MEXICALI, Mexico — Even in her worst nightmares, Erica Hernandez could not have imagined her life would turn out like this.
“I feel very alone,” she said. “I miss my daughters. I miss my home, my husband, everything.”
Hernandez, who asked not to use her real name, was separated from two of her three daughters. For a year and a half, she has been living in a Mexican shelter with her youngest daughter.
Her two oldest daughters were more than 250 miles away, living with their grandmother in Arizona. She has no idea where her husband is, and at this point doesn’t even know if he’s alive.
Born in Mexico, Hernandez was smuggled into the United States as a child. She grew up in Phoenix, where she met her husband. Together they raised a family until one day her husband – who was also undocumented – was arrested during a routine traffic check and deported to Mexico.
Hernandez made the difficult decision to follow him there, knowing that she could not return to the United States due to her status.
“I thought about it for six months, but then I said, ‘I have to be with the father of my daughters. I don’t want them to be without him,'” she said.
Over the next few years, life in Mexico improved. They bought a ranch and had a third daughter, Ariadna. Then, one night, she received a panicked call from her husband saying that the local cartel had kidnapped him.
“He called me and he said they were going to hurt you,” she said. “I know they’re going to hurt you because I don’t have any money. You have to go.”
Unable to pay the ransom, Hernandez sent her two oldest daughters, both American citizens, back to Arizona to live with her mother. She then left everything behind and headed north with her baby to Mexicali, a sweltering town on the Mexican side of the border with shelters for deported migrants.
There, Altagracia Tomayo Madeño runs the Cobina Refuge. Most residents, she said, are fleeing the violence. There are 30 families here, all desperately trying to find a way to cross the border into the United States. Children, she says, suffer the most.
“These are children who did not ask to be migrants,” she said. “They arrive in poor condition. We try to give them a normal life.”
Hernandez shares a small bedroom with another family. They cannot leave the premises because of COVID-19. So her 2-year-old daughter, Ariadna, has known nothing else outside of their pink walls.
“I’m pretty sure she thinks it’s a house that all the people here are her family. And they are,” Hernandez said.
Hernandez is now seeking asylum in the United States. But for others here, that may not be an option.
Luis came here from Honduras with his wife and two young children. The journey, mostly by bus and on foot when their money ran out, to the border took two years. He said if he couldn’t get asylum, he could cross illegally.
Luis explained how he came to the border to escape kidnappings in his own country, where criminal gangs regularly demand extortion money. Her dream is to be able to support her family. In Honduras, he says, he was lucky to earn $12 an hour. On the other side of the border, he could do that in an hour.
He said “yes” when asked if he was afraid of getting caught crossing with his children. “But it’s the only way for me to have a life and maybe a little house one day,” he said.
Entering the United States illegally can be extremely dangerous. At least 76 migrants have died trying to cross the US-Mexico border in the first three months of 2021, according to the International Organization for Migrants.
In March, an SUV overloaded with 25 undocumented immigrants crashed into a Big Rig near the town of Holtville on the US side of the border. Thirteen people were killed.
Hernandez said she was determined to cross legally. But the hard part is knowing that her daughters are growing up without her.
“We are good people,” she said. “We just want to feel safe and free.”
UPDATE: Following the Biden administration’s suspension of the “Remain in Mexico” policy, Hernandez was finally allowed to return to the United States, where she was reunited with her daughters.