The blaring of a train whistle and a gush of wind sweep the girl awake. She has been dreaming of oceans with flying fish. She has never seen vast bodies of water but they coalesce in her imagination from overheard snippets of conversation. She never talks to fellow travelers on La Bestia. She has learned it is best to stay apart, to seem tougher than she is.
“Riders on The Beast risk a great deal—robbery and assault by gangs who control the train tops, or the loss of life or limb in a fall. Only a fraction of the immigrants who start the journey in Central America will traverse Mexico completely unscathed—and all this before … entering the United States and facing the considerable U.S. border security apparatus designed to track, detain, and deport them.” – The Atlantic
Ensconced by tinkling forks and snatches of laughter, I raise my wine glass to toast your release from the Eloy Detention Facility. But the tiny ocean of red waves crashing against the sides of my glass belie the tight ball of raw nerves and clenched muscles I’ve become. When I dropped you off at the Greyhound bus station this morning—to travel to your sponsor’s home in another state over twenty hours away—you hugged me hard and told me not to worry, reminding me you had survived more treacherous journeys than this.
The girl sleeps when the locomotive stops. When the beast lurches forward, she hugs its hulking mass as if it were her mother, who she fights to keep alive in her receding memory. For months, or has it been years?, she’s been hopping trains, holding on tight, searching for the sea as a means to stay awake. Time has become an anachronism, survival having replaced it as the only useful metronome.
On January 19, 2018, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents boarded a Greyhound Bus going from Orlando to Miami, Florida. Agents demanded proof of citizenship from every passenger. One woman, who could not provide proper identification, was taken off the bus and into custody. Days later, frantic family members learned that she had been placed in deportation proceedings. A concerned passenger video-taped the encounter and posted it on Twitter.
My cellphone rings. It’s Rosie. I push away from the white linen tabletop, rush out the heavy restaurant doors. “What is it?” my panic courses through miles of electromagnetic waves. “It’s her, she just called me, Border Patrol stopped her bus. They’re asking everyone for I.D. She’s scared. What do I tell her?” The universe folds into itself like a piece of origami, my insides pulled outside, my outsides sucked inside. “Tell her to show them the xerox-copied piece of paper they gave her at Eloy—the one with the faded mugshot and smudged fingerprint.” Rosie hesitates, “Do you think that’ll be enough?” I plead, “It’s gotta be, that’s the only form of I.D. she has. Tell her to tell them that she has a lawyer and to call me immediately if they have problems with her paper.” Silence, then, “Okay, I’ll tell her.”
There are moments on the train when the girl wants to cackle like a witch or howl like a coyote. Like when tourists, standing below, motion for her and other riders to pose so that they can take pictures with their fancy phones. How strange, she thinks, but forces a crooked smile anyway. Perhaps they’ll take her picture back to the United States so that people there can see what people like her will do for a sliver of a chance at life.
“Ms.____’s PTSD is severe. However, she may not look to an observer like she is suffering from PTSD. Factors in her personality serve to camouflage her anxiety, fright, and isolated sense of herself in a dangerous world … she puts powerfully troubling feelings aside so that feelings of anxiety, rage, or terror do not interfere with competent task performance or cogent speech. She can be aware of this division herself when she says, ‘I know I look calm, but inside I am shaking all over.’” – Expert Witness Report of Licensed Psychologist after clinical exam of young female asylum applicant persecuted in her country of origin.
I remain outside under starry skies half wanting half dreading the inevitable ring. When it comes I jump and Rosie’s words tumble out, “She’s shaken up, but she’s alright. She says they took five people off the bus who never got back on again. When they got to her she showed them the paper and told them she had a lawyer. They looked at it for awhile but then they moved on …” What Rosie and I are both wondering, but don’t say out-loud because we don’t want to tempt the fates, is whether more checkpoints loom ahead.
As La Bestia snakes around bottomless valleys and climbs up towering mountains, the girl thinks she glimpses snatches of shimmering blue. Nothing more than mirages she tells herself. But then the glistening grows larger until it swallows everything but the narrow strip of land where the tracks run parallel to it. I have come to the edge of the world, she thinks. A person near her shouts, “el océano!,” and the roar of frothy water rushing towards the shoreline fills her ears.
Immigration officers may, without a warrant, “within a reasonable distance from any external boundary of the United States…board and search for aliens in any vessel within the territorial waters of the United States and any railcar, aircraft, conveyance, or vehicle.” Immigration and Nationality Act §287(a)(3); see also Code of Federal Regulations at 8 C.F.R. §287(a)(3); 8 C.F.R. §287(a)(1)(defining “reasonable distance” as 100 air miles from any border).
I weighed the options. Request that your case be moved out of Eloy immigration court to the court nearest your sponsor requiring you to find another attorney who would take your case pro bono. Or, ask that your case be transferred to Tucson where I could continue representing you but forcing you to travel back and forth by bus (because you lack I.D. for air travel) and alone (because your sponsor can’t take the time off work to drive you). You chose the latter option, which I endorsed. I called the Eloy ICE attorney on-duty to ask if he’d stipulate to a motion for change of venue to Tucson. After bantering with him (flirting not being beneath me), he said he couldn’t agree to anything but wouldn’t oppose my request either. I thanked him, perhaps too profusely, and filed my motion that same day. It didn’t occur to me that the judge’s decision on my motion wasn’t the only obstacle that stood in our way.
The girl is unable to turn her gaze away from the water’s shimmering aquamarines, interrupted only by rocky cliffs thundering into the sea, striated canyons, and leafless spiny plants with branches that look like arms twisting in impossible directions. She takes in the landscape because even now, even after all she’s been through, beauty still comforts her.
American officials have put pressure on the Mexican government to tighten its borders and create a migrant dragnet hundreds of miles south of the United States border. In response, Mexican authorities have stepped up immigration enforcement by increasingly searching trains and buses for Central American refugees. They often deport refugees back to their countries of origin despite their pleas to seek asylum in Mexico.
I do not sleep that night, one hand curled around my phone. When dawn begins to blush into my bedroom, my palm vibrates and I squint at the screen. It reads: “Estoy aquí. Estoy a salvo.”—“I am here. I am safe.” I roll over and fall into a sea of tumultuous dreams.
Before the sun drops behind the Sea of Cortez, the girl sees something cause a splash in the distance. She peers into the gathering dusk and sees giant fish—could they be dolphins?—leaping and arcing in and out of the waves. She suspends the image, saving it to invoke like an incantation over wounds and hopes that criss-cross time and space, binding her future to her past.
“Upon due consideration of the Motion for Change of Venue and non-opposition by the opposing party … it is HEREBY ORDERED; that venue is changed to Immigration Court at TUCSON, Az. in order to permit the respondent to defend himself/herself …” – Order from U.S. Department of Justice, Executive Office of Immigration Review, Eloy Immigration Court.
After receiving the order transferring venue, I receive a second order from the Tucson Immigration Court setting a calendaring hearing in six weeks to determine your final trail date and at which you must be present. I pick up the phone to call you so we can begin planning your next harrowing trip.
Shefali Desai is a child of the Sonoran Desert, daughter of Indian immigrants, mother of sons, lover of the earth, and a fighter/writer/lawyer. She has been a Rhodes Scholarship finalist, Arizona Supreme Court law clerk, and VONA fellow. Her book-length manuscript was selected by Lidia Yuknavitch as a finalist in the 2016 Kore Press Memoir Competition, and her work has been published widely including in Ms. Magazine, the UCLA Women’s Law Journal, Kartika Review, and the anthology This Bridge We Call Home.
Shefali currently is co-authoring a legal paper on federal and state regulatory power over so-called sanctuary cities, litigating an asylum case, and finalizing a hybrid memoir. Her six-part series for Corporeal Clamor titled “ASYLUM” is a blended legal/personal/lyric essay that layers the law with lived experience. Shefali lives in the painted hills of Tucson with her partner and two sons.