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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: A mother’s journey from Honduras to Spokane – ‘I’m going to carry my girl’

You couldn’t even tell Danna Arias was sick most of the time, people say.

She smiled continually. She loved to play. She was thrilled when she arrived in Spokane to see snow for the first time. She told everyone about her new friends at school – first names and last. She loved to go to the park, to hunt Easter eggs in her aunt’s yard, to eat the chocolate chip cookies made by her friend, Lupe.

A normal girl. That’s what Danna wanted to be, the people who knew her say.

“She just stole your heart,” says her aunt, Jessy Child. “You could see Jesus’ light shining upon her.”

But that was not what she was.

• • •

A little more than two years ago, on April 9, 2019, Dania Salgado and her three daughters boarded a bus in the town of Santa Cruz, Honduras, and began their journey north. Each of the girls – then-8-year-old Danna and her sisters, Johanna, 15, and Josselyn, 20, who was pregnant – brought only a small backpack with clothing and a few personal items.

Dania also brought her Bible and a file folder with crisp copies of Danna’s medical records. Danna had been diagnosed with leukemia at the age of 3, and she was in the midst of chemotherapy – a course of treatment that was interrupted when they left home.

There are many reasons a mother might want to take her children away from Honduras. Violent crime is epidemic. Economic opportunity is scarce. More than half the country’s residents live in poverty – the equivalent of less than $5.50 a day.

But the most pressing reason for Dania was her desire to obtain better medical care for Danna. In particular, she wanted to get her daughter a stem-cell transplant, also known as a bone-marrow transplant, a treatment unavailable to them in Honduras. For that reason, she had sold her house and saved money to pay for the journey to the United States, including the $2,400 she would need to hire the so-called coyotes who would smuggle them across the Rio Grande.

Dania, 44, described her experiences in recent interviews; she does not speak English and the interviews were conducted with interpretation by her cousin, Jessy, and by Jennyfer Mesa, an activist and co-founder of Latinos en Spokane.

Dania and her daughters traveled by bus to Guatemala City, then to Mexico City, and then to Monterey, and finally to the border near Laredo, Texas. They stayed some nights in inexpensive hotels along the route. Danna, who had lost most of her hair to chemotherapy, was upbeat and in good spirits most of the way. Her hair had begun to grow back, short, fine and curly.

About two weeks after they left, they crossed the river at night. The smugglers sent them across, one by one, on a “balsa,” a flimsy inflatable raft: First Josselyn, then Johanna, then Danna and finally Dania.

Dania had to leave some of her belongings behind on the riverbank, including her Bible. But she held tight to her file of Danna’s medical records as she made her way across the river in the dark to the country that she hoped would save her daughter’s life.

• • •

The southern border has become a political minefield, a source of competing and contradictory narratives, a humanitarian crisis, a locus of misinformation and a philosophical litmus test. Our mess of an immigration system has been challenged, repeatedly, by humanitarian crises, pressured by xenophobic fear-mongering, clouded by the fog of political spin – a story focused more on cages and walls.

But it is more than that. It is also a story of mothers and children.

In the past few months, there has been a surge of new arrivals at the southern border – and particularly of children traveling alone. It is not unusual for there to be a seasonal surge of would-be immigrants at the southern border, but the nature of that surge has changed dramatically and the numbers of people trying to cross the border are up sharply and overwhelming the system, according to federal statistics.

In past years, the spring migration was primarily comprised of young men from Mexico, looking to work here and send home money. But as the Mexican economy has improved, and as violent crime and economic privation wreaks havoc in Central America, the main story has become one of families fleeing violence and poverty, experts say.

In 2019, for example, the number of “family units” apprehended by the Border Patrol increased more than fourfold from the previous year to 457,000. Families from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador made up more than 90% of that total.

Those trends have continued. March saw the most Border Patrol apprehensions for any single month in nearly two decades with more than 172,000 people taken into custody; the largest part of that increase was represented by family units, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and another large group was unaccompanied children.

Families and children. Like Dania and her daughters.

• • •

Landing on the American bank of the Rio Grande, Dania and her daughters were told to follow the lights to a nearby city. They set off alone, moving through thick brush and then into the desert – wet, lost, in the middle of the night.

They walked until, exhausted, they gave up and sat on the ground, where border agents found them. Dania told them they were seeking help for her sick daughter, and they were taken to a Border Patrol detention center in Laredo, where they were held for hours.

Eventually, an official came to the holding cell and asked, “Who is the girl with cancer?”

Danna raised her hand.

The family was taken to another room where Dania filled out the paperwork to petition for asylum in the U.S. Border Patrol officials asked her if she had any family members in America. She told them her brother was living in Atlanta. He had immigrated years earlier; they had not been in touch during those years, and he was surprised when Dania called. He paid for bus tickets for them and said they could stay with him. They were released on temporary petitions for asylum.

Twenty-four hours later – 17 days after they left Honduras – they arrived in Atlanta.

• • •

The spectre of migrants coming here and living in luxury off the bounty of the American safety net drives a large portion of the political debate around immigration. The truth is that undocumented workers do not have access to government health insurance – or most other benefits – anywhere in the country, though their children do in a few states such as Washington.

Spokane’s Lili Navarrete believes that everyone deserves health care, and she advocates the government to expand access for all. She is the director of public affairs for Raiz of Planned Parenthood of Greater Washington and North Idaho, and a commissioner on the Washington State Commission on Hispanic Affairs.

“A lot of people think undocumented community members have and get benefits, or they come to this country and are living off the government,” she said. “That’s not true.”

In fact there is good evidence supporting the idea that undocumented immigrants, generally, produce more economic activity and tax revenue than they cost the government in services. The Congressional Budget Office in 2007 estimated that for many years, immigration overall – including undocumented workers – produced more in taxes than it cost in services, though it has not taken up that subject more recently.

In 2018, undocumented workers paid an estimated $33 billion in federal and state taxes, according to federal statistics, and 96% of undocumented immigrants were employed. The Social Security Administration estimated in 2014 that undocumented workers were paying $13 billion a year in Social Security taxes, while receiving less than $1 billion in services.

Meanwhile, they have become an essential part of the work force. More than half of all field workers – and more than a third of all agricultural workers of any type – are here without formal sanction. About a quarter of all ground maintenance workers, food-service and textile and apparel workers are undocumented, as are a fifth of construction workers.

The apples we eat, the homes we buy, the clothes we wear – a lot of it comes directly from sweat of these workers.

“Most of those people are good people,” said Pastor Alvaro Gomez of Communidad Christiana de Spokane, which meets in Spokane Valley. “They are here because they don’t have opportunities in their countries. They need a better future for their families. They are here because they want to work and build this city and work with the Anglo people, side by side.”

Dania Salgado, who came here specifically to get her daughter medical care, also came with the intention to work. She has worked cleaning houses since she arrived.

For Navarette, who came here with her parents from Mexico City when she was a child and saw them suffer illnesses without being able to see a doctor, all members of a community deserve health care, and undocumented people living among us are decidedly a part of the community – working, spending money, paying taxes, raising children.

“How can people sleep at night,” she asks, “turning away people who need help?”

• • •

Despite the arduous journey and the interruption of her chemotherapy, Danna’s health was seemingly good when she arrived in Atlanta. She enrolled in school while her mother obtained work cleaning houses and began seeking a place that would provide treatment for her.

Danna was rejected at every turn, however. Three hospitals in Georgia turned her down for charity care, because she was not a U.S. citizen or permanent resident. Dania tried a children’s hospital in Tennessee, but she got the same result.

Month after month, the answer was the same. Without citizenship or permanent status, she couldn’t qualify for charity care or insurance programs.

When Dania relates this part of the story, her voice breaks. She had traveled so far, crossed hundreds and hundreds of miles, brought her children across a river and a desert with their belongings on their backs – only to run into a seemingly insurmountable wall.

She did not want to give up. She was told that a few states do offer health care coverage for the children of undocumented immigrants. Around this time, in December 2019, nine months after leaving Honduras, she also reached out to a cousin in Spokane, Jessy Child.

Dania had known Jessy when they were growing up in Honduras, though they had not been in touch for many years. Jessy was surprised to hear that Dania was in America and she was heartbroken to hear about what was happening with Danna.

Jessy understands how some Americans view the situation. She understands that some people here have hardened their hearts against those who come here seeking something they cannot get in their country, whether it’s a job, or a safe home, or the medical technology to save their child.

But she also understands what all parents understand: how far you would go to protect them , how nothing else matters in the face of that responsibility. She has two children and is pregnant with a third.

“Now that I’m a parent,” she says, “I know I would do anything to keep my kids safe.”

Jessy reached out to Pastor Gomez of Communidad Christiano, and then to Mesa, a local activist and volunteer dynamo who co-founded Latinos en Spokane, a nonprofit formed to help create community and support the local Latino and immigrant population.

“When we heard about a child being denied medical treatment, and she had cancer – we jumped into action,” Mesa said.

• • •

Years ago, Jessy Child had made the clandestine journey from Honduras to America herself. She had grown up around Dania, who had lived with Jessy’s family during her high school years. Jessy knew Dania as she married and had her children, and as she struggled to provide for them after her husband left and came to America.

“She was telling me they didn’t have enough to eat and she was too ashamed to ask for help,” said Jessy, 34.

In 2003, Jessy’s family left Honduras for America. She was 16. They came by a different route, but it was an arduous, risky journey all the same. Her parents crossed into the country first and left the children behind with a relative in Tijuana, Jessy said.

At one point, they paid a coyote to bring them across the border. The man took their money and their belongings, and abandoned them in the middle of nowhere, she said.

They eventually made it to America, without documentation, and began the process of trying to find work and build a new life.

Her father ran a cleaning business. Jessy attended East Valley High School and graduated in 2006. She married and had children and began the application process for permanent-resident status – a green card. In a year and a half, she hopes to become a U.S. citizen.

Many people here underestimate how desperate the situation is in Central America. In Honduras, criminal gangs are rampant. The country has frequently had the region’s highest murder rate in recent years. Robberies of buses and motorists are common, as are home invasions. The State Department’s threat assessment for the country in 2020 concluded that “travelers should reconsider travel due to crime.”

People fleeing that country are, in a real sense, fleeing for their lives.

“You live in fear, pretty much,” Jessy said. “There are no jobs and if there are, they don’t pay you what you need.”

On the other hand, people in Central America often don’t understand the difficulties that might await them in coming to the U.S., she said. The journey is very hard, and fraught with danger from predators who take advantage of their hopes. Crossing secretly into the country can be very challenging, and it’s stressful to live with the pressures and fears of being here without legal status.

Navarrete, who does not know Dania’s family but is familiar with the issue generally, said that many families in Central America are making a leap of faith into an unknown that may be more difficult than they expect – but who feel they have no choice.

“If you have children, if you have family members who have a medical condition … if you had the possibility that you could take them to another country, another state, if there’s a potential hope for them to live – wouldn’t you do it?” she said.

“Put yourself in their shoes. … What choice do they have? Stay there and be murdered? Or risk everything they have, including your family, and make the huge step to come?”

That was the leap that Jessy’s family took, and Dania and her daughters had done the same. In an irony that reflects the crushingly slow pace of the American immigration bureaucracy, Jessy was just then at the point of qualifying for her green card when she heard from Dania in Atlanta.

To earn that permanent-resident status, she would have to travel back to Honduras for an interview and re-enter the country legally. She was in the midst of arranging that as plans for Dania to travel to Spokane were being made.

• • •

If Dania encountered indifference in Georgia, what she found in Spokane – in Mesa and Gomez and their network – was the opposite. Mesa reached out to the Spokane Immigrants Rights Coalition and began arranging to fly the family to Spokane. Pastor Gomez helped organize others to help get them clothing, winter gear, food and other supplies.

Dania and her children flew to Spokane on Jan. 8, 2020, landing on a snowy day that was the front end of a cold snap. It was Danna’s first time on a plane – and her first time seeing snow, once they landed.

Jessy and her family were away, in Honduras for her green-card interview, and Gomez brought Dania and her kids to her empty home.

“She said, ‘I feel like I’m alone. I don’t know anybody here,’” Gomez said. “I said, ‘You know what, Dania? We are here. We are your family. We are here to help.’”

Lupe Gutierrez was one of the family’s chief helpmates in those early days, driving them around snowy Spokane, helping get the children enrolled in school, getting ID cards and, crucially, getting Danna in to see a doctor at a CHAS clinic, and helping her enroll in Apple Health, the state’s health insurance program that covers children regardless of immigration status.

As they prepared for that initial doctor visit, Lupe was stunned to see the file of medical records that Dania had brought all the way from Honduras with great care. The papers were crisp and clean, as if they’d just been printed out.

“She said, ‘When I was crossing the river … the most important things I was taking care of was my daughter and her papers,” Lupe said.

The doctor was surprised at how healthy Danna seemed, Lupe said, and when he got her bloodwork, he saw the reason: Her cancer had gone into remission.

These next weeks were good, seemingly carefree times. Danna became friends with Mesa’s daughters, and also made friends at Progress Elementary.

“She was so happy when she got into school,” Mesa said. “She just radiated love and joy and curiosity.”

She loved Lupe’s chocolate chip cookies and enjoyed her first Easter Egg hunt a year ago this month in Jessy’s backyard. Dania was working cleaning houses. Her oldest daughter, Josselyn, was raising her infant son, Mateo. Her middle daughter, Johanna, was at Central Valley High. They were living with Jessy and looking for their own place.

It was shortly after Easter last year when Dania again started feeling sick. A little weak. Some pain in her legs. Some little bumps appeared under her skin. Her cancer had returned, even more aggressively.

“It was,” Lupe says, “the beginning of the end.”

• • •

Starting in May, Danna was on continuous chemotherapy, administered by infusion for 22 days straight. She and her mother had to stay in a hotel to quarantine between visits to Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center, where she was treated.

The chemotherapy was a preparation for her to receive a stem-cell transplant – the treatment that Dania had hoped for her daughter when she sold her house and left on a bus for America. In that procedure, a donor’s stem cells are implanted in the patient, with the hope that they will begin producing new blood cells to fight the cancer.

While waiting for a match in Seattle, Danna continued to live almost as if she weren’t ill.

“She never showed she was hurting,” Jessy said. “She always had a smile on her face.”

In preparation for a transplant, Pastor Gomez drove Danna and her family to Seattle, where she was admitted to Seattle Children’s Hospital on July 23, not long after her 10th birthday.

A match became available and she underwent the transplant – but it didn’t work.

The search for another donor began, and Danna remained hospitalized. She stayed cheerful and focused on others. She would ask for her mother to buy chocolates, for example, even though she could not have them herself. She wanted to give them to the nurses.

Her sister, Josselyn, was a match for a transplant, and she agreed to donate her stem cells without a thought, she said. The procedure – in which stem cells are extracted from the donor’s bone marrow – can be painful and long-lasting. Danna seemed more concerned about her sister undergoing the procedure than she was about her own illness, her mother said.

The second transplant occurred at the end of September. There was such hope surrounding the operation. So much belief and desire that this would be the step that saved the girl’s life.

Lupe would talk to Dania on the phone, and Dania would insist, “My daughter’s going to get better. My daughter’s going to get better.”

Jessy said, “We all had hope. We’re a Christian family. I believe in miracles, but I also believe in God’s will. There’s nothing we can do.”

At first, the transplant seemed successful. The stem cells took and began producing new blood cells. There was talk of Danna being discharged from the hospital.

But Danna’s organs began to fail.

First her lungs. Then her kidneys.

Then, Dania said in a trembling whisper, “su corazon.”

Her heart.

Danna died Jan. 23, 655 days after boarding that bus in Honduras. They held the funeral in Seattle, and many of the people in the family’s Spokane support system traveled there for the service.

“I have never heard a mother cry like that,” Mesa said. “It was a nightmare. An absolute nightmare.”

• • •

Dania hopes to stay in America and make a new life here. She and her daughters have moved into a rental home. Johanna was accepted at Eastern Washington University. Josselyn is working and raising her son.

But the future is uncertain. Dania’s initial petition for asylum was denied, and she is awaiting a hearing to appeal that denial. The process could drag on for months or longer.

The grief of her loss is still sharp and present, of course, and her daughter’s memory is with her always.

“She was the center of my life,” Dania said.

Lupe said, “It’s so hard. She’s suffering day by day.”

Dania had her daughter cremated so they could stay together, Lupe said. They had been together, after all, from Santa Cruz to Mexico City. Together from the dark night on the Rio Grande to snowfall in Spokane. Together as Dania accomplished, at last, what she had worked so hard to do – providing her daughter with the best medical care she could.

Dania told Lupe she doesn’t want that to change, even if she is forced to return to Honduras.

Wherever she goes, she said, “I’m going to carry my girl.”

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