A loud rumble drew Marisol Flores to the window of the second floor apartment. Her chest tightened when she peeked between drawn curtains to see a steel gray armored truck stopped directly in front of the building in which she had lived for the past two years. She quickly turned off the light and stood in darkness as that ominous government vehicle idled in the narrow street jammed with parked cars.
Marisol feared they had come for her and her son.
A half dozen uniformed figures charged out the rear door of the truck and ran for the house across the street where Marisol’s friend, Jacinthe, and her children lived. Two others navigated the dark alleyway towards the rear entrance.
Jacinthe’s three crying children were hustled from the house and placed in the back of the truck. Shouting and screaming echoed as Marisol strained to see her friend. Without warning, a bright flash filled a window in Jacinthe’s apartment and everything went silent.
In minutes four uniformed figures emerged from the front door carrying a long black bag between them. The procession reminded Marisol of pallbearers in her hometown near San Cristobal. Seeing no movement in the bag, she feared the worst.
The truck containing the children and that motionless bag disappeared into the night. Marisol’s bowels quivered as she ran for the bathroom. Doubled over on the toilet, she sobbed. Tears dotted the linoleum floor between her bare feet. After washing, she slipped back into the bedroom where five-year-old Esteban lay sleeping. Outlined by the night-light, Marisol’s reflection in the mirror looked like an apparition of the Blessed Virgin to whom she prayed that truck would never come for them.
The morning sun cleared the crenellated roofline of the old Paterson armory and gilded nearby buildings in warm gold. Yet, for Marisol, the day remained dark, clouded by what she witnessed the previous night. Marisol dressed Esteban and brought him to Oracia who ran a clandestine daycare service for asylum mothers like her. Before leaving for the wallpaper factory where she was a janitor, Marisol gave Esteban an extra hug, telling him, “Mommy will never leave you.”
Though she focused on scrubbing the tiled floors of the locker rooms and washing down the tables in the employee lunchroom, Marisol could not shake the image of that black bag. She fell crying in the corner.
Like many women in this forgotten Paterson neighborhood, Jacinthe and Marisol had made their way from the dangerous land of their birth where Marisol was a schoolteacher before her husband, Roberto, was executed in the street as a revolutionary. Together, the women took their children to Medellín Columbia to find the pilot who was known to fly refugees to Panama for cash. Once airborne, his co-pilot pulled a gun and demanded twice what was agreed to on the ground. Having no choice, the women paid.
With less money, they rode buses and oftentimes walked for miles through Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico, where they were set upon by locals wanting their cash. Only by hiding it in the children’s soiled diapers were they able to keep it from being stolen. Finally, after twenty-nine days and some thirty-eight hundred miles, they reached the border crossing at Laredo.
They did not enter the country illegally, but were admitted under a temporary humanitarian program for women and children seeking asylum from the violence that had erupted in Venezuela since the military coup. Another two thousand miles on buses brought them to the Evangelical Chapel on Sussex Street in Paterson where Reverend Gutiérrez welcomed the newest refugees, as he did the hundreds of others who fled before them. With his help Marisol got an apartment and a little money to hold her over until she found a job, again with his assistance. Marisol would not be teaching school, but she and Esteban were safe. Or, so she thought.
Soon after being elected, the American President, who had campaigned on sealing the borders, terminated the asylum program his predecessor had instituted and ordered the immediate deportation of all persons who had entered via the program. Though circuit court rulings temporarily blocked that action, the administration pressed the Supreme Court to review the case.
In the interim, the President announced formation of what he called the PAT – the Protect America Taskforce. Their role was to take into custody resident aliens the asylum program benefitted and process them for deportation upon prevailing in the Supreme Court, which, the President had packed with right-wing judges. While awaiting the ruling, the PAT began rounding up and holding thousands in facilities run by private prison companies, that, not surprisingly, were big donors to the President’s campaign.
Marisol knew of at least fifteen local families, including Jacinthe’s, already detained. Late night raids through this part of the city were now commonplace. The screams of infants forcibly torn from their mother’s arms pierced the stillness. Children were housed in large dormitories, while their mothers were moved to harsher facilities; some, hundreds of miles away.
Lingering in the basement after Sunday services at the Evangelical Chapel, frightened women whispered of asylum mothers being relocated to Texas border towns to await a hearing on their ultimate disposition while their children were kept from them. Marisol winced when told that some had taken their own lives after learning they would be returned to their native land without their children who would be kept in foster care. “All for their safety, of course,” the President was quoted in the news.
The United Nations, along with international amnesty organizations, denounced these unilateral actions. Yet, the administration ignored those condemnations; avowing it was simply enforcing the nation’s sovereign borders. Rallies both in opposition and support of the deportation scheme spread across the country. Clashes became deadly.
The Secretary of State declared an agreement with the military junta in Venezuela to protect repatriated citizens. Journalists quickly disproved that assertion, as some women, who were deported before the circuit court issued its stay, had been tried; found guilty of sedition; and, sentenced to years behind bars in maximum security prisons on the outskirts of Caracas and Maracaibo. Neither country made any effort to reunite the families destroyed by their cruel pact. Even the Pope’s direct intercession proved unsuccessful.
Several days after the raid that took Jacinthe, Marisol slipped into Javier’s Bodega on her way home from work. “Where is Pilar?” she asked while paying for the groceries.
The owner lightly tapped his forehead twice. It was the furtive signal that PAT forces had swept up the woman who usually worked the register. Marisol’s insides twisted, as another of her friends was now gone, along with her beautiful little girl, Benita.
With tears rimming her eyes, Marisol ran the last few blocks to pick up Esteban at Oracia’s home. At each corner, she spun away from the newly installed surveillance cameras affixed to street lamps. Twice on the way, women known to her repeated Javier’s gesture, warning the PAT was nearby. Esteban and Marisol returned to their apartment via the back alleyways that ran behind the row houses.
Once inside, Marisol used only the dim light on the gas range to illuminate the kitchen. No flickering television to draw attention this night.
She bathed Esteban and placed him on her bed instead of his own. While kissing his head, Marisol promised to always care for him. An innocent smile lit the boy’s sleepy face.
After Esteban drifted off, Marisol stuffed some clothes and toiletries and granola bars into a small backpack that she rested near the rear door in the kitchen. If they had to flee, they could slip out the back and follow the trail that paralleled the railroad tracks past the homeless camp beneath the highway overpass. Marisol vowed she would rather be on the run with her boy than allow the PAT to take her Esteban.
Sleep came in twenty-minute increments, interrupted by waking moments of terror. Still in her street clothes, Marisol eventually succumbed, dreaming of a sacred drum circle in the mountainside village of her childhood.
The incessant pounding grew louder until Marisol realized it actually rose from the stairwell of the apartment building. She had not heard that telltale rumble in the street. So, perhaps it was not the PAT come for them. Marisol eased her way to the front window; all the while hoping the floorboards creaking beneath her feet would not give her away.
The dreaded truck was there.
Marisol padded back into the bedroom; scooped Esteban into her arms; and then, grabbed the backpack near the door that led to the rear steps – and hopefully their freedom. After opening the door slowly, she scanned the narrow porch for uniforms, but saw none.
With Esteban asleep on her shoulder, Marisol maneuvered down the outside staircase towards the alley and those railroad tracks. When another sweep of the yard revealed nothing unusual, she edged along the fence to the gate. The constant hum of trucks and cars rolling by on the elevated highway covered her footsteps. Pausing for a moment, Marisol wondered if the truck had not been there for them, but for Maria on the third floor.
Marisol eased the latch open and stepped into the alley. Instantly, powerful flashlights blinded her. A gloved hand covered her mouth. Then, someone pulled a hood over her head. In seconds, a pair of muscular hands ripped Esteban from her. Marisol screamed.
Esteban cried, “Mama, Mama.”
Two guards dragged Marisol down the alley; threw her into the back of that truck; and forced her down onto a steel bench inside. A woman she could not see asked her name, place of birth, and how she entered the country. Though Marisol could speak English, she said nothing. The woman repeated the questions in Spanish. Marisol remained silent.
The questions were obviously only a formality because the interrogator listed every piece of factual information about Marisol and Esteban.
Marisol’s body convulsed as the urge to evacuate her bowels returned. “I need a bathroom, please,” she begged.
“When you get to the center,” a disembodied voice answered.
“I can’t wait,” Marisol pleaded.
“Then shit yourself,” that same gruff voice mocked.
“Where is my baby? My Esteban?” the panicked Marisol howled through the suffocating hood, now damp with spittle and sweat.
“He’s fine,” the female voice said. Her cold indifference told Marisol the woman was not a mother.
Marisol kicked against the steel beneath the seat until a guard tightened a nylon strap around her legs.
“Keep that up and you can forget about ever seeing your kid again,” a man barked.
Hoping they would tell her where Esteban was, Marisol stopped. Her heart pounded and despite sweating profusely, she shivered.
The truck lurched and then made several more hard stops, each time picking up another detainee who was secured to the bench alongside Marisol. She could not tell if she was the only one hooded. After a few hours, the female guard announced they were at the Newark processing center.
Marisol again begged to use the bathroom. Someone removed the hood and led her to a portable toilet in the parking lot. “What about the handcuffs?” she asked. “I need to clean myself.”
“Don’t worry about it,” the guard laughed. His hateful eyes reflected the orange glow of the overhead lights.
“Please, where is my boy,” Marisol cried.
“He’s safe. You’ll see him in a little while.”
Despite being told they would be reunited soon, Marisol did not see Esteban that night or the next. She shook constantly and could not eat without vomiting. Sleep was impossible.
Some two weeks later, word spread in the processing facility that the Supreme Court had ruled in the President’s favor. Deportations restarted immediately. A group that included Marisol was flown to an army base in El Paso. At the conclusion of a mass hearing the following day, Marisol was put on a military transport to Maracaibo for repatriation. Within hours of arrival, a Venezuelan judge declared Marisol an enemy of the state and sentenced her to nine years in prison. Her Esteban was still missing.
A woman Marisol knew from Paterson arrived with the next batch of jailed returnees. She told Marisol she had been watching the President’s press conference on television when the truck came for her. “He bragged the PAT was a success; deporting more than sixty-seven thousand aliens who came under the amnesty program.” Then, as a guard walked by, the woman lowered her voice to a faint whisper. “Now he’s deporting any foreign nationals they consider suspicious.”
“What of our children?” Marisol asked.
“I do not know.”
Every beat of Marisol’s heart felt like a punch to the chest. Her hair started falling out in clumps. Though her stomach growled, even the faintest whiff of food sickened her.
Night after night, imprisoned asylum mothers wailed their children’s names until they were gagged or taken to the wing that held the criminally insane.
Only what she and other asylum mothers had done back in Paterson kept Marisol from fashioning a noose with her clothes and hanging herself. They had images of their children’s faces tattooed on their thighs.
In the stifling darkness of the Maracaibo prison cell, Marisol Flores ran her finger along the ink outline of her beautiful Esteban’s cheek – a cheek she would never again cradle in her palm.