In those days there was great violence in all the world, violence that drove families from their homes in fear for their children’s lives. It came to pass that many of these families were fleeing together in a caravan, bravely crossing a continent on foot in pursuit of safety for their children. José, a skilled carpenter who had for many months struggled to find work was facing increasing threats of violence against his family if he did not join the ranks of the neighborhood gang. Some of his co workers had disappeared over the last few months – their families feared the worst, and José knew their fate could easily be his own. He and his bride María were expecting their first child together soon, and although he knew the journey would be difficult for his pregnant wife, José felt a growing urgency to get his young family to safety. She felt it too, and was adamant that they could make it to the US border to file for asylum before their little one arrived. Their cousins had already made the journey months before and were now waiting in some kind of facility while their paperwork was processed. It seemed hopeful, certainly more promising than the life of fear and violence that surrounded them here.
They waited for word from the caravan organizers for a few weeks until at last the day had come. They packed up a few belongings, only what they could carry, and then stopped to say tearful goodbyes to the family who would stay behind in Honduras, not knowing if they would ever see each other again. It was especially hard to leave their mothers. “Who will help me birth this baby?” María said, wiping at the flow of tears with the back of her hand. Her mother in law lifted her chin and looked at her with a level gaze, “Mija, the strength and courage which lead you on this journey will also bring your child into this world. Do not fear. Help will come when you need it.” Her own mother wrapped her arms around her and gave a sending blessing, kissed her belly, and hurried them out the door.
The first days of the caravan were hopeful – there was a lightness in each step away from the danger and fear. They felt buoyant. Hopeful about the opportunities ahead of them. They daydreamed about the home they could make with their little one. Each night they gathered in town squares or open fields for a meal and community meeting and then rest. They got to know other travelers as they shared stories of heartache and courage, hope and lament, celebrating each mile they had put behind them, each mile closer to a new home.
But then rumors started to spread about president Trump’s anger at their coming. It was hard to understand – some said he was sending troops to meet them? The organizers assured them they had legal standing to seek asylum, that the government was required to hear their case, but the idea that men with guns stood waiting for them in both directions was wearying.
They pressed on, some days catching rides on buses or trains, many days walking the whole way miles, no small feat for a women in her 3rd trimester. At night José would prop their packs up into a recliner seat and wash María’s feet, massaging her swollen legs and soles until they regained feeling. They would curl up together each night, on gymnasium floors or stadium bleachers, whispering promises of a future and of hope to their little one as they felt his strong kicks and rolls. “We will not give up, little one. We will find a way.”
Some mornings a church group would move around the waking bodies, offering food and water, asking if anyone needed medical attention before they began their day. Their hospitality was beautiful, and it reminded them of home, of their families. But there wasn’t much time to receive it. By 3 or 4am the whole group would be rising, eager to complete the 20 or 30 miles before the heat became unbearable. Not that it helped much, the pace was punishing. And yet – the courage and resilience of the other women and men, many carrying toddlers and leading small children by the hand, inspired them to keep moving.
One night they woke to a scream. José leapt to his feet and ran with several others to the woman who was screaming in pain on the other side of the encampment. She had been raped. A volunteer medic was soon on the scene. Someone called for police, but it was impossible in the dark sea of bodies to know who had committed this horrible violence. The criminal had simply faded back into the crowd. After she had been treated by the doctors, María invited the young woman, a teenager named Alma, to join them. She laid her with head in María’s lap, María gently stroking her hair while the told them she had been traveling with a group of male friends but had become separated days before when the boys jumped up onto the bed of a truck and rode to the next checkpoint and she was left behind.
Weeks turned into months, and a sort of family formed between María and José and Alma and the other families they kept pace with. They passed through many encampments, staying in villages and cities across Guatemala and Mexico, and were fed and cared for by so many tender souls. But they were weary. Anxious about what they would find at the border – stories of families torn apart, put in detention facilities, mothers and children ripped apart before they could turn back – it was all they could think about by day and dream about at night. María’s belly grew tight and she could feel it begin to drop, a sure sign that this little one would be arriving soon. Finally, they were just three days journey from Tijuana, just 60 miles to the rest they had been dreaming of as they trekked across 1600 miles.
Everyone was moving more slowly, blistered feet and respiratory illness hindering even the heartiest in the group. Step by step they finished the journey together, peace and rest so close they could see it shimmering in the distance. But when they finally arrived in the city they were not directed to the border but to a camp. An energetic young woman handed them bottles of cold water and said “You won’t want to go over there today. Some protestors tried to push past the fence and the border patrol hosed down the whole crowd with tear gas. Even the little ones. It was awful. Come and rest, let a doctor take a look at you, eat a good meal. The paperwork will still be there in the morning.”
They were bewildered, exhausted, overwhelmed at the sight of so many tired bodies in temporary encampments. Laundry hung from makeshift lines, the sound of coughing and arguments and the laughter of little children filled the air. It was so crowded. Their little group got in line for a meal and ate while shuffling through other lines for water, bandages for their feet, a tarp, bedding. Alma and José tied the tarp to a chain link fence – a makeshift tent – while a volunteer explained the asylum process to María. Her heart sank as he explained there were already 3000 cases ahead of theirs on the waiting list. At best, agents processed 100 files each day, and even after filing paperwork it could be many more months before a case was heard.
The three travelers collapsed into each other that night, weeping as they held each other beneath the blue tarp. They were just a few hundred feet from the US, but months of waiting stretched like miles between them and their new lives.
The next morning the group queued early, long before the sun came up, hoping for a spot in line to file their preliminary paperwork. By the time the office opened at 9 the line had grown to several hundred new arrivals. Protesters began to gather on the US side of the fence. One group was waving poster board signs that said “No human is illegal” and “Immigrants welcome here”. There were priests and families and single people of every race and age waving and smiling toward the asylum seekers. A news truck rolled up, complete with a giant satellite transmitter, and a perfectly coiffed young woman jumped out, microphone in hand. María couldn’t get over the spectacle. These people were all here because of them? Because they were trying to start a new life? Why did they even care? Wasn’t the US big enough for a few thousand migrants? What difference could they possibly make?
She was suddenly snapped back to the present by a sharp kick to her bladder. Oof. A uniformed guard nodded toward a row of port a potties when she asked for the bathrooms, and she waddled as gracefully as she could past the hundreds of others in line. Just as she was about to reach the dirty bathrooms, she saw the second group. This one was angry, their eyes flashed with rage. A woman caught sight of her and screamed “We don’t want your anchor baby! Go home, lazy bitch!” María was stunned. She shut herself into the stifling, putrid toilet but this did nothing to stop the taunts of the angry crowd. They screamed hateful things while she tried to steady herself enough to pee. Never had she felt so vulnerable, so unwanted. As she squatted over the filthy seat, giant belly resting on her tired thighs, she remembered the words of her mother in law. You are a woman of great courage. It seemed ridiculous. Her courage brought her over mountains, fleeing violent gangs for the sake of her child and now, inches from the freedom she longed for a group of screaming white people weakened her resolve. No. She would not be deterred. She stood and pulled up her shorts, swept her hair back into a fresh bun, squared her shoulders, and marched away from the mob without a glance back.
This child will have a home. It must. As she waddled through the heat of the day she turned inward, remembering the vision she had scarcely dared mention since the day they left home. She could still see it with perfect clarity, the night she woke to a glowing presence in her room, telling her of the divine child she would bear. She thought it was a crazy pregnancy dream until she mentioned it to José a few days later. The color drained from his face. He had had the same dream. The same mixed feeling of urgency and peace. So perhaps it wasn’t a dream after all?
A tightening spasm wrapped around her middle, snapping her thoughts back to the present. Hands on her knees, she wanted for it to pass. José ran over to help her to the shade. Another contraction rolled over her. The paperwork would have to wait. The time had come.