Motherhood on the Line

Three asylum seekers navigate coronavirus and climate change at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Alice Driver | Longreads | December 2020 | 12 minutes (3,442 words)

 
FANIA*

* Fania’s last name is withheld for privacy.

The doctor made a uterine incision on the woman’s body to extract the fetal arms, then grasped the baby’s feet and pulled him from the womb upside down, delivering him into the era of coronavirus. Fania, 33, had traveled 1,726 miles from Haiti to Reynosa, Mexico. She had not planned to become pregnant nor imagined giving birth during a pandemic. “In my life, I did not want to have children. I was very careful, and I managed for four years with my husband. The idea was not to have a child who is suffering,” she explained.

When Mexican photographer Jacky Muniello and I met Fania on August 3, 2020, in Reynosa, Mexico, her C-section scar was fully healed. Muniello and I had worked together in Reynosa on several projects, and we were familiar with the risks of working in a city controlled by cartels, one whose militarized streets suggested a city at war with itself. This, however, was our first time working in the city during the pandemic, walking its streets in N95 masks. We found citizens wary, on edge, suspicious, anxious, and struggling to process the coronavirus death news cycle alongside the conspiracy theories spreading like wildfire on social media.

Reynosa is a border city in the state of Tamaulipas, Mexico. Photo by Jacky Muniello.

Read more of Alice Driver’s stories on migrants, including “The Promised Land,” “The Road to Asylum,” “The Mutilated and the Disappeared,” and “Father of Migrants.”

Like many girls and women who migrate, Fania wanted to make decisions about her body. Her story of motherhood is not about a defining act of violence. It is about the mundane issues that women and girls in many parts of the world face every day: lack of financial autonomy, the idea that girls should be the first to sacrifice their education, the stigma and shame associated with female sexuality. As Fania would discover, women seeking asylum in the U.S. face additional risks, including being separated from their children or coerced into sterilization.

Fania and her husband arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border on January 29, 2020. She was eight months pregnant. When the couple requested asylum in the U.S., Fania reported that the Customs and Border Protection agent told her that while she could request asylum, her husband could not because he was “not family.” The agent said that they were “nothing” because the “child had to be present” for them to be considered a family. “I didn’t want to be separated from my husband. It was his first child, too,” Fania explained. She and her husband returned to Reynosa, Mexico, and took refuge at Path of Life (Senda de Vida) migrant shelter. On March 2, Fania gave birth to Bilfani at the Mother and Child Hospital, a public hospital in Reynosa that serves migrants at the shelter.

Before giving birth, doctors informed Fania that she had preeclampsia, which caused swelling and high blood pressure. She explained, “I was in a risky situation, so they gave me a C-section.” She said of the hospital staff, “I really liked the people. They were friendly and provided good service. I have nothing to say but ‘thank you.’”

Dr. Evelyn Gloria Córdoba García, 38, a gynecologist who works at the Mother and Child Hospital, provides care to migrant women like Fania. She explained of her work at the public hospital, the only one in the area serving migrants, “We don’t care where you are from. Whether we provide you medical service or not, the hospital offers a family planning method. They [women] can decide what they want, but the majority don’t accept anything. We tell them that, look, maybe you’re not going to go to your country soon, you’re not going to be able to cross into the United States soon. They are at great risk because sometimes women in that situation, nobody takes care of them.” Fania was thankful for the treatment she received from the hospital, noting that, “If I needed something, when I had the baby, they told me to choose an option, a method,” such as birth control pills. “But I didn’t want to because I knew many things about the methods. I always used a condom, and they gave me many, but still here, it is complicated.”

Dr. Evelyn Gloria Córdoba García is a gynecologist at the Mother and Child Hospital in Reynosa, Mexico. She has cared for many migrant women, like Fania.

Héctor Silva de Luna, 52, the director of Path of Life, believed that Fania had been lucky, because as coronavirus spread, hospital staff at the Mother and Child Hospital had been overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients. He detailed, based on the experiences of the roughly 25 women who had given birth at the shelter during coronavirus, “Look, families and migrants have always suffered given the needs of pregnancy. But then this disease arrived. Now they are suffering much more because there is nothing, no medical care for people living in the city, much less for a family or an immigrant girl who is pregnant.” He is right. According to a 2015 study, women and girls in humanitarian crises experience 417 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births, which is 1.9 times higher than the global estimate of 216.

Fania, with the help of supportive medical staff, survived a difficult birth. Upon her return to the shelter, she confronted motherhood during the pandemic. When Bilfani was 16 days old, President Trump used emergency powers to suspend laws that protect minors and asylum seekers. The Trump administration defined the move as part of an effort to stem the spread of coronavirus, but in reality it was a pretext for the administration’s efforts to end asylum. In practice, this meant that the U.S. government could immediately turn away or deport asylum seekers like Fania and her family. For Fania and mothers at the shelter, unable to request asylum, one day dissolved into the next, endless hours of heat, childcare, boredom.

On August 3, one day after Bilfani turned five months old and eight days after surviving Hurricane Hanna, Fania sat on the edge of a bed in a large shared bedroom at the shelter, sweating in the late afternoon heat as her son slept. She shooed children away from Bilfani because they wanted to touch, kiss, or hug him. “I have become a lioness so that other people don’t touch him without washing their hands with water, chlorine, or gel,” she explained.

Héctor Silva de Luna, the founder of the Path of Life shelter, consults with doctors from Médicos Sin Fronteras. Photo by Jacky Muniello.

When she heard the news that Hurricane Hanna would arrive in Reynosa on July 26, she said, “Before, when I didn’t have a child, I had another voice, other thoughts. Now, do you know? I don’t know. Are you a mother?” I told her that I was not a mother. Like her, I wanted control over my reproductive choices. “When something scary happens, you always think about your baby, about your child.”

Fania and migrants at the shelter made a collective decision not to evacuate, betting that Hurricane Hanna would not flood the shelter. The U.S.-Mexico border has been increasingly affected by climate change issues. Dr. Roberto Sánchez-Rodríguez, a professor in the Department of Urban and Environmental Studies at the Colegio de la Frontera Norte in Tijuana, Mexico, explained, “In recent years, the speed at which the hurricane can change intensity is shorter. Before, it took two or three days for them to change from a tropical storm to a hurricane or a category four hurricane, for example. Now it’s 24 hours.” According to Dr. Sánchez-Rodríguez, a greater binational effort is needed in terms of planning to mitigate and respond to climate issues in the region.
 

FÁTIMA DEL CARMEN

Fátima, a mother of two from Honduras who was also at Path of Life shelter during Hurricane Hanna, said, “We were afraid because we thought that the river was going to get in here, inside the shelter. And then the pastor [the director of the shelter] told us to move to higher ground because he was afraid that the river would get in here. And then we would truly drown.” Although 50 mph winds knocked down trees in the area, no migrants were harmed, nor was there extensive flooding at the shelter.

A week after the hurricane, Fátima stood in the kitchen at the shelter, warming food over an open fire. She was small, had large, weary eyes, and her sentences were slow, halting. Her sons — Henry Anael, 5, and José Israel, 7 — played nearby next to the navy blue and orange camping tent where they slept. Inside the tent, a pale pink bra, recently washed, hung from the netting. Her husband, who had migrated with her and their two children, hovered close, watching her as she spoke. “The truth is, I don’t know how to read. I don’t know how to write,” she said, looking down at her hands.

Fátima del Carmen, accompanied by her husband and two sons, fled the threat of gang violence in Honduras. Photo by Jacky Muniello.

She did not want to become pregnant when she was 13. She said that she “didn’t know anything” about contraception. The father of the child, now her husband, was 21 years older than her. Fátima explained, “When I got pregnant, they scolded me a lot at the hospital. They told me I was just a girl. I didn’t know anything about having a child, but I had to put up with it.”

Fátima grew up in a rural community in Santa Rita de Copán, Honduras, one of 11 children. Her father was a farmer. In 2009, the same year Honduras earned the nickname Central America’s Dry Corridor, a drought killed over half the region’s crops. Fátima was 10, and her parents told her she would no longer be attending school. Her education ended because, as she explained, “When I was little, we lived very far from the school, and my mom told me that she wouldn’t let me go because it was dangerous for me to go alone.” She and her five sisters stayed at home to help the family while her brothers continued to go to school. Climate change in Honduras has often taken the form of drought, as it did in 2009, affecting Fátima’s family. When climate change causes economic hardship for farming families, girls like Fátima are often the first ones to be required to sacrifice their education.


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Britt Basel, director and lead scientist at Ecothropic, works on projects with communities in Latin America to help them confront climate change challenges. She said, “Climate change is not happening in a vacuum. It is at the same time as extreme resource extraction, growing populations, policies, etc. And it is being exacerbated by all of those factors.” Women and girls are more vulnerable to the effects of climate change because, in many societies, they have less education and decision-making power than men. Their needs and choices regarding education, family planning, marriage, and work are often secondary to those of men or the community.

Fátima and her family fled Honduras on May 11, 2019. She explained, “We received threats,” saying they were threatened by MS-18. Asked to describe the situation in detail, she said, “They arrived at midnight, and we fled. We didn’t know them.” They walked and hitchhiked to Reynosa, begging along the way. Some days they had food to eat, some days they didn’t. The family arrived in Reynosa on February 27, 2020, around the same time as coronavirus hit the city. Being a mother and a migrant, Fátima said, was “very harsh, because we suffered.” She described her life in Honduras, where she stayed at home and cooked while her husband worked in agriculture planting cotton. She added, “In the United States, I would like to study, to work.”

Fátima del Carmen and her son José Israel stand outside of their tent, trying to escape the heat. Photo by Jacky Muniello.

One hot day in August, Silva de Luna sat in the shade of a large tree at the shelter’s entrance. He founded the shelter and had run it for 24 years. With coronavirus’ arrival in Reynosa in March, he decided to stop accepting new migrants. “We are interested in prevention,” he said, explaining why the shelter followed strict guidelines to protect migrants from getting coronavirus because “we know that this is going to be long-term.”

As he spoke, migrants, still as if dead, lay on mattresses on the floor of a room open to the patio, felled by the heat, by the weight of months of uncertainty. People slept and napped there, they said, to be at the lowest point in the room, away from the large windows where a stray bullet could enter as warring factions fought for control of territory, a common problem in Reynosa, a city controlled by cartels. During the afternoon, when temperatures near 100 degrees, mothers took children by the hand, as if sleepwalking through the humidity, and led them to a cold shower for a few moments of relief.

Migrants at the shelter had spent months or years in constant movement. Their migration stories, if drawn on paper, look like a long zigzag. Many of them knew little about Reynosa and were surprised by the heat, hurricanes, and the ferocity and size of the mosquitoes near the Río Bravo, the water border that separated them from the U.S.

Silva de Luna talked about Hurricane Hanna, which affected 50,000 people in Reynosa and flooded the Mother and Child Hospital. “It was very, very strong. The storm, Hurricane Hanna, knocked down some trees, broke some glass in the dining room. We thank God for these very well-built facilities,” explained Silva de Luna. Asked if climate change had made hurricanes more severe, he replied, “It is normal,” adding, “We are almost used to all of this.” Almost.

Dr. Evelyn Gloria Córdoba García shows a video that she took of the flooding at the Mother and Child Hospital.

Climate change will cause the temperature to increase 1-5°C over the next 20-80 years in arid regions along the U.S.-Mexico border. Meanwhile, in Honduras, climate change experts predict increased hurricanes, tropical storms, floods, droughts, and landslides. Such changes in temperature and weather will continue to affect water supply, critical infrastructure, and crops. These changes in weather will affect women and girls in specific ways. Gemara Gifford is the international director of Trees, Water & People, an NGO that works on climate change adaptation with communities in Latin America. She explained, “Typically in Central America, especially in rural areas, women and girls are pretty much, you know, their gender roles are to raise the kids, maintain their homes, do the cooking and the cleaning, collect the firewood and water.” When resources like water and wood become scarce, girls and women spend their days, no matter how many hours it takes, doing what is necessary to maintain the home.

Fátima was not familiar with the term climate change. When she described her parents telling her to stay home and help with chores rather than attend school, she did not mention her brothers. She did not make a connection between being forced to quit school and drought or climate change. She did not discuss gender equality or make any comment about the injustice of the situation.
 

DEISY CONTRERAS

A week after Hurricane Hanna, Deisy, 36, from Venezuela, mother to Andreisy, 16, admitted that she was emotionally exhausted. She sat on a bunk bed in the room at the shelter that she shared with her daughter. She explained, “I say ‘emotionally’ because one is fleeing a country, a situation, physical and psychological abuse, and to come and get stuck here for so long that I can’t manage one urgent need before I’ve got another. I am not doing anything. I have not advanced in any way.” However, Deisy was lucky to have the financial support of her sister, a U.S. citizen, which gave her options many migrants didn’t have.

At the shelter, Deisy helped combat COVID-19 disinformation, using her training as a nurse to explain coronavirus to other migrants. Some of them believed conspiracy theories they had read on Facebook. Deisy said she planned to adapt to and learn to live with the pandemic, and she encouraged others at the shelter to make plans accordingly. She explained, “We know it takes years to make a medication or a vaccine to eradicate diseases given that such diseases affect our organism and remain there.”

Deisy Contreras and her daughter Andreisy sit on a bed at the Path of Life shelter. Photo by Jacky Muniello.

On the night of August 22, 2020, Deisy and her daughter paid 5,000 pesos ($225) to a smuggler to help them cross the Río Bravo. The smuggler took them to Acuña, Mexico, to a remote part of the river, and then ushered them into an inflatable raft. When Deisy and her daughter stepped onto U.S. soil, their plan was “to cross the river and turn ourselves into the border patrol.” As they walked away from the river, a border patrol car approached them, at which point Deisy told agents she and her daughter wanted to request political asylum.

Agents got out and searched them to see if they had weapons or drugs, and at that moment, Andreisy had what her mother described as “a crisis of nerves.” According to Deisy, “The officer was very courteous, very attentive to us. He offered us water, sat us down, waited for my daughter to calm down so that he could check that we didn’t have anything hidden in our clothes. We reported that we had not received anything or been harmed when we crossed the river, that nobody had hurt us. From there, another patrol car arrived and took us to a real detention center. I don’t know what it is called or where it is, but vulgarly it is known as the perrera [kennel], while others call it the hielera [icebox].”

Deisy and her daughter spent three days in detention in what she described as “large cages.” During that time, agents at the detention center required that Deisy and her daughter take a pregnancy test and a DNA test. Of the DNA test, Deisy wondered, “I don’t know if it was to confirm that we were mother and daughter.” On the third day, agents transferred them to a different detention center and gave them food, clothes, shampoo, and toothbrushes.

On August 31, Deisy sat for her credible fear interview in which she recounted why she and her daughter were requesting asylum. Deisy, a nurse, explained how she had been increasingly pressured by her superiors and the Venezuelan government to provide or withhold medicine based on political whims. In a country where medicine was often in short supply, giving medicine to backers of the political party in power meant playing with the lives of those less fortunate. In December 2017, Deisy was at work when a group of the president’s supporters arrived, demanding medicine. She refused to hand it over and described, “They took out a firearm. They placed it on my head. They told me that if I didn’t cooperate, they were going to kill me.” In Venezuela, between 2012 and 2017, some 22,000 doctors and 6,000 nurses migrated. Deisy, refusing to compromise her ethics and fearing for her life, would follow in their footsteps, her daughter by her side.

They had enough money to get to Lima, Peru, where Deisy took odd jobs waiting tables and working as a nanny, and Andreisy enrolled in high school. But both mother and daughter suffered from constant discrimination and harassment in a city flooded by Venezuelan migrants. Andriesy reported increasingly alarming sexual harassment to her mother, who could not accompany her to and from school due to work. By 2019, Deisy’s sister in the U.S. had saved enough money to pay for their plane tickets to Reynosa, hoping that they would be able to request asylum and be reunited with her.

A shared space for migrants at the Path of Life shelter. Photo by Jacky Muniello.

On September 2, 2020, agents informed Deisy that she had passed the credible fear interview, and they would release her and Andreisy into her sister’s custody. ICE fitted Deisy with an ankle monitor and granted her humanitarian parole, allowing her one year to request asylum. Deisy was relieved because she had heard conflicting news about the asylum process in the U.S. However, as the Los Angeles Times reported, Mark Morgan, the acting commissioner of the Customs and Border Protection agency, “said asylum and other humanitarian protections are still available to migrants seeking refuge in the United States. Those who show ‘an appropriate level of fear,’ he said, ‘will be processed on a case-by-case-basis.’” Deisy, who demonstrated an appropriate level of fear, is not allowed to work, and ICE will monitor her movements. Andreisy attends school, and both of them are studying English. They have hired a lawyer who will help them request asylum.

On October 21, 2020, Deisy read the news of the coerced sterilization of migrant women in U.S. detention centers. She wrote to me via WhatsApp, “I had never heard about that, and when I was in detention, at no time did they propose it.” Meanwhile, Fania and Fátima remained in Mexico, waiting, trying to guess the best moment to cross the border and request asylum, knowing their choice could cost them their children or their uterus.

* * *

 

Alice Driver is a freelance journalist and the author of More or Less Dead. She writes and produces radio for National Geographic, Time, CNN, Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting, Las Raras Podcast, and Oxford American.

 

Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands
Fact-checker: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Photographer: Jacky Muniello