By Ryan Kost
IMURIS, Mexico — More than one year ago, Lourdes Garcia walked out of her home, a sad heap of plywood and tin set upon a crumbling street in Nogales, Sonora. This is what she left behind:
Rainny Mejia is 9. She’s a ghost of a child, forever observing, rarely participating. Junior Mejia is 8. He’s caught between two worlds, one of silly faces and monkey bars, the other of stark reality and abandonment. Alize Mejia is 5. Every step she takes is a calculated stomp punctuated with a giggle.
That night, as they had so many nights before, the three young ones slept alone. They would wake up the same way.
Today, the siblings live at Casa de Elizabeth, a Mexican orphanage in this dusty Sonoran town south of Nogales.
But they don’t belong here.
All three are U.S. citizens – born in Lake Havasu City and Riverside, California – whose only connection to Mexico is their mother. Still, in the year and a half since they arrived, nothing has been done on either side of the border to return them to the U.S. or to their relatives who cry for them but don’t know how to bring them home. The plight of the Mejia children, though unusual, is not unique.In Mexican border cities like Imuris, orphanages have seen other American children come through their doors. In fact, of five orphanages along the border contacted for this story, representatives at three agreed to talk, and all three say they have housed or currently house American children. The reasons remain unclear, but the overall tension created by illegal immigration seems to be trickling into family matters.
Sometimes relatives in the U.S. don’t know how to get their children back; sometimes no one appears to be looking for them at all. Meanwhile, authorities on both sides of the border provide contradictory information about how such cases are handled.
One Mexican official says he has contacted Arizona’s Child Protective Services when American youths were abandoned south of the border but has gotten little response. U.S. officials say when they hear of such situations, they intervene as quickly as possible.
This fracture in communication can destroy futures, leaving children stranded in one country, citizens of another.
One thing Rainny remembers about her mother is that she liked to dance. When she woke up on that cold, clear morning in March 2006 to find her mother gone, Rainny imagined that was why. Her mother was out dancing. It wouldn’t be the first time she was late getting home. In the days that followed, the children would remain alone. Rainny would cook for her brother and sister. During better times, her mother had taught her how. Eggs. Beans. Tortillas.
It wasn’t until two days later that Mexican authorities came for the children. They described what they found in a report:
- Three young children sharing a small shelter with roaches
- Soiled clothes tossed about
- Trash covering the concrete floor
- A broken bed
- A refrigerator, empty and filthy
Authorities would make one other note before taking Los Niños Mejia – the three Mejia children – to their new home, Casa de Elizabeth: “According to the neighbors, they are American minors.”
Mexican authorities took four pictures the day they came to collect the Mejia children. In one of the images, the children, caked with dust, stand huddled. Only Rainny dares to look at the camera. Alize stares at her feet, and Junior looks past it all into nothingness.
The photograph was taken at one of the most pivotal moments of the young orphans’ lives. It should have marked a time of hope for them, a rescue from a country they hardly knew, a return to Lake Havasu City, to family and home.
Instead, after the picture was shot, the system failed them, much as their mother had.
Neighbors knew that Rainny, Junior and Alize called the U.S. their home. They told authorities as much. But rather than notify the proper officials, Mexican authorities moved the children into the orphanage.
“We’ve spoken with CPS [in the past],” says Eduardo Chávez, the children’s case manager for Desarrollo Integral de La Familia, the Mexican version of Child Protective Services. “They say they can’t come because [the abandonment] didn’t happen in the U.S.”
So when the children were picked up, as he says often happens, nobody bothered to call the U.S. for what they assumed would be the same response.
When children are abandoned in Mexico, they’ll likely stay in Mexico.
Deborah Nishikida, a program manager for Child Protective Services, says that’s not the case – so long as the U.S. is alerted.
Instances in which children have been abandoned on the wrong side of the border have been a persistent, though somewhat infrequent, occurrence, she says. In her experience, when it does happen, the U.S. is able to work with Mexican authorities to get the children placed in the right country.
She says Chávez’s assertion that the U.S. ignores DIF’s calls “struck me as being odd because we have several cases open now” that the department is working to fix. In those instances, she says, DIF has dialed the CPS hotline.
“I would believe that if [the children] are U.S. citizens… there has to be something that can be done,” she adds.
The Mejia children had come to Mexico one year earlier with their mother, a Mexican national running from an Arizona arrest warrant full of drug charges. Until then, they’d spent much of their lives in the U.S., attending school, speaking English, eating at McDonald’s – by all accounts, being “American.”
But once she abandoned them in Nogales, the children, rather than being sent back to the States to live with relatives who are U.S. citizens, were shuttled to Casa de Elizabeth.
They are not alone.
The director of one orphanage along the border, who asked that his name not be used for fear he might anger the Mexican government, says he has seen at least two cases of U.S. children stuck at his orphanage in the past 14 years. He calls it a “gray area.”
Another orphanage along the border reports it has housed two American children from two different families for the past five years. An employee with the orphanage, who also asked that his name not be used, says he contacted the U.S. consulate about the situation and was told the children can go to the U.S. once they are legal adults. A woman at a third orphanage says it also has housed an American child but that the child recently returned to the U.S. with the help of her American aunt and Mexican authorities. The employee isn’t sure how the aunt worked with the authorities to get the young girl home.
Making the Call
Consuelo Rivera Maldonado looked on from her small corner shop as flashing lights, sirens, social workers and police fell upon her small neighborhood in the rocky hills overlooking Nogales. It was like nothing she had ever seen in the more than 20 years she has called the city home.
But she knew they were coming; she had called them. Though it was hard to watch the officers take the children away, she believed they’d find a better place away from their broken home. They couldn’t stay there, fending for themselves, a mother nowhere to be found.
Maldonado has a raspy voice but a comforting tone. Her skin, the color of rust, is leathery, more a product of her own life’s hardships than her age. The woman, 58, owns a small, rickety shop just feet from the home where the children lived. She sells odds and ends here, like tortillas, dulces (candy) and soda. That’s how she came to know the little ones so well.
In the year the children lived there, they were left alone often, Maldonado explains in Spanish. “Ella no les puede tener,” she says. Their mother didn’t care for them like she should have. The drugs and drinking made sure of that.
“How could you bring these little kids into the world if they’re going to suffer like this?” she asks. Maldonado would sometimes sneak food to the children, passing it through the window when their mother would lock the doors and leave for the night. But for the most part, Rainny took care of her brother and sister, making sure they were fed and cleaned.
It was on days that the three would come to sit at Maldonado’s store and wait for their mother to come home that she grew to love them. Rainny would play with the woman’s long, salt-and-pepper hair. When Garcia left her children in March, Maldonado decided it would be for the last time. Her patience had run dry. She reached for the phone and called DIF.
When Lourdes Garcia finally came back, the house was empty.
Maldonado told her what had happened. “I thought she would be very angry at me…. She cried a lot, but she wasn’t angry,” Maldonado says.
“There’s nothing here for them.”
Just off a bumpy dirt road in the small town of Imuris is an equally bumpy trail leading to Casa de Elizabeth. A battered and sun-bleached billboard out front calls this place: “A home of peace and promise for the children of Mexico.”
Though los niños Mejia are not from Mexico, they have been welcomed here all the same. They’re looked after by Manuel Vergara, the shelter’s director, who makes his home at the end of the trail, just in front of the cast-iron gate that separates him from the orphanage.
Vergara is a calm man who speaks with quiet precision, except when he talks about the orphanage. Then the words come fast and don’t stop.
For many there, he is Tio Manuel – Uncle Manuel. They, in return, are very much his children. “I don’t want to take their parents’ place,” he says in Spanish. But for most of them, he’s all they have.
The walls outside his office are covered in black-framed portraits of the more than 60 children who have made their home here. Some children in the photos smile boldly. Others look cautiously at the camera.
Vergara knows Rainny, Junior and Alize are American. He has copies of their birth certificates in the meticulously kept folders that line his secretary’s bookshelf. In addition to them, there’s another boy here caught in a similar situation.
The orphanage has a U.S. birth certificate on file for him, too; it says he was born in Maricopa County. Where and why the child’s parents have gone, Vergara doesn’t know.
“It’s not rare,” he says matter-of-factly. “We’re on the border.”
But it doesn’t matter, he adds. “We’re a family. What’s important is that the children have a need.” Vergara says that need can be fulfilled in Mexico just as well as in the U.S.
“Children don’t see borders,” he says. “They look for love. They look for family. They look for understanding.” He tries to give them all of that.
The morning sun shoots light through a window clouded by handprints and smudges, illuminating a room painted in powder blue. There are few toys or frills here.
Small shoes sit in a straight line against the wall. The pet dog, Pinto, has pooped on the tile floor. It’s nearly November now. Frigid air floods the room through a baseball-sized hole in the same streaky window. Rainny Mejia stirs in her little bed, as do the three other young girls who share this room.
An alarm goes off – beep! beep! beep! – and more girls begin to raid the room. One hops onto the shelves that line the girls’ communal, walk-in closet. She sidles along the ledges, pulling down clothes and handing them out: a red Polo shirt here, a pair of jeans there. Everybody shares everything here.
By the time Rainny joins the line of children waiting their turn for breakfast in the cafeteria – a chilly room bathed in fluorescent light that doubles as a church most Sundays – Junior has already started attacking his meal. Alize has begun to play with hers.
Rainny gets her breakfast – a scoop of potatoes, a scoop of beans and a bit of bread – and darts across the chipped Saltillo tile to a cold metal chair.
Then it’s off to school.
A is for ardilla (squirrel). R is for ratón (rat). J is for jirafa (giraffe).
The alphabet runs around the walls of the makeshift classroom. Each letter and a corresponding animal is just one more reminder for Rainny and Junior that they are in a world far removed from what they once knew.
Outside, Alize is bouncing about, waiting to head to her own school just down the road.
Older girls walk Alize and other younger children down the dirt path each morning. As usual, she laughs as she takes each step in her half-walk, half-dance stride, kicking up the dust behind her.
The preschool is full of bright candy blues, reds, yellows, greens and pinks. Cartoon animals cover the walls.
The teacher calls to Alize and a few other classmates. They fall into a familiar, block-like formation. A set of small arms struggles to hold a faded Mexican flag high above the group. They start to march but not quite in unison. Their arrangement shudders and bends with each step.
“Es mi bandera,” they chant together. (This is my flag.) “Símbolo de la unidad de nuestros padres y nuestros hermanos.” (Symbol of the unity of our parents and of our sisters and brothers.)
After more than a year, the three children have begun to adjust to this new place. They remember their life before but only vaguely. They played with friends on asphalt streets. They handed out candy hearts on Valentine’s Day. They lived near a lake. They ate chocolate-chip cookie-dough ice cream. They spent time with their mom and dad. They also remember an aunt and a grandma.
They miss them both.
Remembering the Children
Lake Havasu City rests along the Colorado River in western Arizona, about eight hours and a border away from Casa de Elizabeth.
On one of the many suburban streets, just down the road from a Bashas’ grocery store, is a white stucco duplex. Outside, a man and his granddaughter grill carne asada. Both are relatives of the Mejia children. Inside, two women wait: the Mejia children’s great-grandmother, Susana Flores, 67, and their great-aunt, Ana Aheredia, 39.
These are the two the children remember.
Both women share the children’s deep brown eyes and their combination of strength and softness. You can hear it in Flores’ rich, soulful laugh, though she doesn’t laugh much when she talks about her great-grandchildren.
It’s been about two years since these two women have seen los niños Mejia. When the children were growing up in Lake Havasu City, their mother would leave them with her Aunt Ana and Grandma Susana often.
“A couple minutes would turn into hours. A couple hours would turn into days. And days would turn into weeks,” Aheredia remembers. “I would take the kids so many times.”
Aheredia says she never understood it. “Why do you do that to your kids?” she asks. “They’re so beautiful.”
The situation wasn’t always that way. When Lourdes Garcia first met Alex Mejia, the children’s father, more than a decade ago, everything seemed to be going well. He had a full-time job at a plastics shop in Lake Havasu City making good money. They seemed happy together. “I would always say, ‘I’m so proud of you guys. You’re doing so good,’” Aheredia remembers.
Then the couple starting doing drugs and drinking, and the relationship began to fall apart. He beat her. They bounced from home to home, unable to pay the rent.
Eventually the two split, and, as far as Aheredia knows, Alex was deported to his native El Salvador. Garcia, for her part, stuck around Lake Havasu City on a visa until a warrant was issued for her arrest after she missed a court hearing for charges of possession of drugs and drug paraphernalia.
Garcia told Flores and Aheredia that she was going to Nogales, Mexico, to visit her mother. They thought it would be a short visit. She didn’t come back.
It wasn’t until some months ago that the women saw Garcia again. She stared at them from the pages of Lake Havasu’s local paper, Today’s News-Herald. Her black-and-white mugshot was set next to five others. Above the pictures, in big, block letters, were the words “Most Wanted.”
The Mohave County Sheriff’s Office says she is still wanted for a variety of drug-related offenses. “If you have information on any of the individuals below, DO NOT approach or attempt to apprehend,” the public-service announcement reads. “Please contact the Mohave County Probation Department Absconder Apprehension Unit.”
As far as the two women know, Garcia is still living somewhere in Nogales.
Many things have changed since Aheredia and Flores last saw Rainny, Junior and Alize.
The children’s time away from the U.S. and their family is slowly transforming them. Spanish is their language now. Even their names have changed. Rainny is now Lluvia, the Spanish word for rain. Alize is now Lolita, her middle name. (Junior is still Junior.) They’re withdrawn. They treat relationships with the same transience with which their mother treated them; none of them has made a best friend, someone they can count on, someone they could not live without.
But Grandma Flores knows none of these things.
“Every time I find something [of the kids’], I start crying,” Flores says from her cluttered home. Pictures of her large, extended family line her shelves. When the sun enters the room just so, the frames glow like so many little lights. She can point to any of them and share a story – sometimes a funny one but more often sorrowful. The tale of los niños Mejia is one of them.
“It would be better over here,” Aheredia says.
“I could take them,” Flores adds, her voice weak.
“I know, Mama,” Aheredia says. “I know, Mama.”
But maybe that’s just a dream.
The two, who are U.S. citizens, don’t understand what legal rights they have to the children. Until a reporter and photographer came to talk with them, they had no idea who the case manager was for the children. Even with that information, they’re not sure where to start.
Should they contact the Mexican authorities? Mexico is where the children are. Should they contact U.S. authorities? The U.S. is where the children should be.
This back-and-forth confuses the two women. It also confuses the U.S. Department of State.
Since this investigation began, the State Department has conducted a “welfare-and-whereabouts” check on the children via their Nogales, Mexico, consulate. The children are fine, spokesman Cy Ferenchak says. As for what the family should do next, the department can offer little help. Ferenchak suggests the family begin with state officials. If they need additional help, the Nogales consulate’s American Citizen Services can provide some assistance but only to a certain extent. If the case goes to court in Mexico, the family would have to hire a Mexican attorney at its own expense. It would then be up to the Mexican judge to decide whether the family had any legal claim to the children.
“It’s hard to say what will happen or what should happen,” Ferenchak says. “This is a great unknown to a certain extent.”
What’s more, any movement in the case of the Mejia children would have to be prompted by the family; though consular officials will continue welfare checks, it essentially falls to the family to bring them home. As much as Aheredia and Flores want the children back, the homes these two women have made are small. Flores doesn’t work. She has a bad knee. Heck, she says, even the good one is bad. Aher-edia faces her own health challenges that have sent her to the hospital more than once. They’re not certain they could even care for the children if they made it across the border.
Still, they would try and, at the very least, they would like to see the children in the U.S. foster care system with a family all their own and close enough that they could visit. That’s what the children would like, too. They remember, however vaguely, this city on the banks of a river, and they think of it as home.
Flores kisses a photograph of her great-grandchildren and holds it against her chest as she starts to cry. “I miss them so much,” she says.
Flores starts talking to the children in the photograph, to herself, to God. Please, she begs, bring los niños Mejia home.