“But it was even more scary because the cops—they wanted to arrest us. There were planes flying around. One of the cops was bald, and one had real long hair. When they caught us after the river, they drove up and we all stopped. They asked me if I wanted candy. I said yes, so they gave me a Snickers. It was king size. They were both nice.”
As Alan speaks, Daniel listens intently: He has never been in a river, either, and he doesn’t know any other grade-school kids who have been taken into custody by the Border Patrol. Alan takes a deep breath and turns his attention to his friend. “It’s true. I was really arrested. For real.”
After an internment of several hours, Alan and Elizabeth were dropped off on the Mexican side of the border, and they returned to the motel. Twenty-four hours after their first attempt, they retraced their steps: floating across the river, sprinting up the other side of the bank, then dropping to their stomachs and waiting. “One of the men was using a walkie-talkie to try and trick the cops,” Alan says. “Then we went to a place where a van got us and then to a small house that already had people in it. That’s when my tía told me about what I had to do.”
Elizabeth had had two options as to how they would cross the border. The cheapest, at $1,800, was also the most dangerous: marching through the night, into Arizona. Hundreds of migrants perish each year in the unforgiving terrain of the Sonoran Desert. Treks can last many days, and temperatures regularly reach 110 degrees. Smugglers are prone to ditch their charges at the first sign of trouble, leaving them to wander aimlessly without enough water.
Elizabeth preferred the river, especially with a child. The smuggler charged $2,500 a head to move people across the Rio Grande, bypassing the border checkpoints, where security is the tightest. “The coyote told us that they would look closely at us and maybe take our fingerprints at the border,” Elizabeth says. But just making it to the van waiting on the other side of the river wouldn’t mean they were home free. There are other checkpoints along the road in Texas. “After you get past the first stop, the other checkpoints aren’t so hard,” explains Elizabeth. “They usually don’t even make you get out of the car, so it’s hard for them to really see your face.”
Once in the van, the coyote handed out stolen identification cards for the migrants, trying to best match the faces on the I.D.’s with the soaking Mexicans. But the man in charge had already told Elizabeth that the smugglers didn’t have any documents for a child. What they did have was a large black duffel bag.
“When they told me I needed to hide in a bag, I thought I wouldn’t live,” Alan says in a hushed voice, his eyes widening. “Like, I couldn’t breathe good, and I was real, real nervous.” He leaves the bedroom and returns with a fist-size toy car for demonstration purposes. “See, my tía was sitting in the back, here, and I was down by her feet. In the bag. We were driving, and the cops were coming after us. And then she said, ‘Be quiet.’ ”
As they approached the last immigration checkpoint, Elizabeth unzipped the bag half an inch so that her nephew could get a last breath of fresh air. She remembers every painstaking moment. “I told him, ‘Don’t move until I say it’s okay.’ Then I zipped it back up and put my hand on top of his head, like he was just my things.” The van slowed to a stop, and a Border Patrol agent asked for Elizabeth’s identification. With trembling hands she turned the green card over. What if he was suspicious and decided to search the van? The agent looked at the card briefly and handed it back. The van continued on. A number of miles past the checkpoint, a family friend from Brooklyn was waiting with his car, and Alan and Elizabeth piled in. “When they let me out of the bag, I was smiling and laughing,” Alan recalls. “It was so hot in there!”
But his wave of relief didn’t last long. “Then they told me we were in Texas. Can I tell you what I was thinking about? I was so nervous because I was thinking about the chain-saw massacre.” Daniel nods. He’s heard of the movie, too.
On the afternoon of July 28, 2003, Margarita left her job at the Brooklyn clothing factory and picked up Alan from summer school, where he was making up work he’d missed during his trip to visit his grandfather. Margarita wasn’t sure how to break the news—“My son is very sensitive, you know,” she says, sounding both concerned and proud—and so she remained silent as they walked home, holding hands.