first person

A Mother’s Impossible Choice at the Border

Working at a center that helps asylum seekers, I saw the wrenching decisions families make.

Photo: Eric Thayer/Redux
A woman wearing a plaid hoodie walks with a child resting on her right shoulder at the El Chaparral border crossing in Tijuana, Mexico.
Photo: Eric Thayer/Redux
A woman wearing a plaid hoodie walks with a child resting on her right shoulder at the El Chaparral border crossing in Tijuana, Mexico.
Photo: Eric Thayer/Redux

The desire to go to Tijuana in early 2019 was as close as I’d ever felt to a calling: as soon as the idea shook itself loose in my mind, I felt it chime through me like a bell. An organization I had worked with in New York was setting up a temporary center in Tijuana to help people apply for asylum. Working with them, I had already helped dozens of people fill out application forms in a church basement, and I thought I could help. These experiences and the training I received taught me how to stay warm and sympathetic, to interview asylum seekers without retraumatizing them, to create enough space for the worst things to be said. The trick of it, which is easier said than done, lies in making someone feel comfortable and safe —expressing sympathy but not judgment, explaining the process and each question as you come to it, getting consent every step of the way.

When I arrive, I discover that the real work looks very different. My job is to play with kids, to hand out tamales and Styrofoam cups of coffee. I am there to listen to someone’s story, not because there is a form between us or an end goal in mind, but because they need to tell someone, anyone, what they have lived through. I am there to reassure them that they have made the right choices, that they are keeping their kids safe, that I can see how hard they are working for the people they love. I am there to see scars, to see tears, to see immigration officials shouting and to serve as a warning to those officials that they are being observed; to be a warm hand on a back, a tissue held out quietly, a calming presence between an asylum seeker and an impatient official with a clipboard. I am there to gossip or to commiserate about the cold or the rain. I am there to answer questions, scan documents, lend a telephone, write names and numbers on arms in permanent marker.

What this all means is that I am there, in the plaza every morning, for the calling of the numbers and the names. El Chaparral, a plaza next to the port of entry on the Mexican side of the border, is the unofficial central gathering place for most asylum seekers in Tijuana. Even as the border itself is liminal, El Chaparral is a temporary space nestled within it: a few thousand square feet of barren concrete sandwiched between a port of entry, its parking lot, an overpass, and the border fence itself. I suspect without asylum seekers, it would be the kind of empty stretch of city nothing where you can stop to adjust your bag or wait for a cab without really noticing your surroundings. Instead, over the course of the early morning, the space transforms into a community gathering spot. A canopy tent is set up on the far side of the plaza near the highway, beneath tall, white‐barked trees. Some men, a mix of what looks like Mexican immigration officials and migrants, set out traffic cones and rig caution tape around it, before settling into folding chairs and pulling out a cheap, beat‐up notebook with crooked wire spiral binding.

This notebook holds “la lista,” the name of every migrant in Tijuana who has declared they want to cross the border “the right way.” Which is to say: to cross, get detained for an indefinite period of time, and, during that detention, ask for, demand, and insist on a Credible Fear Interview. Most asylum seekers’ first stop in Tijuana is El Chaparral to register for the list — they hand over identity documents so that their names can be carefully hand-copied into the notebook next to a number. There are ten names to a number, and every morning, some of these numbers and the names beneath them are called out. How many numbers are called varies. Some days, the men don’t call anyone, leaving the milling crowds at the plaza dissatisfied and restless. On other days, they run through sixty numbers, six hundred people, in quick succession, only a handful of those even in the plaza to present themselves for the crossing. If a name is called and no one runs up to the tent with documents in hand, the men simply move on down on the list, leaving the person whose number was called to re-register and wait, once more, for their new number to be called.

As we watch the first numbers be called, we witness the system at work. When someone’s number comes up, they have a few minutes to run up to the tent and present a form of identification. Their names then get crossed off the list, and they are told when to come back to be processed. There are usually two crossings a day: one right after the numbers are called that morning, another a few hours later. When you see pictures on the news of children with their sleeves pulled up to show numbers scrawled on their forearms in permanent marker, these are the numbers of la lista, mothers’ attempts to ensure that their children wouldn’t miss the calling of their numbers or names.

As we listen, it becomes clear that not every name called is present at El Chaparral that morning. Given that waiting for their numbers to be called can take months, some people give up on this ad‐hoc system and choose to cross on their own. My colleague Kayla calls this “jumping the fence,” even though in reality, it often means days of trekking through an unforgiving desert or swimming for miles along the Pacific coast, hoping to make it far enough north that there aren’t Border Patrol agents waiting on the shore.

On my first day in Tijuana, sitting on the floor of the concrete shelter our group was using as an office, I meet Sara. She is sitting on the floor, legs crossed, next to her partner, holding her baby in her arms. All three of them are beautiful. Sara has tilted, laughing eyes and perfectly done nails, a mass of curly hair heaped on her head. Her partner is a serious‐looking and quiet man with dark skin and a neat beard, who seems unable to look away from his daughter. She’s the roundest and most cheerful baby I have ever seen, all rolls of fat and deep dimples and a little wrinkle on the bridge of her nose when she laughs, which is often.

Sara is from Mexico, and her partner has a more complicated immigration story. He’s spent time in a lot of countries, but where he’s from is never made clear. They met here, in Tijuana, over a year ago, after they had both fled the violence, fear, and exhaustion at always having to be watchful back at their respective homes. Their baby, Sara tells me, had almost died a few months ago. She was born prematurely, with a heart condition. As the little girl reaches for her bottle with both hands, Sara talks about the miracle that is watching her baby eat. “She’s got some catching up to do,” she says, “she was just so little when she was born.”

Sara and her baby and her partner become regular fixtures at the shelter, coming every morning after the numbers are called. She is the kind of person that is bad at sitting still. When we start passing out lunches, she’ll hand her baby to her partner, or leave her under his watchful eye on a blanket in the corner, and come to help — distributing pasta salad; miming extravagantly at the French speakers to see if they want tamales or more coffee; bringing people to one of the volunteers when she realizes they have an unanswered question or an unmet need.

She knows when someone needs some light, distracting patter. I hear about her manicures, her former job as a dental hygienist, the way her diet has changed from heavy Mexican masa to the lighter, vegetable‐based Caribbean food her partner prefers (Ay Dios, como baje de peso! Pero extraño mis taquitos, eso sí). She also knows when someone needs quietness, just a hand on their back; or when someone needs tough love, to be told to straighten up and figure it out, that nothing will be solved by them sitting here crying. She is a natural, just like some of my classmates on the chaplaincy track are, social and warm and careful, intuitive about people’s emotional states. We love having her in the office. Volunteers swap Sara stories at our closing meetings in the evenings. Seeing her and her partner staking out some corner, heads leaning together, grinning baby between them, is a tiny moment of serenity amid the chaos of the shelter.

One day, Sara’s partner’s number is called and he gathers up their little girl in his arms. The two of them get in line for the van, and Sara stands with the rest of the volunteers, arms stretched through the whitewashed concrete bollards as they board. I hear about it when I arrive at the shelter, the news of it whispered from volunteer to volunteer. I don’t understand why Sara hadn’t traveled across with her partner and their baby, can’t imagine why she had spent so much time here, in Tijuana, if not to cross over with her infant daughter.

But it’s a strategy that could protect them from the cruelty waiting on the other side of the border, at least according to anecdotes others waiting at El Chaparral who’ve had family and neighbors cross ahead of them shared with me. It generally takes weeks or months for men crossing the border alone to get out of detention, but men who cross with children aren’t detained as long — usually a week at most — because only a few facilities have the infrastructure to house both men and children. There are also fewer women’s detention centers, so Sara’s stay will hopefully be shorter. Sara and her partner would still likely be separated if they crossed together, this time by the United States government instead of by their own choice. By letting her partner cross with the baby now, as wrenching as it is, they are hedging their bets that they’ll be reunited sooner.

As I unlock the doors to the office the next morning, Sara returns. I pause when I notice her walk through the door. Her usually flawless makeup is replaced by red and puffy eyes, damp cheeks, a runny nose. I didn’t expect her to return, to face the last place she had been with her partner and daughter, until her own number was called. Every van full of asylum seekers would be a reminder of her family’s absence. Kayla asked what she was doing here, if she wouldn’t rather go home.

No pude dormir anoche,” Sara said. “Ni modo quedarme yo sola ahi nadamas en mi casa sin nada que hacer, mejor aquí con ustedes.” She sniffed. “Con que puedo ayudarles?

After a sleepless night, faced with the prospect of a long day stretching out before her in a depressingly empty apartment, she had come here, to the shelter, ready to help.

And she does. In the days that follow, she hands out the tamales we buy in bulk, makes countless cups of watery instant coffee, plays with kids, and fiercely advocates for other migrants. She also helps give charlas, our Know Your Rights presentations, which she has picked up from listening to one or two a day. Every once in a while there is a question she can’t answer, so she waves over a volunteer. But most of the time she barrels ahead, telling asylum seekers about their rights and what lies ahead. Her talks prepare people in a way none of us volunteers, with our passports glowing dimly in our back pockets, can.

Mira,” she’d say. “They’re going to ask you, are you here to work, y no te dejes! You have to say no, that you’re here because you’re afraid, because if you don’t …” She dusted her hands. “Se acabó. You can still get a job, but that’s not the reason you came, right?”

I watched her talk to other moms, other women contemplating the same choices she had made, tucked away in a corner of the shelter, one eye always on the kids squelching playdough into the floorboards or carefully stacking blocks. We all knew that she wouldn’t hear from her family until they were on the other side of the system. Every morning as she came in, there was the unspoken question, every morning answered “no.”

My second to last morning in Tijuana, Sara shows up at the shelter, early as always, grinning from ear to ear. Family in Florida have gotten a phone call from her partner and right now — she checks the clock on her phone — at this very moment(!), he and her daughter are on an airplane. Thanks to a last‐minute ticket purchase by an aunt, they are on their way to Miami to stay with his extended family.

Bueno,” she says, with a sudden, businesslike nod. “Es hora que yo cruce.

Sara leaves Tijuana the same day I do. By the time she crosses the border, I am already in a cab on my way to the San Diego airport, a route that is all freeways and palm trees and glittering, ugly convention centers. I don’t see her wait in line or climb into the van that takes people to the processing center or watch her disappear down the street.

The day before we leave, Sara adds me on Facebook. That night at the hotel, I scroll through pictures of her with her baby, pictures of her with her partner, selfies with elaborately done makeup, jokes and memes about no‐good boyfriends and tacos and wanting to shop. In the days that come, I refresh that page over and over again.

And then, a week or so later, I see it: a photo of the three of them, on a beach, wind whipping through Sara’s hair as the sun sets.

I remember a slow afternoon at the shelter, after her partner had left, Sara and I and a few other women sat around. As we drank milky instant coffee, she told us about how her baby was named. Her daughter was born a few months early with serious cardiac complications, a little slip of a thing. As they waited in the hospital room to find out if their baby would survive, Sara’s partner began to pray in his parents’ language, different from her own. As he spoke, Sara noticed a single word recurring. When she asked him what it meant, he said “blessing.”

A little girl named “Blessing” crossed the border. A few days later, her mother crossed, too. Their little family settled somewhere sunny and warm. And while they’re still waiting for so much — their court date, the permanence a positive decision will bring — they are together now, safe.

In the years since, I’ve seen a thousand pictures of Sara and her baby girl. I’ve watched Blessing learn to walk and give enthusiastic, near-incomprehensible toddler monologues into the camera of her mother’s phone. I’ve gotten to witness Sara’s story unfold past the moment she crossed the border. It’s a sample size so small as to be meaningless, only made significant by the fact that it’s the one I’ve been granted access to follow. I don’t know what happened to anyone else that I met in Tijuana, but I can imagine happy endings for them too. Tearful reunions, work authorizations, money sent back home to a hungry family. But because of the way this country treats people who come to its borders asking for help, I know it’s likely that these imagined endings are just that: fiction.

Excerpt from Rivermouth: A Chronicle of Language, Faith, and Migration, published by Astra Publishing House, June 20, 2023. Copyright © 2023 by Alejandra Oliva. Excerpt reprinted with the permission of Astra Publishing House.

A Mother’s Impossible Choice at the Border