Victims of the Border: Husband of U.S. citizen disappears after attempted desert crossing
The last time Lesli Aceituno heard from her husband Fabio was when he called her from Reynosa, Mexico, on June 7, 2011. Fabio was at a safe house with 14 other people planning to cross the desert into the United States.
“He told me he loved me,” Lesli recalled. “He would see me in a couple of days, and that we just had to trust God. He said he was desperate to see me and to get home.”
Four months have passed, and Lesli has not heard from her husband or been able to find him—or a body in the desert matching his description.
A Kmart love story
Lesli, a 42-year-old psychologist from Princeton, W.V., said she never thought she would end up with an undocumented immigrant. One October day in 2004, she noticed two men at her local Kmart trying to figure out her ethnicity. Lesli has ancestors who are African-American, White, Native American and Spanish.
Fabio, a native of Honduras who is seven years older than Lesli, did not speak English. But Leslie speaks Spanish. They became friends, and Leslie taught him English. Then they fell in love.
After four years together, Fabio, who worked as a heavy equipment operator clearing coal mine sites, bought matching rings from Kmart. The couple married on Jan. 28, 2008. When Lesli talks about her husband, she is a woman still in love.
“He’s definitely my soul mate. A wonderful man. His smile would light up the room. He was never a judgmental person. He would help anyone.”
Lesli, who had three children before she met Fabio, said that he “raised my kids as his own. My kids loved him.”
Crossing the border for the family’s sake
Fabio also loved his own eight children back in Honduras. He arrived in the United States in 1994 in order to send enough money back home for his family to have a better quality of life. Because of the financial support, three of Fabio’s daughters were able to finish college in Honduras.
It was family that pulled Fabio back across the border. He missed his children, and his brother was dying of AIDS. He took an airplane back to Honduras in November 2010. By March, he started trying to get back to West Virginia and his new family. After some bureaucratic investigation, he discovered it would take years for him to follow the legal process to reenter the United States.
Fabio was determined to once again be the provider for his family and especially for his brother who needed AIDS medication. He spent $5,000 hiring coyotes, or guides, to take him through Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico and the Texas border.
Final phone calls
When he reached a safe house in Reynosa, he called Lesli and had her send enough money to feed all 15 people in the group. They had not eaten for days. The couple spoke a few more times before Lesli had her final conversation with her husband.
A week later, she received a call from a stranger. The man asked her if she had heard from her husband. When she said no, he told her that Fabio had been left behind because he was sick. The man promised to call later, but never did.
Later, she received a call from a man who had met her husband while attempting to cross the border. This man had heard from someone else that Fabio had indeed been left in the desert.
Lesli was unable to reach anyone else in the group for information. “It’s like they’ve all just disappeared. No numbers. No nothing,” she said. “They’re afraid. That’s why they’re not coming out.”
Worrying and searching
Since then, she has contacted the U.S. Honduran consulate and embassy, police stations in McAllen, Tex., TV stations, Border Patrol, Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE), morgues, hospitals, and miscellaneous groups and organizations.
The response is often unsympathetic. “They don’t take it seriously when they hear that he’s not legal,” she said. “Like he’s not important.”
On three or four occasions, Lesli has listened over the phone as morgue employees describe the latest body found in the desert. She said during these conversations she would have panic attacks and a big knot in her stomach.
“I would hold my breath, cry, pray throughout the process, breathe a sigh of relief when they did not describe my husband, then start back at square one after running into another brick wall.”
Lesli is waiting for a phone call from another Texas morgue that recently picked up some human remains in the desert. “I dread the call. I want closure, but once I hear that, all hope is gone. I’ve got to know something. I can’t live like this in limbo. It’s the worst thing I’ve ever gone through in my life.”
Fabio’s family in Honduras continues to call and ask if she has heard anything. “It’s all on my shoulders,” Lesli said. “I’m not going to give up until I find him. He deserves a proper burial.”
“There’s got to be a better way.”
In the mean time, Lesli, her children and the rest of their family in both the United States and Honduras, have been in a constant state of worry over what she calls a “senseless loss.”
“Our entire family is devastated because this doesn’t have to keep happening,” Lesli said. “We’re hurt, bitter and frustrated. The immigration system has been broken for far too long. I don’t think we should let everyone in. There’s got to be a better way.”
Lesli, who said that for years, she limited her social life and lived “in the shadows,” due to her husband’s undocumented status, says she would like to become an immigrants’ rights advocate.
She is in the process of forming Victims of the Border, a group that will offer support to those who have lost loved ones crossing the desert.
“I’m the voice for so many people who can’t speak out because they’re not legal,” she said. “I want to meet other people like me and let them know they’re not alone. Our suffering can’t be in vain. Something good has to come from such tragedy and devastation.”