From the front page of the newspaper her round, dark eyes seem to stare at the reader. Her hair is so black and shiny that it seems blue. Her face is a perfect oval, and her cheeks are red and raw, as if from the cold, or the onset of puberty.
There seems to be a scar on her left cheek. She wears green and white bead necklaces, shiny earrings, a sky-blue top and an almost impossible to define expression. She could have just finished crying or is about to start, or may be out of tears all together.
Either way, she wears the tired expression of a little person well acquainted with pain. In the picture, she seems young. She was young. Too young to grow up without her parents. Too young to leave home alone. Too young to hang herself from a shower rod.
She was 12.
If her plans had not been foiled, if she had not been detained in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, Noemi Alvarez Quillay would have probably reached the border and may have become one more of the thousands of “unaccompanied minors” who every year are caught entering the United States. The number is expected to reach 60,000 this year.
Two weeks ago, when I visited a detention center in Elizabeth, N.J., the warden told me that the majority of the 275 detainees there that day where young men from Central America who had been caught at the border.
One needed only to take a quick look at their forlorn faces to know that, though they were no longer children, they were too young to be away from home.
The facts of Noemi’s case are well known, or should be. It is, after all, an all-too-common story. Her parents left for the United States, leaving her in the care of grandparents, who were also taking care of other grandchildren in their modest home in the province of Cañar, Ecuador.
When I traveled to Ecuador almost four years ago I found the same story everywhere. Every home I visited in Gualaceo, not far from Noemi’s hometown, had a relative — a parent, a brother, a son — in the United States, more often than not, in New York.
There were many women and children in Gualaceo, but not so many men. It was, some there told me, as if a fever had taken hold of young men as they emerged from adolescence, and they all went north. The spoils of their efforts were all over town. Standing on a hill above Gualaceo, Fernando León, the owner of a local weekly, showed me how the town used to be and what it had become.
The houses had grown larger, more grandiose, more typical of Long Island than of Ecuador. But León worried about family separation, so did the town’s priest and the mayor. What’s going to happen to the children left behind? they wondered. Some had turned to drugs or alcohol. Others were listless, moody and angry. And yet others were preparing to follow their parents north.
It appears that Noemi did not want to go. One of her cousins told a New York Times reporter that Noemi was crying as she left. Noemi’s parents live in the Bronx and have said little about their daughter, except that the issue is private and painful and that they want to recover and move on.
I hope they do recover and move on, but we, as a society, shouldn’t. We have to think long and deeply about this tragedy. There is plenty of blame to go around.
“This is symptomatic of policies that don’t respect the sanctity of the family,” said Maria de los Angeles Torres, a professor of Latin American and Latino Studies at the University of Illinois in Chicago, who has written extensively about the way children have been used throughout history in nation-building projects. “It is ironic that mothers and fathers have to leave their children to care for them.”
If her parents hadn’t left her, Noemi would not have followed. If Ecuador offered better opportunities, jobs and hope, young people like Noemi’s parents, and so many others, wouldn’t have left.
And what about U.S. laws? If migrant workers were allowed to come and work and return to their countries, as they used to, there wouldn’t be so much family separation.
If the global quota for low-skilled workers were higher than 10,000 a year, so many people wouldn’t resort to illegal means to find work on the other side of an enticing and forbidden border.
If Congress had passed immigration reform this year, or in 2007 for that matter, Noemi’s parents would have probably become legal U.S. residents and would have either returned home to visit their daughter or tried to bring her through legal ways.
It’s impossible to know now what would have happened. We only know what did happen and what must never happen again, but probably will.