LOS ANGELES — The caseworker told Alex Ramirez he was being released from the immigration shelter, so the 10-year-old packed what was left of his belongings into a donated shoulder bag. He put on the rubber Tony the Tiger bracelet he wore for good luck and sneakers emblazoned with red flames. Then he visited a nurse for the last of eight mandatory immunizations, and she asked a version of the question he had been hearing for the past six weeks.
“Can you be brave?” he would later recall her asking in Spanish, and he told her that yes, he could.
He had been brave ever since leaving El Salvador at night in the company of a stranger and traveling more than 2,500 miles to cross into the United States. If there was one skill he had acquired during his long journey, it was how to affect toughness — how to stiffen his shoulders and spike up his wavy black hair with gel to make himself look a few inches taller and a few years older. “Estoy bien,” he remembered saying, again and again, to the trafficker who brought him and abandoned him, the Border Patrol agents who caught him, and the caseworkers at three government-run shelters who asked if he was okay. “I’m fine.” But in fact he was tired from the stiff cots, nauseated from the strange foods and anxious even now, as he waited at the shelter to be picked up by a mother who had left him behind six years before.
“Released to a family residence,” read an inscription on his official paperwork, but this was a family he could barely remember and a residence he had never seen.
For most of the 80,000 unaccompanied children who have crossed the southern U.S. border illegally in the past year, the next phase of their journey is now underway — the complications of becoming accompanied. They join estranged families, overwhelmed public schools and immigration courts backlogged by their cases in a country where nobody knows which children will be allowed to stay and which will be forced to go. President Obama has said that most of them will be sent back, but so far his administration has said that he has deported almost none.
The number of children crossing the border has recently decreased, and youth shelters are beginning to close, but what some politicians herald as the end of an immigration crisis is really just the beginning of another. “What will happen to me now?” Alex had asked his caseworkers, and he said that none had given him a satisfying answer.
He watched from a window as his family walked toward the shelter. From photographs, he recognized an aunt, a cousin and a 5-year-old sister whom he had never met. A woman trailed behind them, older and heavier than Alex remembered. The caseworker asked Alex if it was his mother, because a rule stated that he had to identify her before being released. “Yes,” he said, even though he had stopped calling her his mother years before.
She ran toward him and he stood in place. They hugged, and she stepped back to look at him. He had his father’s dark eyes and his mother’s flattened nose. There were wispy hairs beginning to grow on his upper lip and scrapes from the desert brush fading on his arms and ankles. “You’re so skinny,” she said, speaking in Spanish, and he gave a half-smile and followed her to the car.
He was quiet as they exited the lime-green shelter and drove through the main gate, his eyes fixed out the window. So many cars, so many buildings, and he recognized none of them. He barely spoke until they reached the freeway, and when he finally did his voice was small and uncertain.
“Where are we going?” he asked.
It had been six weeks since his mother, Yessica, called him in El Salvador and told him it was time to pack: one outfit, two pairs of sneakers, a toothbrush and a piece of paper inscribed with her phone number and her address in the United States. He was coming, she told him. He was old enough. It was time. She had borrowed and paid $5,000 to a trafficker, who would pick him up in two days.
“No,” Alex said. “I’m not leaving.”
He had spent all of his life in the same house — first with both parents before his father left for the United States in 2007, then with his mother until she followed to the United States in 2008, and since then with his grandmother. Theirs was a place of bamboo walls, dirt floors and only three rooms, built by his great-grandfather near the base of an active volcano that sometimes showered the house in ash. They were 90 minutes from San Salvador, three blocks from the elementary school where he was voted the funniest student, one block from the pick-up soccer field where he was regularly chosen captain and two houses down from his uncle and cousins.
And what did he care about the United States? The only connections he had to the place were weekly phone calls with his mother and a package she sent each month, with $400 for his grandmother and gifts for him like shoes, remote-controlled cars and video games. He told her he would rather run away than live with her. He said he loved his grandmother more. “It has been too long,” he said. “You barely know me.”
What she knew was that some of the gifts she mailed to her son each month were being stolen — Nikes beaten off her son’s feet and cash skimmed by drug cartels, which demanded monthly payments from families who received money from relatives in the United States. Thieves had broken through the house’s bamboo walls, so Yessica sent a few hundred dollars to rebuild parts of the structure in concrete. They broke in again, so she mailed more money to install a steel door. The Mara and Calle 18 gangs were spreading outward from San Salvador, recruiting mostly 11- and 12-year-old boys, killing more than 400 people some months.
Even if she could somehow keep the gangs from entering the house, she couldn’t barricade her son inside. Lately his grandmother said he had been disappearing for a few hours after school, returning home with bruised knuckles and scrapes he blamed on soccer.
“This is not me asking,” Yessica told her son. “This is me telling you that you’re coming.”
She assured him that he would make it to her safely, even if he got caught by the Border Patrol, because the U.S. government had made it a policy to reunite unaccompanied children with their parents whenever possible, even if those parents were in the country illegally, like Yessica and her husband. She also promised Alex that he would have a fast trip, because she had paid extra to the trafficker for special treatment. She said he would ride on an air-conditioned bus. The journey would last four days. He would be allowed to call his grandmother and his mother at 7 each morning. He would never have to walk for more than an hour at a time. The trafficker would deliver him across the border and take him to Los Angeles by car.
At last Alex consented to go, sneaking the new Nintendo Wii his mother had sent into the bottom of his backpack, but the trip he would later recount to his family bore little resemblance to the one his mother had arranged. He rode on a bus for the first few hours and watched a dubbed version of a movie about Steve Jobs, but he said that mostly the trafficker put him on a train, crammed onto the roof with dozens of other crossers, sweating through the days and shivering during the nights. The trafficker tossed his Nintendo Wii to lighten their load and threw away his cellphone to reduce the risk of getting caught. He walked Alex a half-mile short of the border in the predawn darkness, took his backpack and told him he was on his own, because that was the deal for a $5,000 discount rate.
So Alex ran by himself, repeating his mother’s phone number in his head, terrified he might forget it. He said he climbed over a high fence and followed a two-lane road until he saw a Border Patrol unit, and when the agents shined a flashlight in his face and asked his name he couldn’t think clearly enough to answer. He recited his mother’s phone number instead.
He reached her on the phone five hours later, from a detention facility in Calexico, Calif. She heard his voice and began to cry. He had made it. They would be together. “Thank God,” she said, and then she asked if he was okay.
“Everything you told me so far has been a lie,” he said.
He walked into his new home for the first time, and his mother held his hand to lead him on a short tour. The view out the window was not of a volcano but of a freeway and apartment high-rises. The floor was covered not with dirt but with plush carpet, coloring books and crayons. The apartment complex had a locked gate, security cameras and a swimming pool; a sign out front said “Happyland.” This was the home where Alex would live with his parents, his sister, an aunt and a cousin.
He unpacked his things into one drawer of a dresser and slept on a bed made up with his sister’s ballerina sheets. The apartment was still quiet when he awoke the next morning in his cousin’s pajamas and walked into the living room to borrow his mother’s phone. He downloaded an airplane game and lay back on the couch. His mother came into the room and sat in a chair across from him.
“Estas contento, mi hijo?” she asked — are you happy? — and when he didn’t answer she moved next to him on the couch. “Your first day,” she said. “What do you want to do?”
A caseworker had given her a packet of information about post-traumatic stress, which included tips on facilitating a smooth transition. “Make the child feel special,” read one suggestion, so she had already brought home McDonald’s for dinner and doughnuts for breakfast, and bought tickets to visit the zoo. “Treat all siblings equally,” read another, so she had stored her daughter’s favorite toys in a closet, putting away her tablet and her bicycle until she could afford to buy those things for Alex, too. “Find out about your child’s wants and needs,” read another, so now she began a conversation with her son that felt more like an interview.
“Do you want me to throw a homecoming party?” she asked.
“Not really,” he said.
“We can have music,” she said. “Do you like music?”
“Not if I have to dance,” he said, still looking down at the game on the phone.
“Your grandmother says you love chicken. What if I cook that?”
“Sure,” Alex said.
He had yet to look up at her, and now she remembered another piece of advice from the caseworker’s packet: “Engage the child in something familiar.” She left the room and returned a minute later with a few hundred photographs of Alex’s childhood. After she left for the United States, Yessica purchased a digital camera and sent it to her mother, who would take pictures of Alex in El Salvador and send the memory cards back to Yessica. She flipped through the photos, and Alex set aside the phone and looked with her. Here he was on his 7th birthday, smearing green frosting onto his face. Here he was singing in the choir at church, dangling upside down as his uncle lifted him by the ankles, picking coffee with his grandfather and playing a Nintendo Wii with his grandmother.
“She would hit all the wrong buttons and get so mad,” he said. “Then she would get more mad when I laughed at her.”
“You miss them,” his mother said, more a statement than a question.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” he said.
“I understand,” she said, because she did.
She had left Alex in 2008 while he slept in the bed they shared, in part because she wanted something better for them both than what her grandfather had done and what her father had done and what her brothers were doing and what she had done every day since she turned 11 years old: picking coffee in the fields, sorting red beans from green, $4 for each 100-pound barrel and three barrels on a good day, until her back went stiff and her hands turned raw. So she had decided to pay $7,500 to a coyote and join her husband in Los Angeles, with plans to send for Alex as soon as he was old enough to leave.
Did she have regrets? That was one of the questions the psychologist had asked, after she spent her first two years in the United States in a depressive haze, and the truth was that yes, she had regrets every day. She cried in her sleep. The sound of Alex’s voice over the phone took her breath like a punch to the stomach. The loneliness made her feel desperate, and on one of the worst days she remembered walking to a park and tapping a police officer on the shoulder, hoping he would deport her. But he spoke no Spanish and she spoke little English, and when she pointed south toward El Salvador he thought she was only asking for directions. He apologized and walked away, and she went back home and waited for days to pass.
She gave birth to her daughter, and that made her a little happier. She got a job at a soap factory for $9.50 an hour, and that made her happier, too. She sent back enough money to keep her mother out of the coffee fields and her son in school, and every two weeks she stood at the instant-photo counter of a nearby drugstore waiting for images from a memory card to develop, so she could watch her son grow up.
Alex knew none of these things. The packet from the caseworker said not to overwhelm him with information, to take it slow.
“I’m sorry,” she said, reaching for his shoulder, as he continued to flip through the photos.
The first place he wanted to go was not the zoo or the beach, but just a park. “Can we walk around, play some soccer?” he asked his mother, so she packed a picnic and chose a nearby place with open fields, a lake and an ice cream stand. His father and his aunt took the day off from work, and they brought along his sister and his cousin. They stopped at a shoe store to buy Alex new cleats and then drove to one of the biggest parks in Los Angeles. It was a Saturday afternoon, and the place was alive with music and the smells of barbecue. His cousin hurried toward the playground. His sister ran off to go see the lake.
“This place is huge,” Alex said, following his sister, grabbing her arm, running with her toward the water.
He saw people fishing and asked his mother if he could fish, too. He watched a man fly a remote-controlled airplane and asked if he could have one. He saw another little boy throwing bread to some birds and asked if he could feed them also.
“Slow down,” his mother said. “You can come back here whenever you want.”
He asked to borrow her phone, and she reluctantly gave it to him. “I don’t want you playing that game all the time,” she said, and he promised he wouldn’t. He said he wanted to take pictures he could send back to his grandmother, just as she had taken pictures of him. He walked around the lake, stopping every few yards to photograph whatever interested him. A large bird. His new shoes. A playground. A kite. His sister’s long braids. The blue sky over the San Gabriel Mountains.
Then he gave the phone to his mother and asked her to take a video of him. She flipped around the phone to capture her son in this moment: a 10-year-old in a T-shirt and cargo shorts on his first outing in America — not yet enrolled in school, not yet on the dockets in immigration court, not yet sure if he would be allowed to stay in the United States or if he would want to. He was just beginning to experience what the caseworker’s packet referred to as the “emotional rollercoaster” of transition: “anger, sadness, anxiety and uncertainty.”
But the camera captured none of that. His mother pressed play, and for a few seconds her son turned silly, wiggling his head, spinning in a circle, jumping, walking to within an inch of the water’s edge. He swept his hand in a grand gesture over the lake and the park, and started to narrate for the grandmother he imagined might be watching.
“Estoy aqui,” he said. I’m here.