Long hours facilitate the real goal: putting money aside for a better future for themselves. Photograph: Vermont immigration piece/Terry J Allen
A week or so after the Planned Parenthood visit, I asked Carlos, promising anonymity, to talk about his journey north. He was 16, he said, just out of high school with a bit of technical school when he took the two-day bus ride from Tabasco to Reynosa, a bitter, hardscrabble border city, deep in poverty, guns, gangs and drug violence.
There, he and his older brother met the man who might lead them safely to a job in America, into the hands of border agents, or to death in the desert. These coyotes ply the ragged edge of capitalism. Some are professional guides simply doing an illegal and dangerous job for which they expect high pay; some are con men bent on exploitation.
If you come to the border alone, you will always find a coyote, Carlos told me, but you never know if it is someone who is reliable or will just take your money.
One way to mitigate the risk of rip-offs and scams is by making arrangements ahead of time. Five years before, my father made it to the states and knew which coyotes to trust, said Carlos. In Reynosa, someone would phone us and tell us the color of the car or truck, red or green, that would take care of us. But we never, ever communicated with the coyote himself in any way until the moment we were on the border and we met in a bus station parking lot.
My coyote was one of the better ones, Carlos said. But all of them, its just about the money.
And even the better ones cannot guarantee a successful crossing even before Trump whipped up anti-immigrant fervor and enforcement zeal.
Its a risk we all take, said Carlos, and you never know how it will end.
Before they left Reynosa, Carlos paid his coyote $500 and arranged for someone to deliver $1,500 once he reached a safe house in Texas, far enough from the border that he could blend in or move on. They always need that money punctually, or it is dangerous. They can do anything to you.
In Reynosa, the coyote took Carlos and his brother to a series of houses. When they are ready to cross the river, they gave me a life vest, and we start to walk. It had been raining a lot, so the river was very high. It was during the day, because in the night, there were others crossing.
The coyote led them to an inflatable boat and asked who knew how to swim. I told them I didnt, and thats what you are supposed to say so they dont throw you in the river. The Rio Grande was swollen far into the trees on the US side, and the dozen travelers, including three or four women, plus the coyote, had to leave the boat, which couldnt navigate through the trees, and walk through chest-high water.
Carlos brought aspirin and lemons, in case we run out of water. The coyote gave them food to carry. The meals, like beans, were all cans. And a lot of bread, tortillas.
Once on dry land, with the thwack of helicopters always, always beating the sky above, they walked rapidly, seeking cover while trying to evade sensors in the ground, cameras and law enforcement patrols. After several more hours, the group reached a road where we met a little truck. And we drove through a normal neighborhood to a house where there were about 30 women, men and children, not only Mexicans, but also Colombians and Hondurans.
They gave us food and a place to sleep. And some clothes and shoes, because ours were wet. You just take whatever fits you. The next day, they boarded a truck that dropped them in the desert.
The Border Patrol calls the area the Rio Grande or McAllen region. Spanish explorers had a more descriptive name: El Desierto de los Muertos, the Desert of the Dead.
Carlos became quiet, reached for the glass of water, and stared at the table. Then, as if a switch had flipped, he began talking rapidly.
I walked for five days, he said, and when he saw me wince, added with annoyance at my pity: Thats nothing compared to people I know 15 days, 16 days in the desert, a month. Thats why people die, or they go with the wrong coyote, and then someone gets tired, they just leave them there.
I saw a woman who was exhausted, and she was in our group. The coyote said: Its her or all of us. She was in her 30s. He didnt really want to leave her where no one would find her, so we went to a place where he thought the Border Patrol might pass. He gave her a bottle of water and left her there. She said nothing, didnt even cry.
Hours after we left her, we started to hear footsteps like someone is behind us and thought it was immigration. It was her. I cant explain it, how she did it. She was almost about to die when we left her. Somehow she came.
After three days, we ran out of water. I remember that was horrible, and then food was getting scarce. I was doing fine, but my brother, he was the one who was very exhausted, and a friend of mine too. But we continue and continue. And the coyote, he always says: We just have to get to that light. He tries to give us hope. We are so fucking close, he says, and: Are you ready to make dollars?
We were just exhausted. I remember I got dizzy a little and felt like we are walking in the same way all the time.
And then we waited at the side of the road. Waiting and waiting and helicopters are always flying. And it was terrifying. Then a truck shows up and quick, we all ran into it. I have never seen Carlos talk so freely, so long.
For hours, we couldnt move. And that was horrible in the truck, all packed together. And all like this, like this. He drew himself into a tight knot. I still remember a child, maybe he was 14, crying. He says he just wants a little bit of water, but they cant stop. No, you are almost there. Almost there.
And then we got to a house, and there is a guy at a table, and he is phoning people, saying: Hey, we got your son, your daughter. My dad sent someone with money to pick us up. And that friend took us to an apartment.
Eventually, through a network, Carlos found the construction job and stayed in Texas for a year, until he decided Vermont was worth a try.
So I have been here five years, he said. I never thought I would stay that long, but I got used to it. I like Vermont. The people are really nice, but, he grinned, the winter, not so much.
This story was based on conversations in Spanish and English, and one interview was aided by a bilingual interpreter. Some names have been changed, and quotes have been edited for clarity.