Single mom and small business owner Paloma never expected to have to flee her home in Mexico, much less seek asylum. That changed when she couldn’t afford the payments demanded by a local cartel, and wouldn’t turn over her 9-year-old son to work for them. After an extreme beating and six weeks in the hospital, Paloma found herself with few options and little choice—now she and her son wait at the U.S.–Mexico border to seek asylum.
About three months ago, Paloma (25), and her son Erick (9) arrived in Nogales, Sonora from their home in the state of Mexico. They planned to apply for asylum in the U.S., and had received a number and the address of a local shelter where they could stay without losing their place in line. That first week, mother and son stayed there, in a space which could comfortably fit 30–40 people, but now housed over 100, with few beds and one bathroom, so overstretched were its resources. Families slept huddled on the floor, and chickenpox and lice spread rapidly. To allow each person a few minutes to shower and use the bathroom, everyone woke at 5:00 am, then gathered their belongings and children to head into the city. With others, Paloma and Erick walked an hour and a half to eat breakfast at the KBI comedor, then passed the time at a government-run day facility until returning to the comedor at 3:00 pm for supper, and caught the shelter van to return for the night to collapse on redistributed, unwashed blankets, another source of germs and bugs.
This was Paloma’s daily routine, and a far cry from the comforts of home, where she owned a store and a modest home, could provide Erick with kid’s pleasures and enrichment activities, and enjoy his company in the evenings. Now, she was physically and emotionally exhausted at the end of each day—all the walking and waiting; nervously keeping an eye on Erick as he played outside the day facility (since kidnapping is a constant worry for displaced migrants); and longing for lights-out at 11:00 pm—only to begin again in the morning.
In the months before leaving her home city, cartels had begun demanding monthly payments of 20,000 pesos (about USD$1,100). When Paloma was unable to pay, a cartel member suggested an impossible compromise—allow Erick to help traffic their narcotic “merchandise.” She refused on the spot, and the following day, several cartel members came to her store and beat Paloma so badly, she required surgery to treat her injuries and remained in a private hospital where her location was less likely to be traced for six weeks.
For Erick’s safety and her own, Paloma knew that she had to leave—she did not want to endanger the lives of local friends or relatives if she stayed with them, and the cartel would find her if she relocated elsewhere in the country. She decided to migrate to the U.S.-Mexico border and, on the advice of a trusted friend, apply for asylum, though based on her research, she was uncertain if she and Erick would qualify.
After that first week in the Nogales shelter, Paloma found a one-room apartment to rent, an increasingly common decision among asylum seekers waiting in Mexico. With no kitchen and a shared bathroom, the apartment was wildly overpriced at USD$600, plus utilities and a USD$600 as a deposit, but she and Erick were grateful to have a place of their own with no bedbugs. Still, with an indefinite wait time ahead, Paloma didn’t know how long she could afford to stay there.
A solution came three weeks later when a friend told her about KBI shelter for women and children. Sister Alicia helped find space for Paloma and Erick, and they moved in, joining the Casa Nazareth community. It was a dramatic change from their previous living situations. As Paloma says, “Here, we can take showers in peace. We can fill up again a little bit of what we’ve lost. It’s calm, there are games for the kids, and we don’t have to bring our things with us everywhere we go or leave early in the morning every day.” She is especially thankful that Erick can be in a safe and nurturing environment after the stresses and fears they’d lived through, and the grief he feels over leaving his friends, third-grade classmates, and everything familiar.
At this point, their number is nearly up. When they finally gain entry to the U.S. and can leave the border area, Paloma plans to head to Maryland, where a family member lives and can receive them. She hopes that Erick, at the top of his class in Mexico, can begin fourth grade there in the fall. He’s already studying English on his own, and Paloma, too, plans to learn English, and work to support herself and her son as they fight their asylum case. In the meantime, as she reflects on her time at the KBI, she says, “Here, we’ve been given medicine when we needed it. Clothes, shoes, food, dignity, and hospitality. And I ask myself, what better blessing is there?”