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The Downtown San Antonio Greyhound bus station is a bustling place. Built in 1945 it’s the second oldest operating bus station in the Greyhound system. There is no escaping its vintage look even with the multiple flat screen TV’s on the deco style speckled walls.
On this Saturday afternoon there’s the familiar scene of departure. Francesca, a woman from Guatemala and Freddie, her 9-year-old son, are trying to make sense of their bus ticket.
JoAnn Saldana, a volunteer from the Interfaith Welcoming Coalition, explains to them in Spanish how they will get from San Antonio to her ultimate destination Mankato, Minnesota. That’s a trip of 1,200 miles to unite with her sponsoring family member.
The pair’s journey started almost three months ago when she left her town in Central America due to the violent gangs there. She describes the trip as hard and horrible. At the U.S. – Mexico border she surrendered to the border patrol and spent several days in a U.S. Immigration Detention Center waiting to be released.
Immigration officials dropped Francesca and other women and children detainees at the Bus Station at 2AM. The Interfaith Welcoming Coalition was waiting for them, picked them up and took them to a home South of downtown.
There’s a lot of coming and going here. There are cots set up in the living room. Children play with noisy electronic toys while traditional Central American meals are cooked and most everyone is gathered and talking around the long wooden kitchen table.
Saldana explains this is just a pit-stop for the women to get some rest, receive a clean change of clothes, and get some food to take for the rest of the trip.
“These are truly women who are guilty of nothing more than wanting to have a better life,” said Saldana.
She says many of the women say their time was rough in the private U.S. detention centers in Karnes City and Dilley in South Texas. But the real horror was getting though Mexico.
“They say the worst place is Mexico. They refer to it as an inferno – a real hell. One lady that I took to the bus station last night, she just said, “you wouldn’t believe what I’ve been through,”” Saldana said.
23-year old Yocelin is among the other immigrants at the bus station waiting for the next leg of her journey. The El Salvadorian is thin with braces and clutches her backpack. She’s on her way to Los Angeles to meet a sister that she hasn’t seen in 9 years.
Yocelin said she had to flee her home city because gang members were threatening to kidnap her and force her into a life of prostitution. She was smuggled through Mexico in a truck squeezed in with 12 other people. She ended up in the South Texas Detention Complex in Laredo. A facility owned and operated by the GEO Group which also runs the Karnes City Detention Center.
Federal law allows immigrants who are in the country illegally to be detained to ensure they attend all of their hearings or if they are deemed a danger to the community. Immigration detention is not supposed to be punitive.
Yocelin waited two and a half months for her release. She said the guards did not sexually abuse her but they were cruel. Any infraction of the rules would mean a trip to solitary confinement – a room where the temperature was kept constantly uncomfortably cold.
She pulls out from her what looks like a backpack a hospital medical bracelet and points to the long string of digits. This is who I was there, not a person, but a number.
Yocelin said in her time at the detention center she never saw the sky or trees. She spent most of her time sleeping and waiting.
I asked her, “knowing now about how hard this trip was and how uncertain your future remains, would you still have left El Salvador?”
She smiles big with her braces and says yes. She thinks now good things are in store for her.