688: The Out Crowd

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Prologue: Prologue

Ira Glass

A quick warning– there are curse words that are unbeeped in today’s episode of the show. If you prefer a beeped version, you can find that at our website– thisamericanlife.org. Darwin’s nine. And he’s a kid who– I don’t know– people just give him stuff. When he met my co-worker, Aviva, he was playing with a soccer ball somebody gave him, eating a taco somebody else gave him. And Darwin’s mom was explaining all this.

Elizabeth

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Aviva Dekornfeld

Can you just describe what just happened?

Elizabeth

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Ira Glass

I have no idea, she says.

Aviva Dekornfeld

A man, as you were talking about people just giving him things, walked by and gave you– how much did he give you? Diez?

Darwin

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Aviva Dekornfeld

Wow.

Elizabeth

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Ira Glass

10 pesos.

Aviva Dekornfeld

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Ira Glass

Why’d he give you that? Aviva asks him. Darwin gives a little shrug like, eh, what can I say?

Darwin

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Ira Glass

Because he thought I was asking for a coin. His mom says, he was just sitting there eating.

Aviva Dekornfeld

You’re like king of the camp.

Darwin

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Ira Glass

Yes, I am the king of the camp, he says. As Aviva sits there with Darwin’s mom, Elizabeth, he runs off for 15, 20 minutes at a time. And then returns with cash.

Elizabeth

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Darwin

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Ira Glass

$5. She hugs him.

Elizabeth

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Ira Glass

Darwin runs to their tent to pull out all the money he’s saved and show Aviva– $279, a huge wad of cash, which for context, they’re living in a makeshift tent camp in Matamoros, Mexico, right over the border from Brownsville, Texas. And, I mean, immediately on the other side– nestled against the US, and the Rio Grande, and the customs office. You can see the big red arches of the border station it’s so close.

Over 2,500 people living here, hoping to get asylum in the US. Darwin and his mom came here from Honduras. 279 bucks here is huge.

Most people, even the migrants who came with a little money saved, have been here so long, they’ve spent it all. Our family sends us money, his mom says. Lots of families do that. But he brings in so much more than they send.

Elizabeth

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Ira Glass

Aviva then follows Darwin as he walks from the tents to the long line of cars that’s waiting at the border to cross into the United States. He’s a happy-looking kid with neatly cut hair and a big smile. Really cute.

Darwin gives a fist bump to the fruit stand guy. Claps the man selling corn on the back to say hello. Nods to the half-dozen other vendors working the line. Remember, he’s nine.

When we asked one woman in the camp about him, she was like, oh, El Terremoto– The Earthquake. He holds a finger in the air, asking for one coin.

He says that’s his move– ask for a coin, and then hopefully they’ll give you more than a coin. And, in fact, a car with three women waves him over. And the woman in the passenger seat rolls down her window and hands him a dollar.

Darwin

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Ira Glass

Thanks. Bless you. Are you Cuban? He asks her.

Darwin

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Ira Glass

He says, I knew it– from your accent. And she’s like, right. You thought I was from Cuba. And they laugh. The woman asks his name, and he tells her.

She says she likes his hair. I like your hair, he says. He reaches out to stroke her hair. It’s straight and blond. I like your hair because it’s pretty, he says. And she laughs and claps her hands. Look at what a flirt he ended up being.

Darwin

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Ira Glass

Oh, my god. You have a girlfriend?

Darwin

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Ira Glass

You, you.

Woman

Bye, Darwin!

Darwin

Bye. Bye.

Ira Glass

Darwin runs to his mom, who’s watching all this, and gives her the dollar. Both of them, and the thousands of other people camped here at the border– to be clear, they’re trying to follow the rules and enter the United States through a border station and formally apply for asylum. It used to be, you’d show up. If you passed a basic interview– which most people did– you’d wait in the US for your day in court.

But now it’s all different. Under the Trump administration’s Remain in Mexico policy, you get turned back to wait in Mexico. This policy is still pretty new. It really kicked in full force this summer, but it’s a profound change with massive consequences.

One of them? The size of this camp, which didn’t exist before President Trump, and which grows in size every day. And all across Mexico, in cities just on the other side of the border, there are now tens of thousands of people– according to the Department of Homeland Security– stranded under this policy, in shelters, on the streets, and in encampments like this one, sent by our government without much of a plan for where or how they’d live once they got to Mexico.

This camp, for instance, is totally improvised– long rows of scruffy blue and white and gray tents, over 700 of them, donated by do-gooder groups and churches in America. These are Coleman tents meant for weekend camping, not designed for rain and direct sun and cold for months at a time.

There’s no regular water supply here. Volunteer groups from over the border in Brownsville haul in over 3,000 bottles of water each day, and these are just the little 16-ounce bottles like you would buy with your lunch at a fast food place. There’s no proper sanitation, just five toilets for 2,500 people– yellow Porta Potties which get precisely as gross as you would imagine.

One of the fathers here, Elwin David Baquis told me that when his eight-year-old daughter needs the bathroom–

Elwin

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Interpreter

Well, you know, if I have some money, then I’ll look and see if I can find her another bathroom to use, but if there isn’t any, then I’ll take her out into the woods– into the mountain, so that she can, you know, use the bathroom, do her business, and then we’ll go down to the river to wash up.

Elwin

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Interpreter

And honestly, with the amount of people using them, in five hours, they’ll be totally full. And people still keep on going to use them, especially women, because as you can imagine, you know, like, there’s a bunch of men out there in the woods that are using the bathroom, and they don’t want to be surrounded by that.

Ira Glass

There’s a nurse at the camp named Helen Perry who runs a very small relief group with a very grand-sounding name– Global Response Management. With some volunteers, she started a medical tent in the camp, modeled after the battalion aid stations that she learned to set up back when she was in the army. Anyway, I mentioned all of this to Helen– that this father and daughter were going up in the woods. And she was like, oh yeah, knew that.

Helen Perry

Yeah. And then when it rains, all that rainwater washes down there, or it washes into the hard spaces in the camp and they get, you know, infectious diarrhea.

Ira Glass

Are you seeing a lot of infectious diarrhea?

Helen Perry

Yes. Most everyone here has some form of GI something or other– you know, different types of tapeworms and ringworms. And the problem is is that you treat it, and then they come right back out and they get it again.

Ira Glass

I actually met Elwin because he was Helen’s first patient of the day. He and his daughter both had pinkeye from bathing in the Rio Grande, which is not clean. Helen’s trying to organize a fix for that.

Helen Perry

So this is actually one of areas that we’re talking about bringing in a water purification system. So the Rio Grande is, like, right down there. Hola.