by: Bonnie Carlson
A story, told from dual perspectives, that explores life in U.S. detention centers for refugee children, and the new and distressing world children are being raised in…
I rush out of the airport, weighted down with heavy photography equipment and an overnight bag. I nearly bump into my partner Marisol, who works with me at the newspaper.
“So this is Arizona. The heat is…it’s like walking into a furnace,” I manage as I wipe sweat from my brow. “But I’m surprised by how humid it feels.”
Marisol looks up at the pale blue August sky. On the fuller side, Marisol, with her brown skin and shiny black hair pulled back in a ponytail, hails from the Southwest United States. That is almost all I know about her, since this is our first assignment together. I usually work with a different reporter, but they’ve paired me with Marisol because she’s from the area. Hopefully that’ll be helpful. Time will tell.
“Yeah. Welcome to the desert during the summer monsoons. Are you ready for this?”
Does she mean the weather or the assignment, I wonder. I’m not sure I’m ready for either. “As ready as I’ll ever be, I guess,” I reply. Did she say monsoons? Is she kidding, or do they really call it that? “I wish I knew more Spanish.”
Marisol yanks her Rollaboard up over a curb as we head for the rental car kiosk. The children’s shelter is a two-hour drive from the airport. “Don’t worry. I’m bilingual,” Marisol assures me. “You won’t need to know Spanish. Just focus on getting some great photos.”
“But I want to be able to understand what these kids are saying to one another.” I counter.
We’re about the same age, Marisol and I, mid-thirties, but I’m a tall, red-haired, freckled, white guy with a rusty beard from the Northeast. We couldn’t look more different.
We rent a compact car and set off toward a small city bordering Mexico. I offer to drive, wondering whether she’ll think that’s sexist, but she readily agrees. As we navigate through the desert, a steady river of eighteen-wheelers surges by us, the unrelenting sun glinting off their reflective windshields. Bright yellow diamond-shaped signs warn of blowing dust.
The desert surprises me, although I can’t put my finger on what I expected. It’s so extreme, so austere. And dry, of course, unbelievably so. The sere grasses and shrubs blend into the buff-colored earth. Dark, craggy mountains loom in the distance. My hometown in New Hampshire has mountains nearby too, but it’s so lush and green there by comparison. The wind blowing across the highway makes it hard to keep the car on the road.
“Do you know the names of the plants out here?” I ask Marisol. Not that there are many.
“Of course. I grew up around here. Like what?”
“What are those wispy, rust-colored bushes?”
Marisol reaches into the back seat to grab something out of her bag. “Usually they’re greener, but they’re stressed by the drought. Creosote bush.”
I laugh. “Why are they called that?”
“’Cause that’s what creosote is made from, silly.”
I chuckle again. “Really?”
She takes a sip of water and nods. “Yep, their roots and leaves smell like creosote. You know, like railroad ties.”
“Everything looks sharp and prickly.”
“Best to assume everything you meet in the desert is out to kill you.”
“What was it like, growing up near the Mexican border?” Having spent my childhood in tight-laced New England, I imagine it would be like another country.
“Probably not all that different from anywhere else,” Marisol says guardedly. I’d read that Latinos play it pretty close to the vest when it comes to outsiders, which makes me all the more curious. Although I have all sorts of questions about what it would be like living this close to Mexico, I’m afraid of offending her and I don’t want our relationship to get off on the wrong foot. I bite my tongue and hope she’ll open up as the day unfolds.
We drive another half hour and cross an expanse of land labeled “Coyote Wash.” “What exactly is a wash?” I ask.
“A mostly dry stream bed that can become a raging river after a big rain.”
Every so often, little whirlwinds of dirt swirl up into the air. “Look at those.” I point.
“Dust devils,” Marisol says.
I marvel that such a thing really exists. The desert holds all sorts of surprises.
An hour into the flat, boring drive, the vast, cloud-filled sky morphs from blue to dark gray as towering thunderheads overtake it. “What’s going on in the sky up ahead?” I ask with a tinge of concern in my voice.
“We’re driving straight into a monsoon,” Marisol explains.
“What exactly are monsoons?” I ask, apprehension creeping in.
“They’re these intense summer thunderstorms that are typically accompanied by extreme winds and large amounts of rain in a short period of time.”
In no time, enormous drops angrily pelt our windshield. An astonishing bolt of lightning illuminates the sky in front of us, followed immediately by an ear-splitting boom. We both jump.
Twenty minutes later, I find myself gripping the steering wheel so tightly my knuckles turn white and my hands ache. The windshield wipers clack furiously. I’ve never experienced rain like this. When hail starts hammering the car roof, I yell to Marisol, “Have you ever seen a storm like this?”
She shouts back. “Pretty common here during monsoon season.”
After that, conversation becomes impossible. It’s all I can do to control the car. Several times I almost end up on the shoulder and have to yank the steering wheel hard to the left to get us back on the road.
Finally, Marisol bellows, “Chase, how can you see?” She sounds mad — or is it scared? — and motions for me to pull off to the side.
I’m more than happy to oblige, relieved to stop driving.
“Make sure your caution lights are on,” Marisol warns.
While we sit on the side of the road, I contemplate what awaits us at the U.S. run children’s detention center. I wonder if I’ll be able to fully grasp what it’s really like there for the kids. Will I understand any of their Spanish? Maybe some of the kids will speak a little English. I’m looking forward to taking some heart-wrenching photos that will make my editor glad he sent us all this way.
I peer out the side window. Nothing is in focus, and white covers the ground. The car’s temperature gauge shows the outside temperature has dropped thirty degrees. When the battering gets even louder — how big are these hailstones? — I wonder whether the newspaper will be responsible for damage to the roof of the car
I’m thankful it’s too loud to talk, because the silence would be awkward otherwise. Marisol yells at the top of her voice. What I think I hear is, “I hope we’re not going to be late” and later, “These storms don’t usually last too long.” That gets me worrying about being late, about missing such an opportunity after traveling so far.
Finally, the storm lets up and we drive the rest of the way without incident, driving well over the speed limit to make up for lost time. We arrive at the detention center and follow signs to a security checkpoint. A guard booth stands in the middle of the road, with gates blocking the road at either side. A chain-link fence topped with razor wire surrounds an immense, one-story facility. When I roll the window down the smell of ozone fills my nostrils. Marisol leans over my lap and flashes her press pass at the security guard in the booth.
A stern-faced Latino wearing a dark green uniform says, “Hand it over, please.”
While he studies her documents Marisol says, “They’re expecting us.”
The guard waves us through and the gate creaks open. We drive into a huge, half-filled parking lot in front of the buff-colored building, directed by someone waving a orange colored flag. He points to where we should park. I can almost make out the yellow wheel spoked logo of the previous tenant former Big Box store.
“They must’ve spent a fortune on renovations,” Marisol says, shaking her head in disgust.
As soon as we enter the massive structure, we pass through metal detectors. Security personnel warn us that no cameras or cellphones are allowed. We hand over our cellphones. Seething, I turn in a heavy nylon bag containing three cameras. When a guard tells Marisol she has to relinquish her purse, she frowns and shakes her head but says nothing. They assure us that all our possessions will be secured and returned to us when we leave.
I am shocked and pissed. Why did I drag all my damned photography equipment along if I can’t use it? In fact, why did I even go on this trip? I’m half inclined to call my editor and find out if he’d had any inkling this was going to be an issue. But there’s no way he’d send me all this way if he didn’t think I’d come back with some relevant photos.
Luckily, what these officials don’t know is that I carry two cell phones, a work phone and a personal iPhone. I hand over the former and hang on to the latter, making sure it’s on silent. Even Marisol has no idea I carry the second phone. I’m still hoping to snag a couple of photos. If I get in trouble, so be it.
Once we’re through security, the officials guide us, along with the other invited journalists, to a windowless conference room lit brightly by fluorescent lights. That’s when I notice the absence of air conditioning. I wipe my already sweaty brow, turn to Marisol, and mouth, “Are they kidding?” I can already feel sweat stains the size of watermelons under my armpits. And the smell. Not a bad smell, an antiseptic, institutional smell. Like bleach.
We sit around a rectangular conference table in uncomfortable molded plastic chairs. The officials provide us with no refreshments, not even water, telling to what they think about journalists. I count a dozen other reporters or photographers. The briefing starts with a series of ground rules, delivered by a government employee in a tight charcoal suit. He’s tall, with black, greasy, slicked-back hair, and a bulbous nose on a ruddy face. I almost feel sorry for him.
“No questions while the tour is taking place. And absolutely” — he pauses, looking around at the group to make sure no one misses this point — “no conversations with the children. Any rule that is broken,” Charcoal Suit warns, his gut sticking out, “will lead to immediate expulsion.”
In that moment is is painfully obvious how much these guys have to hide.
Another official enters the room, a middle-aged bald man wearing a short-sleeved polyester dress shirt and bolo tie, and the real propaganda begins. With a fake smile on his face he drones on and on, delivering an obviously canned lecture about why the United States needs facilities such as this, and about how humanely the children are being treated. How there are toys and recreation and healthy meals. In fact, these children are being treated so well, he argues, that they’re actually better off here than they were in their home countries.
I pray no one can see the outline of my phone in my pants pocket. The heat makes me zone out as the official continues. Sometimes, I tune into buzzwords and phrases we’d all heard before: zero tolerance, illegal entry, criminal offense, deterrence, unaccompanied minors.
I turn to look at Marisol. She’s taking notes, looking up periodically, frowning and shaking her head. I imagine all this must be killing her.
“We probably feed these illegal aliens better than what they get in their home countries,” Bolo Tie says, a shit-eating grin now plastered on his face. “And each child has their own bed. They’re not all piled in together, like they probably are at home.” I’m dying to wipe that stupid grin off his face.
I shudder each time I hear the word “alien.” These are children, for God’s sake, asylum seekers, without their parents, not creatures from another planet.
Then Charcoal Suit announces, “Ladies and gentlemen, we will have ten minutes for questions before we start the tour.”
Marisol wastes no time and belts out, “How many migrant children are in the custody of Health and Human Services?”
Charcoal Suit claims he doesn’t know.
She persists. “I’ve heard it’s over eleven thousand. Does that sound right?”
“I have no idea,” he says, not even trying to keep the annoyance out of his voice.
Another reporter asks how many are housed in this facility.
“About three hundred,” the official says.
Marisol consults her notes. “If this facility fills, where will you house new children?”
“Above my pay grade,” he says.
She turns to me and whispers, “Jesus, this guy is an asshole. Can’t he do better than this?”
A couple of other reporters try asking questions but the officials offer similarly vacuous responses. Finally, Charcoal Suit announces it’s time for the tour.
We see rows of bunk beds laid out in large dormitory-like rooms and then classrooms. Outside, we watch boys playing soccer and chasing each other around in the heat. I’m desperate to shoot some stills, but the officials had warned us no photographs without permission.
I approach Bolo Tie. “Can I have my equipment back just to take a few photos of the boys playing?” I assume it’ll be futile because they don’t want any of this recorded, but I have to at least try, conscious of the iPhone in my pocket.
The official shakes his head “no.”
It seems so innocuous though, kids playing soccer. If not this, then what?
A few of the reporters are taking notes. Others whisper amongst themselves. I overhear one person say how much he wishes he could talk to the kids. We troop back inside, just as two armed Border Patrol agents in green uniforms are dragging a gangly, young brown-skinned boy into the room. He looks about seven or eight, the age of my son.
Marisol leans over and whispers, “I’m sure they didn’t intend for us to see this.”
The kid fights like a wild animal caught in a trap, arms and legs flailing. The guards can barely hold on to the child as he writhes and pulls to get away.
Reluctant to miss a moment of the disturbance, I mouth, “Holy shit,” with a quick glance at Marisol. Her almost-black eyes look worried. She’s scribbling on her pad.
Without looking at me she whispers, “Fuck. That kid’s gonna get hurt. I sure wish you could film this.”
I look over at the grim expression covering her face, her full lips pursed in a straight line. I shake my head and lament not being able to capture the disturbing image.
Then it gets more interesting. The two officials leading the tour yell to the Border Patrol agents in Spanish. The agents look over toward us, momentarily relaxing their grip on the small boy. He takes full advantage, kicking their legs. He sinks his teeth into the arm of one guard, who lets go and yelps with pain. Another reporter winces as he watches.
There’s more yelling back and forth between the officials and the Border Patrol agents. The kid is screaming too. I silently curse that I don’t know more Spanish. I lean down to Marisol and ask, “What are they saying?” and the two officials rush over to join the fracas.
She translates. “The guy in the short sleeves keeps ordering the guards to get the kid out of here. The guy in the suit is warning them not to hurt the kid.”
“What about the kid?”
“I’m having trouble understanding him, but it sounds like ‘let me go, you’re hurting me.’”
With our babysitters gone, I consider whether I can whip out my phone and grab a couple of pictures, but I reconsider, not wanting to have it confiscated.
The entire group of journalists waits, transfixed by the scene. A few talk quietly between themselves.
After a couple of minutes, the kid gives up and the agents manage to drag the him out of the room. The officials return to our group. Charcoal Suit gives us a big fake grin. “Sorry ‘bout that. Some of these kids can be difficult. But the Border Patrol guards are trained to handle situations like that.”
Two reporters try repeatedly to ask questions about the incident, but Charcoal Suit says “no comment.”
On our way out, we observe another young boy, maybe seven or eight, sitting alone on the green linoleum floor in a corner of the cafeteria, sobbing. A mop of curly black hair falls over his face. He uses his ragged red tee shirt to wipe his nose. His painful cries give me goosebumps.
Marisol and I hang back to watch as the rest of the group continues on. An older boy, maybe sixteen, enters the otherwise empty cafeteria, nicely dressed in navy shorts and a white tee shirt. He looks up when he notices the crying child, glances around, and after some hesitation scurries over to the little guy. He squats down in front of him.
“Look at that,” Marisol says.
The younger boy, dressed in tattered pants, continues to cry with his head down as the older one puts his arm around him.
I decide to surreptitiously grab a photo of the poignant moment. As I start to pull out my phone I look up and see Charcoal Suit walking toward us.
“Let’s go people,” the official says, “the tour is over.”
After we get outside, I ask Marisol, “How is this not a concentration camp, an internment camp? For these poor kids, detention has to feel like prison. How can it not? How can these kids, the little ones at least, not be traumatized by being here without their parents?”
Sadness fills her eyes. I wonder whether Marisol’s about to cry. Her shoulders droop and she covers her face with her hands. She walks slowly behind me as we head back toward the car.
The teenage boy was walking through the cafeteria when he heard the crying. It came from a little kid in the corner, skinny, dressed in filthy pants and worn sneakers. He lifted up his ratty red tee shirt to wipe his tears, revealing his bony ribs.
The wails pierced his heart. What should he do? The little boys cries prickled on his skin, making him think of his little brother, Carlos, back home. How hard he cried when Rogelio had left because he was too little to come. Rogelio bit his lip. The grownups had instructed them that very morning about how they needed to behave when the newspaper people came through.
“You need to smile,” the men said. “And not talk to anyone, even if they talk to you,” they told the children in Spanish, to make sure they understood. “Anyone who breaks these rules will be punished.”
That word scared him. That’s what the gangs threatened back in El Salvador: Punishment. That’s what happened to his father. Punishment meant death, so Rogelio fretted for that little boy.
His heart told him to walk over to that little kid and see what was wrong, but his head was scared he’d get into trouble. He’d worked so hard to get this far. The newspaper people were still in the room and the big boss men were with them. As Rogelio fingered his soft white tee shirt and caressed his new navy blue shorts, the nicest he’d ever owned, a battled waged within his head. The kid’s crying was making him crazy. He had to make him stop.
Rogelio took off across the room toward him. He squatted down and faced the boy. “What is your name?” he asked in Spanish.
“What happened? Why are you crying?”
He sat down in front of the boy, cross-legged, glancing around the room again. “Where are you from?”
“If you don’t stop crying you’re going to get into trouble. Stop and tell me what’s the matter.”
The crying stopped but the still boy didn’t answer, instead he just wiped his tears and dripping snot on his arm.
Rogelio moved in closer, sitting beside him, and put his arm around the young boy’s bony back. He gave a furtive glance around the room for staff, because he was breaking two rules: No sitting on the floor, and children were not allowed to touch one another. He didn’t want trouble, but he had to do this, to comfort this little kid, for Carlos, back home. “I am Rogelio. What is your name?”
The boy looked up and said, “Yulio Ortiz. I came from Honduras. They took away Mami. And my baby sister and brother.”
“How long have you been here?”
“I just got here. First we were in a place they called the Ice Box. Freezing cold. That’s where they took my mother away. Mami has watched over me my whole life. Now she is gone,” Yulio wailed, and started to sob all over again.
“Yulio, you gotta stop crying. It won’t help and you’re gonna get in trouble. Tell me about your family, little brother.”
The boys sat on the floor, side by side, their legs out straight, and Yulio began the story of his journey. He and his Mami and sister and brother left their home in Honduras many months ago. The gangs had killed his Papi because he wouldn’t let them use his taxi to deliver drugs.
“For a while, Mami worked to get enough money to pay our rent and buy food. But after my grandmother died there was no one to take care of baby Liliana. So Mami couldn’t work anymore. The bad men knew she was having trouble, so they grabbed me from school and tried to get me to work for them. I was so scared.”
Rogelio’s brow furrowed. He knew Yulio’s story because it had happened so many times in El Salvador. Three of his friends had lost their fathers to gangs or drug dealers. The gangs were everywhere. “What happened then?”
“Mami said we had to escape to the United States, but we had almost no money. We found some other people at church who were running too, some friends, and we started our journey. Sometimes we took the bus, but mostly we walked and slept on the ground. One time we got on a train, but they threw us off. Many days we walked through the desert until we arrived at the border. I thought when we got here everything would be all right. I am so tired from walking…”
Rogelio waited for Yulio to finish his story. “Little brother, that sounds very hard, but someplace, you still have family. Me, there is no one left in my family except my little brother. I came home one day and my mother was gone, disappeared. I searched and searched but couldn’t find her. Losing your mother hurts so much, I know. I came here by myself. Actually, with some other boys from El Salvador who had lost their families too. Mami once told me we have some relatives in this country.”
“How is this place?” Yulio asked, looking around the room, his eyes still red from crying.
“Not too bad. The food is good, but not like at home. We have a clean bed to sleep in. We can play outside and there are some games and stuff.” He pointed to his chest. “They give you new clothes. Sometimes, they teach us English. If we behave we can play video games or watch movies. I try to make friends, but the other boys, they come and go. I miss my friends back home.”
Yulio nodded. “I can’t wait to see Mami again and to go back to school. Mami told me when we live here I can have ice cream every day. That I can join a soccer club and see movies. Where do you go next?”
Rogelio shrugged. “Before my mother disappeared, she told me about some family we have in a place called Nevada. ‘Asylum,’ she said to ask for. I didn’t know that word. Nevada is many miles away, to the north. But still hot, like the desert, Mami said. If I can’t find them, I don’t know what I will do.”
“Will you go back to El Salvador?”
“Oh no, I cannot. MS-13 will surely kill me. At least here I am safe. God willing, it will work out. I will just have to go back to school or find a job somehow, find someplace to live. Being on a soccer team sounds fun. The people here are good, they will help.”
We walk to the car in silence. Marisol’s head is down. When I ask her if she wants to stop for food she won’t make eye contact and just shakes her head. I feel slightly nauseous.
The trip home is interminable and exhausting. Another thunderstorm disturbs our late afternoon drive back to the airport. Thunder rumbles, and cracks of lightning split the sky. There is no hail this time but a pounding, deafening rain that keeps us from talking. Which is just as well. I’m too churned up inside to talk, to process all we’ve just seen, my stomach still tangled up in knots. In the car, Marisol looks all turned in on herself, curled up against the door and pretending to sleep.
On the plane, we don’t have seats together. I try in vain to work on my laptop and read a novel I brought with me. But I can’t focus. The harder I try not to think about that place, the more I can’t stop obsessing about it. I can’t purge the image from my mind of those two boys together. Or the phony smiles on the faces of those government bureaucrats, so smug as they talked about how the children were better off in that prison they euphemistically call a shelter than back home.
Were they better off there? Maybe in some ways. Safer. Clothed and fed, with comfortable beds. But did that make up for being alone, not having your family, having no idea what would happen to you?
We leave the airport in our separate cars. I put some pounding rock music on the radio, anything to distract me, as I make the long drive through the night home. Usually, even when I get home this late, my wife Kelsey waits up for me. Not tonight. It’s after one o’clock. I barely have the energy to drag my bag upstairs. I find Kelsey in our bed, cuddled up with our youngest, three-year-old Peyton.
I stand at the door watching them sleep, listening to the rhythm of their breaths, and i can’t decide whether to be relieved or disappointed that Kelsey is asleep. Relieved, I guess. I need to talk, but I’m not sure I can. Instead, I stagger down the hall to Tyler’s bedroom. As I debate whether to kiss him and risk waking him up, I study his room. Colorful soccer posters adorn the blue-painted walls, and toys lay scattered on the floor.
I need to kiss this kid, no matter what. I bend down and place a gentle kiss on Tyler’s soft cheek. I can’t resist ruffling his curly, sweaty hair. He murmurs something and rolls over, never waking, safe in his bed.
“I love you so much it hurts,” I whisper, choking up.
As exhausted as I am, I’m too restless to sleep. I shuffle downstairs and grab a beer from the fridge. I sit at the kitchen table and twist open the amber bottle. After draining half the beer in a single gulp, I study the label on the Molson bottle. What a waste, this day. I never got to shoot a single photo. Marisol will write the story, but the world won’t see what we saw today, those two boys, that place. I’m eager to read her piece, but I also wish I could talk with her. I decide to call her tomorrow, even though I’m guessing she won’t want to talk about what we saw. A shiver of fear shoots through me as I realize that this is the country Tyler and Peyton will grow up in.
Then the sobs come, and I don’t even try to stop them.
Bonnie Carlson is a retired professor of social work who lives in Scottsdale, AZ with her husband, dog, and three cats. She has published several short stories in magazines such as Down in the Dirt, Praxis Magazine, Foliate Oak and Fewer Than 500. She is completing a novel.