It starts with an unwelcome visit to my father’s grocery store.
Dad has owned and operated Jones’ Grocery and Deli Co. since my grandfather retired from the store in the early 90s. Before that, my grandfather had owned and operated it since his father retired in the 60s. Every young adult in our family has earned their first paycheck from after-school shifts at the register or deli counter. We dine on about-to-expire meat and dented boxes of pasta almost every night. We joke about who in the family will be the first to get the motto, “Fresh for the Family,” tattooed. (My money’s on my brother Luke.) This store has been a cornerstone of our family and of Coveton, our small town in rural Georgia, since pretty much forever.
Even as a new President, several years ago, decreased tax cuts for small businesses and made a bunch of other economic decisions that screwed lots of people over.
Even as our local economy, which consisted mostly of small businesses, was decimated and unemployment skyrocketed.
Even as gangs popped up, when a bunch of young men with no jobs got restless.
Even as community members fell prey to drug addiction, one by one, numbing the pain of shattered hopes and lost dreams and a community in ruins.
Even as my beautiful hometown slipped further and further into poverty and violence with each passing day.
Still, people need to eat, so we get by. Or at least, we have until now.
Brad and Connor enter the store, proudly showing off their backwards baseball caps and cowboy boots. Safety pins glint on the brims of their hats. I’m working the deli counter and Dad’s at the register up front.
I know Brad and Connor from school—they’re two years ahead of me. Or at least, they would be, if they hadn’t dropped out the second they turned eighteen. Everyone knows they’re part of the Pins now, one of the two biggest gangs in Coveton. Rumor has it the Pins and their rival Silent Demons have webs throughout the whole state, maybe the whole Southeast or even the whole country.
When Brad and Connor come in, we only have two other customers: the Petersons, a sweet older couple I know from church. I slice and wrap their roast beef and Havarti cheese just the way they like it and give Mr. Peterson a smile as he takes them. I try not to notice Brad and Connor aimlessly wandering the aisles.
The second Mr. and Mrs. Peterson are out the door, Brad and Connor hustle over to Dad at the register. I know I shouldn’t, but I quietly leave the deli counter and crouch in an aisle closer to the register and their conversation.
It starts out friendly enough. “How are you doing, Mr. Jones?” Brad asks. I know it’s him because his voice sounds just like his brother Jack’s. Jack’s a sophomore like me, and I’m pretty sure if he makes any fewer than four sexist comments a day, he’ll explode. Or at least, he thinks he will.
“I’m doing just fine, and how about yourselves?” Dad says.
They don’t answer; instead, Connor cuts to the chase. “Listen, Mr. Jones, we came here to ask a favor.” My heart travels to somewhere near my esophagus. This can’t be good. “See, your store is one of the only successful businesses left in town, and we rely on local businesses to help us do our business. We hate to put you in this position, and we understand that your store has been family owned and operated for many years. But we really need you to hire one of our guys, just one, so we can do our business out of the store.”
Dad is silent for a second, then, “You want me to hire a gang member to traffick drugs through my family-owned-and-operated grocery store?”
“Whoa whoa whoa, Mr. Jones.” That’s Brad, trying to deflect the tension with what must pass as charm in some circles. His voice has the same slime to it that his brother’s does when he’s asking a girl to a party so he can get her drunk and rape her in the bathroom. “No one said anything about gangs or drugs,” Brad continues. “We don’t want any trouble. We’re just asking for your assistance, from one Coveton resident to another. The cops have got a lot of our other business locations under pretty tight watch, so you understand why we have to expand the sites for our deals. Surely you’d be willing to help us out and contribute to your local economy, wouldn’t you, sir?”
“No.” My father’s voice is steely and harsh. I can’t tell if I’m more proud or afraid. “No, I don’t think I would.”
Silence from Brad and Connor. Are they trying to remember which weapons they have stashed in the car, so they can bring them in here and damage my father or me or the store? Are they sharing a glance that suggests kill him now? Are they sneaking around the corner to snatch me? My heart in my esophagus has stopped beating.
After moments that seem to stretch on for hours, Connor speaks. His voice is low and more menacing than should be possible for a guy who jumped on our trampoline with my brother when we were kids. “Then we’ll make whatever happens next look like an accident.”
Their boots clunk on the linoleum as they start walking to the door. “Wait!” Dad shouts. I hear the boys return to the counter. “I can’t… I can’t give you a job. Not when I have my kids working here.”
“We saw your daughter at the deli counter earlier. Real pretty.” The minute the words are out of Brad’s mouth, I feel like I need a shower. “Seems like she knew what was good for her and went off into a back room so we could have this nice little talk.”
“I can’t give you a job,” Dad says again, ignoring Brad’s comments. “But… I can give you money.”
A pause, then, “We’ll take whatever’s in the register now.” I hear the drawer sliding open, cash and change being dumped into one of the plastic bags that has THANK YOU printed all down the sides.
“What day is it today, Brad?” Connor asks.
“So we’ll take three grand by the end of the month, Mr. Jones.”
My heart starts beating again, pounding really, but it’s sunk down to my stomach now. “Thats… that’s impossible,” Dad stammers. It’s been all we can do to keep the store from going under, with the town so poor.
“Make it happen,” Connor orders, and despite the gravity of the situation and topsy-turvy power dynamics at play, I think, Who are you to talk to my dad like that?
I hear the bell chiming as Brad and Connor exit the store. They whip out of the parking lot in a shiny silver truck. The second they’re gone, I sprint around the aisle to hug Dad tight and instantly start sobbing.
“It’s gonna be okay, Kenz,” Dad whispers, smoothing my hair. “It’s gonna be okay.”
Somehow, a few weeks later, it is. The five of us have been eating nothing but rice, beans, and nearly-rotted produce off the store shelves. Dad moved a lot of stuff around in whatever savings accounts he and Mom have. My brother and I haven’t been getting paid for our shifts, but we know better than to complain. By August 31, Dad has $3,000 cash, hidden in a brown paper bag inside his office desk drawer.
I’m working the deli counter again when Brad and Connor come back. Another guy, Tanner, is with them; his family lived in our neighborhood before they moved to Maple Street when we were all in middle school. There are no other customers when they come in, so I expect them to head straight to Dad at the register. Instead, they come up to the deli counter.
“Hey, sugar,” Brad says. Connor and Tanner giggle. It feels weird to describe these large, unfriendly, threatening boys as “giggling,” but that’s what they did as they watched me squirm. “Can I have some of that mountain cheddar and a couple slices of the pepper jack? Oh, and a container of that maple bourbon bacon y’all are so famous for.” I nod, don’t say a word, just prep his order with shaking hands. I want to run out the back door and go far, far away from here. I want to cut out Brad’s tongue so he can’t taste any of our delicious bacon. I want to whack Connor and Tanner over the head with a meat cleaver. But instead my hands slice, stack, fold, wrap. Slice, stack, fold, wrap.
I place the two cheeses and the bacon in a brown paper bag and pass it over the counter. I don’t bother saying that his total is $18.92. He knows he’s not going to pay it. I know he’s not going to pay it. Right now, I’m just trying to survive.
“Thanks, sweetheart.” Brad smiles, raps his knuckles on the glass display case, and leads the group toward Dad. Forget wanting to take a shower; this interaction with Brad leaves me feeling like I need to bathe in bleach.
I stay behind the counter this time and watch their interaction with Dad instead of listening to it. It doesn’t take long for him to go back into his office, retrieve the brown paper bag with our hard-earned $3,000, and hand it over. I think the deal is done there. But Connor says something more before he walks away, something that makes the color drain out of Dad’s face. He looks absolutely defeated as the few Pins exit the store.
Dad walks over to the deli counter, still in a daze. “What is it?” I ask. I don’t think I want to know the answer.
“They want another three grand,” he says. Heart skips a beat. “By the end of the week.” Heart stops beating entirely.
This can’t be happening.
At the end of the week, the Joneses are in bad shape.
Mom and Dad have pretty much stopped eating, although I’m not sure whether it’s because of lack of funds, stress, or both. None of the kids can sleep. We’re old enough to understand what’s going on but not old enough to do anything about it, which leaves us with nightmares, no homework getting done, and a blanket of fear over the entire house. A few Pins, mostly young guys I knew from school, come in the store every day. They flash the guns at their hip, make some sly comments to Dad, ogle me, and leave. One day they’re so brazen as to show off their guns right in front of a policeman picking up eggs and milk, which just leads me to believe that some of our local cops are being bribed by the Pins and Silent Demons. It makes sense; now I know why the few dozen unsolved murder cases have stayed unsolved. I don’t know who to trust anymore, besides Mom, Dad, my brother Luke, and my sister Kit. And Lucky, our rescue golden retriever. Every minute of every day, I am afraid for our lives. It makes it pretty hard to pay attention in trigonometry.
Dad scrapes together $1,308. Not quite half of what we need, and I can’t imagine the Pins will be thrilled about it.
On Saturday, Luke is scheduled to work instead of me. I offer to trade shifts because I can’t stand waiting to hear what happens, but he and Dad insist that me, Mom, and Kit stay home.
While they’re gone, I try to distract myself. I watch The Sound of Music because it’s on TBS, but I can’t tell you what it’s about. I flip pages in a magazine, but I can’t tell you who’s in it. I braid Kit’s hair, but it ends up a tangled mess because I’m not paying attention. I can’t focus. Can’t eat, can’t drink, can’t pee, can’t sleep, can’t do anything. I can only sit and wait. It’s like meditating, except instead of calm, I am full of fear.
On Saturdays, the store opens at 9AM and closes at 8PM. Dad and Luke went in for the afternoon shift, which means they work for six hours from 2 to 8. By 8:01, I’m in a frenzy. They should have called, I can’t stop thinking. They should have called.
At 8:19, a car door slams in our driveway. Mom, Kit, and me rush to the front door and stand in a half circle as it opens to admit Dad and Luke.
“They gave us more time,” Luke says.
Then we’re all hugging and crying. “One more week to get the rest of the three grand,” Dad explains.
“Honey–” Mom starts, but he cuts her off.
“I know, I know, it’ll be tough. But I think we might be able to make it work. It’s gonna be okay.”
We keep hugging and crying, and I know we’re all thinking the same thing: But what if it’s not?
By the following Wednesday, my hair is falling out. I watch a blonde clump go down the shower drain.
I know I’m not the only one. I was braiding Kit’s hair this morning before my shower and noticed a little pile of her blonde hairs gathered all around us. I saw a clump of my mom’s bright red hair underneath a few tissues in the bathroom trash can. Mom is 42, I am 15, Kit is 13. This is not normal. I search “symptoms of stress hair loss” online and there it is: the not-so-shocking revelation that hair loss is a symptom of stress. After six weeks of living under the Pins’ reign, our family is basically going crazy.
We can’t ask the church for money because we’d be ratting out the Pins, which we all figure is not a good idea. We can’t ask the extended family for money because we’d put them in danger by involving them in this mess. We can’t ask our friends for money because I guess we don’t know which ones have gang ties. We can’t dig into the savings accounts for money because they’re all empty. We can’t sell our furniture for money because the rest of the town is so poor that no one will buy it. We’re tired, hungry, stressed out of our minds, and running out of options.
I watch the money trickle in throughout the week. Everything from the cash register at the store gets counted and goes straight into another brown paper bag for the Pins. The few non-family employees are given an excuse about how times are tough so my dad has to pay them in IOUs for right now. A couple of them quit or ask for fewer shifts so they can find work that will pay them on time. That means longer work days for Mom and Dad, Kit slipping in a shift or two even though she’s underage, me and Luke locking up at night so Mom and Dad can go home, scrap up whatever they find for dinner, and stare at spreadsheets trying to find a thousand dollars somewhere.
Thursday rolls around. We’ve made $840 this week. Every cent of the profits is going straight to the Pins. Never mind the fact that the Jones family needs to eat and pay the utility bill.
Friday rolls around. We’ve made $1,130 this week.
Saturday rolls around. By noon, Luke texts me that we’ve made $1,290 this week, bringing us up to $2,598. We’re $402 short.
I’m stuck at home again, awaiting news from the store. I text Luke every twenty minutes. From noon until 2PM, he answers right away, letting me know that the Pins haven’t come through yet. He doesn’t answer my text at 2:19.
By 4:00, I’m sitting in the bathtub, letting the shower water pound me on the back as I heave crazy sobs. I’m sure the worst has happened, that Dad and Luke are dead, the store is on fire, the Pins are coming for Mom and Kit and me right now. I should have tried selling my clothes to my friends, should have sold my phone on eBay, should have stolen the money from one of my friends’ parents, from parking meters, from rich people at the mall in Macon. Maybe I should have kept my mouth shut at school about the family store, just told everyone that I didn’t really know what my parents’ jobs were. Maybe I should have flirted with Brad; then he might be forgiving about the missing $402.
My family is in deep and it’s at least partially my fault.
8PM. Closing time. I’ve avoided calling Luke because if it goes to voicemail I’ll hear his voice and at this point that just might break me. He hasn’t answered any of my texts, which are increasingly desperate:
2:19PM – Update?
2:29PM – Update?????
2:50PM – Luke, please let me know what’s going on
3:03PM – Are you ok??
3:15PM – Hellooooooooooo??
3:38PM – LUKE! Please answer me!!!!
3:59PM – Mom and Kit and me are freaking out. Please answer your phone.
4:25PM – Do we need to come to the store? I know we don’t have the car but we can walk
4:46PM – Have the Pins even shown up yet?? What did they say?
5:00PM – Please say you’re ok Please say you’re ok Please say you’re ok
5:27PM – Luke, please
6:04PM – I can’t take this anymore. Luke, PLEASE answer your phone
6:22PM – Look, you and I can help Mom and Dad find the money. We’ll sell weed to our friends or something stupid. Just tell the Pins we need more time but we can do it
6:40PM – Ok, I won’t make you sell weed with me but I will. Tell the Pins I’ll do anything if they just give us more time
7:07PM – We can ask Grandma and Grandpa for our Christmas money in way advance, say we’re saving up for a car of our own or something. They’d never know that we gave it to the Pins. We’d be ok
7:36PM – If something went wrong and you’re ok but Dad’s not we’re not mad at you Luke, just please come home as soon as you can or at least just answer your phone
7:55PM – If you don’t walk in the door by 8:15 we’re calling the police
8:00PM – Please say you’re closing right now, please be ok
8:05PM – You have ten minutes to get home
8:10PM – You have five minutes to get home. Please, please get home
At 8:14PM, the lock on the front door knob turns and Dad and Luke run in, slamming the door shut behind them. Relief floods through me, but it can’t drown out the panic I’ve been sitting with for six hours, or really six weeks.
“We need to go,” Dad says. “Pack your things.”
“Dave, what’s going on?” Mom’s panicking.
“They want the rest of the money by tomorrow and we just don’t have it.” Mom’s still standing in the kitchen doorway staring at him. “Come on!” He holds his hand out impatiently. “We need to pack!”
Kit looks like she’s about to start hyperventilating, so I grab her shoulders and tell her as calmly as possible to pack her essentials in a bag she can carry. Then I pull Luke aside and ask for more of an explanation as Kit scurries off and Mom follows Dad into their room, having a murmured conversation of their own.
“Dad gave them what we have and they flipped out,” Luke says. “They pulled their guns out and pointed them at us. They…” He’s fighting for words; it seems like he’s about to cry or faint. “They said that if we don’t pay up by tomorrow… Dad asked for more time and they wouldn’t give it to us, said he’d give them the job and they said it was too late… If we don’t have the money by tomorrow, they’ll beat us up, and… and they said they’ll… r-rape Mom a-and you and Kit and… and make us watch… and then they’ll burn the store down with the kids inside, make Mom and Dad watch, then sh-shoot them in the head.”
I cannot speak. There are no words in the English language for this. There are no words in any language for this. I feel my heart cracking, my atoms splitting in two, my joints falling apart, my muscles tearing, my lungs emptying of oxygen. Somehow my eyes are still working and I look up and see Luke crying. That undoes me; I fling my arms around his neck and hold him tight. “It was so scary, Kenz,” he sobs. “I thought I was gonna die, and I just kept thinking about Kit and you and Mom…. They didn’t put the guns down, not at all, just keep them pointed straight at our heads…” He sobs harder. “I’m so scared, Kenz, I’m so scared.”
I pull back and look in his blue eyes. They are the same as Dad’s eyes that look at me with pride when I make a tough but right decision; as Mom’s eyes that search for beauty in every little thing; as Kit’s eyes that sparkle with the light of middle school individuality (some may call it weirdness). “I’m scared, too, Luke. But we will get through this together, do you hear me?” He nods and blinks away more tears. “Go pack.”
Less than an hour later, we each have a backpack with some clothes, a few toiletries, water bottles, and whatever food we still had around the house. Dad and Luke explained that the Pins smashed their phones (which is why Luke wasn’t answering any of my texts) and slashed the tires on the car. They walked to a few of the auto-shops in town, but not surprisingly, no one was in the mood to hand out free tires, and we obviously don’t have any more money. So Dad and Luke walked home, and now, wherever we go, we go on foot.
“If we stick to the forests that line the highway, we’ll be okay, at least for a while,” Dad assures us. I tighten the straps on Kit’s backpack; she’s been wearing it low to look cool at school, but that’ll hurt her back with all the walking we’ll be doing. I carefully remove her giant mass of keychains and set them on the coffee table. “Remember, no flash lights unless absolutely necessary. If something happens, run as fast as you can. Drop your bag if you have to, but don’t let anyone catch you. Okay?”
None of us can speak; the Pins took our voices like Ursula took Ariel’s. (I watched The Little Mermaid with a few neighborhood kids I babysat this past summer. I wonder how life went from that simple to this complicated in such a short time.) We nod in agreement with Dad’s instructions. No one speaks up for Lucky, though I know we’re all thinking about how terrible it is to have to leave our sweet pup behind. I look at his bowls in the kitchen and worry about him starving or dying of thirst. Surely someone will realize that we’re gone, that we left our dog, and take care of him for us. It’s only the thought of this mythical Good Samaritan that allows me to actually leave Lucky behind. I have to convince myself he’ll be all right; otherwise, my feet won’t move.
Dad nods at all of us, his face stern, like he’s a general leading us into battle. He plants a kiss on Mom’s forehead and charges out the door.
Three weeks later, we’re in a motel in Louisiana. Evidently the staff at this particular motel have big hearts, because the front desk guy took one look at our dirty faces, matted hair, and filthy clothes and told us we could stay the night for free as long as we didn’t make any trouble. Dad had just wanted to ask about the nightly rate, see if we could scrounge something up by begging or who knows what, but we gladly take the free room.
I don’t really know where we’re going if I’m being honest. All I know is it’s away from Coveton. I don’t think Mom or Dad have a plan other than get out and don’t let the Pins track us down.
In the motel, we shower and sleep on beds for the first time since leaving home. The mattress is lumpy and too soft, but it’s better than the ground, and at least we have air conditioning and running water. We rinse all our dirty clothes out and hang them to dry overnight. Once I lie down, I fall asleep quickly, but instead of sweet dreams I have intense nightmares. They’ve been haunting me since the first time Brad and Connor came to the store. I wake up, sweating bullets, around 3AM. I know I’m not the only person in our family who’s been having nightmares about the nightmare that is our lives now, but I think I have them most frequently.
I need some air to calm my racing thoughts and rising panic, so I step outside. There’s a group of guys gathered around the vending machine; it looks like they’re just hanging out, smoking and drinking beer. I sit down, back against the door, and don’t think anything of it. I close my eyes and try to breathe, just breathe.
A few minutes later, I sense movement to my right. It’s the guys from the vending machine walking toward me.
They have pins on their baseball hats.
Stay. Calm. I repeat this in my head, over and over, despite my escalating heartrate. Stay calm. Stay calm. Stay calm.
“Hey, princess!” one of them calls out. They’re maybe fifteen yards away. His friends chuckle. I try to ignore him.
“Whatcha doin’ out here all by you’self?” one of the friends asks, revealing gap teeth.
“My… my family is staying the night here.” My voice is squeaky and sounds even less brave than I feel.
“Where y’all comin’ from?” a tall, skinny one asks. I can’t think of a lie fast enough. “And why do you want to hide it?” he asks, this time with a wicked grin.
“Only reason a family like yours would come through this motel, try to stay here without money, looking grubby like you all, coming off the road is that they’re running from someone. A gang, maybe. You wouldn’t know anything about that, would you, sweetheart?”
“N-no,” I stammer. They’ve pretty much surrounded me now.
“Good,” the one who addressed me first says. “‘Cause if you did, we’d have to tell you that we’re Pins. And we’re the strongest, most powerful gang in this city, in this state, in this country even. You don’t want to be on our bad side, do you now?”
“No,” I say again.
“I have an idea of some things we could do together to make sure you stay on our good side,” Gap-Tooth says. “We’ve got a room right upstairs. Just come up with us for a few hours and we’ll let you and your family get out of here nice and easy.”
I thought I fell apart when we left home, but now I am too put together. My bones are locked in tight, my muscles are frozen, my vocal cords are stuck. My brain is a big siren incapable of producing any actual thoughts or ideas for how to get out of this situation. It’s just screaming. I want to scream out loud but I’m afraid of what they will do to me if I do.
Tall-and-Skinny holds out his hand like he’s offering to help me stand up. “Come on now, beautiful. It won’t take long at all, and I promise, it’ll be real fun.”
Suddenly, I fall backward as the door behind me whooshes open. It’s Dad, tee shirt and shorts pulled on quickly over his boxers, simultaneously blinking the sleep out of his eyes and ridiculously alert. “Can I help you gentlemen?” he asks, calm, smooth, collected.
“We was just talkin’ to your girl here,” Gap-Tooth says, flashing his gap-tooth grin at Dad. “She’s real special.”
“I think so, too.” Dad beams. I have no idea how he’s keeping his composure. I have no idea how much he’s figured out about what’s going on. I’m guessing most, if not all of it. “Unfortunately, she suffers from terrible insomnia. Has such a hard time sleeping, wanders off to get fresh air. I’m glad you guys were here to keep her company, but I think it’s time she tries to go to sleep now. We’ve got an early start in the morning, continuing on our family vacation to the Grand Canyon!”
“But–” Tall-and-Skinny starts. Dad pulls me up by the elbow, wraps his arm around my shoulders, and goes to close the door.
“Good night, gentlemen,” he says ever so kindly, then shuts and locks the door before they can get another word in.
I immediately collapse and weep. I try to stay quiet in case the Pins are still outside the door. “They were Pins, Daddy,” I sob. “They were going to—”
“Shh, shh, shh,” Dad whispers gently. He holds me as I cry. “I know, Kenz, I know. It’s gonna be okay, baby. It’s gonna be okay.” Tears still streaming down my face, I feel sick all of a sudden and run to the bathroom. Dad holds my hair back as I dry heave over the toilet.
“What happened?” Mom appears in the doorway to the bathroom, grimacing from the light.
“Ran into a couple of Pins outside.”
“What?!” I can tell Mom’s about to panic, but Dad quickly shushes her.
“It’s gonna be okay,” he says, still whispering. I try to remind myself that this has been Dad’s line throughout this entire ordeal, and he hasn’t let us down yet. Sure, I wouldn’t describe things as good or even fine, but we’re okay. That’s what he promised, and that’s the promise he’ll keep. “We’re so far away, they didn’t recognize us. We’ll leave first thing in the morning. It’s gonna be okay.”
We crawl out the bathroom window, just to be safe. It’s tiny, so our bags barely fit through, let alone our bodies. But like everything else along this journey, we make it work.
I don’t know what it is about this morning that makes me wonder where we’re headed. Maybe I’m still reeling from last night and wanting to ask if we’re going somewhere safe. Maybe I’ve seen the kinds of dangers we’ll face as long as we’re still traveling. Maybe I’m just stupid tired of being stressed out all the time and I want some hope. Whatever it is, I approach Dad and just ask, “Dad, where are we going?”
He takes a deep breath, then answers clearly and honestly: “We’re going to Mexico to seek asylum.”
The way he says this, and the look on Mom’s face when he does, tells me that my parents have been planning this all along. There are two other families from Coveton, at least that I know of, who have gone to seek asylum in Mexico. One was a young couple, Joanna and Tyler Monroe, with their 18-month-old baby Phoebe. They were targeted by the Pins because Joanna was white and Tyler was black, which meant Phoebe was mixed, which the Pins did not approve of in the slightest. The Monroes left about six months ago, and we got word about four months ago that they had made it to Mexico. As far as we know, they’re still there waiting on an asylum hearing.
The other family had a daughter the same age as a few of the kids I babysit. The parents had some unpopular, but not dangerous, political beliefs, and were targeted by Silent Demons. Explaining to the kiddos that their friend Samantha might not be coming back was one of the saddest, hardest things. We never heard if they made it.
From what I know of the asylum process, we fit the bill. I looked it up when I found out about Samantha’s family. You have to have fear of persecution based on a couple different criteria. The Monroes fit the definition for race, Samantha’s family fit the definition for political opinion, and from what I’ve seen, being targeted by a gang for opposing them puts you in the “membership in a social group” category. I guess our social group is “people who don’t want to be shot by a gang for not being able to afford a bribe.”
We obviously just saw that the Pins is spread throughout the South, and I’ve heard that there’s a network spanning the whole country. At home, they had police in their pocket, so I’m guessing that’s true everywhere else, too. And if that’s the case, then we’re not safe in the United States. Asylum in Mexico isn’t just the best option—it’s the only option.
Fortunately, we just have to finish passing through Louisiana and then make our way down Texas to the border. Once we arrive at a port of entry, we can claim asylum, stay in Mexico to await our asylum hearing, and then stay there indefinitely if and when we’re granted asylum.
I look over at Kit. Already her shoulders are slumped from another day carrying her backpack, another day with the weight of a shadowy threat hanging over her. I see Luke, his optimism weathered down and nearly beaten out of him. I see Mom, and we make eye contact; she’s checking on everyone, too. I love her for this. We’re in a country whose systems—the law, law enforcement, social safety net, you name it—won’t take care of us, so she’s trying to take that entire burden on herself. It’s impossible to manage, but the effort means the world.
And Dad. He doesn’t look much different than he did two months ago, other than his eyes. His eyes have aged fifteen years. He used to own a successful family grocery business, come home from work to delicious casseroles, spin his daughters around in the living room until we were so dizzy we fell down gasping for breath through our raucous laughter. Now he’s led us across half of the Southern United States and is taking us to a different country to just try and make sure we survive. He’s powerless against the gangs. He knows this, I know this, I think we all know this at some level. But he’s trying to protect us nonetheless, and I love him for this.
I think about what could have happened to me, with those guys at the motel. I think about what could have happened to Dad and Luke, the day the Pins came to the store and they didn’t have all the money. I think about something terrible happening to Mom. I think about something awful happening to Kit.
We didn’t do anything wrong. My dad just tried to protect our business and, more importantly, our family, from a gang that’s bigger, stronger, and more powerful than we are. Now here we are, on the run for our lives, risking more violence just to make it to that border. To hope.
If it was just me dealing with all this, I don’t think I could keep going. I don’t know what I would do, but it certainly wouldn’t be trudging along a Louisiana backroad. But my family, these are the people I care about most in the world. We are in this together. So I walk and pray that every step I take is one step closer to safety.
Two weeks after the motel in Louisiana, we’re almost to McAllen, TX.
Which means we’re almost to the Mexican border.
It’s hot out here in the Texas sun, and there are long stretches of desert, no buildings, no civilization. I can see that angels have put out water and granola bars for people making the journey to Mexico. I can see that Mexican immigration officers have emptied the water bottles and stomped on the snacks. To my thirsty, starving family, that feels worse than cruel.
Still, we keep going. The closer we get to the border, the more signs we see in Spanish. I try to remember every word of Spanish I learned in several years of Spanish classes, but the stress of our situation is preventing my brain from functioning at full capacity.
Kit isn’t in good shape. We’re all struggling, of course, but poor Kit has the worst blisters on her feet. I’m pretty sure they’re getting infected. Her shoes don’t fit well, but it’s not like we have money for any more, even if we were in a town with a shoe store. She’s tired, thirsty, and hungry. It seems like her little legs are about to give out, and if they don’t, her emotional capacity will. There are only a few years between us, but those few years I have on her are making a big difference in my ability to handle this. Although, last night was another sleepless one because of nightmares, so I probably shouldn’t brag about my coping skills.
We’re so close now that every step feels simultaneously like victory and torture. Victory, because we’re almost there. Torture, because we’re not there yet. I practice what I will say to the Mexican immigration officer in Spanish. “Tengo miedo por mi vida en los Estados Unidos.” I am afraid for my life in the United States. “Quiero” is “I want,” but I don’t know how to say “asylum,” so I hope that the English word will do. I teach Kit, who took French, how to say the phrase. The whole family practices together as we get closer and closer to the border.
I don’t know what to expect. I’ve seen so many things about Mexico on the news and in TV shows. They’re a very rich nation, very powerful, one of the leaders of the free world. They have historically welcomed immigrants from all over, but in the past five or ten years have been really tightening restrictions around the U.S. border. Some accounts say a lot of white Americans are trying to get through to commit crimes, take Mexican jobs, traffick drugs. Other accounts say that many of the Americans coming through are actually there to seek asylum. They may be fleeing gang violence like us; they may be escaping religious persecution or threats to the LGBTQ community. It seems like some Mexicans—like the ones who tried to leave us water and snacks—want to help us. Others, though, want to keep us out. Mexico is known as a country of freedom and safety. But after everything I’ve seen on the news lately (although, admittedly, it’s hard to know what’s true on the news these days), I wonder—will we be free and safe there?
Thirty-six days after we fled our home, we arrive at a port of entry. Kit can barely walk, the blisters on her feet are so bad. Her blonde hair is dry, brittle, and falling out in clumps; mine is, too. My fair skin, as well as Mom’s, is bright red with vicious sun poisoning. We are thirsty, hungry, and tired. So tired. But we are here.
We wait in line for five hours. I know this because when we get in line, I check my wristwatch and it says 10:02AM. Then, I check it about once every five minutes for the next five hours. Kit falls asleep, her head on her backpack. Whenever we move up in line, Dad kind of shuffles her along with us. I’m worried about her, but if I’m being honest, I’m worried about all of us.
Luke and I play “I Spy.” I don’t know what makes us resurrect this childhood game, but it entertains us for at least half of our five hours in line. There’s not a lot to see here, so after about thirty minutes of all the creative things we can find, we settle for “something blue” that’s really just a specific shirt on a specific person in line. It’s not exactly entertaining to guess “his shirt,” “no, his shirt” 40 times until you’re correct, but entertainment isn’t my top priority right now so it doesn’t bother me too much.
Finally, at 3:15PM, we arrive to the front of the line. All five of us are ushered to a desk to see an immigration officer.
“Nombre,” he barks. We take turns telling him our names.
“¿Por qué están acá?” Why are you here?
I’m the one with the most years of Spanish class in school, so I’m the one who speaks. My throat feels drier than it has this whole time. “Tengo miedo por mi vida en los Estados Unidos. Quiero… asylum.” I’m so terrified after this statement that I can hear my heartbeat in my ears. The immigration officer says something in Spanish that I can’t understand. “Lo siento,” I respond. “No entiendo.” I’m sorry, I don’t understand.
He repeats his question in English. I feel so stupid for speaking my broken, poor attempts at Spanish. He says, “All of you, you’re all afraid for your lives in the United States?” Each member of my family answers yes.
“Why are you afraid for your lives?”
Dad speaks up now. “We are being targeted by a gang. They said they would beat us up, burn down my store, and kill all of us.”
“They said they would beat you up and burn down your store?”
“But your actual lives were not in any danger?”
Kit and I share a look that says, Is he serious?
“No, our lives were in danger,” Dad answers after a stunned pause. He’s getting frazzled. It’s so loud in here, and we really want water and to sit down. “They threatened to kill us.”
“Why would they kill you?”
“Because we didn’t give them money.”
“But not because of your religion, or your political opinion?”
“No, because we didn’t give them money and that meant we opposed them.”
“They threatened your entire family? Each family member specifically?”
“Yes!” Dad insists. “All of our lives are in danger in the United States.”
“This gang is not local? You could not be safe anywhere in the United States?”
“No, the gang network spreads through the whole country. We can only be safe in Mexico.”
The immigration officer stares at the paperwork on his desk. “I’m putting on your forms that you’re fleeing generic gang violence—”
“There were specific threats to our lives!” Dad exclaims.
“And you would like an asylum hearing. I will submit these forms and you’ll be taken to our holding center to await your asylum hearing.” The immigration officer gestures to his right. We see another line leading out the door, into the country of Mexico, toward who knows what.
“Wait,” Dad says. “I want to make sure the information on your paperwork is correct.”
“I’ve got Katherine, David, Lucas, Mackenzie, and Kate Jones here fleeing generic gang violence. Please continue to the holding area.”
“Those aren’t our names! My son’s name is Luke, my daughter’s name is Kit!” Dad’s yelling now, but it’s loud enough that none of the people at the other desks care.
“Sir, if you don’t calm down and walk over there right now, your asylum case will not be heard and you will go back to where you came from.” Dad’s chest rises and falls with his rapid breathing as he stares down the immigration officer. Then he wraps his arms around Kit’s bony shoulders and leads us toward the line out the next door.
The next step in the process is a security check. They examine our bags, thoroughly pat us down, and ask to see any identifying documents we have. We pass that stage relatively quickly, then go to another line at what looks like a bus station. “Los niños serán separados de padres para esperar la audiencia de solucitud de asilo,” a woman says into a megaphone. She repeats it a few more times.
“What’s she saying?” Mom asks me.
From what I can gather with my limited Spanish knowledge, it’s nothing good.
“I’m pretty sure she’s saying that kids and parents wait for their asylum hearings in separate facilities.”
“What?!” Mom is so horrified that the question comes out in a whisper. Everyone looks panicked. I don’t know what to tell them.
The crowd shuffles us closer to the woman with the megaphone. “Why do children have to be separated from their parents?” Dad asks.
“¡Están en México! ¡Hablen español!” she shouts. You are in Mexico! Speak Spanish!
“¿Por qué niños están lejos de padres?” I try.
She says something in Spanish; I’m pretty sure it’s her initial phrase again. Whatever it is, it doesn’t answer our question. We don’t know why this is happening.
We’re close enough to the front of the crowd now that security guards are starting to shuffle us along. I see a sign to the right that says “Niños” and one to the left that says “Adultos.” There are groups of buses behind each sign. In the chaos, I’m being pushed farther away from my parents. “Mom!” I shout. “Dad!” I reach out a hand but they’re already too far away to touch.
“Kenz! Luke! Kit!” They shout. I see Dad turn to a security guard. “Let me say goodbye to my kids!” he pleads.
“¡Están en México! ¡Hablen español!” the security guard shouts in Dad’s face.
“Mom! Dad!” My voice is frantic now, breaking, too high pitched.
“It’s gonna be okay!” Dad yells. His line again. This time, I don’t believe it.
“We love you, kids! We love you so much!” Dad shouts. Mom nods but she can’t speak because she’s crying. I’m crying, too, Kit is crying, I’m pretty sure everyone in this hot, sweaty, tired, thirsty, hungry, desperate mass of Americans is crying. We try to look at Mom and Dad, to shout to them, for as long as possible, but the tide of people and pull of the security guards forces us away. We head toward the “Niños” sign, get shepherded onto a bus, and pull away from the border station. Without our parents. In Mexico, where we were supposed to be free and safe, feeling neither of those things, wondering what we did wrong.
The kids’ detention facility looks like an old warehouse. There are concrete floors, high ceilings, and most of the “rooms” are separated by sections of chain-link fence. Kit and I get to stay together, but we’re forced to endure another brutal separation as Luke goes to stay with the boys. When we arrive, they take our bags. I don’t know where they take them to or what they’re going to do with them, but I have a feeling we won’t see them again.
In the room we’re taken to, there’s a water jug on a table with plastic cups. Kit and I eagerly gulp down three cups each before a tall, big brunette girl shouts, “Hey!” She walks toward us; Kit and I are honestly too shell-shocked to respond. “Don’t drink all the water,” she says, towering over us. I can’t tell if this is a sharing is caring sort of thing or a this is my water you imbeciles sort of thing.
“Sorry,” Kit squeaks.
“You should be, freak,” the girl says.
This is my water you imbeciles sort of thing.
Kit and I step away from the water cooler, find a spot on the concrete floor, and sit down together. I am embarrassed. I am miserable. I am scared. I am confused. I’ve been separated from my parents and my brother and I don’t know when I will see them again. But right now, I have my baby sister, and I will do whatever it takes to keep her safe.
That evening, security guards escort us in groups to the showers.
The water is freezing cold, the soap stings my skin, and I feel worse afterward rather than better. Still, I suppose I’m clean, and that counts for something.
On the walk back to our “room,” which is honestly just a cage, one of the security guards falls into step beside me and Kit. He looks young, maybe early twenties. “Ustedes nuevas chicas son lindas,” he says. I think that means, You new girls are pretty. “Ójala pudiera acompañarlas al baño.” I’m confused now because he’s talking about taking us to the bathroom, I think. “Ha pasado un tiempo desde que tuve sexo. Necesitábamos algunas nuevas chicas tranquilas como ustedes.” I’m not quite sure, and I’m kicking myself for not studying harder in Spanish class, but I’m pretty sure the guard is threatening to rape us.
I try not to frighten Kit while I warn her about being alone with a guard. That’s an impossible balance. In the end, I settle on, “Don’t go anywhere without me. Not even the bathroom.” I think she gets the message. We fall asleep curled around each other on the concrete floor. Dad isn’t there to save me this time, from the nightmares that become real life.
The next day I really lose hope.
Kit and I meet a few other girls in our cell. Brooke, Reagan, Sellers. Brooke is 15 from Arizona. Reagan is 16 from Arkansas. Sellers is 12 from Ohio.
Brooke, Reagan, and Sellers tell us a lot. It turns out that when you’re basically in hell, you bond pretty quickly. Brooke, Reagan, and Sellers have been in this facility for three months. In all that time, they haven’t seen their parents. They haven’t spoken to a lawyer, even though they’ve seen some visit the facility. They haven’t been given feminine hygiene products during their periods. They’ve mostly slept on the concrete floor. The guards yell at all the girls regularly. They threaten them with sexual violence. No one ever says it out loud, but they all know that some girls have been raped. If someone needs medical care, they almost never receive it. You have to be screaming in agony before they’ll consider taking you to a hospital, and even then they’ll slap you across the face a few times to try to shut you up.
One of the girls’ cousins is an immigration lawyer in Mexico City. She moved there for law school before the crisis at the U.S. border really got out of hand. She was able to obtain a student visa and then apply for citizenship from there.
This cousin says that the detainments and all of that are meant to crack down on undocumented immigrants in Mexico. The thought is that if you apply for asylum and have to wait for several months for a hearing, you might just not come back for the hearing. You’ll take Mexican jobs and become a criminal, or something like that. So they lock you up.
The cousin says that they don’t do that for any immigrants from other Latin American countries. She says there’s so much illegal immigration from Chile, Colombia, Argentina every year, with people overstaying work and tourist visas. The Mexican government doesn’t care about those “illegal immigrants” because it’s not about legality. It’s about fear of and hatred for people from a different place of a different race: white Americans.
I think the cousin seems wicked smart. I also think that her judgments of blatant racism in the immigration system are both spot on and extremely disheartening. The sinking feeling that maybe this won’t actually work out solidifies.
The only thing Brooke, Reagan, and Sellers have been given in their three months here is a date for their asylum hearing: another three months from now for Brooke, four months for Reagan and Sellers. They have no hope of seeing their parents until then. And then they have no hope for the actual hearing itself. They say that, when they crossed the border, the immigration officers didn’t fill out their papers well.
Brooke: “My father received death threats in the mail because of his association with the opposition political party in Phoenix. He has envelopes with the notes in them and everything. But the immigration officer wrote that we were fleeing generic gang violence. That’s not grounds for asylum, and when it’s your word against an immigration officer’s in court, the immigration officer will always win.”
Kit and I tell them that the same thing happened to us. My heart continues to sink as I hear what Brooke says, because I know it’s true. It hits me suddenly, this truth. It flattens me like I’ve been run over by a train. The end of our story suddenly doesn’t seem so hopeful anymore. Because at the end of the day, it will be a judge who sees a thousand cases like ours and doesn’t want more people like us in his country. We don’t speak the language, we don’t have any specialized skills (unless you count selling groceries), we have children with mouths to feed and brains to teach. He will see our case, see the conflicting immigration papers, see that we don’t have any hard evidence of specific threats to our lives, and send us back to Georgia. There, the Pins will find us, torture us, and kill us. I try frantically to hold on to my last bit of hope; I don’t know how my supply got sapped so quickly. I know there’s still a chance, but I also know the odds are not in our favor. I feel like I’m drowning with the realization that we might be sent back to Georgia to die, and there’s nothing we can do about it.
I want to stay afloat. I need to try to stay afloat, for Kit, for Luke, for Mom and Dad. So I ask how Brooke, Reagan, and Sellers have survived for the past three months, especially since they’ve lost almost all hope of actually being granted asylum, and they’ve been separated from their parents for so long. I need to hear their answer. I need to know that it’s possible to get through this. After I ask the question, the three of them look at each other for several long moments.
Finally, Reagan speaks. “I don’t know. I honestly don’t know how we’ve survived this long. And I don’t know how we’ll survive from here.”
I find Kit’s hand and give it a squeeze. It’s the only thing I can do, because now I’m desperately wondering for us and for our whole family: How will we survive from here?
How will we survive from here?
Mackenzie asks this question of herself, her sister, and the rest of her family.
The asylum-seekers and migrants trapped in our detention centers along the U.S./Mexico border are asking this question, too. Like Mackenzie’s family, they face racial bias in the immigration system and its current operations. They are powerless against incorrect immigration documents. They endure human rights violations. They are separated from their family members, even after family separation officially ended last summer. The United States does not honor their right to due process, right to safe and sanitary conditions in detention, and right to be with their family members. Because of our many failures, these asylum-seekers and migrants, many of them fleeing horrific violence, of course will wonder: How will we survive from here?
That’s where you come in. If enough of us raise our voice against the inhumane treatment of asylum-seekers and migrants at the U.S./Mexico border, we can create change. We can demand that everyone from the President to Joe the ICE agent treat asylum-seekers and migrants with dignity and respect their human rights. We can say to the asylum-seekers and migrants in our detention centers, not with our words but with our actions: You will survive from here, because we will help you.
To do this, you can:
- Donate to organizations like RAICES, the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Legal Services, or KIND, Kids in Need of Defense.
- Contact your representatives. You can find out who your representatives are at whoaremyrepresentatives.org. Then, you can call your Senators and Reps or write them an email or letter. Be sure to state your name and zip code so they know you’re a constituent. Let them know that you support more humane treatment for detained asylum-seekers and migrants at the border, including right to due process, to safe and sanitary conditions, and to be with their family members. Ask them to support or co-sponsor bills like the HELP for Separated Children Act, the Central American Women and Children Protection Act, the REUNITE Act, and the Northern Triangle and Border Stabilization Act.
- Knit or crochet a Welcome Blanket to be given to newly arrived refugees or asylum-seekers.
- Share on social media in support of asylum-seekers, migrants, and more humane practices at the border. Families Belong Together has lots of great graphics you can use.
- If you found it helpful, consider sharing this story on your social media. Better yet, consider sharing it with someone who has different views from you on immigration and asylum. Have an honest-to-goodness, no-fingers-pointed, genuine conversation about it.
- If you want to learn more about asylum, immigration, and the crisis at our border, stay tuned for an update to this story with additional facts and resources.
The Asylum Race was born from a night of stay-up-til-3AM-writing frenzy and about two years of I-hate-this-xenophobic-racist-BS anger. When I sat down to write, I had a few main reasons fueling me and a few key topics I wanted to address. Firstly, I had spent a week desperately frustrated at my inability to do anything significant to alleviate the border crisis. I honestly wrote this story to process my own emotions and righteous anger about hateful, white nationalist, anti-immigrant rhetoric, and how it’s affecting people I care about. Secondly, I had been inspired to focus more on story, emotions, and values after a conversation with an old boss. She mentioned that, when talking with people who have misconceptions or fears about immigrants of any kind, facts don’t often convince people to actually listen. What works best for sharing truth is sharing stories. People don’t care as much that native-born U.S. citizens are statistically more likely than undocumented immigrants to murder you in a terrorist attack. They care that those immigrants have families, personalities, memories, stories, dreams.
Thirdly, I saw an increase in blatantly racist discourse surrounding the border crisis. Things like the ICE Director saying the Statue of Liberty poem referred to immigrants from Europe (read: white immigrants). I know that the border crisis has been racist from the very beginning, but it’s gotten more overt in the past few weeks. I wanted to respond to that, because I care deeply about immigrants of all types, and because I think that racism, y’know, sucks. To do this, I had to set aside statistics about race and crime and poverty and etc.; I knew I needed a story that would help people empathize and maybe, actually, start to change some minds, because slapping some numbers on a graph usually doesn’t.
So I decided to flip the border crisis on its head. I thought: What if the situations were reversed, and this was happening to a white American family? What if we actually took seriously the idea of walking a mile in another person’s shoes, of treating others the way you want to be treated (you know, the Golden Rule, straight from the mouth of that Jesus people claim to follow)? How ridiculous would the situation seem if it were reversed? Would people who chant “build that wall” maybe start to see that there are people, human beings with rights who deserve respect, on the other side? Would it become clearer how much of the border crisis is fueled by racism, not national security concerns?
I hope The Asylum Race helps you empathize with those who are suffering at our border right now. I hope it makes you think twice about building that wall. I hope it helps you see more clearly that the border crisis is not an issue of legality and national safety as much as it is one of race. I hope it motivates you to take an action step to help detained migrants survive, and maybe one day even thrive, from here. Most importantly, I hope this story encourages you to choose love over fear. Everyone, everywhere, every time.
Thank you for reading.