In the lobby of the El Paso International Airport, a desperate journey and a painful separation culminated in a reunion full of hugs — and licks.
A family seeking political asylum in the United States was reunited Wednesday with the dog they brought on their four-month journey from Venezuela, much of it on foot. The family and the dog were separated from each other in El Paso.
Simba, a small black and brown mixed breed with large ears and a face vaguely reminiscent of a dachshund, has been a part of the family since he was born in February.
In an emotional scene, little Simba, tail wagging wildly, ran to meet his humans, who held him close with smiles and tears.
“(We feel) joy,” said Yurimar, 35. “He is part of the family, he’s my youngest child. He’s the one, along with our children, that gave us the strength to make it all the way here.”
El Paso Matters only identifies migrants by first name because many are fleeing violence and fear for their safety.
A ‘member of the family’
Yurimar and her husband, Johnny, 38, left Venezuela on March 10 with Simba and their three children to seek political asylum in the United States. As former government employees, they faced political persecution, including not being allowed to purchase food at subsidized prices through the government-monopolized Local Supply and Production Committees. The committee has been criticized for corruption and for its use as a tool of political control.
With little money for travel expenses and food, the family walked most of the 2,300 miles from Venezuela to southern Mexico. Simba, still a young puppy when they set out, rode along in a backpack as they slowly trekked through Colombia and Central America.
In Tapachula, a Mexican city near the border with Guatemala, Johnny earned money working in a migrant shelter. With his wages, and help from the office of United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Tapachula, they were able to make the last leg of their four-month journey to the United States border.
“We had enough money to buy (bus) tickets,” said Yurimar. “We came the whole way without eating. We, the adults, did not eat so there would be food for the children and Simba.”
When the family crossed the Rio Grande from Ciudad Juárez to El Paso on July 12, they turned themselves in to the first Border Patrol agent they saw. Initially, they were greeted with threats against Simba, Yurimar said.
“We thought we would never see (Simba) again because the (Border Patrol) treated us badly when they saw the dog,” Yurimar said. “The (agent) said he was going to throw the dog into the river. He told us to get rid of him or we could not get into the vehicle. Then another vehicle came, and that’s when they told my son to get into his truck with the dog, and the rest of us went with the first one.”
Once at the processing facility, the family was again confronted with the threat of losing Simba. Neither the processing facility nor the temporary shelter the family would be sent to allowed animals. Fortunately, one of the agents on duty “was moved” by the children’s emotions and decided to help, Yurimar said.
A ‘strange request’
Ruby Montana is a University of Texas at El Paso lecturer and an animal lover. Along with her brother, she founded Bridge Pups Rescue, a group devoted almost exclusively to finding homes for street dogs that often make their way alone from Juárez onto the international bridges and across the border into El Paso.
On July 12, Montana received a message from a Border Patrol agent that began, “We have a strange request … we had a family group of 5 that turned themselves into Border Patrol custody this afternoon. The dog is a male 5 months old.” The agent asked Montana for help in finding a foster to care for the dog while the family was cleared for entry into the United States.
While dogs as pets are permitted to enter the United States with families, they must be vaccinated for rabies and in good health, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection guidelines.
Border Patrol officials in an emailed statement to El Paso Matters said that “it is rare to encounter migrants attempting to enter the United States traveling with a pet.” In the El Paso Sector, pets are typically handed over to the custody of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or local authorities in El Paso County or New Mexico.
Because Simba’s vaccination records had been stolen and Border Patrol facilities do not allow animals, agents surrendered Simba to the city’s El Paso Animal Services. Montana was able to connect with Kathy Patterson, an experienced dog rescuer and foster in Chaparral, New Mexico, through social media that night.
The next day, Patterson picked Simba up from Animal Services.
“It was originally supposed to be for two or three days, but I was perfectly glad to keep him for a little longer,” Patterson said. “He’s such a sweet little dog.”
Montana kept in touch with Yurimar, sending photos and updates of Simba.
“It was obvious that it was a huge relief to her knowing that Simba was OK,” Montana said. “And she sent a couple of voice messages for Simba and seeing his reaction to hearing her voice was just really, really special.”
On Tuesday, Montana found out that the family was ready to be released. But the non-profit organization that paid for their airfare to New York did not pay the additional pet fee for Simba. She also discovered that Yurimar, Johnny and their three children “had absolutely nothing except the clothing that they were wearing.”
Montana again asked her social media followers for help, and donations poured in to buy clothing and basic supplies, and to purchase a ticket for Simba to travel with his family.
On Wednesday evening, Montana and Patterson parked at the airport and unloaded four backpacks, three suitcases and one small dog.
As they walked into the airport lobby, the three children and Yurimar spotted Simba from the far end of the ticketing lobby. They ran toward him with arms outstretched, Johnny following close behind. Simba leaped from Patterson’s hold and raced to meet them.
They collided in a joyous confusion of caresses, licks, hugs and tears.
“Seeing that moment, just seeing the emotion, seeing Simba’s tail wagging so quickly, seeing them crying — hands down, it was one of the most fulfilling moments of my entire life,” Montana said. “Those kinds of moments, they don’t come every day.”
Simba’s 12-year-old human sister said that she can’t wait to play with him and cuddle him to sleep again after the difficult journey from Venezuela.
“Now, I want to be somewhere stable with my family,” she said.
With Simba safely stashed in a pet carrier, the family walked beneath a large American flag and toward the start of something new.
“He’s my youngest baby,” Yurimar said. “Thank you to everyone, thank you for reuniting my family. We needed him.”
Disclosure: Corrie Boudreaux does short-term fosters for Bridge Pups Rescue.