Earlier this summer when the news about children being held in immigration facilities along the southern border began to emerge (something I wrote about for Vice back in June), I started to search from people who had been held in one of the centers run by Southwest Key — the most trusted name in Baby Jails! — to see what it was like to actually spend time in one. I came across a young man named Elmer who was running a Facebook page for people who had been held there so they could commiserate and share their experiences.
We finally connected this week. He agreed to tell me his story about leaving El Salvador at the age of 17 in 2014 when conditions for immigrants were much better as he explained but still exceptionally arduous and dangerous. He left his country he told me because gangs were extorting his father a shoemaker. Pay us or your sons die they said. What choice would a man have but to pack up his children and place them in the hands of coyotes who’d smuggle them to America?
What was is that brought you to the United States?
I’m from El Salvador, I don’t know if you’ve seen all this news. The reason why I come from there to here I was scared to die, all these gangsters, MS-13. We used to have a business, so they try to get some money from you. They were trying to do that with my dad. My dad, he was a shoemaker in San Miguel.
San Miguel is one of the most violent places right?
Yeah. It was like a small city, the neighborhood, everybody knows each other, so they were aware of what my dad was doing. There was a gang MS-13 in the neighborhood right there, and let’s say you gotta cross the river to the other neighborhood there was another gang, they’re called 18, Vatos Locos or something like that. They left a piece of paper in the door with our name, this amount of money, saying We’re gonna kill your son. We know what school they’re going to, what way they take to come home, me and my brother. My dad, he decided, yeah, to do something.
How old were you? When did you decide to leave.
I’m 21 now, my brother is 22 . Nothing happened yet, so we moved to my grandfather’s house close to the beach, living in the country, like a small town. And we were there about a year. We started over at a new school, new people. Then it kept going again. There was a decision with my dad, he was like, No, you gotta go, if you guys stay over here you could die or something could happen to us.
I didn’t want to come over here. To go to another country. You know you have to walk, cross the river, sleep over in the woods in the night. You don’t even know what’s going to happen. But you got two choices, go over there, or stay here and let’s see what happens to you. You die.
Are you given the choice to join the gang?
Yeah, they give you the option to join to the gang. But ours was kind of different, they were asking for money. If you don’t give us the money we’re gonna kill all your sons. I wasn’t the kind of guy, I wasn’t going out with friends to the mall or to play soccer. I was just like from the house to the school, from the school to the house. I was like away from all this kind of stuff to join to the gang. But yeah some people they give you the choice to join the gangsters, or they’re gonna kill you. So, you gotta join, because if you don’t they're gonna kill you or someone in your family. And the first thing you gotta do when you join the gangsters is you gotta kill somebody.
And you obviously didn’t want to do that.
Exactly. It’s like, let’s say you want to play for this soccer team, but oh yeah, to join the team you gotta kill that man over there. It’s hard.
So how did you get from El Salvador to the States?
It was a long way. I took a bus from my city, and we crossed my country. We went to the border of El Salvador and Guatemala. You know, that was easy to cross, because… you know. Then we slept over in some houses. When we crossed from Guatemala to Mexico we had to walk. Immigration to Mexico was kind of hard. They need like a visa, all your information if you want to cross legal. Then it was a long way. You have to take busses, cars, trucks, and sometimes you got to walk. There was a lot of soldiers in the street they were checking the buses and checking cars, so we would walk.
Were you scared?
I was like, I don’t know what’s gonna happen. I don’t want to say I was scared, because in Guatemala I was like, This is weird, this is another country and they don't have the same culture, so I was like, OK, that’s Guatemala. Then we crossed to Mexico, you think about all these gangsters, narcos and shit. These gangsters called Zetas. They know all these people they were crossing the border to go to America, so they would just take them and kill them, or take them, and then call your family and ask for money. I was… at that time you don't know what’s gonna happen.
How did you cross the U.S. border? Did you pay someone?
My brother he came first, in 2013. This guy took my brother, so my dad, he paid to this man to take my brother. A year later he took me. Well my brother was like about $5,000. American dollars. In El Salvador we use dollars. For me it was like half the price.
Were you hidden in a truck or did you go across the river?
We crossed the river, we were just walking. Rio Bravo! It was people who were healthy enough to cross the river. A lot of kids, mostly kids, 10, 12, 6 year old kid, 16, 14, crossing the river. Do you have a daughter? Just imagine you have a daughter 16 years old crossing the river with people like that.
Do you mean the young girls were being taken advantage of?
No, no, I’m just saying, it was just like kids.
Did the coyotes treat you well?
There’s a big system of people, you start from El Salvador and Guatemala, you got a bunch of people, coyotes. So, some people they were nice. Some people they were assholes.
What happened after you crossed the river did you get caught?
Yeah! I got pulled over by immigration, in Texas. I forget the name of the city. After we crossed the river, the coyote was like, OK, go, you gotta walk. You got a long way to go. They said there’s a black van they’re gonna pick you up. We were just walking, walking, then we got pulled over. Immigration, to be honest, that was my first time so I didn’t… it was like, to be in school. They were like: Make a line, get all your I.D. and information ready. We were put into cars. They were regular, they weren’t that mean. We’re talking like four years ago, so now it’s different.
Where did they take you from there, to Southwest Key?
Nah! That was a long way! They called it hielera, like, the cooler. A jail, but they keep it really cold. We were in line, a lot of people. They would call each name, then we got to go to the room. It was like about three days. That was terrible. Imagine, it was like inside a small house living room, and like a hundred people in the same room. The bathroom was like open, so you can see whoever going to the bathroom.
Did you think you were going to be sent back?
I didn’t know what was going to happen. I was scared to go back. Then they took us to another jail exactly like that for two days. After that they take you to a plane to the airport. It was like an Air Force plane, like an army plane. We went all the way to Phoenix, Arizona. We went to this place, another jail. I was there for a week. There, yeah, I was excited to come back. I was like in hell.
They would treat you like an animal, like a dog. They would give the food, three times a day, but they would give you a burrito, like every day the same kind of food. We were cold, there was aluminum foil blankets. Every time you asked for one they would be like, Do you want one? And we would say Yes yes! And they would throw them, like boom boom. And they were just laughing. I was like, what kind of people are this? It was a lot of kids.
I don’t know why they were treating us like animals. Every time you’d ask for water, they would drop it on the floor, like go ahead. You can imagine all these kids trying to get the water. Like if you drop a piece of candy on the floor.
What happened next?
After seven days, they called my name. We took the bus, they take us to the airport again and we flew to Houston. Houston was were they took us to the Southwest Key center.
What was it like there?
Hey! It was amazing. Oh my god. They give you a shower. You can see a bed. There was like a big TV, Playstation, they got food.
Compared to the other places it seemed great?
The other places I never in my life seen anything like it. It felt like being jail, treating you like animals. It was kind of hard to see all these kids, four years old, thirsty, asking for food. Oh man, I was crying. I was 17 at the time. I was like, that’s it, I’m done, I want to come back.
You make it sound not that bad at these centers, but we see on the news all the time how bad they are. Do you think it got worse?
Oh yeah. Now it’s more harder. Now they’re shooting people at the border.
I was in the Southwest Key center two months. My uncle couldn’t take me, so we had to find other people to take me. Somebody had to sponsor me, I have a family member here. My aunt, from [redacted], she says she’s gonna take care of me. Put me in school.
Because your aunt said she’d take you in they let you go to her?
Yeah. That was what the policy was like that in that year. She’s a resident.
Now they’re not letting people do that anymore what do you think about how it’s changed?
People are just trying to survive. It’s hard, man. It’s hard to see your son and know they can get killed where you live. And they’re just trying to save his life. That’s why you send your son to another country. You can’t protect them. Now it’s different. You send them to hell. Now it’s different.
What did you think of the U.S. before you came here?
Well, a bunch of things. They tell you the job opportunities, the schools, the security. So everything, they would tell a lot of good things. Now everything has changed. My two little brothers they are in the same way. Now, my dad he can’t decide to send them to America because he fears they’d be killed at the border. He can’t say he’s gonna send my children to the United States because they can’t protect them. I don’t want to say they’re gonna kill them, but, they’re not for sure what’s going to happen, they’re going to be in jail or they’re just gonna send you back.
You live here now, what do you think about Donald Trump?
Donald Trump, like almost everybody else around the world, everything is about money. Donald Trump he’s just trying to help people with money, they don’t care about me, or you, or a poor family. Donald Trump is stopping people who are just trying to get a dream, or just survive something that’s happening in your country. It’s not only my country, it’s happening around the world. Syria they got wars, bunch of people in other countries they got gangsters. America is really famous because everybody thinks America is a country that’s going to take care of you, and make you secure. It is! It is for sure. But it’s been changing.
Are you in school now or you have job?
Yeah I graduated high school last year so now I’m working.
Just so you know, as far as I’m concerned you’re welcome here.
Oh, and one more thing, I got my green card!