After years of fear and terror, a Salvadoran woman prepares to come to the United States
Parents the world over desire a secure environment in which to raise their children. For mothers like Fatima, it seems that security is a dream that exists just over the line that separates Mexico and the United States.
In September, as she sat at a table in the Juárez kitchen she shares with five other families, her belly softly rounded in pregnancy, she shook her head in resignation.
“If the police in (my country) killed my uncle, and the police here kidnap and ask for ransom, where in the world can we go to find security?”
Fatima, 32, is waiting — along with her husband and three children — for their asylum claim to be processed in the United States. Under Migrant Protection Protocols, they were sent back to Juárez after crossing the border and turning themselves in to Border Patrol agents in El Paso in October 2019. They have lived in a migrant shelter in Juárez as their wait approaches the two-year mark. She asked that her real name not be used because she fears for her safety.
With U.S. immigration courts closed by the pandemic, Fatima’s asylum hearings kept getting postponed.
“The lawyer has even taken me across (the border) for an interview, but no, they sent me back again,” Fatima says. “So I say, what do they want? Do they want our bones to arrive there, our dead bodies, or what?”
When February arrived, Fatima found out that the family’s case had been postponed again — to November. “We’ve suffered a lot because (our plan) wasn’t to stay here in Juárez, it was to cross and stay with family, so we’ve been getting desperate,” Fatima said. “We hope that there’s a resolution and that they tell us, you know, if we’re going to be able to cross.”
Then last week brought good news. The new Biden administration was ending MPP, allowing thousands of migrants — primarily from Central America and Cuba — to enter the United States while they pursue asylum claims. It’s not yet clear when Fatima and her family will be allowed to cross.
“We found out (about the change in MPP) through social media. There were still some doubts, but even so, on the inside, we felt happiness because finally there will be justice. Because I believe that it was unjust that we have been here so long waiting.”
Fleeing threats and insecurity
Fatima and her family left El Salvador, where they farmed beans and corn, after a spiral of events that began with a group of young men harassing her son at school when he was in seventh grade.
“He would come home and say, ‘Mom, there are some guys outside the school asking about us.’ And, ‘Mom, they were there again.’ Then they told him they wanted him to jump into the gang. And he said, ‘I am a kid, I am in school.’ But they told him, ‘Either join the gang or we’ll kill your mother.’ He came home telling me this, crying.”
Fatima and her husband then made the decision to take their son out of school and keep him home, out of reach, they hoped, of the gang members that were threatening him. She received news that made the situation even more urgent: men “dressed like police” had murdered her uncle and his three stepsons. Then these men arrived at her house to deliver a message.
“They told us that if we didn’t want the same thing that happened to my uncle to happen to us, that we should do what they say. They wanted money. They said, ‘I am going to kill all of you. But it will be one by one, and you will watch.’ They beat my husband, holding a pistol to his head.”
After that, Fatima and her husband talked about leaving the country. They waited only long enough to obtain copies of the children’s birth certificates and then abandoned their home, telling no one of their plans. Two days later, the men arrived looking for them and began to question their relatives. Her husband’s family denied knowing anything about their whereabouts.
“They said to his brother, ‘Tell them that we’re going to look for them under every stone and we will find them. And when they come back, we will be here waiting,’” Fatima recalled. “That is why I am afraid to return, because I know I will be risking (my children’s) lives.”
New dangers in Juárez
Though their journey to the U.S.-Mexican border was difficult, their arrival in Juárez only posed a greater threat to their lives. Federal police stopped them as they approached the Paso del Norte Bridge. Though Fatima claimed that she and her family were Mexican, the police insisted that they knew otherwise.
“They said, ‘We know you are immigrants and you want to get to the United States. We can help you,’” Fatima says. Feeling they had no choice, they got into the vehicle and then arrived at a police station. Officers took the children away to another room and began to threaten Fatima and her husband, stealing their cell phones and the little cash they were carrying.
“The one that was supposedly the chief began to say, ‘I am going to take your children away.’ ‘Why?’ I asked. ‘For the simple reason that you’ve taken them out of your country.’ I said to him, ‘Do you have children? Because just as you would defend your children however necessary, I am defending mine. You don’t know why I left my country, so don’t judge me.’
“Then they told the (children) that they were going to give them away to be adopted and they began to cry. My oldest son told them, ‘My mother has never abandoned us. I don’t want to be in a gang, that’s why my mother is fleeing with us.’ The police told him, ‘Why don’t you join a gang and stay here with us?’”
For a day and a half, police held them in custody, threatening to imprison Fatima and her husband and take away their children, while offering no explanation except that they were “fixing their situation.” Finally, the following afternoon, they were released. “If we ever see you here again, we’ll detain you again but this time we’ll disappear all of you,” the officer said to them, before pointing the way to the Rio Grande and the U.S. border.
Confused about the experience but relieved to be free, they continued toward the United States. “I knew something bad had happened to us, but I didn’t know what it was,” she explained.
Entering the United States, and leaving quickly
The family crossed the border in October 2019 and turned themselves into Border Patrol agents, who, according to Fatima, did not ask them basic screening questions about whether they feared returning to their country or to Mexico.
“I thought they would have asked me, ‘What happened to you on the journey, were you with anyone, did anyone say something to you?’ No, they did not ask us anything. Nothing. They did not ask me, ‘Why are you coming from your country?’ Nothing.”
The family was entered into the MPP program and sent back to Mexico in spite of the threats police there had made against them. Once back in Juárez, they made their way to the shelter where they currently live.
Fatima was able to contact her mother, who lives in the United States, for the first time since she had been in custody with Mexican police.
“She said, ‘But are you OK? Are the kids OK? Who had you?’ And I told her, ‘The police. They were dressed like police, they had a badge here that said Federal Police and a Mexican flag on their arm, they took us to a police office where there were other police, police posters, all that. How could they not be police?’” Fatima said.
That was when she realized for the first time that those same police had contacted her mother to demand a ransom.
“Then she says to me, ‘They called me and said that if I wanted to ever see you alive again, I had to pay them. I told them I wanted to speak with you, but they only sent me photos.’ There was a photo of my children crying, and also a photo where I had my head down, crying. ‘You were kidnapped and you didn’t even realize it,’ my mother said. Thank God nothing more happened. But it was horrible.”
Her mother borrowed from friends to scrape together $4,000 in ransom money and wired it to Mexico. Months later, Fatima disclosed the kidnapping to her immigration attorney and even provided proof in the form of the photos from the police station and receipts from the money transfer, but she never considered making a report to Mexican authorities.
“I don’t dare,” she said. “I may have to give this address here where we are living, and I am afraid they will come to look for us, and they will say that because they are police they can take us away.”
Adjusting to a new life in Juárez
Since they arrived at the shelter, her two older children have enrolled in school and her husband has found intermittent work in Juárez. But for Fatima, the time has passed in near-total isolation and fear.
“I shut myself in because I am afraid,” she says with a self-conscious smile. “Sometimes I laugh at myself, but I know the situation I went through. I am afraid and it’s better to just not go out.”
Fatima was pregnant with their fourth child, which has added another element to her fear. “I need to have prenatal check-ups, but I haven’t even gone because I am afraid.”
Her situation feels so bleak, and the waiting so interminable, that at times she wants to give up and return to her home country in spite of threats against their lives. “My oldest son tells me, ‘But if you return, then what? Do you want to see me in a gang? Or do you want them to kill me?’ No, of course not. I don’t want any of that.”
If they are not granted asylum to stay in the United States and reunite with her mother, they are not sure what they will do next. Fatima’s husband has talked about staying in Mexico because, he tells her, “you know what will happen if we go back.” But for Fatima, remaining in Mexico seems just as dangerous.
“The only hope we have is that we will be able to cross to the other side. There are many people who maybe want to enter (the United States) for the American dream, but others of us who want to enter because we truly cannot be in our country. Because we know that if we go back to our country, anything could happen.”
Living with trauma — and hope for the future
Fatima only vaguely alludes to the lasting trauma of everything that she and her family have survived thus far. Her oldest son is an outgoing and polite teenager who spends time every day helping the pastor who runs the shelter. Her husband, whom she describes as “quiet,” disappears when journalists show up for interviews. Her two other children remain close by as she describes threats, beatings, and kidnappings.
Her husband survived the beating gang members gave him back home, but at least one of the children remains emotionally scarred by what he witnessed that day.
“He became very fearful of everything,” she says. “I don’t know, that has just stayed with him.”
A psychologist visits the shelter regularly to offer counseling to the residents, but Fatima hesitates to confide in her. “There’s a pain I have in my heart, and we just have to be strong and find strength where we have none.”
Fatima had hoped to give birth to her daughter in the United States, but she knew that was increasingly unlikely. She delivered the girl at a Juárez hospital on Monday.
As she prepared to give birth and enter the United States, the rekindling of hope is evident in her face. She will see her mother for the first time in more than 20 years, since she was 11. And, finally, she feels that the dream of security for her family may be within reach.
“I will feel safer being with my family (in the United States) and I think we will be far away from crime, from so many things that I have lived through. I believe that being together with my family, I will be able to move past that. With this news, well, it makes us very happy.”
Cover photo: Fatima prepares dinner for her family in September. Then five months pregnant, she was afraid to leave the shelter where she lives to seek prenatal care. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)