Isabel Vásquez Escape from El Salvador to the USA

Isabel Vásquez is from Cantón El Rosario, Santa Ana in El Salvador. She fled to the U.S. with her 9-year-old daughter when she was 29 years old. Her youngest sister was murdered by gang members when she was 17; she received death threats over the phone before she fled to the U.S. Isabel describes her escape decision and experiences, which are typical of many women from Central America who typically flee poverty and violence at the hands of men (husbands) and/or gang members.

In this excerpt, Isabel describes different passages of her flight, which include many dangers and challenges typical of the journey through Mexico to the United States.


I felt we couldn’t go on like that. My mother tried to bring us to the United States legally, with tourist visas, but there were so many requirements: she told me you had to have a bank account with $6,000 in it or a car for them to issue you a visa. You were required to have property in your name or to own cattle. We couldn’t come that way, but I had to because what if something happened to my daughter?

We couldn’t come with a coyote either because that was too expensive. A coyote would charge $7,000 to $8,000 to bring us all the way here. With my mother not working, we didn’t have access to that kind of money. Instead my mother sent me a hundred dollars and told me to go to Guatemala because her friend there knew a man who takes people and supposedly wouldn’t charge. She had remarried in the United States in 2008 and her husband supported us coming to live with them, though he didn’t have much money either. We left our house one morning, and a man we met took us to the border with Guatemala.

There’s a dirt path by the river’s edge, and we managed to cross into Guatemala. My mother called her friend to let her know we were coming and to see if she could meet us. My mom’s friend and her husband came to get us and we stayed at the Quetzaltenango for about a week. She said the man we’ d been told about was up in the United States, and we had to wait for him to come back so we could ask if he’ d take us and how much it would cost. When he got back we asked him, and he gave us the price in quetzales. I think it was about $3,000 US. That was less than what we would have been charged in El Salvador but still more than my mother could afford. My mother asked him if he would let us pay him back later, but he said no, that he had to have the money in hand.

And then the woman we were staying with remembered that a friend of hers had mentioned she knew some people, a couple, who were going to leave right around this time. We walked to the house where they lived and the couple said they were leaving in two days. lt was a Sunday or Monday. They said they were going by themselves without a coyote because they only had about $500 US.  My friend said, “‘This young woman and her daughter need to go north,” and asked if we could go with them and just pay for bus fare and transportation costs. They said it was okay if I could pay the bus fare. [p. 116-117]
They said to us, “There’s Mexico,” and I thought it was going to be quick, that we were going to get to Mexico and then cross into the United States right away. It took us about two more weeks to cross Mexico.

You meet other people who are also traveling alone, without coyotes, trying their luck to see if they can cross or not. When we got to Mexico, the couple said they couldn’t continue traveling with us anymore, that it was a big commitment taking a child north and they didn’t want to risk getting caught by Mexican immigration authorities. By this time we had met another woman and other people traveling north, and the couple said they’ d leave us there with them. We met a woman who talked of having seen people who’ d lost legs or arms riding on La Bestia.

One time we got into a truck that must have been used for horses, where they packed us in like sardines to evade the Mexican Federales, they said. lt was a really big truck. lt was awful. That was how we crossed Mexico. At one point we went to a restaurant and the woman traveling with us said, “You know what? We need to ask them to let us work for two or three days so we have a little bit of money to try to continue our journey.” My mother had sent us some money, sixty, a hundred dollars here and there, which helped us a lot along the way to at least buy something for my daughter to eat. The woman I was traveling with was Mexican, from Tuxtla Gutier­rez, Chiapas, and was on her way to the United States as well. [p. 119]

The woman said that since I had my daughter with me, I should turn myself in to ICE. She said to tell them that I was coming for my daughter’s security, that I didn’t have any alternatives. I was really afraid to do that. After everything I had gone through, how was I going to turn myself over. [p. 120]

I stayed hidden in the dark with my daughter, and an agent came along with a flashlight. It was really late at night by then, around ten. I thought to myself, you have to cross the gate. And the official with the light didn’t see us. So we crossed over and went to the building on the border that our friend had pointed to. A very rude female agent spoke to me in Spanish and asked what I wanted. I told her I wanted to join my mother in the United States and we filled out some papers. Another guard took us down a hall. [p. 121]

La Migra [US Immigration Service] gave us a sandwich with frozen ham in it. The food was really awful, so bad that people said, “We’ve been in here for two weeks and this is the only food they give us here.” We slept some. I lay down with my daughter. She was a little calmer because we were inside. The next morning we were woken up when it was still dark one wall was glass, and I looked outside and could see it was really dark. “Get up! Get up!” said a female guard who worked there. She just came to make us get up and sit.

The same guard put the heat on really high, so ,high you felt as if you were getting burned. I felt as if it was spewing fire in my face. At night when it was “lights out,” the guards turned on the air conditioning, very cold. It seemed like the border patrol does it to pressure you into saying that you want to return to your country, that you don’t want to be there anymore. One day my daughter’s lips starting bleeding because it would be very hot and then very cold. […]

We walked to another building that was very big, and from there they sent us in a big immigration bus to San Diego. That’s where they let us go finally. When I was about to leave, they said, “You just have to go sign papers in the office.” An official spoke to me on the phone saying that I was going to leave. They told me to go to an office, and there was my mother sitting with my stepfather!

I felt such a mixture of emotions: relief, happiness that I had finally made it here, but shame that my mother and stepfather had to see me like this in the detention center. I was thinking about so many things at once. My mom threw her arms around me, and we both started crying. [p. 125]

Mayers, Stevens, Freedman, Jonathan, 2019: Solito, Solita. Crossing  Crossing Borders with Youth Refugees from Central America. Haymarker Books, Chicago, pp. 116-122.

In addition to poverty and a lack of prospects, fear of (gang) violence is a central cause of flight for many people from Central America. Around 7.5 million illegal immigrants from Mexico and Central America live in the USA. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) also estimates that about 100,000 migrants from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala apply for asylum in the United States each year. To avoid arrest, refugees must pay smugglers, known as coyotes, corrupt border agents and take risky escape routes. During their flight, migrants are repeatedly abducted, mistreated and sexually assaulted. Many are considered missing. As a result, at the end of 2018, a large migration train formed in Honduras, joined by thousands of people from El Salvador and Guatemala, to cross into the U.S. through Mexico under cover of the crowd and on foot. However, they were denied entry to the border on the grounds that they were not from a country at war and therefore not eligible for asylum.