September 19, 2019

I saw the difference at the US-Mexico border

I remember the first time I ever held a baby.

I was 8 years old. My cousin Miranda just had her first child, and my mom handed him to me, reminding me to be gentle and support his head. I think that was the first time I felt terror. ‘What if he cries? What if I don’t do it right? And, dear God, what if I drop him?’

The fear disappeared when I looked at him. His ten little fingers and toes, his eyes halfway closed. I’ve loved children ever since.

I never could have imagined what it would be like to have a baby jerked from my sight.

Over fall break, I traveled with a group of Webster students and professors to Donna, Texas. They volunteered at an immigrant support center, as well as a refugee center. Another Journal staff member and I went to cover their activities and immigration at the border.

The refugee center we visited overwhelmed me. Hundreds of people sat in one small room of the center, all recently released from detention centers, and people seemed to flow in from all entrances. Children yelled and cried, despite their parents’ pleas to hush. They didn’t understand what had happened or that their parents were simply waiting to board a bus and take them to their new home.

The bus station, likewise filled, felt like somewhat of a reprieve; there was more order, less chaos. I stood out of the way, watching families converse as I waited to speak with an employee, when a woman and her baby stepped up to the line and stood just a few feet from me.

The mother had on a short sleeve shirt and jeans, an outfit not necessarily suited for the October chill, and she wrapped her baby in a pink blanket. On impulse, I did my mother and Midwestern roots proud and used my working Spanish degree to tell her I thought her baby was cute.

Her eyes widened to twice their size as she quickly turned her back to me, effectively blocking the child from my sight. The man next to her, presumably with the two of them, put his hand on her back and silently stared at me as I stood embarrassed and hurt.

In that moment, I did not hurt for myself or wonder if I damaged my pride. I hurt, and later cried, for that woman. I had no way of knowing what she had seen, if the government placed she and her child in a family detention center or if they separated the two.

I knew I could never forget the fear in her eyes.

I thought about the incident everyday for at least a month, but, eventually, routine sets in and memories drift as school and new stresses take their place. I discarded it, though doing so hurt in a different way, until two weeks ago.

I went with The Journal’s editor-in-chief, Emma Larson, to a refugee center in St. Louis. There, everyone seemed comfortable. Most of the women had resided in the city for at least a year. Still, I did not want to overwhelm anyone. I stood to the side and watched as a refugee walked up to Emma and handed her her child.

Emma didn’t ask to hold the maybe 8-month-old baby. She had not even approached the mother. The mother simply came up to Emma, and when Emma said how cute the child was, the mother handed him right over.

“His English name is Handsome,” the woman said.

She watched Emma interact with the child for a second before walking away, talking with her friend and getting some supplies from her baby bag.

I couldn’t believe it, not after what I experienced a month before in Texas.

The processes may be the same, but the difference in feelings of refugees at the border and those of established residents became apparent to me in that moment. In a time where almost 7,000 people are actively trying to get to the U.S.-Mexico border, immigration affects everyone differently.

As someone who loves the news media and hopes to enter into it upon graduation, I still understand people see immigrant stories as just that: stories. We tend to group refugees and immigrants together, regardless of the individual struggles they go through.

Did the woman who handed her child to Emma act similarly to the woman in Texas upon first arriving? I don’t know. I do know she showed no fear at the sight of us.

Futures remain uncertain at the border. ICE placed an ankle model on the mother in Texas, ensuring she could not flee and skip her court date. She did not know if she could trust me.

The mother in St. Louis has made a home. She still struggles, I’m sure, but she is taking English classes and making plans for the future.

I will never know what it’s like to live like either of them, but my–even limited–experiences show me how the reality around us in St. Louis and the stories we hear do not always match the reality of the situations we do not see.

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