Marleny Contreras, a 24-year-old Honduran woman, departed with her 3-year-old daughter from her hometown of Copan two weeks ago, becoming one of the thousands of Central American immigrants who have crossed the border in the Rio Grande Valley area in recent weeks, in what President Obama has called a "humanitarian crisis."
Near the Guatemalan border, the small city of Copan is home to the ruins of a Mayan capital city that collapsed in the ninth century.
Speaking through an interpreter in the parish hall of Sacred Heart Church in McAllen, Texas, which is being used as the Catholic Charities emergency relief center for immigrant families, Contreras says that Copan itself is safe, thanks to the tourists who visit the ruins.
But there is no work in the area, and the nearby major city of San Pedro Sula is wracked by gang violence, Contreras says. She cites the killings of residents as young as 8 years old for not joining gangs and bus drivers having to pay protection money to the gangs -- one she knew was burned alive by them.
A year and a half ago, her little girl’s father was killed in gang-related violence. Contreras suspects that the police may have turned him in to a rival gang.
She has a sister who has lived in Hempstead, Long Island, for four years cleaning houses. She decided to join her.
With her daughter sound asleep on her lap, Contreras narrates the journey. First, she hired a “coyote” — a human smuggler who brings migrants across the Mexican-U.S. border. The coyote’s fee was $3,500 a head — $7,000 for her and her daughter.
They joined 14 other Hondurans on the journey. The majority of people coming through McAllen are Hondurans. The coyote bribed Mexican police along their way up the Atlantic coast, Contreras said. They traveled in a succession of buses, and at one point a police car, she claims, staying in hotels and sometimes the spare rooms of strangers.
Her journey was less arduous than those undertaken by some of the other Central Americans who have crossed the border into the Rio Grande Valley recently, some of whom have had to cover mountainous areas on foot with children.
She was frightened when Mexican police officers threatened and took bribes from the group — and she also didn’t like the Mexican cuisine. She kept her sister's contact information written in pen on a one-inch-by-one-inch piece of paper that she could hide in her clothes to avoid extortion. She had heard of coyotes holding migrants hostage until their relatives in the U.S. paid a ransom.
After a journey of eight days, she and her daughter reached the border town of Reynosa, across the Rio Grande from McAllen, on June 23. After nightfall, they crossed the river on a raft overloaded with people — a scary passage for Contreras, who doesn’t swim.
After arriving on the U.S. side, she and her daughter walked for six hours somewhere along the ranches and parkland near the border south of McAllen. After thirst set in, she began looking for authorities to turn herself in to, even though, she says, she was worried they would turn her back.
They were eventually picked up by Border Patrol agents, who didn’t speak Spanish and brought them to a holding facility.
Contreras and her daughter struggled during the four nights they spent in the holding center.The water “didn’t taste right,” and they weren’t able to bathe. They slept on the cement floor, and had only apples for every meal.
In fact, the experience left her “indignant” at the U.S. officers, all of whom were men and she said were rude to the migrants, laughing at their unkempt and dirty appearances.
After interviewing her and taking photos and fingerprints, the federal officers gave her a piece of paper instructing her to report to an immigration court in New York City. Then she was released at the bus station in McAllen, where she was taken in by the Catholic Charities volunteers, who gave her a chance to take a shower while volunteers watched her daughter. They also offered her a spot in one of the large tents set up in the parking lot of Sacred Heart Church to stay in before her bus was due to leave Saturday morning, as well as fresh clothes for her and her daughter and other provisions for the trip.
After arriving in New York, she says, she’ll confer with a legal aid group for immigrants before deciding how to proceed. She hopes that the gang violence in her hometown and the killing of her daughter’s father will make it easier for her to claim asylum.
Contreras is afraid that she will be deported to Honduras, but she didn’t see that she had any other choice. “The danger is physical danger,” she explains, and if it were safe she wouldn’t have left. She plans to get a job in New York — “anything that’s decent and honorable.”
Asked if there’s anything about her journey she would like to mention, Contreras responds that she thanks God that she’s in McAllen with the volunteers who have helped her and her daughter.