Red, White and Blue: The Colors of an Unaccompanied Child’s Journey to America

A story of the children behind the headlines of America’s immigration crisis.

Author’s note: A few weeks ago, I joined a group of Southern Baptist and Catholic leaders to survey the border crisis firsthand. We visited a brand new Customs and Border Patrol facility in McAllen, Texas, and a Health and Human Services facility in San Antonio, Texas. The trip was eye-opening, taking us behind the headlines and political debate and allowing us to see the faces and hear the stories of these children — and to come to know their hopes and fears. The experience inspired me to write this fictional but true-to-life composite of the children we met.

Red, white and blue were the colors of the hope for a better life for 12-year-old Armando Gallegos as he set out on an underground quest to travel from his home in Honduras to start fresh in America.

Red, white and blue were the colors of anticipated change. They were the last colors Armando saw on TV before he started his journey as he watched his beloved country lose 3-0 to Switzerland in the World Cup. Sales from his parents’ storefront during the World Cup frenzy finally allowed the family to make enough money to send their son to America to escape the violence that ravaged their city.

Red, white and blue were the colors of danger. They marked out some of the gangs and drug cartels who controlled commerce in the city through extortion and threats. His parents would’ve had the money to send him to America much sooner if they had not been required to pay the local gang for the right to conduct business.

Red, white, and blue were the colors of travel. They were the colors of the bus he boarded after his parents wired the down-payment money for his journey to the guides, known as “coyotes,” who assured safe passage to the promised land. Along the way, Armando witnessed the underground enterprise economy that had sprung up around trafficking minors to the border.

The Colors of Fear and Care

But now, red, white and blue were the colors of fear for Armando. They were the first colors he saw after setting foot on the dry ground of American soil. They pierced the black night as they came from the border patrol truck that spotted his group exiting their raft. The Mexican youths his age who smuggled his group over the Rio Grande hurried away from the shore to escape the law as other travelers in his group dispersed across the rugged terrain.

Armando felt alone, isolated and afraid as a border patrol officer detained him. Though the coyotes had coached him to turn himself in immediately, it was much more difficult than it sounded when it actually came time to do it. The trooper rifled through a series of questions with the fluidity that comes from repeating them dozens of times per week. What is your name? Are you OK? Where are you from? Who are you traveling with?

The patrol officer loaded Armando and several other youths in his transport truck. The diesel smell reminded him of the bus fumes that marked his 10-day journey.  Rumors had spread in his hometown of new immigration regulations with greater leniency for unaccompanied minors from Central America. The only thing that spread faster was the lice that infected his hair as he traveled in close quarters.

He arrived at the border patrol processing center in McAllen, Texas as daylight dawned on the horizon. He is one of more than 95,000 immigrants detained and processed at this facility in the past year; by far the most of any border patrol facility in the country. After the hurry of hushed travel through Mexico, the agony of waiting in line to be processed overwhelmed him.

A kind officer with a muted smile shepherded Armando through the paperwork process. Though he was reluctant to answer directly, she coaxed him into sharing enough of his story to evaluate his situation. He was labeled a UAC (or Unaccompanied Alien Child) from Central America. He was tagged for departure to a brand new detention facility just completed outside of McAllen, built to accommodate the surge in children who had crossed the border in recent months; a pace that more than doubled the numbers in 2013.

As his transport bus pulled up to the facility, he saw a massive, sterile building that was nicer than much of the architecture in his home town. The converted warehouse was the size and shape of a Costco. Yet, the bulk orders held inside were not economy sized products but unaccompanied children.

Red, white and blue was the color of care. They were the colors of the boxes that held the medicine to treat his lice. They were the colors of the wrappers on the food he ate during his three meals per day. And they were the colors of the lightly padded beds he had to fight to secure each night for a chance at a comfortable sleep.

The sea of 1,000 children that filled the facility were split into four pods and divided by gender and age. They were cleaned by showers, inoculated by vaccines, treated by medical employees, fed by contractors and (always, always) monitored by officers.

This facility was supposed to be his home for no more than three days. Every time an officer showed up with a clipboard, the group knew he was about to bark the name of someone who would be sent on to the next stage in their quest for freedom. But, because of a shortage of space at an HHS facility at Lackland Air Force Base, Armando languished in wait for five days.

Red, white and blue were now the color of his emotions. He was red with anger at the coyotes, the officers and everything outside his control. He was white with fear at the uncertainty of his future. And he was blue with despair as he missed his family and heard rumor after rumor of other kids being sent home by immigration judges who ruled against their asylum requests.

The Colors of Excitement and Comfort

“Armando Gallegos,” the officer bellowed. At last, Armando knew it was his time. He was informed he would be sent to the HHS facility at Lackland Air Force Base, a location for Central American unaccompanied minors who have an in-country family member or sponsor. He learned that after a short time in San Antonio, he might be reunited with his godfather Ernesto in Chicago while he awaited his immigration court hearing. His spirit soared!

His spirit was not the only thing that soared. So did his body as he boarded a military aircraft and flew to the air force base. In his home country, he had always dreamed of riding on an airplane. Now, he was gripped by the same simultaneous euphoria and terror that grabs anyone who takes their first plane ride. The red, white and blue lights on the runway marked his excitement.

The high of the plane ride would soon fade into the low of daily life at Lackland. Cinder block walls and concrete pavement lined the corridors that led to his new dorm, which he would share with 45 other boys, aged 12-17, who were part of the 1,100 children waiting for placement.

Red, white and blue were the colors of comfort. When he arrived to his new bed, he was greeted by a note that was left behind in a tattered Spanish Bible by the boy who just vacated that cot to be reunited with his family. In Spanish scrawl, the note encouraged Armando to not give up hope and included a few tips to help him survive his time in the facility.

As he spent the next 45 days at Lackland, he quickly settled into the normal routine. He could count on three square meals a day, six hours of school per day, and a never-ending stream of soccer during recreation time. He always looked forward to Sundays when “Pastor Dan” would come to do a Christian worship service and even got comfortable enough to sing a worship song from his home country with the group. The summer camp feel of his daily routine sometimes helped him to forget the agony he had experienced in his past.

One day, a group of “gringos” came to visit his classroom. His teacher introduced them as a group of pastors visiting the facility. Through an interpreter, they asked a series of questions that Armando and the other kids answered. Where were they from? How long had they been there? Why did they cross the border? When he heard other kids answer that last question by saying they had come to find a better life away from the gangs and violence that had forced them into poverty, he realized just how similar his story was to others in the group.

The Colors of Hope and Fate

Up until now, only one number had mattered to Armando. His parents made him practice it over and over again until he could memorize the phone number of his godfather Ernesto. It’s a good thing he committed it to memory. On his trip through Mexico, coyotes would often steal papers with phone numbers from kids and hold them ransom to extort extra money out of their travelers.

His hands shivered with nerves whenever his case worker had him pick up the phone to call his sponsor and begin discussing placement. What if he had gotten the number wrong? What if Ernesto didn’t answer? What if he was unwilling to sponsor Armando? His heart skipped a beat when he heard a familiar voice pick up the phone. After a few minutes of conversation between Ernesto and the caseworker, she hung up the phone and notified Armando that she had cleared him for placement.

Before he was discharged from Lackland, Armando scribbled his own note of encouragement to the next occupant of his cot. He wanted to leave behind some of his extra clothes and other possessions, but the staff wouldn’t let him. They knew he, like most of these children, was probably going into a difficult living situation and would need everything he could get.

Red, white and blue were now the color of Armando’s fate. As he watched the landscape roll by on his greyhound bus ride to Chicago, he knew that his fate rested in a pending immigration court hearing under the shadow of a red, white and blue flag.

He had worked with caseworkers to complete his documentation and help make his case. But he was unable to secure the services of a pro bono immigration lawyer. What he didn’t know is this: while only five out of 10 children with an immigration lawyer are sent back to their home country, more than eight out of 10 without a lawyer are sent home as a result of their immigration hearing.

A bus started this journey. Now, a bus was finishing it. As the bus pulled away from the station in Chicago, Armando hugged his godfather Ernesto. At that moment, he smelled the same diesel fumes that he had encountered on his ride in Mexico and during his capture at the border. His mind drifted to the flag he would soon see in the immigration courtroom. The red, white and blue courtroom flag embodying his hopes and fears marked the complicated colors of his unaccompanied journey to America.

Image via James Case.

Phillip Bethancourt
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  • Martin Hughes

    This article seems to me to convey no information and to contain no argument.

    • Brian Sutton

      It’s almost like they just reported facts and wrote a story instead of trying to interject arguments and lace the story with politics and blame and opinions or loaded words. I don’t know where they came up with this kind of reporting, it is certainly not how we do news these days.

      • Martin Hughes

        I was being unfair, I think. I had found the red/white stuff rather irritating and slightly sentimental. The article does convey information about how immigrants are processed and the extraordinary risks people take. We know in theory about holding centres and courts and tribunals and all that but maybe thinking for a minute about what they’re like is important. I have grandchildren in Latin America myself and the thought of their going through all that is indeed quite horrible.