CHELSEA — Why would a devoted mother like Guadalupe allow her 9-year-old daughter to journey alone, among strangers, across three of the world’s most violent places?
Why would she accept the risk that this child could be imprisoned, raped, or killed on her journey north? Why would she encourage her to turn herself in to US border officers, even though that meant risking deportation for the whole family?
For the same reason that tens of thousands of Salvadoran, Honduran, and Guatemalan mothers have made that decision before, and since: She had no choice.
Leaving El Salvador was terrifying. Staying was worse. Her daughter lived in a city overrun with gangs, where boys are slaughtered and girls are raped, where criminals control the lives of poor citizens as completely as any authoritarian regime — running buses, imposing curfews, demanding protection money — and where police can’t stop any of it.
“Her situation was too dangerous,” Guadalupe said, weeping in a conference room at the Chelsea Collaborative a few days ago. Beside her, Dayanna, a slight child with a side ponytail and baby pink fingernails, unspooled her story. Through a translator, she laid out the harrowing details in her sing-songy little voice, as if recounting the plot of a Disney movie.
“It was beautiful there,” Dayanna said of her home city, San Vicente. “But we couldn’t leave our backyard. If we dared to go outside after 6 p.m. the gangs would come and kill us.”
Her father, a construction worker, had arrived first in Chelsea, seven years ago, hoping to make money to send back home. Her mother followed four years later, paying a smuggler to bring her north so that she could tend to her own mother, dying of cancer. Dayanna stayed behind with her other grandmother, and they managed to keep mostly safe, until the gang demanded protection payments, promising to hurt them if they didn’t pay up.
After that, “my daughter couldn’t go to school,” Guadalupe said. (The mother asked that their full names not be used because the family is undocumented.) She knew Dayanna would grow only more vulnerable to kidnap and rape as she got older. Like any mother, she would do anything to protect her child. The family tried to get Dayanna a visa to come to the United States but were denied. After that, there was only one way out. Guadalupe, who works as a dishwasher, found a smuggler through friends of friends, borrowed $4,500 to pay him, and trusted him with her daughter’s life.
In Dayanna’s backpack were some clothes, a toothbrush, a phone, and some snacks her grandmother had given her.
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For five days in June, she traveled, in buses and trucks that bumped along, making it impossible to sleep, being handed off between smugglers, over the border to Guatemala, and into Mexico. The child’s account could not be verified, but the details of her story match those told by many others who have taken the same journey.
Her group included a couple of young women, a teenager, and a toddler. She was hungry, dreaming of pupusas and her grandmother’s fried chicken. And she was afraid. They were dropped off at a house in Mexico near the border. She laid a towel on the dirty floor and tried to sleep.
“These kids came in drunk, and a guy that wasn’t with our group tried to rape the girl who was taking care of me,” she recalled. “I started to hit and kick him . . . then the other guys kicked him out.”
Her mother had not heard that story before.
“She could have been raped, too,” she said, crying again, which made Dayanna cry, too. “We exposed our kid to these dangers, but it is the only alternative we could find.”
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Smugglers put Dayanna on a green inner tube and floated her across the Rio Grande. On the other side of the river, border officers were waiting. She was sent to a detention center in McAllen, Texas, where she said the guards were unkind.
“I just went to a corner and cried,” she said.
But Dayanna is one of the lucky ones. She survived the journey. She had someone to call when she arrived, a home to go to. She was quickly released to her family, pending a hearing on her case, arriving in Chelsea on June 27.
“I cannot explain my emotions,” her mother said. “Now we are a complete family.”
Thousands of the 57,000 unaccompanied minors who have flooded the border since October have no relatives or friends who will take them in, and they must remain in detention until immigration officials decide whether to send them back to the Central America.
They’re the ones Governor Deval Patrick said Friday could be housed in Massachusetts — an act not of courage, but of basic human decency. They’re the ones being rejected — even for temporary stays — because of heartlessness and ignorance in Vassar, Mich., Lawrenceville Va., Westminster, Md. The opposition has been bolstered by grandstanding politicians and assorted blowhards using a refugee crisis to score cheap points.
Perhaps they should be made to sit in a room with a little girl who knows things 9-year-olds should never know. Maybe she could make them understand the place she came from — as dangerous and dysfunctional as Iraq and Syria — and to which they’re so eager to return her.
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Guadalupe does not know what will become of her family. Immigration now knows all of their names, and where to find them. She calls often to see if a court date has been set for her daughter. She says Dayanna woke up crying on a recent morning because she dreamed she was sent back to El Salvador.
This child, and tens of thousands like her, are forcing this country to confront a moral dilemma that will define us for a long time. They did not make the choice to be here. And if we’re being honest, the parents who scraped together the money and paid the smugglers didn’t make much of a choice either. We can keep arguing over whose fault this is, and whether we should be doing more, at the border and in Central America, to stem the desperate tide. But tens of thousands of children are here now — and yearning to breathe free. Will we give them basic care and hear their stories? Or will we rush them back to their hells, where misery and the very real risk of death await them?
If Dayanna is forced to return to San Vicente, her mother, father, and 5-month-old brother will go with her.
“We never want to be separated from her again,” Guadalupe said. “We are just hopeful something will happen. We are in the hands of the government now.”
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Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com