Teresa, a undocumented immigrant working in the nurseries of Illinois, told me her story of crossing from Mexico into the United States. The trip took place before the border became as militarized as it is today:
“Diego, my husband, came first. We had five children in Mexico and were very poor. Life was hard, there wasn’t food, and for our children, we were afraid. Then I left the children with relatives and came to the United States to be with Diego. I also came to work and send home money to feed the kids. It hurt very much to leave my kids.
“I traveled with about twenty others, including my younger brother. We crossed the Rio Grande in an inflatable raft, and we were picked up by the people who were transporting us. They took us to San Juan, Texas. We were already hungry and tired, and we thought we were going to get a taco, some food, but they didn’t give us food, nothing, nothing. We got there about midnight, and they did not let us eat food or drink water for twenty-four hours because we were going to be locked in a crate. They didn’t want us to have to use a restroom.
“Then they took us out of the city in a car, to a far place, far away in the dark of the night. We stopped on a very dark road and then a truck came. They yelled, “Get in! Get in!” And we climbed in the crate real fast because anyone that’s left behind stays. Then they locked the crate. This was about twenty people, and they made a hole in the vegetables and locked us in and then covered us with potatoes, everybody together.
“We were terrified in the dark, all crushed together. We could hardly breathe. Then we heard them yell, ‘The Immigration! Stay quiet!’ We saw lights flashing around as immigration checked us. We had to stay there piled on top of each other, without no noise or nothing, for about forty minutes. There were elderly ladies that were crying in the quiet because they were on top of each other, and they couldn’t stand it anymore.
“From San Juan, Texas to Chicago we maintained that position, without drinking water, without going to the restroom, without eating any food. In that vegetable truck, suffocating because we couldn’t breathe. I passed out many times. Also, it was in the middle of a snow storm in the winter, and we only had summer clothes. There was ice on top and underneath. And those with feet in the ice, their shoes got stuck and they couldn’t move their feet. Their shoes came apart from them trying to move. There was ice, wind, and snow.
“We tried to signal the people up in the cab of the truck, to try to get their attention. But they’d say, ‘Be quiet, we can’t do nothing!’ We were so cold. They should have tried to do something to get us warm, maybe blankets.
“There was one lady who was very old, very drained, and she was coming to join her family. I thought she was going to die in the create. But she lived. We had a young boy, traveling without his parents. The whole trip lasted for six to seven days, with almost no food, but we were in the truck with vegetables, in the crate for two days.
“We finally got to Chicago where they took us out and gave us food. When they got me out I felt like I was suffocating. I thought I was dying. It was a nightmare, and I have nightmares about it all the time.
“When we came in a van to Onarga from Chicago, we saw all the ice and snow. There were trailers turned over and cars stuck along the road. I was very skinny and sick for about fifteen days, with dehydration and a cold. And my brother, who came with me, for about a month, he had his feet black from the cold. After that the feet started to peel.”
I believe Teresa’s story brings stark issues about justice to our consideration. What are basic rights that all people have? To whom do we as a nation owe obligations?
Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948. The United States signed it. It includes our familiar rights, such as freedom of speech and religion, but it also says that everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family. Among other conditions, this includes food, clothing, housing, and medical care. Under this principle, Teresa and her family deserve basic sustenance.
Michael J. Sandel, in Justice: What’s the Right Thing To Do? (2009), talks about the ideas of philosopher, Alasdair MacIntyre. MacIntyre says struggles to do what is right come from our story telling nature. We are all tell part of greater stories, such as that of our family or nation, and we have obligations because of them.
Citizens of the United States share much common history with people living in Mexico and Central America, and we jointly participate in many stories. The U.S. and Mexico fought a war, after which Mexico ceded much of its northern territories to the U.S., including Texas, California, and much of New Mexico and Arizona. Likewise, the United States occupied and controlled much of Central America. We also entered NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement of 1994, which decimated poor farmers in Mexico and Central America. Because of basic human rights and a history of such shared actions, I believe we have some sort of obligation to the people of these countries.
Some citizens of the U.S. try to deny its history of imperialism in Mexico and Central America, but we don’t get to pick and choose what has already happened. We have to deal morally with Mexico and Central America, if for no other reason than our shared history. For example, we might change our trade agreements, give more extensive aid to Mexico and Central America, and reform our immigration polices. Under such conditions, people like Teresa would not have to make their harrowing trip north in the first place.
I have been haunted by Teresa’s trip. With her permission, I used the time in the crate for the first scene of Journey of the Sparrows, a young adult novel. Her story also inspired me to political actions. In standing with other undocumented workers, I can thank her.