantly.
The journey ahead
On Saturday, the day I met Ronny, he was reunited with his father and released from detention. Their plan was to travel to Maryland to await their court date under the supervision of an uncle, a fellow immigrant who has found a job and an apartment.
That same evening, Ronny and his father returned to the bus station ready to continue their journey. I gave them my phone number and the little money I had in my pocket.
I am glad they are together and safe, but I know there is still a long road ahead. The odds are not in their favor, but I hope the judge will be moved by this little boy’s brave story.
Sunday night, I returned to Denver. I have a photograph we took together that I printed out and keep at my desk. My Denver friends are making plans to go back once a month to help out. The trip changed their lives. I don’t have that luxury. I’ll try to go back when I have more vacation time. Meanwhile, I’ll keep my phone close by just in case Ronny calls.
Alejandra Garza is field director for the ACLU of Colorado, and a former television reporter. Ronny’s descriptions of his journey from El Salvador was verified by his father Juan, who also gave permission to publish his son’s photo and story.
• Catholic Charities responds to families in crisis. https://www.catholiccharitiesrgv.org/HumanitarianRespiteCenter.shtml
• The Metro Denver Sanctuary Coalition works to provide sanctuary to immigrants and their families: https://www.metrodenversanctuary.org/visit_us
• The ACLU of Colorado protects, defends and extends the civil rights and civil liberties of all people in Colorado. www.aclu-co.org
• Slate Magazine has published a resource-rich story with detailed information to better understand federal immigration policy, as well as national groups providing a multitude of services and ways to volunteer. Check out the story at: slate.com/news-and-politics/2018/06/how-you-can-fight-family-separation-at-the-border.html