The Journey of Five Million Steps

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Can Arizona JFON help a mother and son reach safety at last?

Nogales, Mexico-Arizona border
June 2020

The agent was looking at her with suspicion. He was not the first to do so. She had received that look every day of their long journey to the border.

It was, she knew, her black skin they mistrusted so much.

The looks would turn speculative when she opened her mouth and spoke Spanish. Just like with this man.

Ay, tu eres cubana,” he said, using informal, dismissive speech. She had gotten accustomed to that, too. He thumbed through her papers and then gave her his undivided attention.

“So you want to pass through?” he asked her, with a quick glance at Camilo. “You and your little boy.”

Damasia instinctively squeezed Camilo’s hand. Life on the road had been hardest for him, and he was already so small and thin for his age.  Very few people would believe he was almost a teenager.

Damasia nodded her head warily, keeping her gaze on the agent’s nametag instead of his face.

“Tell you what,” said the agent. “Come back next week and bring $10, 000 with you. And another ten for your son.”

In 2020, the remains of 225 people were found in the Arizona desert—the highest on record.
In 2020, the remains of 225 people were found in the Arizona desert—the highest on record. Photo and story: Mother Jones

Damasia recoiled as if he’d struck her.

It was the same everywhere she went. She had been extorted by cartel members, coyotes, taxi drivers, ordinary people who seemed to want to help her and then tricked her, and by Mexican police officers and government officials.

Everybody knew that Cuban asylum seekers had family in the U.S., family who were willing to pay money. And everybody wanted their cut.

But she had thought the Americans would be different. This one didn’t even bother to make an excuse…”oh, your documents are false” or “oh, you broke the law, so now you must pay.” He just blatantly demanded a bribe.

This final blow—after 15 months of them—was too much. Damasia felt her last hope sliding away from her. She grasped Camilo tighter, as if he, too, would slip away.

“I don’t have that kind of money,” she mumbled hoarsely.

“You don’t?” He shrugged. “Well, come back when you do.”


Caminamos Juntos
We Walk Together

With nowhere else to turn, Damasia and Camilo arrived at La Casa, a shelter for asylum seekers In Nogales, Mexico, in July 2020.

"We are all One Family" The migrant shelter run by Cruzando Fronteras
“We are all One Family” The migrant shelter run by Cruzando Fronteras

Run by Cruzando Fronteras, a border ministry of the Episcopal Diocese of Arizona, the shelter takes very strict precautions against COVID-19. There are only two staff members; the asylum seekers themselves manage many of the daily operations at the shelter. And any new arrivals must quarantine in separate quarters for a full two weeks.

This is how the shelter has managed to stay COVID-free throughout this entire pandemic.

In partnership with the shelter, Arizona JFON staff and volunteer attorneys work with asylum seekers to help them (virtually) prepare their all-important declarations that will accompany their asylum application.

“The effects of the trauma they have experienced often make it difficult for them to tell their story,” says Executive Director Alba Jaramillo. “So we get them to think about the timeline, the facts of their story, the events that occurred, and the things that aren’t going to change.”

Damasia was crying so hard the first time she spoke with Alba that she was nearly incoherent. So Alba asked the shelter to give Damasia a supply of lined notepaper so she could write down her story on her own.

Damasia readily complied. It seemed to be a cathartic experience for her. At the end, she had 15 hand-written pages of her story to present to Arizona JFON attorney Ella Rawls. And when she was able to (virtually) meet Ella, she was strong, composed, and positive, her voice betraying barely a quiver even as she shared the harrowing details of her experiences.


They hadn’t wanted to leave Cuba. But when Raúl, Damasia’s husband, uncovered corruption at the drug factory where he worked—and then made the mistake of reporting it —the family found themselves in a very precarious situation. The persecution and threats increased until they had no other choice but to seek political asylum in the United States.

They flew to Nicaragua and headed north through Mexico. Their journey was harder than either could ever have imagined. It was also a lot longer.

“There were so many times on their journey,” says Ella sadly, “that people took them in, acted like Good Samaritans, and then betrayed them, demanding money and threatening them with death.”

Raúl, light-skinned, was able to find work along the way to help with their rapidly depleting savings. No one would hire Damasia.

“Racism is definitely a part of this story,” interjects Ella.

The family was still struggling in Mexico when Raúl suffered a sudden and fatal heart attack. There was no time to properly grieve for husband and father. The government authorities—in the one act of kindness they showed her through her entire ordeal—arranged for Raúl’s ashes to be sent back to family in Cuba.

Damasia and Camilo —a Black mother and son traveling alone—continued north.


The New Day Dawning
El amanecer del nuevo día

It’s been seven months since Damasia and Camilo arrived at the shelter on that hot July day. Both mother and son are doing well. Camilo has friends. Damasia keeps busy. They are safe. They have confidence that they will one day be able to join their family members in Miami.

There is plenty of time to play and learn at La Casa.
Children have the chance to be children at La Casa.

On Friday, February 12, the Biden Administration announced plans to slowly allow asylum seekers with active Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) cases to wait in the U.S. while their asylum claims wind their way through immigration courts—instead of forcing them to remain in Mexico.

As of this writing, the designated ports of entry will be San Diego in California, and El Paso and Brownsville in Texas.

Damasia had not been allowed to request asylum. She was never placed in the MPP program.

So for Damasia and Camilo —at this moment, at least—nothing has changed.

“We’re glad some people will be allowed to be paroled in, but our people,” says Alba, referring to the asylum seekers in the shelter and in the Nogales region, “are left waiting without a clear plan to know when they will be allowed to enter.  They are patient, of course, because they must be patient.

“Even so,” she adds, smiling, “there is a lot of hope now. To us, this is like a brand new day.”


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