They told me they were taking me to the hielera — the icebox.
The immigration officers found me lost in the Arizona desert, running. Running from the certainty of my home in Guatemala — the certainty of racism that forced us to our knees so that others might feel tall, the certainty of death — to the uncertainty of my reception in the United States.
I thank God that I am alive to tell this story.
I didn’t know where the Mexican desert ended and the American desert began. I knew only that the US was to the north and Mexico stood in the middle. After a gang in Guatemala beat me bloody and left me for dead, I spent months recovering and in hiding, afraid of discrimination that kills. I decided I could not sit and wait for death to come. So I started walking north, with no map and only my survival instincts to guide me.
In Mexico, at a border town, I was told to walk into the desert to cross the border. I don’t know how many miles I walked or how many days I wandered before I reached the other side. I was moving forward, I thought, but in the desert, forward and backward look the same. Then one day a helicopter flew over me. Several cars and motorcycles appeared out of the desert in front of me and armed men exited, all screaming at once, shattering the silence. I was terrified and dazed. The last people I saw were a small family, lying in the desert and silent. Their mouths were too far gone to scream, mangled by bullet wounds and scavengers.
Immigration officers picked me up. I found this out later. They didn’t identify themselves and I was too afraid to ask. In Spanish, one officer warned me they would shoot to kill if I attempted to run. Then they forced me to my knees and ripped off my shirt, looking for tattoos I didn’t have. I had been forced to my knees on small rocks by my teachers as a student in Guatemala. My teachers in Guatemala accused me of being inferior and made me feel like I didn’t belong for being brown and indigenous in a ladino school. The American officers spat at me, called me a bitch, and accused me of bringing violence to their country.
I didn’t bring the violence, I cried. The violence brought me.
Though I had finally made it to my country of destination, my violent reception transported me back to my country of origin. I thought the death threats and the racism, like my few permanent possessions, had stayed behind in Guatemala, rooted to that land. But instead they clung to me, riding north and crossing the border with the clothes on my back. Here, too, there was racism that forced you to your knees.
Immigration officers drove me to a huge compound — the hielera. Finally, an officer informed me that I had made it to the United States, and wrote down my information. I exited the heat of the desert and entered a frigid cage. It felt like walking into a refrigerator. A refrigerator where the US government would keep me locked in for the next six months.
It’s the cold that stays with you afterward. For my first month in the hielera, the immigration officers kept me in a small cell packed with maybe another 30 migrants. It was cold when I stood up, but the floor, where we slept, was even colder. I was given a shirt and a thin aluminum sheet to cover myself. No one explained to me why I was there and how long I was staying. After the first hour, I felt humiliated. After the first week, my hands turned purple and I could no longer feel anything. The cold, we learned from the laughing guards, was calculated, meant to punish those who had come and force us to self-deport.
After a month in the cell, they moved me to a bigger compound with bunk beds where I stayed for the next five months. The cold was still relentless, but for the first time in a month, I was allowed to shower and brush my teeth.
The hunger was as relentless as the cold. I felt my body shrinking in on itself with the passing months. Each day they gave us an apple, a juice box, and some chips for breakfast and some practically raw pasta occasionally topped with some definitely rotten chicken for lunch. The water was even worse. One of the guards noticed my disgust and told me they put a chemical in the water, a chemical meant to suppress our sexual desire.
The guards made it clear we were not welcome here, not by them and not by the president. “The president doesn’t want you here,” the guards told us. Sign your deportation order and leave. But leave where? I had left Guatemala to flee my government’s support of discrimination as my family was enslaved and torn apart by ladinos and by gangs. But here, the government was also using those differences as an excuse to abuse us like objects instead of respect us like humans. The guards reminded us they were citizens and we were illegals, that they had the right to be here and we had no rights at all.
After six months in the government’s icebox, I was finally put in front of an immigration judge and given a bond hearing. The bond was high, but my wife asked her church in Oakland to help me, and the church raised the $7,500 I needed. Finally, I was released.
Coming to a new country is like coming into a stranger’s home. The reception can be uncertain. But you are a guest. At the border, we are not treated like guests — we are barely treated like humans. Migrants like me are asking for an opportunity to do well for ourselves and well for this country. We are asking for a migration system that welcomes us with respect at the front door and gives us a helping hand because today we are suffering. Someday you may be suffering. And you, too, will hope for a warm welcome and a helping hand.
Irani Garcia Zacarias is a Guatemalan asylum-seeker and father of two young girls currently living in San Francisco. He is due to appear before an immigration judge Aug. 26.
Ana Builes, a legal intern at Pangea Legal Services, provided interpretation and translation for this article.