In the lobby of El Paso International Airport, a desperate journey and painful breakup culminated in a reunion of hugs — and treats.
A family seeking political asylum in the United States was reunited on Wednesday with the dog they brought with them on their four-month trip from Venezuela, much of it on foot. The family and the dog were separated in El Paso.
Simba, a small black and tan mongrel with big ears and a face that vaguely resembles a dachshund, has been part of the family since he was born in February.
In one emotional scene, little Simba ran towards his humans, tail wagging wildly, who held him with smiles and tears.
“(We feel) joy,” said Yurimar, 35. “He’s part of the family, he’s my youngest child. He is the one who, along with our children, gave us the strength to make it this far.”
El Paso Matters calls migrants by their first names because many are fleeing violence and fear for their safety.
A “Family Member”
Yurimar and her husband Johnny, 38, left Venezuela with Simba and their three children on March 10 to seek political asylum in the United States. As former government employees, they faced political persecution, including being barred from buying food at subsidized prices through government-monopolized local supply and production committees. The committee has been criticized for corruption and for its use as an instrument 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, just a young pup when they set out, rode in a backpack as they slowly made their way across Colombia and Central America.
In Tapachula, a Mexican town near the border with Guatemala, Johnny earned his money in a refugee shelter. With his wages 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 came all the way without food. We, the adults, didn’t eat so there would be food for the kids and Simba.”
As the family crossed the Rio Grande from Ciudad Juárez to El Paso on July 12, they confronted the first border guard they saw. Initially, they were greeted with threats against Simba, Yurimar said.
“We thought we would never see (Simba) again because the (border guards) treated us badly when they saw the dog,” Yurimar said. “The (agent) said he would throw the dog in the river. He told us to get rid of him or we wouldn’t be able to get into the vehicle. Then another vehicle came and they told my son to get in his truck with the dog and the rest of us went in the first one.”
Arriving at the processing plant, the family once again faced the threat of losing Simba. Neither the processing plant nor the shelter would send permitted animals to the family. Fortunately, one of the agents on duty was “moved” by the children’s emotions and decided to help, Yurimar said.
A “strange request”
Ruby Montana is an instructor at the University of Texas at El Paso and an animal lover. She founded together with her brother Bridge Pups rescuea group devoted almost exclusively to finding homes for stray dogs, which often make their own way from Juárez onto the international bridges and across the border into El Paso.
On July 12, Montana received a message from a Border Patrol officer that began: “We have a strange request… we had a family group of 5 who surrendered themselves to Border Patrol Police custody this afternoon. The dog is a male, 5 months old.” The agent asked Montana for help finding a foster home for the dog while the family was cleared for immigration to the United States.
While dogs may travel to the United States as pets with families, they must be vaccinated against rabies and in good health per US Customs and Border Protection guidelines.
Border Patrol officials said in a statement emailed to El Paso Matters that “migrants attempting to enter the United States with a pet are rarely encountered.” In the El Paso sector, pets are typically turned over to the United States Department of Agriculture or local government agencies in El Paso County or New Mexico.
Because Simba’s vaccination records were stolen and Border Patrol facilities do not allow animals, agents turned Simba over to the city’s El Paso Animal Services. Montana was able to connect via social media that evening with Kathy Patterson, an experienced dog rescuer and groomer in Chaparral, New Mexico.
The next day, Patterson picked Simba up from veterinary services.
“It was originally supposed to be two or three days, but I was very happy to keep him a little longer,” Patterson said. “He’s such a sweet little dog.”
Montana kept in touch with Yurimar and sent photos and updates from Simba.
“It was obviously a huge relief for her to know that Simba is okay,” Montana said. “And she sent some voice messages for Simba and it was really, really special to see his reaction to her voice.”
On Tuesday, Montana found out the family was ready to be released. But the nonprofit that paid for the flight to New York didn’t pay the additional pet fee for Simba. She also discovered that Yurimar, Johnny, and their three children “had absolutely nothing but the clothes they wore.”
Montana again asked her social media followers for help, and donations poured in to buy clothes and basic supplies, as well as buy a ticket for Simba to travel with his family.
On Wednesday night, 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 at the other end of the ticketing hall. They ran towards him with outstretched arms, Johnny following close on their heels. Simba jumped out of Patterson’s grasp and ran towards them.
They collided in a joyful jumble of caresses, licks, hugs and tears.
“Seeing that moment, just seeing the emotion, seeing Simba’s tail wagging so fast, seeing her cry — it was hands down one of the most fulfilling moments of my entire life,” Montana said. “Moments like this don’t come around every day.”
Simba’s 12-year-old human sister said she can’t wait to play with him again and cuddle him to sleep after the arduous journey from Venezuela.
“Now I want to be somewhere stable with my family,” she said.
While Simba was safely tucked away in a pet carrier, the family headed towards the beginning of something new under a large American flag.
“He’s my youngest baby,” Yurimar said. “Thank you everyone, thank you for reuniting my family. We needed him.”