Maira Zelaya died at 7 p.m. Monday, June 15, 2009, but the coroner didn’t register her death officially until 10 a.m. on Tuesday morning.
He said the official cause of death was exposure, meaning exposure to the heat, cold, sun and barren landscape of the desert Maira had crossed from Mexico into Arizona.
I would say she died of exposure not only to the cruel elements of nature but also to cruel and unjust immigration laws, to the barren neutrality of apathy, to cold hearts and hot tempers, to fear in a privileged population believing the Mairas of the world want to “take from” them.
Maira knew what it was like to be separated from her family. When she was a small child, her mother, Carmen, had fled to the United States from El Salvador during the war years with the hope of finding a job so she could send money back to feed the family.
Maira’s brothers came to the United States at different times for different reasons. But Maira stayed in Ursulutan to take care of her grandmother. When her grandmother died, it was Maira’s time to reunite finally with her mother.
When Maira crossed the border, she was stopped by immigration officials and given a court date to appear before a judge in Texas.
Her family paid the required fees and brought her to Iowa. But because Iowa was far away and Maira didn’t have a lawyer to ask how to change the venue, she didn’t appear in immigration court.
Her failure to appear in court was an automatic cause for the judge to issue a deportation order.
Around nine years later on Feb. 20, 2009, at 7 a.m., Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials knocked on her mother’s door, seeking a person unrelated to Maira’s family.
The agents asked everyone to show their IDs. Maira was arrested, held in jail and then deported to El Salvador.
Maira told her mother she was coming back to the United States, but her mother begged her not to.
Maira made arrangements with a coyote, someone who specializes in human smuggling. She paid him $6,500 to guide her through Mexico into the United States.
A group of 21 undocumented people walked for two nights. On the second night, ICE agents captured half the group. Maira, the coyote and others escaped and regrouped.
Maira called her mom the next day and talked of her experience – her fear, exhaustion, thirst, hunger, bruises. Carmen heard Maira’s deep cough and begged her daughter to turn back.
Before the day was up, Maira became too weak to walk. Noe, a friend, carried her in his arms. The rest of the group grew impatient with him. Around 7 p.m., he knew she had died.
“Put her down,” the others said. “She’s already dead. Put her down so we can get going!”
Refusing, he said, “She is a human being, not an animal. I’m not leaving her here.”
The others left him. He laid her down under a shade tree and covered her with a sweater.
He walked for two hours trying to find someone to help. He then returned and carried her to the highway. He set her body along the side of the road and found an immigration station.
Noe, exhausted and bruised from carrying Maira, told officials where he had left the body and how they could identify her.
Immigration officials put handcuffs around his bloody wrists and arrested him.
After he was processed, Noe called Maira’s family to explain what had happened. They already knew because the El Salvadoran consulate had contacted them.
Maira’s family decided to bring her body to Iowa. They had no idea that the total cost of transporting her body and paying for the burial would be $17,000.
The visitation and funeral for Maira were during a week of a sweltering Iowa summer.
At Maira’s funeral, I looked at the congregation of sad faces and asked, “How many of you have traveled that same path that Maira took?”
Easily 75 percent raised their hands.
It requires some effort to connect U.S. foreign policies (e.g., the war in El Salvador) and immigration policies to Maira’s death. But we must if we believe understanding is the first step to change.
If we are to be faithful to the message of Jesus.
If we are to be the body of Christ resurrected.
If the reign of God is here and has no boundaries or borders.
Then we must stand together, across all borders, to reveal that God’s message of love, mercy and justice is for all creation.
God’s will be done. ¡Así sea!
Barbara Dinnen is pastor of Las Americas, a Spanish-speaking faith community in Trinity United Methodist Church in Des Moines, Iowa. Las Americas will be featured in EthicsDaily.com’s upcoming documentary on immigration.