PALESTINE, Texas — When a photo of the blue Nikes Zaira Gonzales bought her brother Christian showed up on a federal missing persons website recently, she knew his return journey to Palestine from Mexico had ended badly.
And so, too, her five-year search for him following his deportation at age 23, even though he had lived in east Texas since age 8, when he entered the U.S. with his mother and two younger siblings.
“I instantly recognized the shoes,” said Zaira. “But I still wanted to believe that maybe it wasn’t him — that maybe someone had stolen them.”
Sadly, that wasn’t the case. DNA tests by Texas State University confirmed the shoes were those of Christian, whose body was buried anonymously, along with hundreds of other undocumented immigrants who didn’t make it, in the dirt and sands of Brooks County 70 miles north of the Mexican border.
Zaira, now 23, had sent the Nikes to her brother in Mexico. A photo of the shoes had posted on NamUs, a U.S Department of Justice website with a missing persons database.
He was one of nearly one million young Latinos — sometimes called Dreamers — who were brought to the United States as undocumented children, although the DACA program didn’t start until four months after his deportation.
Christian’s father, a carpenter, came to east Texas six months before his mother arrived in May of 2012 with Christian and siblings, Zaira, 3 at the time, and Gustavo, who was then 18 months old.
Although born in Mexico, Christian was culturally an American. He liked rock music and country music. His friends were Americans of all backgrounds. His family said he enjoyed concerts, dancing, shooting and four-wheeler mudding. His English was impeccable.
At Palestine High School, Christian was an honor student. He played soccer and ran cross-country. In 2007, he went to state with his soccer team, taking third place.
“He had a very big personality,” said his closest friend, Lizz Smith, 29, a Palestine police officer. “He was outspoken, always smiling and finding something to laugh about. And, like me in high school, he was kind of a smart-aleck.”
Smith said Christian fell in love with a foster baby her family took in. “He had a big heart for kids,” she said. “He helped teach that little boy to talk. He changed his diapers and fed him with a bottle.”
After graduating from high school, Christian worked in the oil fields. He planned to attend ITT Technical Institute in Houston to study computer programing or repair. Anything to do with computers, he was on it, his family said.
In 2012, however, when Christian was 22, his plans hit a wall. He got caught up in a large Immigration and Customs Enforcement round-up, after drawing the attention of federal agents with multiple traffic citations.
On May 10, Christian was called to the Anderson County Courthouse, where a federal immigration agent was waiting for him. He was taken into custody for deportation.
“When he was deported, all he had with him was what he had on,” Zaira said.
His first stop was a jail in Dallas. He was given a choice: Wait six months, a year or even longer, to see an immigration judge and plead his case, or sign papers stating he would not return to the United States. If he did, he would face up to 10 years in prison.
Not wanting to languish in jail, Christian signed the papers. He was dropped off in the Mexican border city of Juarez, where family members picked him up.
Fluent in Spanish, Christian lived with his grandmother in Monterrey, where he worked in the fields, picking vegetables all day in the sweltering heat, earning about $100 a week.
For Christian, Mexico was a foreign country.
“This (Palestine) was his home,’’ Zaira said. “Our roots are in Mexico, but our trees, our lives, are here.”
After four months in Mexico, Christian desperately wanted out. His parents tried to persuade him to stick it out, but Christian was adamant about returning to the only home he knew.
“He told us he couldn’t stay any longer,’’ Zaira said.
She said Christian took a bus back to Reynosa, near the border. Relatives helped him raise more than $3,000 to pay a coyote, a human smuggler, to help him make the journey. Avoiding checkpoints, he walked across the border, wading through the Rio Grande.
Walking through the south Texas brush in blistering heat, Christian grew weak outside the town of Falfurrias. His will faded. On Sept. 6 of 2012, he used the coyote’s cell to call his parents. He knew that, once he passed the last checkpoint, family members could pick him up.
But Christian’s parents recognized from his voice that their son was crumbling. They advised him to let border patrols find him. He could serve years in a U.S. prison, but at least he would live.
“He said, ‘I just can’t do this. My legs are giving out. I can’t walk anymore,’” Zaira said. “That was the last time I heard his voice.”
Thirsty and exhausted in the oppressive heat, Christian collapsed. His body was found later and buried unidentified and unclaimed.
For the next five years, Christian’s family hoped for the best. Maybe he was in jail or prison, they thought. Or maybe he lost his memory. “We were trying to think as positive as we could,” Zaira said.
In 2013, forensic anthropologists and college students from Texas State University starting digging up bodies, in Brooks County, where nearly 400 people had died since 2011, after crossing the border. Most were dumped in makeshift graves by authorities. One of the bodies unearthed was Christian’s. With dozens of others, his body was taken to the university for examination.
Working with police, students began building case files on the bodies, and posting them on the NamUs website. That’s where Zaira recognized the blue Nikes and a brown, engraved cowboy belt Christian’s mother had bought him.
After finding her brother’s case file, Zaira enlisted the help of two police officers to file a missing persons report.
“I’m really grateful to the police department,” Zaira said.
Smith was one of the officers who helped.
“I hate that this happened to that family,” Smith said. “They’re the nicest, hardest-working people you could ever meet.”
Working as a customer service representative in Jacksonville, Zaira is protected by DACA. With President Trump phasing out the program, however, she remains anxious.
“I’m so afraid of being deported,’’ she told the Palestine Herald-Press.
Congress could approve a Dream Act that would protect roughly 800,000 young people nationwide if they attend college, enter the workforce or enlist in the military. But the legislation is mired in partisan politics, a bargaining chip for other immigration policies, such as building a multi-billion-dollar Mexican border wall.
For now Zaira and her family remain focused on closing the case, retrieving Christian’s bones and giving him a proper Catholic funeral and burial in Palestine.
“It would give us some peace of mind,” Zaira said. “We want to know he’s finally back home.”
Jeff Gerritt is the editor of the Palestine, Texas, Press-Herald. Contact him at email@example.com.