Juana's ankle bracelet

Refugee Clinic hosted by Catholic Charities and the Hope Family Health Center McAllen, Texas

Juana and her family were fleeing Honduras to get to the United States without documentation. When I met Juana (not her real name), she was visibly rattled, and going through the motions of caring for her young daughter. Juana had just survived being human cargo in the underground business of smuggling in undocumented persons between international borders. She was worse for the wear. Heart-broken, humiliated, feeling the realities of her decision, and heavy with the burden of responsibility for taking such a risk with her family.

Juana's family was sold a package deal. Her husband, herself, and their young toddler were in this together. They slowly saved up the thousands of dollars in costs, in hopes of safely joining her brother in Kentucky. Her brother had encouraged them to come with assurances of abundant jobs. She said it had seemed worth the risk and expense — if it would be possible to raise their family above the poverty level and free of the violence that was becoming the norm in San Pedro Sula, Honduras.

They had heard stories of atrocities at the hands of “coyotes” and of the gangs who preyed on their human cargo. Juana and her husband knew they were living outside the law and must remain unseen, unknown, and at the mercy of their handlers. This implied that violence or crimes could occur unchecked. Despite this, her young family decided, against the advice of their elders, to face the uncertainties together.

I met Juana when she came into the clinic hosted by the Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley and the Hope Family Health Center. I was serving as a volunteer for Circle of Health International, which recruits and supports the clinical volunteers in this clinic. She and her daughter had a meal, showered, and a fresh change of clothes. Her toddler, Angelina, had a runny nose and cough. I gently established a rapport with Juana and Angelina. Angelina appeared resilient and in good general health. Nothing that would not remedy itself with a little time and eased by a little cough syrup. However, Juana was clearly dispirited and unsettled. After caring for her daughter, I asked Juana if she had any questions or if there was anything she wanted to say. Juana spoke up without hesitating, "Si, si."

Juana was crushed because her husband had been detained. He was not allowed to enter the United States. Juana and Angelina separated from him when they arrived at the U.S. border. He was routed to the men's detainment unit and they hoped to see him when he was processed. He was denied the privilege of entry. All details of him came through his family when she called Honduras, and she was very, very sad.

Juana was terrified. In addition to being alone in this country, she was a part of a pilot project run by the U.S. government in which she received an electronic GPS system secured to her ankle. This "bracelet" was uncomfortable. It came with a charger but was not fully charged. It would beep intermittently and loudly until we figured out how to recharge it.

Juana felt she was being humiliated and punished by U.S. officials. She felt that she was a part of group that had some difficulties in Detention. It was Juana's opinion that her experience in U.S. Detention and Processing was beyond the normal power imbalance and uncertainty of whether her family would be allowed in to the U.S. or not and she felt highly intimidated.

Juana's experience was troubling. Juana shared that a fellow woman detainee had miscarried several days prior to detainment. The woman was hurting. One particular immigration official did not believe this woman was unwell. When that woman was brought to see the doctor, her slow shuffling angered the official. In a fury, the officer banged the table and then slammed the door with little Angelina's fingers getting crushed. The detainees were furious. Apparently, someone soiled the bathroom in retaliation. They were given a brash talking to and treated as if the whole group was culpable. Juana felt her group was being punished and that punishment included being outfitted with electronic monitors on their ankles.

The monitors placed on some of the refugees were not familiar to us at the Refugee Center, yet. This was the first we were seeing of the GPS monitoring system. We knew little about them. The reality is that the monitors are not mandatory. Detainees are given a form to sign granting permission to be participants in a pilot project and that is all that they knew.

Juana had no understanding of this as consensual, but she was infuriated by it and kept telling me she was allergic to it. It could not be removed, we could only wiggle a thin sock underneath it and up her ankle so it did not chafe her skin. We found wide-legged pants to make it discreet on her upcoming bus trip, and taught her to look for power outlets in the bus station to recharge it.

Sadly, when Juana called home to San Pedro Sula, her in-laws were furious with her. She made it across the border with their granddaughter but their son had not. They blamed her. Juana was the scapegoat and she felt every bit of it. They told Juana her daughter would be deported and Juana may end up in jail. Juana wanted to return home. She said that it was bad in her country but this was worse. She feared incarceration.

As a representative of Circle of Health International, I am in place to help in a humanitarian crisis. I am not here as a human rights advocate. I realized how these two issues are different sides of the same coin.

I was able to offer my skills in communication, active listening, and stress management to support Juana's psycho-social emotional needs. I closed the clinic door and along with the young Physician Assistant intern that was working with me that day, we managed to slow the world down. We listened to Juana and we listened to Juana some more. She felt she had ruined her family’s life and she was to blame. We asked gentle questions such as " Did you really have such strong influence over your husband's decision to come to the U.S.”, or “Did you make this decision together?"

We validated the uncertainty Juana is living under. We asked what had helped her manage the stress of being smuggled and the uncertainties of her journey. Her courage was found in being with her partner, but her spiritual strength came in reading the Bible. Sadly, her primary way of coping through reading scriptures was gone. Her Bible was confiscated in detention.

We shed tears with her when she disclosed her experience, fears and uncertainties. She seemed to gather strength from our witnessing. Juana gained her composure after releasing her feelings of being overwhelmed.

I acknowledged to Juana that we had no miracles or clear answers for her. We could offer suggestions for helping her niveles de estresa (stress levels). She was very receptive to stress reduction and mindfulness techniques. We practiced breathing techniques together. We practiced telling the negative self talk and voices of self blame to be quiet: "Guarde silencio" or "haga silencio," and to remind herself that courage can be found moment by moment.

Juana also attended a short session with a Spanish-speaking immigration lawyer at the Refugee Center. The impact of this will be measured when she arrives at her final decision and begins the long legal process.

Juana hoped I would share her story. She expressed that she felt empowered when I asked if I could photograph her ankle with the electronic monitoring band secured to it. Hers was the first photo I took at the Refugee Center. I had no desire to exploit or impose on our guests.

I will forever be empowered by Juana's courage. When I asked her if she had anything she wanted to tell us, and she strongly responded, "Yes!" I knew this was a woman who would and could find her resilience. She would not be silenced. I like to imagine Juana with her older brother in Kentucky. In my vision, he is coaching Juana beyond the threshold of entering our country for the first time — to help her envision and create a life that may eventually be able to give back to Juana and her family what she came here looking for.

Learn more about the Rio Grande Valley Project