In late 2005, Ana, a Honduran woman in her mid-twenties, stood looking at the rubber rim of a tire on the edge of the Rio Grande, just across from the U.S. border. The smuggler she had paid to escort her and her five-year-old son from Tegucigalpa had just asked her to take her clothes off. Wary of getting undressed in front of a stranger, she refused. The coyote responded, “Then, you’re going to get wet.”
“OK, then I will get wet,” she said to him before lying down in the tire with her son, Michael, in her arms. The man stripped down, climbed into the water and pulled the two across the flowing river and into the United States.
Thirteen years later, Ana, a pseudonym she requested for fear of retaliation, now 39, is still undocumented, but has two U.S.-born daughters who are citizens. She has seen her husband, Juan, deported once — which got her and the children evicted, leaving them homeless — and detained three times, most recently for five months earlier this year. Michael, now 19, is allowed to stay temporarily under the Deferred Access for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. When we spoke this spring he was supporting the entire family, running his father’s beverage-delivery business while his father was locked up.
‘It’s important to speak up about what’s happening and how we suffer so that maybe people can understand the realities of our communities.’
Ana remembers the silence on the bank of the Rio Grande that day in 2005. It was two in the afternoon. There were no helicopters, no Border Patrol agents ready to place her under arrest.
“I thought, they have to know that people are passing,” she recalls.
The coyote instructed her to walk toward a U.S. Customs and Border Patrol outpost. There, she surrendered to an agent who drove her to an office, sat her down in air-conditioned room and stared into her eyes for a quarter of an hour without speaking.
“He told me, ‘You are so — sinvergüenza. You have no shame, you should be ashamed of yourself.’ He told me in Spanish. He said, ‘How did you come here? Why are you here? And you had the audacity to bring this little boy here?’”
Eventually, a female agent walked in, asked to take over the case and began asking Ana routine questions. She was taken to a shelter with her son, put on a bus with $60 and sent to meet Juan, who had arrived several months prior. She did not speak English.
Had Ana crossed into the United States in 2018, she and her son would likely have been separated. In April, the Trump administration decided it would prosecute all people crossing the border without visas on criminal charges, instead of civil charges and jail them if they did not return immediately. Their children, who could not legally be detained in adult jails, were held in separate facilities if they were not claimed by someone who could prove they were a relative.
In Honduras, Ana and her husband had managed to get by. She worked three jobs and Juan ran his own business. But life in Tegucigalpa got increasingly dangerous as gang violence escalated. Gang members gave Ana’s brother-in-law, a police officer, a beating as a warning. The family began receiving death threats.
“Over there, in the neighborhood that we are from, you can’t wear your preference of the sport team you like if the gang is against it,” she says. “You can’t wear some types of shoes if they don’t like it. It’s horrible.”
The couple moved to Costa Rica after the birth of their daughter, but left after she died. They were too devastated to focus on running their business, so they returned to Honduras, where the threats began again.
“We couldn’t make it anymore. We didn’t realize,” Ana says. “And we weren’t paying attention to our son. He was staying with my mother-in-law. We realized we were depressed. That’s why we decided to come.”
In the United States, the couple had another daughter, now 10 — but Ana and the children became homeless after Juan was seized by immigration agents in 2009.
“The next day, my landlord came up and told me, ‘You have to leave the apartment because you won’t be able to pay,’” she says. “My husband had just paid rent recently. I got so scared and my husband was telling me, ‘You have to get out of there because they are going to come and get you.’”
“I found myself with my children outside in the snow. At night. So I went to the train.”
Juan was deported to Honduras. He left Ana an emergency fund, which she gave to the pastor at her church for safekeeping. She went back to work as a housekeeper and took refuge with the children in a city shelter. Juan got more death threats in Honduras, so he spent the family’s savings hiring a coyote to come back to the United States.
“After my husband came, we left the shelter and we started again,” Ana says. But in 2013, Juan was detained for a second time. His lawyer was able to get him released on humanitarian grounds, with an order of supervision. That meant he had to check in with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) every six months.
After Donald Trump became President, their lawyer warned that Juan was likely to be deported. “I started to get anxiety, real anxiety,” Ana says. “My husband started to work more. He was getting skinny, his eyes were really red because all he did was work. You know why? Because he wanted to save money. He was thinking, ‘If something happens to me, I want to help my family.’ He didn’t want us to be homeless like before.”
In January, Juan was arrested by ICE when he checked in. He was detained at the Hudson County Correctional Facility in Kearny, New Jersey, one of three major ICE-maintained detention centers in the state.
The Hudson County jail has housed detained immigrants since the mid-1990s. A 2016 report by Detention Watch documented an overall “poor quality of life” as well as lack of adequate access to medical care and legal assistance.
It costs prisoners around $1 to make a phone call for 18 to 19 minutes. If Juan needs extra food, clothes, or toiletries, Ana has to either buy them through the jail commissary or send him money. Juan got a job inside the jail cleaning bathrooms, but quit after he was paid only $1 a day.
Michael has put off plans to go to college. He has taken over Juan’s beverage-delivery business and is working 17-hour days to support the family.
“He says, ‘Mami, my father hasn’t done nothing bad.’ He repeats that, a lot. He told me three days ago, ‘I can’t, I’m tired. This is so hard.’”
On the evening of Juan’s arrest, Ana told her two young daughters that he had driven to another state to visit a friend. Her 10-year-old, however, quickly caught on. Several days later, she asked Ana if she was getting a divorce. “I thought, ‘Oh, my god, this is the time,’” recalls Ana.
“I said, ‘You remember when Papi was going to that big office downtown?’ Because one day we came and waited, he went inside and he came out with his permit when he was under that order of supervision.
“And she said, ‘Oh — so you mean that when Trump came in he made that order and he changed it?’ She’s a very articulate and strong 10-year-old and when she spoke she looked in my eyes. ‘I hate him,’ she said. ‘Why is he doing that? That’s not fair.’”
Ana’s younger daughter, 5 years old, doesn’t understand why her father is absent. “Sometimes she tells me, ‘Give me my Papi.’ And I tell her that he’s going to come soon. I don’t know if she feels that it is because of me he’s not here.”
Ana recently graduated from community college with honors. She was ineligible for financial aid because she’s undocumented, but the school gave her scholarships to help her finish. She also couldn’t complete an internship at a local hospital because she does not have a Social Security number.
Michael has expressed interest in studying business. Ana hopes to continue her education to become a nutritionist and get an M.S. and PhD. “In summer, what I’m planning to do is buy the books for microbiology and another sort of biology class — to start to read and learn the material and do something in my free time. If I’ve got some,” she says.
But she needs financial aid, and the family’s economic status depends on whether Juan can stay in the United States. He was released from detention in early June, but his future is uncertain.
“Sometimes I feel so depressed, but then I remind myself that I’m fortunate as a mother, as a student, as a wife,” Ana says. “I can’t give up. Because if I give up, my whole family falls. It’s a lot of pressure. If you ask me, my health is really, really bad.”
“It’s important to speak up about what’s happening and how we suffer so that maybe people can understand the realities of our communities,” she continues. “We can’t stay quiet, we can’t stop moving. We have to move. We have to do something. That’s why I have decided to tell my story.”
Note: Shortly before The Indy went to press, Ana’s husband Juan was released from detention but will have to reappear in court. He returned to work the next day. Their son Michael will be able to attend his first semester of college.
Illustration by Gabriella Szpunt.