How I Met Detained Minors on My Flight to McAllen

Tim Wilkins

I first saw them sitting as a group in Terminal B at Dallas International Airport. Clean-cut young teens in matching sweatsuits – must be a volleyball team from a private middle school, I thought.

They looked weary, but so was I – we’d just found out that our American Airlines flight wouldn’t leave for McAllen until after midnight.

Detained minors, McAllen Airport, June 17, 2108. Photo credit: Tim Wilkins / PA / cc

Once we finally got on our plane, two of them sat down in row 26, immediately in front of me. When the young man in the window seat raised his hands to cradle his head, I noticed a green plastic wristband, with the last name “Lopez” written in Sharpie.

That’s odd, I thought. Why would a volleyball player need a hospital wristband?

Scanning the Cabin

I scanned the plane, and noticed the six young people scattered around the cabin, seated in pairs. They all had green wristbands, and matching black slip-on rubber shoes. They also had two chaperones, both Hispanic, seated near them. Their sweatsuits all still had creases from the box.

This was no volleyball team, I realized. These were detained minors, separated from their families. Traveling on a commercial flight from one facility to another of the many for minors that now dot our southern border near McAllen and Brownsville.

Judging by their features, they were probably Central Americans, several likely from indigenous communities in the highlands. Five boys and one girl, all clean and with fresh haircuts, none older than sixteen. No belongings, except for clear plastic snack bags.

I was sitting next to them, close enough to now recognize that look in their eyes.

They weren’t just weary, as we all were. They were scared.

Angry Birds

The cabin lights dimmed, and several in the group dropped off to sleep. The young girl seated directly in front of me stayed awake, so when their chaperone started playing Angry Birds on her phone I discreetly introduced myself.

I’m a journalist, I told her, and was coming to McAllen to learn about families and children at the border. Could I ask her a few questions?

Yes, she nodded, after first glancing over to make sure her chaperone wasn’t looking.

She told me her first name, and that she was from a small town in Guatemala. She’d been detained three days earlier, then abruptly picked up with the others and told they were being moved.

No one told them where they were going or what would happen to them.

“How old are you?” I asked in Spanish.

“Sixteen,” she answered.

“Did you come here with your families?”

“Alone.” she said.

“Are you scared?” I asked.

“Yes.”

You Are Not Alone

By this time, her chaperone looked up from Angry Birds long enough to notice we were chatting, and started signaling for her to stop. The young girl nodded, but every time the chaperone looked away, she answered another question.

When the chaperone figured out what was going on, she fixed her gaze on us for the rest of the flight to make sure the girl wouldn’t speak to me again.

I quietly thanked the girl for speaking with me, and allowing me to share her story.

There are many of us in this country who don’t agree with what’s happening right now, I told her, and who are working to stop it.

You are not alone, I said.

A Stone Wall

I deplaned before the group in McAllen, and waited for them to assemble as a group. I approached group’s male chaperone, and introduced myself again.

He refused to answer any questions about who he was, who they worked for, where they were taking the children or why.

He was courteous, but both he and the female chaperone refused to even shake my hand. “I can’t tell you anything,” he said over and over.

So I exited the inner terminal, past the McAllen Airport’s heavily-armed security, and waited again. This time, I recorded video of the group, to document where they were being taken.

They came out, single file, only carrying plastic snack bags, their only possessions. At the airport exit, they were met by a burly, bald man and a slim lady with long, stringy hair, both Anglos, and two armed airport police officers, who escorted the group from behind.

These were the children’s true handlers, I realized. They had also been on the flight, but seated away from the children. I recognized them from the Dallas terminal, where they had come up for an extended negotiation with the American Airlines gate agents, which seemed odd at the time, but I didn’t think much of it.

I followed them outside, where the burly man hummed along to Laura Branigan’s “Gloria,” which was playing on the all-eighties channel in exit lounge:

Gloria, you’re always on the run now
Running after somebody, you gotta get him somehow
I think you’ve got to slow down before you start to blow it
I think you’re headed for a breakdown, so be careful not to show it
You really don’t remember, was it something that he said?
Are the voices in your head calling, Gloria?
Gloria, don’t you think you’re fallin’?
If everybody wants you, why isn’t anybody callin’?
You don’t have to answer
Leave them hangin’ on the line, oh-oh-oh, calling Gloria

Back Inside

I followed the group outside and sat on a bench as they were loaded into a white van. I saed there until the van started to pull away. When the van slowed down, and the driver’s door opened, I decided to head back inside, into a public space with witnesses.

Luckily, I caught the last rental car agent on his way out the door – it was now 2:45 a.m. – and persuaded him to rent me his last available car. Thank you, Avis.

The burly man, enraged, followed me back into the terminal. And while I was filling out the rental forms, he had an irate conversation with one of the airport policemen. “I can’t f’ing believe this!” he said.

But apparently the policeman’s cooler head prevailed; he must have explained that asking questions or taking pictures in a public place is not a crime. So the burly man chose not to engage me, and left.

A Daily Occurrence

Monday morning, 6:45 a.m. I’m rushing through the airport to drop off my rental car and make an early-morning United flight to Houston.

Then I notice a second group – this time, four teenage boys, and two toddlers – a boy and a girl – waiting for transport. Once again, two chaperones, one male and one female, both Latino. Once again, I recorded their presence.

I had a plane to catch, but once again, spoke with their handlers, who refused once again to tell me anything. “You don’t need to know nothing about what’s happening here,” one said.

I disagree.

Children, Not Animals

These are young children. In the second group, extremely young. They have no idea where they are going, why they’ve been taken, or what awaits them. Or if they’ll ever see their families again.

And this is a daily occurrence. At the Houston Airport, I ran into Congressman Beto O’Rourke, who was on his way back from visiting the tent city for detained children in Tornillo, in the desert near the El Paso border.

He’s also seen these groups at airports, as he flies all over Texas.

It’s great that American and other airlines have now stepped up to say they will no longer be complicit in the practice of transporting migrant children who have been separated from their families. But this has been happening all along, under our noses.

And with at least 2,300 children already separated from their families now being dispersed to foster-care facilities around the country – we will continue to see these gentle, frightened children, if we look up from our phones long enough to notice.

That Look

That look in their eyes?

It’s fear.

Mr. President, Attorney General Sessions, these are not animals. These are children.

And now, thanks to us, they are orphans.

We must end this now.

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