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A migrant walked for 21 days to escape drug violence. But what awaits in the U.S.?

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

So Ari, when you get on a plane, do you like to put on your headphones, close your eyes and zone out, or are you more of a kind of person who likes to introduce yourself to the person sitting next to you and strike up a conversation?

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Oh, I would never. I mean, if I'm going to fall asleep and drool on myself on an airplane, I don't want the person sitting next to me to go home and say they saw the host of ALL THINGS CONSIDERED with drool on his shirt.

SUMMERS: I could not agree more. I just want to sleep. But let me tell you about someone who does not agree with us, and that is NPR's immigration correspondent Jasmine Garsd. She recently got on a plane, and she found a story sitting right next to her.

About a month ago, she was on a plane coming back from a reporting trip in California, and she took her seat. And it was next to a young man from Ecuador who told her the story of how he got to America. She brings us this reporter's notebook.

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: He had big, black eyes and braces and, despite being 22, an adolescent sheepishness - Ramon (ph). I won't use his full name because he's worried about repercussions for his family from the people who financed his trip. Excuse me, he said, tapping me hesitantly, in Spanish. I haven't really flown a lot. Would you mind recording a video out the window? I myself am very scared of flying, by the way. In fact, he caught me just as I searched for the prescription medication I take to calm my nerves. My arm was still deep in my bag, searching for the pills as I answered - yeah, no problem.

(Speaking Spanish).

RAMON: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: (Speaking Spanish).

I decided I would knock myself out later. I put my phone up against the window and started recording. Do you fly a lot? - he asked. I noticed his voice had a boyish crackle to it. Yeah, I told him. I don't love it. Ramon told me this was actually his second time flying. The first had just been a few weeks ago - a short trip from Ecuador to El Salvador. He told me he'd crossed the border into the U.S. two days ago. Border Patrol had apprehended him, processed him and let him go with a notice to appear in immigration court in a few months. I wondered where he was going to stay once we landed.

(Speaking Spanish)?

RAMON: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: He was going to go be with his cousins in New York.

(Speaking Spanish).

RAMON: (Speaking Spanish).

(SOUNDBITE OF BABY CRYING)

GARSD: (Speaking Spanish)?

RAMON: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: "Do you have a jacket?" - I asked. He said he did and then pointed to the hoodie he was wearing. I looked out the window at the San Diego palm trees and thought about how bitingly cold New York City is in December. I turned back to him. He looked terrified.

(Speaking Spanish).

"If you want," I told him, "I can hold your hand."

He smiled and grabbed my hand as the plane started speeding down the runway.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLANE LIFTING OFF)

GARSD: Thousands of feet down below, I could see the desert. I'd been there just a few days ago, reporting for NPR. Ramon leaned in over my shoulder and looked out.

(Speaking Spanish).

RAMON: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: He told me that looked like the desert he crossed at the end of a 21-day journey, mostly on foot, from El Salvador to the U.S. border. He said it like even he couldn't believe it.

I've heard so many stories like this in the last year, from people on the border who have traveled for days and months, mostly on foot, to come to the U.S. In their mouths, places like Daly City, Calif., or Manassas, Va., sound like Xanadu or El Dorado. A lot of them will get an immigration court date. Ramon's court date is in March. As an immigration reporter, I know there are a few different possible outcomes, and I don't know what his will be. But even as we sped towards New York, in his pocket was a document getting the ball rolling on his deportation.

Back in Ecuador, Ramon told me, drug cartels have spread through the country like wildfire. It's gotten terrifying. So he says he sold everything he owned to pay for coyotes. Those are the people who will get you to the U.S. border and across it. He paid them $3,000. He still owes them $2,000. He showed me a picture of three cousins saying goodbye to him. They were smiling. He says his mom and grandma couldn't bear to pose for the picture. They felt too broken by his leaving. I could tell he didn't want to cry in front of me, and he was about to, so I pointed out the window. We were going over the Rockies.

(Speaking Spanish).

RAMON: (Speaking Spanish)?

GARSD: (Speaking Spanish).

RAMON: (Speaking Spanish)?

GARSD: "Is that white stuff snow?" - he asked me.

It is. You know, the first time I experienced snow, I told him, it felt like walking on sugar. This cheered him up, and he started talking about how he was going to get a job as soon as he got there - pay off his debt. As he talked, I thought about New York and the over 150,000 people who have arrived in less than two years. New York officials say there's no more room, no more money, and migrants need to stop coming.

Almost every single day, I get a wave of desperate text messages from recently arrived people I've interviewed telling me they're scared. They can't find housing and are barely surviving. I changed the subject and pointed out the window at the Great Plains.

(Speaking Spanish).

A few hours later, the flight attendant announced that we were approaching New York.

UNIDENTIFIED FLIGHT ATTENDANT: ...With your seatbelt fastened. Thanks for flying with us. We'll be landing soon.

GARSD: I explained that we were about to start descending, so he should buckle his seatbelt and press the button on his armrest to straighten his seat. Wait, he said - I could have been reclining this whole time?

The plane whined mechanically. Ramon grabbed the front of the seat and gasped.

(Speaking Spanish).

I remembered every reassurance I've ever been given by people watching me panic on a plane and told him, Ramon, (speaking Spanish) - Ramon, imagine that you're a bird, and that machine noise is the sound of you extending your wings to land.

Suddenly, the city appeared like an open mouth filled with a million sparkling teeth taking us in.

(Speaking Spanish).

RAMON: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: (Speaking Spanish, laughter).

"That's New York," I told him. "That's Queens, the best borough."

Queens.

RAMON: Queens.

GARSD: Mmm hmm.

I'm already in love with it, he said. I want to go out and see it all; I've seen it in movies.

As we taxied to our gate, we sat silently. What do you say to someone who has just landed in New York, several thousand dollars in debt to a cartel, with an immigration court summons in his pocket? So I just turned to him and said, (speaking Spanish) - you made it.

Jasmine Garsd, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jasmine Garsd
Jasmine Garsd is an Argentine-American journalist living in New York. She is currently NPR's Criminal Justice correspondent and the host of The Last Cup. She started her career as the co-host of Alt.Latino, an NPR show about Latin music. Throughout her reporting career she's focused extensively on women's issues and immigrant communities in America. She's currently writing a book of stories about women she's met throughout her travels.