Twenty-two women and their children sit in two enclosed sections of benches between the vending machine and the door to the bus bay of the downtown Greyhound station. They are travelers, but they are different from the people that are waiting in line for tickets or wandering the terminal.
One mother pulls out a cell phone and dials a number. Her son, about 12, wearing red athletic shorts and a generic baseball T-shirt, takes the phone. He clutches the device and speaks excitedly to whoever is on the line.
Another woman, an El Salvadorian, has a cell phone, too. In the phone’s photo app are the last images she took of her of 12-year-old boy before he was dismembered by El Salvadorian gangs. She doesn’t pull it out right away — she has three other children to watch.
Unlike the other two times I visited the bus station, it does not smell like urine — at least not inside the terminal. Several bus station employees actively move through the crowd, sweeping the floor, collecting candy wrappers from the window sills.
The children run throughout this little indoor enclave within the station where the women sit. They color on paper on the floor, they fish toy cars from under the vending machines. Between the children on the floor and their mothers on the benches are red reusable grocery bags and Adventure Trails backpacks.
The tote bags contain the women’s possessions, which are few — only that worth hauling over 2,000 miles from Honduras or 1,500 miles from Guatemala. Nestled among their possessions are the sack lunches given to them at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, a detention facility 70 miles southwest of San Antonio. The women also received a pair of tennis shoes, a long sleeve shirt, and a red or blue sweatshirt. There are no brand markings on any of the garb.
The mothers call their daughters over so they can groom their painstakingly neat braids while tucking their own stray hairs into messy buns.
ICE supplies each detainee with a boxed lunch containing two meals and a hygiene pack, according to Adelina Pruneda, an ICE spokeswoman. However, volunteers with Interfaith Welcome Coalition (IWC), an interdenominational group that helps immigrants and refugees, say it’s not enough.
IWC gives the women backpacks containing a blanket, a bag of toiletries, a bag of snacks and a coloring book for the children. They keep packs of generic Hot Wheels and a plastic bag of dolls on hand. The most important thing they provide the women is a piece of white paper with a map of the U.S. on one side and their departure, layover and arrival information on the other.
The mothers all wear virtually the same expression. They smile with their mouths and cheeks, but it doesn’t reach their eyes. They are trying to be strong for their children.
The women and children are asylum seekers. They have convinced an asylum officer there is a credible threat to their safety in their home country and have been allowed to temporarily stay in the U.S. while petitioning for asylum. “Asylum” is a fraught, loaded term in America these days, but the technical definition is a legal status “granted to people who have been persecuted or fear they will be persecuted on account of race, religion, nationality, and/or membership in a particular social group or political opinion,” according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. About 57 percent of asylum seekers are denied, and 90 percent of the women who do not have attorneys are deported, according to Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), a research center at Syracuse University.
“This woman said she was held for 26 days before she was brought here — by men with guns,” Rosie Maldonado, a IWC volunteer, translates from one of the women. Maldonado explains coyotes — people who smuggle others into the country for money — held the women and children in a home south of the Rio Grande.
“One of the women said there (are) three ways to come here: the desert, the river and over the fence,” she explains.
For most of the morning, the kids are just happy to be kids. One or two boys have their faces hidden in their mother’s sweatshirts, but most of the pack explore, laugh and make games out of the scraps of supplies.
“My kids would never be this well behaved in a similar situation,” I overheard one volunteer tell another during a past trip.
Lunch time rolls around, then passes. Normally, the volunteers bring lunches for the families provided by a San Antonio chapter of Mobile Loaves and Fishes, but something went wrong and there are no meals for the day. Volunteers in the past have purchased food and set up buffet lines, but today there are too many people to accommodate.
All the women wear tags with their departure time and destination. Most of them are slated to leave after 5 p.m. The women are saving the food from IWC and ICE for their late journeys.
Just before 1:30 p.m., a second white bus, this time from the detention facility in Karnes, pulls up on Pecan Street and lets off 17 individuals. Their bags are half the size of those from Dilley. They have been given navy blue and white pull-on shoes, but no long sleeves or sweatshirts.
A little girl in a pink sweatshirt from the Dilley group is playing with one of the dolls — a Hispanic girl with red bows on her head, striped tights and a floral tunic. Her brother, 10, walks over and takes the toy from her. He throws it on the bench and grabs her hand before pulling her toward the restrooms across the station. Their mom stares blankly ahead while they walk off.
Sometime after lunch, the children begin to watch people use the vending machine with thinly veiled jealousy. It has been at least four hours since the first families arrived, and the atmosphere has changed. The room has started to feel colder after hours of sitting on the metal benches. Most of the children return to sit next to their mothers.
The volunteers have slowed down. They are sitting among the women and watching Greyhound employees out of the corner of their eyes as it gets closer to some of the women’s departure times.
On the other side of the seating area, the boy with a long face and short bangs begins unpacking the backpack looking closely at the gallon-size plastic bag of toiletries containing several pads for the women, black hair ties, two toothbrushes and several bags of off-brand tissues, among other things.
Once he is done, he replaces the bag carefully in the backpack before pulling out a freezer-sized plastic bag containing several Quaker granola bars, at least three packs of Welch’s Fruit Snacks, two Austin Crackers, Annie’s organic bunny crackers and trail mix. The boy carefully considers all the items, then begins distributing them among his things in one of the red tote bags. These are his only possessions in the world now.
The little boy and his sister come back from the bathroom. He picks up her doll, much more gently this time, and passes it to her before climbing on his mother’s lap. The girl takes a seat nearby and plays with her doll for a bit.
Without a single sound, tears creep into their mother’s eyes. She keeps her head above the little boy’s and turned away from her daughter.
The girl begins to fuss. She throws the doll aside and wants to sit on the mother’s lap. The boy moves without being asked and helps her up. Then he carefully tucks away his sister’s things before sitting back down. Though young himself, he is already taking care of his sister like a parent.
“Her son was killed,” Maldonado explains.
A while later the woman crosses the aisle to sit next to me and Jose Arredondo, my co-worker.
He watches her take out her phone. Later, he told me he was praying she would not show us the photos of her dismembered child. But, I wanted to see them. I thought if I did I would somehow understand how she not only survived his death, but made a 1,700 mile journey with three kids in tow.
In one photo she shows us, his hand is separated from the rest of the body, covered in bruises. The skin itself is yellow, drained of life and blood.
In another photo, his head, dislocated from his body, is on the end of the sheet where his feet should have been. The body parts are mostly pooled in the center of the sheet, as if someone picked it up from both corners, like a bindle, and delivered it. Maybe they did.
In the last series of photos, the plastic bag has been moved into a casket. All the boy’s body is covered now. Someone rearranged them so the outline under the sheet is a little boy once more.
Her son was killed by the local gang because they wanted him to deliver drugs on his bike and he refused, she said.
Her husband was also “disappeared” by the gang. She does not know if he is alive — but it is not likely.
The mother had be silently crying when she sat down, but her tears had dried as she flipped through the photos stoically. She seemed to find comfort in showing them to us.
At the time, the photos did not make me feel anything. I did not, or could not, confirm if it was really her son. I looked at them to memorize the color, the order of the parts, the way the skin hung low on the severed wrist so I couldn’t see the bone or the red fleshy innards one expects from TV crime shows.
It wasn’t until hours later that the nauseated feeling set in, and it stayed for days.
I did not ask the woman for her name, or for her husband’s. Maybe I should have, but the volunteers had warned me about gang retaliation, and after seeing one family member lying chopped up in a sheet, I couldn’t work out the ethical minefield fast enough to ask.
The three-year-old girl realizes her mom’s phone is out and begins to cry on the floor. Her mom scrolls through her photos, away from those of her dead son, until she gets to several of her family members.
She gives the phone to the little girl, who begins swipe through them. She stops at each photo to announce who is in it.
“Papa,” the toddler says once. The women often do not cross the border with their husbands because men are not allowed in the family detention centers. Sometimes, they try to cross together and are separated during the grueling trip or at the border.
Several women, including most of the women I had interacted with, have begun to cry silently. They seem good at hiding it from their children.
The rest of the women have moved to the back of the section to pass around a few makeup products — just to do something normal.
By 4 p.m., the group has started to dwindle. The mom and son with short bangs are eating bread from the sandwiches Dilley gave them. The mom is spreading mayonnaise on the roll — they ate the rest of the food, including the meat and cheese from the sandwich throughout the day.
She sees another mom and child watching her and pulls out the second piece of bread and another pack of mayonnaise. The other mom takes it gratefully, and the four eat in silence. They share a small smile and a laugh over the bread.
“I want people to come here and meet these women and then see what they think,” said Jan Olsen, a long-time volunteer with RAICES, a nonprofit group that provides legal aid to immigrants. By “people,” she means those who take a hard stance against immigrants and refugees.
A runaway toddler joins the group, but she does not belong to any of the mothers. She is with her family — just another bus customer. The girl appears to be Hispanic, too, and about the same age as the three-year-old in a pink sweatshirt from Dilley. Her mother follows, smiling bashfully in at the women. She is well dressed, and appears unsure of what is going on, but she seems to sense these women are different than her somehow — that they have less.
The two little girls play for a few moments. They communicate without many words — they just point and shake their arms and giggle. All the asylum-seeking mothers smile and wipe their dried tears.
Thirty minutes later, the women in the second box of seating, including the mom who lost her son and the boy with the short bangs, go to stand in line to get on the bus.
Three white hipster-looking 20-somethings move into the area. They buy food from the snack bars and talk casually while watching the news. They move easily and freely. They laugh. They are unafraid, unlike the women sitting there just moments before them. For a second, it’s like the women and children were never there, and their journeies have been erased.
The backdrop: some facts about asylum and IWC
In 2014, in response to the wave of unaccompanied minors that flooded San Antonio, the Obama Administration opened family detention facilities in Dilley and Karnes. Soon after, Presbyterian pastor Kelley Allen, now deceased, founded IWC with the help of several other congregation leaders.
IWC began helping women and children at the bus stop and in the airport. At that time, ICE was leaving some families at the station the day before their bus took off. IWC, with help from RAICES, began taking the women in at night. Eventually, they rented a house on the near Southside of San Antonio from the Mennonite church, which has been a linchpin in the entire process.
In December 2016, ICE dropped off about 500 women and children in a single weekend. After that event, they began mainly dropping off families with same-day tickets.
IWC redoubled their efforts at the bus station in response to the change. Volunteers, including Sister Denise La Rock, Lena Baxter, Jan Olsen, Bert Clayton, and Rosie Maldonado, and countless others, have been working almost every day this year to make sure these women and children have the supplies and know-how they need to travel safely from San Antonio to their destination.
Prior to Hurricane Harvey, there were hardly enough volunteers to staff the bus station, but following a flood of press coverage — because ICE left 50 women stranded at the station — the number of volunteers surged. The group is now preparing to once again staff the airport with volunteers to help families traveling that way.
The most recent data available is from 2015, when the U.S. granted just over 26,000 cases of asylum, according to the Migration Policy Institute (MPI). Of those individuals, 5,672 were from the Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala), which is where most of the asylum-seekers crossing through San Antonio originate.
In 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol intercepted 46,900 unaccompanied children and at least 70,000 family units from the Northern Triangle at the Mexican-American border, according to the MPI.
The women who cross through the bus station are facing tough odds for gaining asylum; 89.6 percent of asylum seekers from Mexico, 82.9 percent from El Salvador, 80.3 percent from Honduras and 77.2 percent from Guatemala were denied asylum from 2011-2016, according to Syracuse University.