Hell in the Icebox
—Tata Dios. Tata Dios… [Father God. Father God…] – Felipe came to Nogales from northeast Guatemala. He doesn’t speak English. He barely scratches the surface of Spanish. Felipe is a Guatemalan boy who only speaks mam.
In the beginning of July, a few days before the United States celebrated another Independence Day, a wave of mam children began to arrive at the detention center in Nogales. “We’ve done everything we could, but we can’t understand them either… they almost exclusively speak the language of their indigenous communities”, a prominent Salvadoran consular agent in Arizona explained. Guatemala has no consulate in Tucson or Nogales. A few consular employees from Phoenix eventually travelled the 300 kilometers to attend to the migrants to this country.
Thousands of kilometers away, Martín, a social worker in Maryland who requested that he only be identified by his first name, listened to stories like Felipe’s and started a channel on Facebook to look for mam interpreters from the Guatemalan community in the Washington metropolitan area. He was unsuccessful.
People could eventually understand a bit of Felipe’s story through signs and pictures. His face told more of the story during the one phone call he was allowed to make to Guatemala from the center in Nogales. (According to Central American consular sources, as of July each child is allowed one phone call without exception to his country). He learned that someone had tried to kill his mother.
— Tata Dios, señora, Tata Dios [Father God, ma’am, Father God] – the boy screamed when he heard the news from his village. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents followed up on his case. They were interested in finding out what had happened in Huehuetenango, Felipe’s village. In the end, they confirmed that delinquents had attacked his mother and that she was later taken to a medical center and reported in stable condition. According to the consular agents who heard his story, Felipe left his village to flee from the same violence his mother faced. For now, he’ll go to a shelter. He still can’t identify any family members who could take care of him in the United States.
“Lots of kids are like him. They lost everything they had, which was never much, during the journey. Some of them told us how they hid papers with the names and phone numbers of their families in their underwear and then lost them while they crossed the river”, a Salvadoran consular agent told us.
This is one of the stories from the detention center in Nogales, where twenty or so journalists traveled this past June 20. They saw a softer version of the migrant children’s crisis. Their guided tour took them through the more photogenic side, the least ugly side.
There’s a lot of silence during the guided tour. The children don’t speak. They don’t even whisper. A few smiles don’t do much to hide the weight of their stories, the stories of the children who have left behind their mam communities, the stories of those who have made the risky journey north from countries where little hope is left.
But there was nowhere to hide from the cold during the guided tour. The cold hits hard.
The kids call this place the hielera [refrigerator]. In the center in Nogales, the cold strikes you as soon as you walk in, especially because you’re coming from the desert, that scorching immense dry flatland made of thick white sand that reaches across Sonora in northern Mexico and Arizona in the southwest United States. Migrants have walked this path for decades.
The cold hits hard, and so does the desert heat. According to many of the dozens of children locked up there, it can get worse that 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit). The desert dries up their mouths and leaves open wounds on their skin.
From the outside, the icebox in Nogales looks like a prison from an aerial shot in a Hollywood movie. You see rectangular structures made of grey and brown cement, barbed-wire fences, spotlights, sirens on cars and armed guards. On the inside, it’s like a horror movie. The children’s stories are terrifying.
S.G., a 17-year-old Guatemalan girl, came to the refrigerator in Nogales in the middle of last year. She stayed in two other refrigerators before that.
S.G. crossed over to the United States in McAllen, the Texas border town buried in the Rio Grande valley and the other epicenter of this migratory crisis. According to a social worker she talked to several weeks after she was taken to the refrigerator, when the CBP agents arrested her, they started hurting her. This is her horror story, reconstructed from that interview.
“I came from Guatemala with my daughter. She’s a year old. I was in three iceboxes for around nine days. In the first one an official yelled at me: ‘You came to this country just to steal our money’… They didn’t let me change my little girl’s clothes, only her diaper.
“In the second icebox, the agents didn’t give me blankets or food or diapers for my little girl until the third day. They didn’t give me medicine either, but I could tell that my little girl was sick. In the third icebox (Nogales) they didn’t give me food either, not until the third day. My little girl was hungry. She cried and cried. She was hungry in all three iceboxes”.
A Salvadoran consular agent told me she asked one of the agents why it was so cold, why the temperature was so low. “He told me that the cold kills the microbes”, she said with a grimace. She has interviewed dozens of minors from her country who have been detained in Nogales since the beginning of the crisis. She agreed to share her experiences anonymously so as to be able to speak freely. While she talked, she rested her hand on a Formica desk in the Salvadoran consulate in Tucson, 90 kilometers from Nogales. Her hand was a few centimeters away from the kits that the agents give to the children who come to the iceboxes: a clear plastic bag with a yard of shiny silver material that looks like aluminum. They use it to protect themselves from the cold.
That’s an image that hits hard too, seeing so many aluminum blankets together, draped over dozens of children and their babies. Then their stories hit you again.
“Y.R. is sixteen. They arrested her with her two-year-old son. A CBP put both of them in a cell with 30 other people, the majority of them adults. Y.R. says that the cell was a ‘freezer’ and that they didn’t give her even a bed sheet. On the third day in the cell, Y.R.’s son had fever symptoms. In the beginning, the young girl was afraid to tell the guards about her son’s condition because she had seen them yell at anyone who asked for help… An official accused her of lying about her age. He said, ‘sixteen-year-old girls don’t have children that are over a year old’”.
The testimonies of Y.R. and of S.G., both Guatemalan girls, are two of the 40 listed as examples in a collective law suit for 116 cases of abuses allegedly committed by CBP agents against Central American minors. Five NGOs representing the minors brought the suit before the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in Washington during the second week in June, shortly after Obama began to call the children’s situation on the border a humanitarian crisis.
The journalists’ visit to Nogales also allowed them to see the rectangular warehouse from a distance. It’s divided into sectors with movable fences made of metallic netting. That’s where the minors sleep. On the day of their visit it didn’t smell bad. Usually, according the social workers, consular agents and children who have been there, it stinks of sweat. Of bodies that have gone for up to twenty days without showering. Of shit.
“Today it smells less. I came to interview the children over the course of ten days. When I first got here you could smell poop… In the beginning there were just a few latrines, then they brought in some of those green plastic bathrooms, but the odor spreads…” says a Central American consular agent who visited Nogales at the end of June.
According to Ashley Huebner, the coordinator for the prosecuting lawyers, they’ve decided to take advantage of the spotlight that Obama himself put on the border crisis to make public the abuses the minors have suffered at the hands of United States agents for some time now. The abuses, says Huebner, haven’t received enough attention from Washington.
Over the course of the crisis, there has been little talk in the United States about these abuses, though the subject of underage migrants has given rise to a handful of special audiences on legislative committees in Washington. Jeh Johnson, US Secretary of Homeland Security, went to one where Senator Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina proposed that Obama deport all the children who have arrived since October. The crisis has also generated a new wave of petitions that the repatriations be stopped from the Latino lobby to the White House. There have been conversations about the budget, about executive actions and about the political implications the crisis will have for democrats and republicans in the legislative elections next November. And there’s also talk of the disastrous situations in the countries of origin of these minors. Little has been said to denounce abuses committed by U.S. agents on U.S. soil.
In the end, and in summary, the immediate solution from Washington, at least the one drawn up in the budgetary petition Obama presented to Congress, does call for more attention to the iceboxes. And it calls for more deportations. The children who have been in the system since the crisis began will be repatriated. Vice President
Joe Biden said it during his recent visit to Guatemala. Secretary Johnson also said it in Guatemala. Josh Earnest, White House spokesperson, also said it. And the DHS administration has already started doing it. Last Tuesday the first chartered plane flew out of the United States. It held exclusively Honduran minors. Children have also been deported to Guatemala, but they traveled with their families.
Other stories stay locked up in the icebox in Nogales. Felipe, the boy from the mam community, has a story. The Rodríguez brothers have a story.
“In the other cage, he got violent. I have to tickle him a little to calm him down.” Juan, who is 11 years old, is the younger of the two brothers. He explains to the social worker that he always has to be close to his 13-year-old brother, Byron.
The Rodríguez boys came with their aunt, a fifteen-year-old girl, and two of their little sisters. Their aunt and the girls were allowed to stay together. Juan and Byron were going to be separated, but the older brother started attacking the other children that were locked up with him. He grabbed one hard by the neck. Juan hugged him from behind and started tickling him to calm him down. That’s the only way Byron would let go of the other boy’s neck.
Hector Silva is a reporter with Plaza Pública in Guatemala. The full version of this story is here http://www.plazapublica.com.gt/content/el-infierno-en-las-hieleras-0
*The majority of the names in this article have, like Silvia’s, been changed at the request of their protagonists or of the others who told stories of children who travel through Mexico with coyotes and cross the border into the United States by themselves.
Translated by Jenny Marie Forsythe