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Migrant Justice

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Ursula begged her 13-year-old daughter to reconsider. She didn't want Rosa to do farm work. She was too young. It was enough that Ursula ruined her health doing backbreaking labor in the fields. She wanted a better life for her diminutive daughter. "I know we can't give you everything you need," Ursula implored, "but please stay here."

Rosa couldn't sleep that night, she was so full of emotion. At 4 a.m., when she got out of bed, her mother appeared to be sound asleep. She put on a dress and packed another into a small knapsack, along with a few pieces of bread. "I don't know if my mother saw me leave or not," Rosa says. "But that was the last look I had of her."

Hector was surprised when he saw Rosa at the Las Vegas Ridge. But he kept his promise.

On the first leg of the journey, the migrants trudged through the mountains toward the Mexican border, walking from 5 a.m. until 7 p.m. Rosa says she sobbed the whole way. "Don't cry," the others told her. "In a year you will be a different person with a lot more money. This is an opportunity. You will be happy."

It made Rosa feel a little better to think about the money she would earn in the United States, but she already missed her grandmother and her mother. Rosa was close to both women. Her grandmother called her negrita, the dark girl, or mi flacca, my skinny girl, and bought her pretty dresses and shoes.

Hector became the child's protector. He told the other men that Rosa was his little sister. "When we get close to Mexico," he told Rosa, "we'll buy you a dress and fix up your hair. That way the border patrol won't ask questions." Rosa sat next to Hector when the group boarded the bus that would ferry them into Mexico. She pretended she was asleep when officers walked down the aisles questioning passengers. But still they stopped.

When the officers questioned Rosa, Hector came to her rescue with a fantastic lie. He insisted that she was his wife. Rosa giggles when she thinks of it. "I went to a fair and saw her," Hector said. "I liked her, and we married." Hector left the bus with the men. They asked him lots of questions, Rosa says. When Hector returned, the officials let the group travel on.

Somewhere in the Mexican countryside, Hector and his group left the bus to make the rest of the journey on foot through the mountainous Chihuahuan desert, where temperatures reach up to 100 degrees during the day and can be bone-chilling at night. They walked for four days. At night, the group didn't sleep but kept walking. Hector rationed water to Rosa since she was just a child. She ate the bread in her knapsack. But on the fourth day, both bread and water ran out. Rosa was hungry and tired and hot and very sad, but she knew she had no choice but to try to keep up.

Between October 1999 and September 2000, the U.S. Border Patrol reports 369 people died, most of hypothermia, dehydration, or drowning, trying to make the passage from Mexico into the United States. Another 1,643,679 were apprehended trying to cross the border.

"We held on. We dealt with it," Rosa says of the group. "We kept going."

Rosa knew she had arrived in Texas when she saw the American flag waving high from a flagpole. She had made it. "I felt happy," she says. "Finally I was here and would know this country. Imagine how hard it was for me to get here."

Rosa's destination was Tennessee, where her brother Dilmar was working. She climbed in the bed of a small truck with 12 others, who hid under a tarp. Hector wished Rosa well, leaving the group and eventually returning to Guatemala.

But when Rosa got to the Tennessee town, whose name she doesn't know, she discovered Dilmar was no longer there. He had moved to West Palm Beach. "I didn't know what to do," she says. Rosa telephoned a neighbor in Tacana who got word to her family. Fifteen minutes later, her grandmother Felipa was on the line. "How could you think of such a thing?" Felipa said. "It is craziness to go over there."

And then she said words that turned out to be a portent. "I'm afraid you will never see me again."

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Susan Eastman
Contact: Susan Eastman

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