Beyond Trafficking and Slavery: Feature

Hope lies on the other side of the border

Some children will go to great lengths to try to help their families

10 May 2022, 6.00am

Looking out over El Paso, Texas and Juárez, Mexico

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Hugh Mitton/Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

Norma

I think people work to get ahead. To get a house. To buy food and clothes for their families. I have never had a paying job, but I help a disabled lady nearby clean her house. I also fix her meals because she can’t do it herself. She reminds me of my grandmother, who lacks strength in one arm and can’t lift heavy stuff. She didn’t get some vaccine when she was little and now needs crutches to move around.

My grandmother used to work at the maquiladora (assembly factory), and when my mom was old enough she worked there as well. Back then they didn’t ask you for papers. I have pictures of the two of them working together; mom was about 15 or 17. The job was not so bad. My grandmother wasn’t on crutches yet, but over time she lost strength and had to stop.

We went to live with an aunt when my mom died, but soon we will move in with my grandmother. There will be six of us together: my grandparents, my two sisters, a 16-year-old brother, and myself. I have three brothers in all. The youngest has worked in construction since he was 14 or 15. The other two are married and live elsewhere. The eldest is 19. He is the one who wanted to cross the border so that we could all have a good life.

He was 15 or 16 when he first said he was going to cross. He was already working in construction, but he wanted to make more money so that he could help us. Mom told him not to go; that he wouldn’t get a job anyway because he was underage. But one night, after we had all gone to bed, he met up with two friends and they tried to cross through the mountains. It was his decision. He got caught and my parents had to pick him up from child protection services. They were mad – since he was underage they could have gotten in trouble.

He wanted to cross the border so that we could all have a good life.

They told him not to do it again, but a few years later he tried anyway. That time he went with my youngest brother and an uncle. They nearly got there. My brothers had already made it over the railway tracks, but my uncle has diabetes and can’t run very fast. My uncle told them to go ahead and leave him. But my brothers said, ‘No, we came together so we go back together. We are not going to leave you here on your own.’

US Immigration separated them when they caught them. Immigration sent my older brother and my uncle back, but not before throwing away their backpacks and my uncle’s cellphone. We had a very hard time getting my little brother out. We looked for him all over. We didn’t know where he was until we got the call from child protection to go pick him up at the bridge.

That was two or three months ago and now they are back working in construction. None of my brothers have gone back to school. My mom had wanted them to study, but they wanted to do their own thing and work. I think in part it’s because my dad was in construction; he had taught them many things before he died. I used to feel bad knowing that they were working instead of going to school. But then I realised they simply wanted to help my mom. These days they buy us everything we need: shoes, trousers, shirts, everything.

My brothers never tell me their plans, or what they want to do next. We hang out as a family but we don’t talk about the future. Instead we talk a lot about mom and dad, of the things we used to do when we were little. We look at pictures, we laugh a lot. I really like my life. Eventually I want to go back to school and study business administration. I want to go to a real school, with real teachers. I think I learn better that way.

It’s funny. When I was younger I felt happy about what my brothers were doing. I used to think, ‘Cool, they’re going to get to know the other side.’ But now that I’m older I don’t feel the same way. I’m afraid somebody might do something to them if they keep trying to cross. Or that, because we no longer have our parents, child protection might decide to simply take all of us away.


This story is part of a series of testimonies from children and mothers living in Ciudad Juárez, on the US-Mexico border. The children were all caught crossing into the US, either to pursue personal aspirations or to smuggle people, and are now receiving restorative justice services from the NGO Derechos Humanos Integrales en Acción. The testimonies were prepared alongside DHIA's advocates and have been edited for clarity. The illustration of the speaker is a fictitious rendering produced by Carys Boughton (All rights reserved). The speaker's name has also been changed.

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