With only 200 pesos to her name, Lesly departed her small town in El Salvador and began the dangerous journey to the United States early one December morning in 2013. Lesly wasn’t joining a caravan of thousands of people, nor was she the typical migrant that most would imagine in this scenario.
She was a young girl from Guatemala who couldn’t remember her mother (who left for America when Lesly was only 18 months old) and had never met her father or younger siblings. She had only seen them in pictures and only heard them in phone conversations.
Now, the 10-year-old was on a mission to reunite with her family in Virginia.
Lesly, whose last name is not included in order to protect her as a minor, was raised in El Salvador by her grandparents. Her parents, who requested anonymity due to their immigration status, left for America with the intention of returning for Lesly once she was old enough to make the journey. Her father, 18 years old at the time, was the first to come — while Lesly’s mother was pregnant with her. He had relatives in Virginia who said he could have a good job working with them as a carpenter. He hoped to establish himself so that his family could follow.
After Lesly was born, the decision for her mother to move to America was a difficult one. She knew that the United States would provide her family with opportunities that just weren’t possible in El Salvador, but her daughter was too young to make the trip with her.
“It was hard for me, Lesly was a part of me,” she said during an interview with Coffee or Die Magazine at her home in Virginia. “She was my first child. It broke my heart, but I knew if I came here, we would have a better future.”
Lesly’s mother was not — and is not — alone in the decision to risk everything in order to move to America. According to the Pew Research Center, the United States is currently ranked as the No. 1 destination in the world for immigration, with over 46.6 million people who were not born in America currently living here — 76 percent of which arrived and entered legally. The largest migration route in the world is the U.S.-Mexican corridor, but it’s usually not Mexicans who are coming over the border illegally (more Mexicans are leaving America than coming in).
It’s people from the Central American countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras who are increasingly making the decision to pursue opportunity in America but without first going through the bureaucratically challenging process of obtaining proper immigration documents first. This has made immigration and border enforcement a hot-button political issue in the United States; the Trump administration’s decision to deploy active duty troops to select locations along the southern border is the most recent development to draw both praise and criticism — largely split along party lines.
But in 2010, when Lesly’s uncle decided to make the trip to America, it wasn’t nearly the hot topic that it is today.
When Lesly’s uncle asked if she wanted to come with him, she jumped at the opportunity. The decision to take the journey was bittersweet though; leaving behind her grandmother and life as she knew it was hard, but she desperately wanted to reunite with her mother and meet her father and siblings in person, for the first time. Despite the weight of the decision, she didn’t have much time to dwell on it: her uncle was leaving first thing in the morning.
“You have to trust your faith in God,” Lesly’s mom said, recalling how she felt about her 10-year-old daughter embarking on such a dangerous trip. She and her husband couldn’t sleep. Well aware of the risks involved, they worried relentlessly until they heard from their daughter again.
Lesly didn’t know anything about the country her family immigrated to. “I used to think there wasn’t animals here,” she said with a laugh. Displaying her youth and naiveté at the time, she also thought America was in the sky because airplanes bound for the United States went into the clouds.
It was dark out, and she was told to get into a small boat — alone — despite the fact that she didn’t know how to swim.
The trip was arduous, spent mostly in the back of a truck. She was unable to say goodbye to her friends, she didn’t know anyone besides her uncle, and she wanted to go back to her grandmother, worried she would never see her again. She befriended another woman who had a daughter about the same age and spent much of her time with them as they worked their way north through Mexico. There was only one notable stop on the route to the United States, a small motel where they were given a few hours to wash up and rest before continuing.
The journey, according to Lesly’s recollection, took about three or four days.
They finally arrived on the Mexican side of the U.S.-Mexico border, but while they were preparing to cross the Rio Grande, she was separated from her uncle. It was dark out, and she was told to get into a small boat — alone — despite the fact that she didn’t know how to swim. She was given the instructions that once she landed on the other side, to walk forward until she hit a road. Once there, she would need to flag someone down, in the hopes that they would stop and pick her up.
The young girl, now seemingly alone in the world, was terrified. “I wanted to go back because I was so scared,” she said. But the handlers, likely professionals who regularly ferry people across the border, told her not to come back no matter what because no one would be there for her. Whether she liked it or not, she had already crossed the point of no return.
Lesly made the water crossing without incident, landing in Eagle Pass, Texas — putting her officially on U.S. soil for the first time in her life. She moved through an orchard and walked toward the road to wait for a car.
“I was really scared,” Lesly said. “It was so lonely, I remember it like [it was] yesterday.”
Multiple vehicles passed by without stopping. At one point, a truck came down the road toward her, at first picking up speed and passing her like so many before. Almost as if he had a sudden change of heart, the truck driver hit the brakes, performed a U-turn, and headed back to Lesly.
The driver of the truck, an older man, stopped and asked if she needed help. She replied, in Spanish, that she was coming from El Salvador and needed help. Fortunately, the man also spoke Spanish. He said he couldn’t help her but would give immigration a call, and then he left.
Young Lesly continued standing on the side of the road, by herself.
Marco Ramos, 35 years old, grew up in the small town of Uvalde, Texas. He served four years in the U.S. Marine Corps Air Wing, primarily working with attack helicopters. After he separated from the Marine Corps, he applied to the U.S. Border Patrol, where he has worked for the past 11 years. He’s a family man, married with three kids — two girls and one boy.
As a border patrol agent, Ramos’ schedule varies. The majority of his time is spent patrolling a 40-mile section of the Rio Grande that his station — the Eagle Pass Border Patrol Station — is responsible for. And that’s what he was doing five years ago, on a cold December morning in 2013.
“Drownings are common. This river has a reputation.”
“Back then, it wasn’t as busy,” Ramos said during an interview with Coffee or Die Magazine. Sure, they still had daily run-ins with illegal immigrants attempting to cross the border at night, but, fortunately, the danger both then and today hasn’t been very high for the agents assigned to the Eagle Pass Border Patrol Station. The same can’t be said for those attempting to cross the river into the United States, especially at Eagle Pass.
“It is a lot more dangerous for them, depending on where they chose to cross … This river is just known for taking lives,” Ramos explained. “Drownings are common. This river has a reputation.”
Ramos grabbed his keys and stopped by the store to pick up a few essentials — a gallon of water, coffee, and some snacks — before driving out to the area he was responsible for that day. Once in position, he relieved the agent from the shift prior and began formulating a plan, as he did at the start of every day on the job.
In that area, it can go from quiet to busy very quickly, so thinking about contingencies beforehand is vitally important.
“It’s an area where you have to stay pretty vigilant because it’s so close to the neighborhoods,” Ramos said. “Five minutes is a long time — within five minutes they’re gone. So you have to be everywhere at once.”
So far, though, it was a slow start to what he assumed would be an average day.
“I was maybe 30 minutes into my shift,” Ramos said, when a civilian vehicle pulled up next to his and informed him that there was someone up the road in the orchards. Ramos left to go investigate.
The fog that morning was thick, but when Ramos realized it was a small child waiting on the side of the road, his mindset switched from that of a border patrol agent to that of a parent. He jumped out of his vehicle and called out to her using the Spanish term of endearment for daughter, “mija.” The young girl walking up to him was “clearly shaken” and had been crying. Still wet from the river, all she had was a piece of paper with a name and a number on it.
Most minors who are classified as “unaccompanied” are not actually alone. According to the Congressional Research Service, “Unaccompanied Alien Children (UAC) are defined in statute as children who lack lawful immigration status in the United States, who are under the age of 18, and who either are without a parent or legal guardian in the United States or without a parent or legal guardian in the United States who is available to provide care and physical custody.”
Essentially, even if a kid arrives in a group of people or with other relatives, they are added to the rolls as an unaccompanied minor. If a parent is present but doesn’t have documentation on their person proving their relationship, their children can still be counted as unaccompanied. According to recent reports, separations have happened even in the presence of sufficient documentation proving familial relationship.
That being said, it’s extremely rare for border patrol agents to find a child completely by themselves. For Ramos, Lesly would be the first — and last — truly unaccompanied minor he came across.
Ramos bent down on one knee and asked if she was okay and if she had her mom’s phone number — at first in English and then again in Spanish.
“I got so happy when he spoke Spanish … He was so nice to me,” Lesly said, remembering the encounter. “I felt good because I knew I was in good hands.” She handed over the piece of paper with her dad’s name and phone number on it, and after a short exchange, Ramos reassured her, saying, “We’ll call your daddy and let him know you’re okay.”
“It was pretty surreal when I realized what part of the river she made it across,” Ramos said. “You hear a lot of horror stories from the adults who make the trip. So you start to think what could have happened to this child.”
Sexual assault is common for female migrants en route to their destination, with some reports estimating that as many as six in 10 experience sexual assault or rape during their journey. Ramos explained that U.S. Border Patrol agents routinely find contraceptives in their bags; in his experience, they never directly ask about it, but it’s pretty clear what some women go through to make it into the United States.
“You just hope that she (Lesly) didn’t face anything on the way over here,” he said.
Ramos asked her if she had any goals now that she was in America. She had three: go to school, make friends, and learn English.
Rather than put her in the backseat, like he would in any other case, he put her in the front passenger seat and buckled her in. On the drive over to the station, Ramos attempted to reassure her that everything was going to be alright.
“He told me that he had two kids,” Lesly said, “and that he wouldn’t treat me any different than he would his own kids.”
They arrived at the border patrol station, where she was the only child as far as she could tell — although there were teenagers present, she was separated from them. Ramos asked if she was hungry; she wasn’t. The station gave her a dog to keep her company.
“I’m real big on Christmas, I love Christmas. Christmas was coming up, so I figured I’ll ask her about Christmas — what kid doesn’t love Christmas?” Ramos said. He asked her what she asked Santa for, to which she responded “nothing.” He asked why not, and Lesly delivered a response that devastated Ramos: “Santa Claus doesn’t come to where I’m from.”
Switching topics, Ramos asked her if she had any goals now that she was in America. She had three: go to school, make friends, and learn English.
Ramos let her watch movies on his phone as a distraction while he called the number on the piece of paper. He always verifies that the person he’s calling is in fact the parent through a series of questions. Satisfied, he informed them that he had their daughter and that she was safe.
“You could hear it in the parents’ voices that they were relieved that she made it,” he said. He told them that the process to get her home would be quick. Unfortunately, her parents were in Virginia, and she was in Texas.
After spending only six hours at the border patrol station, she was transferred to San Antonio where she waited to be sent to Virginia. In San Antonio, she shared a room with two other girls — one from Honduras, the other from Guatemala. While waiting, she attended school, but it was difficult for her because the only person who spoke Spanish was the teacher and one other student.
She was eventually told to pack up and get ready to go home. All told, it took five days to travel from Eagle Pass to Virginia.
When she finally arrived at her new home, the emotions ran high. “We became alive again,” said Lesly’s mom.
Lesly, interpreting for her mom during our interview, relayed that her mom was conflicted about the decisions she made as a young mother, and that if she were born again, she would not have left her child behind — but also said that even if the work is hard in the United States, at least there is always food and the opportunity to work.
In El Salvador, that is not the case. The Central American country was ranked as the murder capital of the world in 2016, with 82.8 homicides per 10,000 people. In addition to the violence, the country has a stagnant economy, ranking 145th in the world in gross domestic product (GDP) per capita.
The past is in the past though; Lesly and her family were just happy to be reunited and made whole for the first time — a real Christmas miracle.
Indeed, it was Christmas, and to Lesly’s surprise her family informed her that she had already received a package in the mail.
“When I opened the box … it was two dolls — two princesses — it was Belle and Cinderella, with a note and some stickers,” Lesly said. “I still have the stickers.”
You have to learn a new language but keep your old one, too — that’s very important.
She also noticed that the gifts were “From: Santa.” Lesly recalled that at the time, the gifts and the note restored a bit of the magic of Christmas for her, as she believed they were delivered by Kris Kringle himself.
In Virginia, she found a community and school that were much more familiar to her, with many of her classmates and neighbors also being immigrants or children of immigrants. Nevertheless, she faced challenges. “You have to learn a new language but keep your old one, too — that’s very important,” she said. It was hard to learn English at first, but her brother and sister helped her as much as they could.
Before she knew it, her transition to America had already begun.
Lesly has a nuanced view of the current immigration debate raging within the country, and she thinks that many have it wrong about immigrants: “ … they just want to have a better life. Some people don’t understand that and just treat them bad … because they’re immigrants — and they think immigrants are bad people, and they’re really not.”
But due to Lesly’s experience with Ramos, both her and her parents have a very positive view of the U.S. Border Patrol. “They’re people, too,” Lesly’s mother said, before referring to Ramos specifically as a hero.
Lesly’s parents are in the precarious situation of having entered the country illegally but with children who were born in the United States. For Lesly’s father, each day is fraught with uncertainty. “Sometimes when you leave home, you’re scared you’re not gonna come back,” he said.
Securing America’s borders and enforcing the laws of the United States is an important job, vital to the security of our nation. But it takes an emotional toll on border patrol agents.
“As the family units start coming in a lot more, it starts to wear down on you a little bit. You start seeing these kids, and you compare them to your kids. It gets to you,” Ramos said. “These children are making the best out of the situation … But children shouldn’t be playing in a holding cell. Children should be playing outside.”
Indeed, the number of “family units” arriving in the United States has seen a significant increase in recent years, along with a rise in rate of detention.
Unlike police officers, it’s not typical for border patrol agents to maintain communication with those they have official interactions with. For Ramos, Lesly has been the lone exception. She made an impact on him that he couldn’t shake. After talking to his wife, they decided they wanted to do something for her. Because he was unsure of her family’s status in the country, he wanted to handle the situation delicately. They bought a few gifts, wrapped them, and sent them with no return address. The package included a letter “from Santa,” saying that a border patrol agent tipped him off that she liked Disney princess dolls. Ramos included his own kids in the effort, too, who loved the idea and insisted on sending her stickers.
Over a year and a half passed before Ramos reached out to see how she was doing. He found out that she did receive the Christmas gifts, and that she was doing well. Another three years went by, now early 2018, and with current events being what they are, Ramos decided to write to Lesly’s family to see how they were doing. Lesly’s mother responded, confirming that Lesly was doing very well in school and that she had made a lot of friends.
They arranged a phone call. It started off with Ramos and Lesly’s parents talking about current events when her mom abruptly told Ramos that Lesly had a surprise for him.
“Lesly gets on the phone and starts speaking in Spanish for a few sentences,” Ramos said, recalling the conversation with a glimmer in his eye. Then, breaking into near-perfect English, she said, “I just want to say thank you for what you did for me when you found me.”
Ramos was shocked. He congratulated her on learning English and remarked that she sounded very good. They continued on in English, talking for another 20 minutes.
“He’s important for me,” Lesly said. “I’m really thankful to him.”
Lesly is no longer the small child that she was when she came to America. With her quinceanera behind her and only a few years left before she graduates high school, she’s looking to the future.
“I’m really interested in doing cosmetology. I want to go to college and get a degree in cosmetology … open my own salon, own my own business,” she said. After a thoughtful pause, she added, “I want to be someone. I want to be someone who helps people who need help.”
Marty Skovlund Jr. was the executive editor of Coffee or Die. As a journalist, Marty has covered the Standing Rock protest in North Dakota, embedded with American special operation forces in Afghanistan, and broken stories about the first females to make it through infantry training and Ranger selection. He has also published two books, appeared as a co-host on History Channel’s JFK Declassified, and produced multiple award-winning independent films.
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