Sunday, October 20, 2019

1,600 miles, 85 hours: A migrant family takes a Greyhound across America

  • >> Miriam Jordan, The New York Times
    Published: 2019-05-27 03:27:44 BdST

By the time it pulled into Dallas, the bus from Arizona was two hours and 47 minutes late. It had left Phoenix overbooked, turned away passengers with tickets in Tucson, rolled through El Paso at 2am and finally disgorged its human cargo — a busload of exhausted migrants, mostly from Central America — shortly before dusk the next day.

A sign in the Greyhound bus terminal listed the ongoing routes that were already facing delayed departures: San Antonio, Los Angeles, Houston, Detroit, Atlanta, Brownsville. All of them would be late; most of them were full. Those who had missed their connections would need to wait in line, an agent announced, as the disembarking passengers — many of them with no food, no money and no possessions beyond what was in their slim backpacks — listened in stunned silence.

“My God, we are going to have to spend two nights here,” Zuleima Lopez, recently arrived from Guatemala with her husband and three children, murmured as she surveyed the ragged tableau inside the terminal. Refuse had long before overfilled the available trash bins, and a rank odour wafted out from the restrooms. Mothers, fathers and children huddled together on scraps of cardboard, atop tattered blankets and splayed jackets. Feverish babies with runny noses fussed in their mothers’ arms.

At one end of the station, several passengers jostled for $7.50 meal vouchers — 19 cents less than the cheapest cheeseburger combo — until, halfway through the line, the agent announced that there were no more vouchers.

A Greyhound road trip across the country has long been a hallmark of the American experience, a “leave the driving to us” way for those who couldn’t afford airfare or a car to come home from college, start new jobs, get to the coast, leave problematic situations behind.

But along the border and deep into parts of the nation’s interior, the Greyhound buses plying the interstate highway system have become an essential element in an extraordinary new migration.

Entering the country at a rate of more than 5,000 each day, new arrivals from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador are departing border towns by the busload. While President Donald Trump has made a point of threatening to send migrants from the border to inland sanctuary cities that oppose his immigration policies, it is an empty threat: Migrants are already travelling by the thousands every day to cities across the country — to Atlanta, Chattanooga, Orlando, Richmond, as well as to sanctuary cities, like New York, Los Angeles and Seattle.

After an initial 72 hours or so at Customs and Border Protection processing centres along the border, the vast majority of those entering the country now are released to nonprofit respite centres, where they are fed and clothed. From there, they are booked on Greyhound buses to destinations where they may have friends, family or the hope of a job. They pay top dollar, often $250 to $300 each, usually advanced by family members in the United States.

Long lines and bedraggled migrant travellers have become fixtures at bus stations across the Southwest — and a source of substantial new revenue for Greyhound, a company that had been struggling for footing in an era of cheap airfares and stiff competition on shorter-haul routes from companies like Megabus.

A group of immigrants from Honduras wait for a bus to Dallas inside the Greyhound station in El Paso, Texas, Dec. 27, 2018. Along with the deaths of two detained migrant children, the release of hundreds of migrants from detention has a web of organizations assisting migrants on alert. (Ivan Pierre Aguirre/The New York Times)

A group of immigrants from Honduras wait for a bus to Dallas inside the Greyhound station in El Paso, Texas, Dec. 27, 2018. Along with the deaths of two detained migrant children, the release of hundreds of migrants from detention has a web of organizations assisting migrants on alert. (Ivan Pierre Aguirre/The New York Times)

Currently owned by the British transport conglomerate FirstGroup, Greyhound filed for bankruptcy twice in the 1990s. More recently, the company introduced Bolt Bus express service, Wi-Fi access and other innovations, but falling fuel prices and the convenience of car and air travel continued to limit its ability to attract well-heeled customers.

Then came the crisis on the southwest border.

The Greyhound station in Dallas, the company’s headquarters, has been transformed by default into a temporary migrant shelter.

A similar scene has been playing out in cities across the Southwest. In McAllen, hundreds of migrants pack the station daily, lining up to board buses. In El Paso, hundreds at once have shown up at the terminal without warning, trying to find their way. In Phoenix, a swell in drop-offs by immigration authorities led Greyhound to restrict station access to those holding tickets, exposing families left outside to the rain.

Zuleima Lopez and her family had ridden a bus much of the way from Guatemala through Mexico, crossing into the United States with the help of a smuggler, but nothing prepared them for this new journey they would take through Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Arkansas and Tennessee on a large, crowded bus.

At the station in Dallas, migrants were crammed into row after row of bench seats and parked on the filthy floor; Lopez fretted that the children would get sick, but she was too tired to warn them to stay off the floor, and where would they sit, anyway?

If they could get to Nashville, her brother lived not far, and had promised to help them find work — if the immigration court allowed them work permits. They could live with him until they got on their feet. The children could go to an American school, start learning English.

But first, they would have to get out of Dallas. That was going to take 48 hours, the station agent said, because they had missed their connection.

“We don’t have a choice,” said Lopez, sounding weary and defeated. Her husband, Hector, looked incredulous as he studied their new tickets, but said nothing.

A young boy clings to his mother as they wait in a line of asylum seekers at the bus station in San Antonio, Texas, April 2, 2019. The arrival of migrant families has reached record levels, with February totals 560 percent above those for the same period last year; the change has left officials grasping for ever-more-dire ways to describe the situation. (Callaghan O'Hare/The New York Times)

A young boy clings to his mother as they wait in a line of asylum seekers at the bus station in San Antonio, Texas, April 2, 2019. The arrival of migrant families has reached record levels, with February totals 560 percent above those for the same period last year; the change has left officials grasping for ever-more-dire ways to describe the situation. (Callaghan O'Hare/The New York Times)

LEAVING TUCSON

The journey had begun more than 24 hours earlier on the ground floor of a former monastery in Tucson, now a respite centre for newly arrived migrants run by Casa Alitas. A large television screen displayed the name of each adult, the age of their children, the day and time the family was booked to leave and where they were heading: Houston, Nashville, Tampa, Columbus, New York, Portland.

The Lopez family reported to the “transportation room” carrying hand luggage and a drawstring bag packed with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, fruit and water.

Hector Lopez listened attentively as a volunteer reviewed his family’s itinerary — several pages long — using yellow marker to highlight Dallas, where they would change buses after making eight stops along the way.

The trip ran into trouble almost before it started: The Greyhound bus, already loaded with migrants who had boarded in Phoenix, arrived in Tucson more than an hour late and substantially overbooked. Two families would have to stay behind. The Lopezes and their three children — Kevin, 17, Nataly, 12 and Caleb, 6 — just made the cut.

The driver announced there would be a 20-minute stop in Lordsburg, New Mexico, about 150 miles away. “You can have a nicotine break, use the bathrooms, do push-ups, I don’t care,” he said.

There was no banter inside the dark bus, just the sound of a squealing infant as it travelled east along Interstate 10. There were mothers with babies and toddlers, and several fathers travelling solo with a young son or daughter. Only the Lopez family was complete. Filling out the seats were a few Americans whose plans seemed vague.

“Sometimes, it’s almost like we’re the foreigners,” said Don Shockley, 77, a retired truck driver with 4 million miles under his belt, as he scanned the rows from his seat in the back. “I think we got to build a wall. It won’t keep them all out but it’ll keep some out.”

“Used to be they came to California and Texas. Now they are heading east,” Shockley added.

It was after 2 a.m. when the bus entered El Paso, stop No. 3. Out the window, the lights of Ciudad Juárez, the Mexican city on the other side of the Rio Grande, stretched as far as the eye could see.

“All bodies off the bus,” the driver called after pulling into the station and switching on the lights, rousing everyone. The weary passengers had to wait in the station.

Sitting on steel-wedge blue seats with her three sleepy children, Julia Cortez, an asylum-seeker from Mexico, asked, “How long to Nashville?”

When she learnt the city was at least 24 hours away, she responded softly, “Oh no, we have no food and no money left.” Cortez’s family had already spent two nights in the Phoenix Greyhound station, where they were dropped off by immigration authorities, because seats had not been available on any earlier buses.

Back on the bus, Shockley heard about Cortez’s plight, and a few minutes later produced a $20 bill.

“Hand it to her,” he said, tipping his cowboy hat. “I’ve been on the road all my life. People helped me.”

A new driver got behind the wheel. Most riders fell fast asleep, lulled by the hypnotic rumble of the bus engine as it hurtled toward Dallas along Interstate 20.

Not for long.

Shortly after 4:30am, the bus came to a halt at a Border Patrol checkpoint. The lights flickered on and two agents boarded.

“If you are not a US citizen, you must show your documents,” an agent with a gun and a flashlight in her holster said as she walked toward the back of the bus. Outside, a third officer paced around the bus with a German shepherd.

Hector and Zuleima Lopez rummaged through their bags to find their immigration papers.

Ten minutes later, the bus was back on the road, making several more stops, in places like Big Spring and Weatherford, though no one got on. “This is like a bus going into the twilight zone,” Shockley muttered.

The drab scenery gave way to greenery as the bus approached Dallas.

Caleb, Kevin and Nataly perked up when the city’s skyline came into view. Their eyes widened at the sight of an amusement park. Hector Lopez marvelled at the skyscrapers.

“Dallas is beautiful,” he said.

LEAVING DALLAS

Every one of the 54 seats on the bus was occupied, 33 of them by migrants, who were bound for Chattanooga, Cincinnati, Columbus, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, Morgantown, West Virginia, and beyond.

Three brothers, Efrain, Jeramaya and Samuel Caal, were headed to Silver Spring, Maryland, to trade places with their father, Avelin, 60, who had been working as an undocumented day labourer for 15 years, sending money to his family in Guatemala.

“It’s our turn. Papa is getting old. He wants to go home and be with Mama,” said Jeramaya, 30, the middle brother.

Each brother had travelled with a child, “our ticket to America,” joked Jeramaya, a reference to the immigration laws that make it easier to avoid detention if migrants arrive with a child.

At 1:08am, the bus pulled into Memphis for an hourlong stop, and to switch drivers.

Nearly four hours later, as the first rays of sunlight streaked over Nashville, bus 1506 pulled into the station and the Lopez family stepped off, blinking.

It was 1,600 miles and 85 hours since they had left Tucson — and what seemed like a lifetime since Guatemala. They hugged their relatives and quickly piled into a car, waving as they sped off.

© 2019 New York Times News Service