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Cristina's Story

Every person who comes to the U.S. should have their rights respected and be welcomed with dignity.

By Cristina*
April 25, 2022

Growing up in El Salvador, I never imagined leaving my home. But as I got older, I became scared. Women I knew were being assaulted and kidnapped by organized crime groups, never to be seen again. We couldn’t go to anyone for help, not even the police. The gangs that terrorized our community were in total control, and even some police officers were members.

I didn’t want to leave my loved ones behind. But at some point I realized that, even if I survived, I had no future there. So, in December, at 21 years old, I decided to seek asylum. I have relatives in the San Francisco Bay Area and believed I could find a new home there. I packed up some clothes, my medicine, a few photos of my family to give me courage, and made my way north.

It was a long and difficult journey. I traveled in many different buses and cars, determined to reach the U.S. border. During that time I realized I was pregnant, and I became very sick. I could barely keep food down and lost 20 pounds in three weeks.

On December 23, I waded across the Rio Grande in my underwear (to keep my clothes and shoes dry) and presented myself to U.S. border agents. I made the crossing with two other women who had children with them. I told the agents I was very afraid to go back to my country and wanted to request asylum. I thought that would be it, that the worst part of my experience was over.

Instead, the agents just took our information, photos, and fingerprints, never asking us why we had come. They didn’t start the legal process for asylum that I thought we were supposed to go through.

I felt very ill, so I asked one of the agents for medical assistance. They said they couldn't do anything to help and put me and the other women in a holding cell. With the air conditioning on full blast and only a thin aluminum sheet to keep warm, we were freezing. I understood then why immigrants call these cells hieleras, or “ice boxes.” I couldn’t sleep.

At six o’clock the next morning, they put us on a bus with nine other migrants, including children who were there alone. We didn’t know where we were going or what they were going to do with us. I thought, Maybe now I’ll get to plead my asylum case.

But 30 minutes later, we arrived at the bridge connecting Texas to the Mexican city of Reynosa, where they made us cross back into Mexico. They didn’t say why we had to go back.

I later learned that this happened because of Title 42, a federal policy that, under the guise of public health, lets border agents “expel” people back to Mexico, or even put them on deportation flights to their home countries, without letting them apply for asylum. The Trump administration enacted the policy via the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, over protests by top CDC doctors. After assuming office, Biden continued the policy. 

A few days later, I went to a house where I was told someone would take me and some other migrants back to the border. Instead, a group of people — who I believe were Mexican police officers — showed up and cornered us.

They made a phone call, and moments later a car arrived. They ordered us to get in. We didn’t know where we were going, but we didn’t have a choice; they were intimidating and had guns. After we got in the car, it became clear that we’d just been handed over to a cartel. We were trapped.

The cartel held us in a dark room for close to three weeks. We had hardly any food or water, and we weren’t even allowed to leave the room to use the bathroom. We all had to share one flea-infested mattress. They had us call our families periodically and ask them to send the cartel money in exchange for keeping us alive. One of the migrants whose family couldn’t pay was disappeared.

In those disgusting conditions I contracted an infection, which made me even more ill. During the last few days in that horrible room, I was so sick and miserable that I couldn’t move. Stuck on that mattress, unable to walk, I couldn’t even bring myself to cry.

The others who were kidnapped with me saw how ill I was and begged the cartel to let me go. I guess it worked, because not long after that I was put on a bus heading to Monterrey, Mexico.

I arrived in Monterrey at 10 p.m., without any idea of where to go next. But I was free. Fortunately, I was able to find someone to take me to a hospital. The doctors said if I’d come any later, I would have died of severe dehydration. They kept me in the hospital for several days.

After I had my strength back, I made my way back to the U.S. border. With the help of a local organization, I requested a humanitarian exemption from Title 42. Miraculously, the U.S. government granted my request, and I was finally able to cross.

Now I’m safe in the Bay Area, where I’ve been able to reunite with my brother, aunt, uncle, and cousins. They’re helping me as I prepare my asylum case. I also recently became a member of Mujeres Unidas y Activas, a local organization of Latina immigrants who support one another and advocate for justice. I’m now five months pregnant, and so relieved that I will be able to have my baby safely, here with my family. I hope my child will never experience the kind of pain that I have.

As hard as it is to believe, I know I am one of the lucky ones. Most people aren’t able to get exemptions from the Title 42 policy, even people who are sick, even people who’ve been kidnapped like I was. I know there are people who have been waiting at the border for months, even years, hoping that one day they will be able to make it across. Some do not survive. My family says, “To think, that could have been you.”

On April 1, the Biden administration announced it would end Title 42, but not until late May. In the meantime, people are still being turned away. And now some lawmakers have introduced a bill to keep Title 42 in place longer. But even if it doesn’t pass, the government says that when Title 42 is over, it will subject more people to “Remain in Mexico,” another cruel policy, returning people to the same unsafe conditions I had experienced.

It shouldn’t be this way. I hope these politicians will read my story and understand how much their decisions are hurting people like me, who just want a chance to be safe and free. Every person who comes to the U.S. should have their rights respected and be welcomed with dignity.

This story was first published by Teen Vogue on April 25, 2022.

This account was prepared by Cristina, with help from staff at Mujeres Unidas y Activas and the Center for Gender & Refugee Studies.

*Name changed to protect the author’s safety.

Photo credit: Brooke Anderson Photography