On this year's Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead), we joined with members of the Detention Watch Network remembering the victims of the U.S. detention and deportation systems. We invite you to read this story of Guadalupe, an immigrant whose story is made up of different real life experiences, most of them lived by immigrants in Austin. As you read, we invite you to remember the people who lose their lives everyday at the hands of our cruel system.
Guadalupe Santos is a queer person born in El Salvador, a country with a lingering memory of being broken by a civil war funded by the U.S. that gave space for a chaotic present that is terrorized by a gang created by U.S. deportation policy. Now they stand in a country that never gave them a chance for a peaceful life and that has no future to offer. They make the decision to leave for the north where a promise of a better life is better than no promise at all.
Guadalupe has not felt safe in El Salvador in a long time, they cannot freely express their queer identity and have seen TV shows and read old magazines that suggest that in the United States things may be easier, but it’s hard to trust that because Guadalupe has talked to deportees who tell a different story. They know a transgender woman who was recently deported from the U.S. and told Guadalupe that she was arrested after she confronted two cops who harassed her on the street. The cops invented charges against Guadalupe’s friend, and she was cruelly misgendered and sent to an all-male detention center, from where she was deported in a matter of weeks. Guadalupe thinks of this story as they travel home from a factory job where Guadalupe works nearly 11 hours every day, making about $250 per month. Guadalupe doesn’t like taking the bus because buses are an easy target for gangs and other organized crime groups, but not taking the bus means that they would have to walk through a poorly lit area late at night. Guadalupe does not feel safe either way, but they are eager to get home to their mother’s cooking and their family’s comfort and company.
All these thoughts race through Guadalupe’s head as they consider leaving El Salvador, a thought that’s been in their head since their father was killed two years ago, but Guadalupe also loves their mother and younger siblings, they don’t want to leave and can’t imagine a life anywhere else, it’s a complicated situation, to feel like you have to rip yourself from your very own home and go to a place where you know you are not wanted, but Guadalupe knows they don’t have a choice but to leave the place and people they love behind if any of them is to have a chance at survival. They decide that when they get home, they will stuff a backpack and call the number their friend gave them 4 months ago, a coyote, who will take Guadalupe to the United States.
Guadalupe left with a backpack, trusting their life to a man they have never met. Their mother sobbed and their siblings asked many questions that went unanswered, that moment will never leave their mind, and the physical pain that accompanied the tears will never leave their body. Guadalupe crossed the El Salvador-Guatemala and then the Guatemala-Mexico border risking their life by getting on a train known as “la bestia” for the life, the limbs and futures it has taken. The horrors Guadalupe saw through the journey will mark them forever - they knew their mother must have been praying hard back home, no other way anyone can survive this journey, they think to themselves. They travel through Mexico, a country where the people look like them but don’t look at them, so they keep their head down and continue traveling to one more border.
Crossing unknown towns and crowded cities, they endured verbal attacks that leave their spirit scarred and physical attacks that leave their body bruised, so they move to the mountains and deserts only to hide from U.S. funded Mexican militaries and border patrol agents who push U.S. policy to prevent human migration within the Mexican borders. When Guadalupe finally makes it to Ciudad Juarez, their coyote abandons them. Guadalupe has very little money and worries that they will have to stay in Mexico if they can’t find a way to cross into the U.S. soon and on their own. But Guadalupe has heard the dessert stories and is terrified to get lost if they try to travel alone.
Almost out of money and alone in Ciudad Juarez, Guadalupe goes to a shelter, and notices people from many other countries, Haiti and India are the ones they heard about today. They imagine how far they had to travel to get to Mexico and how foreign this all must be to them. At night Guadalupe thinks of their family, and imagines what it would be like if people could travel and migrate freely, how much more connected and less broken we could all be, but they heard earlier that some of these Haitian and Indian migrants had to pay $30,000 to a coyote, and realizes that as long as it is lucrative to exploit humans, borders will continue to exist.
The next day, Guadalupe decides to cross with a group of 5 other migrants they met at the shelter, all of whom were abandoned by their coyote when they got to Ciudad Juarez. They all travels with swollen feet, clutching their hope through sleepless nights and restless days.
Guadalupe makes it into the southern border of the United States but somewhere along the journey they ran out of water, which left them with no choice but to turn themselves into the first Border Patrol car they saw. Guadalupe’s promises and dreams are broken by U.S. Immigration policies and hostile border patrol officers who tell Guadalupe in broken Spanish that if they didn’t want to be mistreated, they should have stayed in El Salvador. Guadalupe doesn’t know English, but they can feel the disgust of the Border Patrol officers, all three of them young and Latino, mocking Guadalupe’s dreams and hopes for a better future. Guadalupe is taken to a place that looks like a high security warehouse to be processed, an “ice box” another detainee tells them. On the way there, Guadalupe was accused of lying so many times that they lost count and this makes them feel hopeless, but they know that if they made it this far, they must continue fighting to remain here. The thought of giving up and going back to El Salvador lingers in their mind and there is a constant struggle inside of them, to leave or to fight, but Guadalupe thinks of their mother and knows that they must fight and find strength in places where it does not exist.
Guadalupe is transferred to a place called Hutto, a place that intentionally profits from every single immigrant body it holds within its inhumane walls. It takes them hours to get there, but they know that being far from the border means they may have another chance at remaining in the United States. When Guadalupe’s van is arriving at Hutto, they see a group of people gathered outside, they are able to read a sign in Spanish that says “No mas deportaciones” and for the first time since they crossed the border, Guadalupe knows that there are people who understand their struggle. At Hutto, Guadalupe tells everyone who would listen that they fled to find safety but no one is really listening to them.
Finally, days later, Guadalupe is told that they will have to tell their story once again in a Credible Fear Interview. Guadalupe asks what that means, but nobody tells them. In the meantime, Guadalupe forces themselves to think of their mother and say a prayer every time an officer comes around only to tell them that they will be on their way back to El Salvador soon. Guadalupe wonders what kind of school these officers must go through to learn to talk to people in this manner, it must be part of their training, they think to themselves. The day of the interview finally comes and during the duration of it, Guadalupe must prove their fear and danger from their country while officers whose job is to deport immigrants, question their lives at every turn, question their scars, question their intent of crossing. When the officers decide that Guadalupe isn’t lying they tell them that the interview was found credible, but that they won’t be released. Guadalupe doesn't understand, if immigration believes their life is in danger, why must they remain in a placed called detention, but which feels like a jail?
Guadalupe must now relive their story, their broken bones, and their scars to a judge who is taught by the law that immigrants are lying and need to prove their stories are true, someone about whom Guadalupe has heard many horror stories from other detainees. After the first court date, Guadalupe is told that if they pay a $10,000 bond, they can walk away from the detention center. Other detainees tell Guadalupe that they are very lucky, that almost no one is getting bonds granted these days, and Guadalupe takes this as a sign but doesn’t know what to do. The next day, Guadalupe receives a visit, a stranger who is there to provide emotional comfort, and while Guadalupe is thankful and knows that emotional comfort will be important at some point, their mind is only set on one thing, getting out of that place. Through help from the visitor, Guadalupe is able to raise the $10,000 and secure their release.
Guadalupe is given some papers, there’s something about an application that has to be done before a year passes, but Guadalupe doesn’t understand the papers and puts them away, they can’t think of what will happen in a year, all they can focus on is to survive the following day.
Guadalupe was released and quickly moved to Austin, Texas, “una ciudad santuario,” a blue dot in a red state, a progressive haven in a conservative land, an immigrant friendly town in an otherwise anti-immigrant place, or at least that’s what Guadalupe hears from the many people who have helped them after their release from Hutto. Guadalupe immediately finds work in a restaurant and the things they hear about Austin from their coworkers are different from what they have heard before.
Guadalupe hears that Austin is also a city where it was rumored that the cops ask you for your documentation status, where the jail is the first step to deportations proceedings, where policies are not passed to protect immigrants lives because empty promises allow deportations to thrive and with nothing in the books, immigrants are left alone to survive. Guadalupe is now working and able to send money to their family back in El Salvador, the only thing that keeps them going most days. Austin is quickly becoming home, though the rent is too expensive, even with 4 roommates, and Guadalupe wonders how much longer they will be able to afford living here.
Then comes the summer of 2017 with a legislative session directed to demean, dehumanize and perpetuate oppression. Guadalupe quickly learns who Abbott and Paxton are and that they are racists, just like Donald Trump. The 10pm news almost always include something about immigration so watching the news becomes a stressful ritual but Guadalupe wants to know what’s happening.
Guadalupe learns that anti-Immigrant laws had been attempted before but that all those attempts became a reality with Senate Bill 4, and that sanctuary cities and immigrants became more of a target. The attack on immigrants lives continued and allies issued statements of the blatant overstep of this hateful legislation yet policies protecting immigrants remained a non-priority for local elected officials and the institutions that vow to work for them, and a non-reality for the 100,000 undocumented residents of Austin.
Through all the hurdles and restrictions Guadalupe found a job and worked countless hours, did whatever was asked and received whatever they paid. It became the routine, Guadalupe went from home to work and work to home. Yet at night Guadalupe’s tired legs become restless, toss and turn with vivid dreams of a violent homeland, the silent home and quiet room just reminds them of a horrible journey.
Guadalupe worked a lot and saved money to hire an attorney, to whom they paid $5,000. However, the attorney told Guadalupe right before their final hearing that they didn’t have a good case and it was best if they didn’t go to court. Guadalupe wanted to trust the system and knew that even without an attorney, they wanted to ask the judge for a chance to hear their case so they went to court. Unfortunately, the judge was hostile and told Guadalupe that they had many chances and had no choice but to order them removed, but not before they made Guadalupe tell their story all over again. Guadalupe was deported, but they didn’t want to lose their job and used the little money they had to come right back to the United States. This time, they were not detained. The trauma and pain they experienced that week have not been spoken of again, too much to bear for Guadalupe.
Guadalupe was able to retain their job in Austin and went right back to it. Then Guadalupe met Ayana, who became their spark in the monotony, their partner and confidant. They relished each other’s presence but struggled every month to make ends meet. Exhausted from work and getting home long after sundown to a pile of bills, the two begin to argue, voices raising as all the pent-up strain and hurt are released. Trying to calm down, Guadalupe rolls and lights some marijuana that their friend gave them for the pain in their legs. Ayana is the first to see the APD car roll up and takes a breath to see what will happen.
Two officers get out and bang on their door, Ayana opens it as Guadalupe quickly puts out their joint. One officer says that a neighbor reported a “domestic disturbance” and demands to know what happened. Guadalupe, not knowing what that means but outraged at this intrusion into their private life yells at the officer in Spanish to go away, nothing is happening here and it’s none of his business. But the officer pushes into the house anyway, smelling the marijuana, and says he saw Guadalupe smoking through the window. He puts them in handcuffs as Ayana pleads in broken English that they didn’t do anything, and why are you taking them away? As the officers shut the door of the patrol car Guadalupe shouts to Ayana not to worry, they’ll be okay.
Guadalupe is in the back of the police car, thinking of the news of the many black men and woman unjustly killed at the hands of police officers, they shiver at this thought and know that there is nothing they can do if a cop decided to shoot them right then and there. Guadalupe closes their eyes and focuses on Ayana’s face, their mother’s face, just a little strength, just a little more, they think to themselves.
Guadalupe sits where they’ve been before, concrete walls, metal bars and rubber seats waiting to be interrogated. What state are you from, what’s your social security number, can I find you under any other name, please answer don’t make me ask again? Guadalupe’s fingerprints are taken from their shaking hand, their information sent over to the Department of Homeland Security, who will recognize the last name as that of a minority and ask the sheriff to hold them voluntarily for 48 hours longer. An ICE hold is now what’s in control of Guadalupe’s fate, an ICE interview that’s followed by a call to their consulate is what is separating Guadalupe from being returned to a nightmare that they thought they escaped. Guadalupe’s loved ones hurry and scrape their money together to hire an attorney and they are free for the moment with a notice to present themselves to court. The time has finally come for Guadalupe to report in front of a judge, the evidence filed and sorted out waiting in the lobby when two officers in plain clothes ask, “Are you Guadalupe Santos? We are here to escort you out.” Guadalupe again feels the stress of being arrested but knows this is different this is re-entering the detention and deportation process.
Guadalupe again rests her head on a metal bed near the border, with a cellmate who cannot control her tears or contain her pain. The woman says she and her husband were picked up in Houston and were victims of human trafficking. She keeps describing these graphic images of her trip to the states. Her husband is now dead and gone so she continues to curse the Polk Detention Center for their neglect. The trip she said it wrecked their life, it left her husband weak when he arrived there they never medically checked him and expected all his chest pressure would go away with water and alka-seltzer. This is their second attempt to come into the country so they can’t bond out. Her cellmate has been in detention for 6 months and she just found out her husband had gone out of his cell showing signs of heart failure explaining all his previous behaviour. He died right then and there. Guadalupe just sits and stares at her cellmate feeling the prison become colder wondering if they will ever leave this metal bed near the border.
After months and months of detention the inevitable came a judge ruled that they were not eligible for any kind of relief with no money, no attorney, no resources or any other hope they could foresee they took the deportation order. They were flown back to the country they had fled it was more violent than what they recalled, their first steps off the plane were taken cautiously so that their body could get used to the new ground.
A few days after they landed, Guadalupe’s body was found lifeless.
No lawyers, judges or ICE officers were around to prove a “legitimate” entry into the United States and earn the right to stay. Instead, their loved ones just mourned and prayed for a safer passage.
The detention and deportation systems are deadly forces. Immigrants from all over the world travel here every day, like Guadalupe did, looking for a chance at survival. We are not doing enough to protect them. Every month or so, we hear of a cruel detention or deportation story, a 10 year old detained while looking for medical care, a man shot after his deportation, an older man from Haiti who was mocked because of his age and ultimately lost his life at the Krome Detention Center in Florida...the horrors go on and on.
We remember those stories and say that we are all responsible for this accumulated suffering, one day, perhaps sooner than we think, we will have to answer for it as a country. Remembering these lives are only the first step to recognizing our own humanity. We have to recognize that there is power in this community, that there are elected officials who could have done more to protect Guadalupe’s life. That remembering is necessary, but not enough.