In the lobby of El Paso International Airport, a desperate journey and painful separation culminated in a reunion full of hugs and licks.
A family seeking political asylum in the United States on Wednesday found the dog they had brought on their four-month trip from Venezuela, largely on foot. The family and the dog were separated from each other in El Paso.
Simba, a small black and brown mongrel with big ears and a face vaguely reminiscent of a dachshund, has been part of the family since he was born in February.
In a moving scene, little Simba, his tail wagging, ran to meet his humans, who hugged him with smiles and tears.
“(We feel) joy,” said Yurimar, 35. “He is part of the family, he is my youngest child. It is he, with our children, who has given us the strength to come this far.
El Paso Matters only identifies migrants by first name as many are fleeing violence and fearing for their safety.
A member of the family”
Yurimar and her husband, Johnny, 38, left Venezuela on March 10 with Simba and their three children to seek political asylum in the United States. As former government employees, they faced political persecution, including being barred from purchasing food at subsidized prices through government-monopolized local supply and production committees. The committee has been criticized for corruption and for its use as a tool of political control.
With little money for travel and food, the family walked most of the 2,300 miles from Venezuela to southern Mexico. Simba, still a young pup when they left, rolled around in a backpack as they slowly traveled through Colombia and Central America.
In Tapachula, a Mexican town near the border with Guatemala, Johnny was earning money working at a migrant shelter. With his salary and the help of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees office in Tapachula, they were able to complete the final leg of their four-month journey to the United States border.
“We had enough money to buy (bus) tickets,” Yurimar said. “We went the whole way without eating. We adults didn’t eat so there would be food for the kids and Simba.
When the family crossed the Rio Grande from Ciudad Juárez to El Paso on July 12, they surrendered to the first Border Patrol agent they saw. Initially, they were met with threats against Simba, Yurimar said.
“We thought we would never see (Simba) again because the (Border Patrol) treated us badly when they saw the dog,” Yurimar said. “The (officer) said he was going to throw the dog in the river. He told us to get rid of him otherwise we couldn’t get into the vehicle. Then another vehicle arrived, and that’s when they told my son to get in his truck with the dog, and the rest of us drove off with the first one.
Once at the processing plant, the family again faced the threat of losing Simba. Neither the processing facility nor the family’s temporary shelter would be sent to authorized animals. Fortunately, one of the duty officers “was moved” by the children’s emotions and decided to help, Yurimar said.
A “strange request”
Ruby Montana is a lecturer at the University of Texas at El Paso and an animal lover. With her brother, she founded Bridge Pup Rescuea group dedicated almost exclusively to finding homes for street dogs who often travel alone from Juárez to international bridges and across the border into El Paso.
On July 12, Montana received a message from a Border Patrol agent that began, “We have a strange request…we had a family group of 5 who turned themselves into Border Patrol custody this afternoon. midday. The dog is a 5 month old male. The officer asked Montana to help find a foster family to care for the dog while the family was allowed entry into the United States.
Although dogs as pets are allowed to enter the United States with families, they must be rabies-vaccinated and in good health, per US Customs and Border Protection guidelines.
Border Patrol officials, in an emailed statement to El Paso Matters, said “it is rare to encounter migrants attempting to enter the United States while traveling with a pet.” In the El Paso area, pets are generally in the care of the United States Department of Agriculture or local authorities in El Paso County or New Mexico.
Because Simba’s vaccination records had been stolen and Border Patrol facilities do not allow animals, officers turned Simba over to the city’s El Paso Animal Services. Montana was able to connect with Kathy Patterson, an experienced dog rescuer and foster family in Chaparral, New Mexico, through social media that night.
The next day, Patterson picked up Simba from Animal Services.
“It was originally going to be two or three days, but I was perfectly happy to keep it a little longer,” Patterson said. “He’s such a sweet little dog.”
Montana stayed in touch with Yurimar, sending photos and updates from Simba.
“It was obvious that it was a huge relief for her to know that Simba was okay,” Montana said. “And she sent some voice messages to Simba and seeing his reaction to hearing his voice was really, really special.”
On Tuesday, Montana found out the family was ready to be released. But the nonprofit that paid for their plane ticket to New York didn’t pay the extra pet fees for Simba. She also discovered that Yurimar, Johnny and their three children “had absolutely nothing but the clothes they wore”.
Montana again asked its social media followers for help, and donations poured in to buy basic clothing and supplies, and to buy a ticket for Simba to travel with his family.
On Wednesday evening, Montana and Patterson parked at the airport and unloaded four backpacks, three suitcases and a small dog.
As they entered the airport lobby, the three children and Yurimar spotted Simba from across the hall from the ticket office. They ran towards him with outstretched arms, Johnny following close behind. Simba jumped out of Patterson’s hold and ran to meet them.
They collided in a joyful confusion of caresses, licks, hugs and tears.
“To see that moment, just to see the emotion, to see Simba’s tail wag so fast, to see them cry – hands down, it was one of the most fulfilling moments of my entire life,” Montana said. “These kind of moments, they don’t come every day.”
Simba’s 12-year-old human sister said she can’t wait to play with him and cuddle him back to sleep after the arduous journey from Venezuela.
“Now I want to be in a stable place with my family,” she said.
With Simba tucked away safely in a pet carrier, the family marched under a large American flag and into the start of something new.
“He’s my youngest baby,” Yurimar said. “Thank you all, thank you for bringing my family together. We needed him.