Sólo en Avión

Driving an asylum-seeker to the airport in southern Louisiana.

A station wagon drives across the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway as an airplane flies overhead.
Natalie Matthews-Ramo

One afternoon last month, I got a text message: “Would you or anyone you know possibly be able to pick up an asylum seeker tomorrow morning about an hour from New Orleans and get him to the airport for a midday flight?”

It was from my friend Courtney Sullivan, who works with an all-volunteer organization called Immigrant Families Together, which raises and posts bond for immigrants separated from their children at the border and reunites them with their families. She shared the man’s story: He had walked from Honduras to the American border with his niece and nephew; he had been in ICE detention in Louisiana for months; now that IFT had secured his release, it was coordinating a flight for him to meet his family, who’d ended up in Miami.

Courtney apologized for making me get up so early to drive out of town to get him. But I thought if he can walk 2,000 miles, while protecting the lives of two children, then surely someone like me—whose plans for the early morning otherwise included walking my dog, then scrolling endlessly through Twitter—could get up at dawn to drive to the other side of Lake Pontchartrain.

At 7:30 a.m., I reached the safe house for this man, whom I won’t name to protect his safety. Young, smiling, serious, he waved back to me, his other hand holding seemingly all his remaining worldly possessions in a plastic grocery bag. What a leap, I thought, for him just to get into a car with a stranger and then drive toward an uncertain future.

So there we were together, a young migrant and a middle-aged woman sharing a mutual goal, if vastly different experiences, for the next 90 minutes. I took Spanish in high school, but after two decades of the internet eating at my brain, almost all is lost. (And probably not just the Spanish either.) As we drove, I pointed out a few live oak trees covered in Spanish moss. We agreed on their beauty, then were quiet for a while. I thought about how, even though Louisiana isn’t a focal point of the immigration crisis, there are nine more ICE detention facilities in the state in 2019 than there were in 2018—11 now in total. The current administration has moved fast.

Soon he asked if he would be flying by himself, “sólo en avión,” to Miami. I told him he would be OK but be on his own, and that he had a stop in Charlotte, North Carolina. I didn’t know the word for layover. He expressed concern about what would happen in Charlotte, but I told him everything would be fine.

Then I noticed he was clicking his fingernails together nervously. I pulled over briefly to open the translator app on my phone. I asked him if he was nervous to fly. He told me—motioning to his wrists and legs—that when he’d flown from Texas, in custody, he had been wearing shackles.

We know this happens. We read the news, we watch the videos, we make our calls, we write our checks—I’m not ignorant to the ugly side of America. Seeking asylum is not a crime, and yet he was treated as a criminal. But the effects of this White House’s suppression of asylum never felt quite as real as they did hearing the granular horrors of them from someone sitting shotgun in my station wagon.

I decided to take the scenic route to the airport. Taking a cue from our shared appreciation of the moss, I drove across the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway: the second longest bridge in the world over water, nearly 24 miles in length. For a good stretch of it you can see nothing but the brackish lake and gulf skies. Approaching the bridge, he smiled and called it tranquilo, and for a half-hour or so we drove in easy silence.

It was at the airport that things grew tense. Courtney had told me that TSA and the airline might not accept his only ID, paperwork from the Department of Homeland Security. (Any ID he had before he arrived at the border had likely been taken months ago.) The ticket agent at the airline counter was initially polite but seemed to want to test him. She asked him if he spoke English and, when he shook his head, said sharply, “You understood that perfectly, though, didn’t you?” Even still, she gave him the tickets—which were paid for by another group called Miles4Migrants—and told us to prepare for screening.

We sat outside the TSA check-in line for a few moments. We had some coffee. (I spilled mine.) Again, he asked exactly what would happen in Charlotte. Through the translator on my phone, I tried to tell him they would announce the connection, but I could tell I wasn’t getting through. Then two young men sitting next to us interrupted. “Do you need a translator?” asked one. They were at the airport to pick up a relative but had a moment to spare. I was so relieved and grateful for their offer.

They spoke to him for a minute in Spanish and explained what I couldn’t. Then they reported to me his concerns: He thought he’d be held in some kind of immigration checkpoint again. We assured him it was just a pit stop. I wrote down “WHAT GATE” on the back of his ticket. Show this to people, I told him. Someone will help.

When the two young men left, they made a point of firmly shaking his hand with solemn respect. They surely knew, as I did, that we were just tiny cogs in the machine that got him out of detention and on the way to family, along with the volunteers of IFT and whoever had donated those valuable miles to Miles4Migrants. None of these small deeds would turn the broader tide of draconian federal immigration policies. In the ICE field office in New Orleans, for example, the rate of parole approvals for asylum-seekers has dropped from 75.5 percent in 2016 to zero in 2019. Only future elections, paired with bureaucratic power changing hands, can change that. But, for one morning, we could at least help one man get where he needed to go.

During the TSA check-in, we dealt with three different agents. All were courteous. One asked if I was flying with him and I said I was just there to help him get through the line. They let him walk through the scanner and then off to the departure gates. For me, they had no further questions.