Enrique has been on the banks of the Rio Grande in Nuevo Laredo for days. He is unsure whether his mother is still in North Carolina and he has lost her phone number. He remembers just one phone number in Honduras. He decides that he will call there, ask for one of his family members, and find out is mother's phone number. To make these two calls he will need two phone cards will together cost 100 pesos, which is more than he has. To earn the money, he decides to get a job washing cars.
On the train, pure survival dominated Enrique’s thoughts and needs. As he gets closer to the border of the US, though, money becomes increasingly important. While Enrique’s determination to work once again emphasizes his persistence and desire to reunite with his mother, the importance of money also comes to show how illegal immigration has become a business, for the simple reason that whenever there are desperate people there is money to be made. On the trains, gangs made money by outright theft. Near the border, the immigration “economy” becomes more formal—it is less obviously based on theft, but still involves the more powerful extracting money from the less powerful.
In Nuevo Laredo, Enrique lives in an encampment among migrants, coyotes, junkies, and criminals. Though the camp is dirty and noisy, it is safer than other places—reeds conceal it from the view of U.S. immigration officers. Every night, he goes to a nearby taco stand to wash cars and sometimes get a couple of tacos after hours. If he can’t get tacos, he relies on parish churches who give out meal cards. There, he meets child migrants with stories similar to his and learns about the experiences of others. The children find solace in sharing stories.
Having endured so much atop the trains, living in the encampment is something of a break for Enrique. That the dirty, noisy camp is like a haven for Enrique again testifies to the awfulness of the journey on the trains. Now he must plot his next, most difficult move. But before then, he finds comfort in meeting others like him. They understand each other because they have been forced into the same difficult positions.
The encampment is led by El Tiríndaro, a patero—a type of “coyote” who smuggles people into the U.S. on inner tubes on the river. El Tiríndaro is addicted to heroin and pays for his addiction by smuggling, tattooing, and stealing. He hopes that Enrique will be one of his customers, so he treats him well. Enrique is protected by other people living at the encampment, especially because he is the youngest. But outside of the camp, he does not do as well; he is not earning enough washing cars and he is not getting enough to eat. El Tiríndaro helps him earn money by selling clothes left behind on the banks of the river by other migrants. For El Tiríndaro, this help is an investment of sorts: if Enrique can earn enough to get the phone cards and call his mother, he will be more likely to pay El Tiríndaro to help him cross the river as well to then get smuggled further into the United States. The cost for El Tiríndaro’s services is $1,200.
El Tiríndaro's care for Enrique is complicated; while he is generous and kind to him, he is also thinking about his own interests when helping him. He is motivated by the possibility of more business if he is able to put Enrique in contact with his mother. Nonetheless, without El Tiríndaro's help, Enrique would be at a loss. At the very least, one can say that El Tiríndaro is at least honest. He never tries to charge Enrique more than his quoted price, and he never betrays his charges.
By May 14, 2000, Mother's Day, Enrique has made enough to pay for two phone card. The next day, in celebration, he has El Tiríndaro give him a tattoo: "EnriqueLourdes" written on his chest. He knows his mother won’t be happy about the tattoo. However, he is so hungry on the following day that he trades one of his phone cards for food. He has also begun to sniff glue again—the one way he finds that he can alleviate his fear, loneliness, and hunger. Then, he discovers that someone has stolen his bucket. In need of money, he goes to town to beg to make money for another phone card.
The closer Enrique becomes to reaching his mother, the more his desire to see her and be near her grows. Other mothers find relief in commiserating about their experiences. At the same time, Enrique has material needs that occupy his mind and affect his decision-making. Is he wrong for trading a phone card he has worked hard to buy for food, when he is famished by hunger? The impact of poverty and scarcity on a person’s decision-making can be tremendous.
Enrique thinks about crossing the river alone, but he is warned not to, especially as he can’t swim. Trying to take a train into Texas also won’t work: they are checked thoroughly, even by body-heat infrared sensors. Walking across Texas is also not possible alone. Many migrants who have tried it have been killed by dehydration in the intense heat, or have gotten shot by ranchers. Nazario further details what border security is like. The number of border agents has skyrocketed since 1993. Border patrol agents trace migrants' tracks as if they were hunting down animals. The agents are given bonuses for catching migrants. For some migrants who make the attempt to cross the border on their own, the journey is so difficult that they actually feel grateful—at least initially—when they are caught by agents.
Thinking about his plan to cross the border, Enrique must take into account every option. But all seem dangerous and nearly impossible to pull off alone. Nazario doesn’t get into the reasons for the policy shift that increased border security. But she does capture the way that these policy shifts end up affecting the least powerful people, the migrants. That the border agents are given bonuses for catching migrants emphasizes again the sense that everyone is making money from this illegal immigration except the illegal immigrants, and the way that not just the corrupt but even official policies reduce the migrants to something less than human, in this case to mere monetary value.
Enrique decides that his only option is to use a smuggler. He chooses El Tiríndaro because he knows that he is trustworthy and has a good success rate. Yet before he can call his mother to tell her to hire El Tiríndaro, Enrique discovers that his right shoe has been stolen in the night. Shoes are vital, nearly as important as food. On his trip, he has already had his shoes stolen—he’s gone through many pairs—and now desperately searches for another. He finds one by the riverbank, but it is a left shoe. He will have to make do wearing two left shoes.
In spite of his strong will, Enrique knows that he will need help. His decision to use El Tiríndaro shows that they have built a relationship that he can rely on in difficult times. Put another way, El Tiríndaro’s investment in good customer service has paid off: he’s landed the client. The incident with his shoe is just one of many setbacks that Enrique endures and overcomes, but also shows just how tenuous the life of an impoverished migrant is: survival can depend on something as minor as a pair of shoes.
On May 19th, Enrique goes to Pedro Leo, a kind local priest, because he knows he allows migrants to use the phone in the church. Pedro Leo is an unconventional, poor-looking priest, who is dedicated to helping migrants. He uses the Bible rarely during Mass and instead structures his sermons around jokes or popular songs or movies. His most important job is tending to the needs of migrants, whom he feeds and clothes. At the church, Enrique makes the call back to his old boss in Honduras, who connects him to his relatives who then give him his mother's phone number in North Carolina. He runs to a pay phone to be alone, and calls his mother. They find it difficult to talk, but work out the details of Enrique’s next step: she agrees to gather the money and hire El Tiríndaro to smuggle Enrique into the United States.
Pedro Leo understands faith in terms of how he may use it to help those in need. Compassion is the greatest lesson that the priest learns from religion. When Enrique finally reaches his mother on the phone, their exchange is charged with many emotions, which they are unable to express. The long separation has made their relationship hard to rebuild. Meanwhile, the business of illegal immigration kicks in to gear.