Hearts Without Borders

Yaressi Morin’s mother brought her here when she was 6 years old. She was a little girl already carrying a culture with her, but she was still young enough to fully embrace another. The United States became her home. When she was deported back to Mexico 14 years later, she crawled back across the desert, determined to return home. She died trying. She took her last breath in her cousin’s arms after suffocating in the heat.

This story glared upward at me while I waited for my food at Juan in a Million, a popular Mexican restaurant in east Austin. I became preoccupied with the Mexican newspaper recounting the tragedy and tried not to bleed my Gringa heart all over the table. It was late spring of 2012, and the idea of the DREAM Act had not yet been introduced.

Eventually, I looked up at my lover who had joined me for breakfast and asked him, “Why does this bullshit happen?”

“She didn’t have the papers.”

“But why won’t the government let her get the papers? She spent most of her fucking life here.” I felt indignant.

He shrugged. He came off as flippant, but I knew better. He himself is an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, and probably didn’t feel like thinking about it. My stomach convulsed in guilt, thinking of all of the U.S. citizens like me enjoying Mexican food on that Saturday morning. The question of how many lives the government might be ruining in that second as countless Texans chewed on breakfast tacos stuck in my head like the knot of refried beans and tortilla that was about to be plastered to the roof of my mouth.

My “Don Juan” taco arrived. For a minute, I only stared down at it in shame. E’s eyes looked up from his huevos y la seccion de los deportes, curious.

I shake my head. “I’m sorry I’m acting weird. I have a lot on my mind.” My thoughts had simplified to only four words, actually, but they weighed heavily: this could be him.

As I ate, my mind flickered back to one of the times we visited Barton Springs. He joked that he couldn’t swim to deter me from dragging him into the frigid water. To an onlooker, he might have sounded convincing, yet I knew that he had pushed his way across a river to be here. He would jokingly call himself a wetback, and laugh when I cringed at the word. I later asked him if the river was much wider than the spot where we were swimming.

“Yes, and it was moving much faster.”

“Were you scared?”

“Yes.” It was another stupid question that I had to ask.

People stared as we lay out by the water. “We are a weird couple,” he had said once.

“Yeah,” I agreed. “I see them looking.” So many white people I know claim that racism is no longer an issue, but segregation is still the norm. If it wasn’t, why would a white woman and a Mexican guy be such a spectacle?

These racial and cultural tensions are not lessened by the supposedly progressive Obama administration, which is cracking down harder on immigrants than ever. Their goal, in connection with privately owned detention centers, is to deport 400,000 immigrants each year. In order to meet this quota, they have expanded what defines “aggravated felonies,” or the charges that immediately render someone deportable. These aggravated felonies now include what would be considered a misdemeanor for a United States citizen, such as minor shoplifting. In the words of my friend who works amongst lawmakers in Texas, “They are hanging onto otherwise law-abiding fifty year-old churchgoing moms and dads these days.”

This is precisely why I felt as though a giant bucket of ice water had been dumped over my head when E’s brother contacted me in December with the news that the cops had picked E up on a DWI. Six months went by since we’d eaten in that restaurant and we were no longer together. Furthermore, our attempts to stay friends had gone about as well as trying to eat healthfully at Mcdonald’s, so we were not on speaking terms. All of the old feelings I’d imprisoned in some inaccessible area of my psyche came rushing back with a vengeance, and I collapsed beneath the weight of them, realizing I was still in love with him. I wanted to do anything I could to help. Two days later, I took the first possible opportunity to visit him. As I waited, my thoughts raced incessantly:

What will he say? Would he refuse to see me? Why would I even still care if I had any self-respect? Stop beating yourself up. You’re here, if he’s acts like an asshole, just don’t come again.

After 30 minutes, a guard emerged. “Video visitation: Martin-ez.” I winced at the Anglo-cized enunciation. He listed more inmates’ last names, then barked, “The rest of you…hang tight.” Another quarter of an hour passed before the guard returned and shouted only E’s last name. I stood up.

“He’s working right now, so he can’t do the visitation.”

“Right.” I said, pretending I’d almost expected it. But I wanted to scream, “Are you fucking kidding me!?”

Then he added, “You should be able to visit him in another hour and a half, I think….I hope.” Being on a break from school and work afforded me the privilege to wait around for him. Others are not so lucky.

I could barely contain myself as the guard herded us to a hallway with telephones and windows. I walked to the third window on the left where E sat beaming at me in black and white stripes. But as soon as I sat down, we both began to cry. Awkward small talk ensued as we wiped the liquid from our faces to make way for new tears.

Not being one to sit long with sadness, he smiled at me and changed the subject, proclaiming, “I want a taco.” I laughed. “The food is bad here,” he went on. Then, he asked hopefully, “Did you bring my dad with you?”

“No, Patito, I’m so sorry. He can’t come see you; it’s too dangerous. Do you have any family or friends that are citizens? I can help them to come see you.” He shook his head, confirming to me that I was the only person close with him who could see him. I wondered about all of the immigrants who did not have a token U.S citizen in their lives to make the trip. “How lonely, how inhumane!” I shouted in my head.

I was able to visit him a few more times, and with each visit the window between us became more tragically erotic. We clawed at that glass partition like sex-starved animals in heat. We mixed our fingerprints with those of others in previous visitations who simply longed to hold someone’s hand.

Being the child of addicts and a student of social work, I felt compelled to “fix it,” and easily must have called 15 or more lawyers and various organizations during the next few days. At the end of that I only received one returned message- a lawyer referred to me by a social work professor interested in immigrants’ rights. This lawyer was kind enough to visit E pro bono after visiting another one of her clients at the same institution. She called me afterward, informing me that she could not help him.

Still, I asked her, “If we are in such a dire economic crisis, what is the incentive of keeping detainees indefinitely? We are spending to feed, sustain, and deport these individuals. It doesn’t make any sense.”

“Cheap labor in suffering, small town economies,” she responded. The pieces suddenly fit together. The privatized companies were making money off of locking up flesh in buildings, so that those in the fragile economy on the outside could benefit. Only $60 a day per inmate would be more than balanced out by creating jobs at these centers for the townsfolk, who could in turn spend their newly earned money. The hotels nearby benefitted from the visitors. I wanted to vomit.

“Slavery never ended!” I ranted at my father on the phone later on. “They are separating families of color. They offer them $3 an hour to work while they make a profit off of them. We’re all just letting it happen.”

“It’s not right, but he shouldn’t have been driving around like that when he shouldn’t even be here in the first place.” My dad’s attempt at reasoning through the injustice failed to console me. Though I don’t condone drinking and driving, E’s mistake did not help me further understand this agreed upon illusion called “borders.” “Preservation of national security” was being used to justify racism, xenophobia, and institutionalized slavery, or at least legalized trafficking. All in the name of good ole Amurika, where folk like them “don’t belong here,” while others I knew received community service hours and a fine for being significantly more intoxicated when they were pulled over than E. The scales on the dollar bill were collapsing, an elephant and a mouse joining together as see-saw partners. Somehow, I don’t think this is the dream Martin Luther King, Jr. had in mind.

The last time I visited E in the county prison, he was excited. “I’m leaving soon!”

“To the detention center?”

“Yes, I think.”

I tensed. Neither his brother nor I had managed yet to find him a lawyer. I chose not to tell him about the articles I’d read recounting the infamously awful conditions of Texas detention centers and the reports of sexual assaults.

Instead, I asked, “Do you know the date they are sending you? Did they tell you where? You could be sent very far away, which will make it harder for me to come visit you.”

He frowned. “No. Soon, though.” I was not surprised that demystifying the process was not ICE’s top priority.

Soon after, they moved him and I traveled 4 hours round trip to visit. Rather than clawing at the windows, we chose instead this time to draw human genitalia and profanities with our oily fingerprints on the glass. When we said goodbye, I cried, not knowing if this would be the last time I would see him.

On the eve of the submission deadline for this article, E called me with the last of cash he’d likely borrowed. “I am so bored,” he lamented. “I want to get out of here. Can you come visit me soon?”

“I’m going to try, Patito,” I said. “Your brother said he will send money soon.”

“I’m going to try to come back after they deport me, but maybe they won’t if I use this lawyer my brother just found.” The lawyer had sounded like a scam artist when I called him to follow up, and I trusted him about as far as I could throw him.

“But it isn’t safe…” Yaressi’s story reappeared before my eyes.

“No. I’ll be fine. It will be okay.”

I could hear him smiling, and reminisced about the first time I had ever seen his smile at the restaurant where we met. He was a busser, and I was a hostess. We catered to the rich people and politicians just down the street from the Texas State Capital. For a second, I remembered the way the Congressmen would ignore us as I led them to the tables, and he would smile at me as he rushed in to pour their water.