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679: Save the Girl

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Prologue: Prologue

Ira Glass

OK. Of everything in pop culture, what can make a teenage boy cry? That's a very specialized list, right? And we got to talking about this at our office because Lina Misitzis, one of the producers here, remembers how there was this one video game, a PlayStation game, that got her brother and his friends when they were kids. She says he was definitely not a crier.

Lina Misitzis

And honestly in my memory of it, my brother Yannos cries halfway through the game because this character dies. He actually says that that's not true. But one of his other friends also remembers him crying. And lots of people had this reaction to the character's death, like famously. No matter how you play the game, she always dies, and people reacted.

Ira Glass

What was the game?

Lina Misitzis

It's called Final Fantasy VII.

Ira Glass

When was this?

Lina Misitzis

1997. And the character that they're all crying over is named Aeris, but some people call her Aerith.

Ira Glass

And what was it about this character that was so intense?

Lina Misitzis

Well, OK. So I have no idea. To me, it made no sense. She's like this one-dimensional girl. She's a cartoon. At the time, it was a big deal that she was 3D. So she looked, I guess, believable, but she kind of looks like a Mario character. It doesn't make sense to me that all of these boys would cry over it.

And so since my brother disagrees that he cried about it, I called someone who definitely did. His name is Mike Fahey. He's a writer for Kotaku, this video game review and reporting website. And he wrote about Final Fantasy VII being remade. It comes out, I think, in the next year or two. And he wrote this article, and the title of the article was, "I Can't Go Through This Again."

Ira Glass

About this scene?

Lina Misitzis

About this scene. About this scene. It's about how he doesn't feel like he can deal with her dying two times in his life. One time was enough.

Mike Fahey

It was a big part of my youth. I mean, it was, what, 22 years ago I played this game. And I still remember that particular moment.

Lina Misitzis

He's in his 40s now, but then he was like-- I don't know-- 24. And he's on his couch playing the game.

Mike Fahey

It felt like there was no real lead into it. I might have even had my attention wandering while the cut scene was playing. And then all of a sudden, there's a giant sword in her. Sephiroth comes down, impales her, and you're like, no. This has to change. This has to stop. My stomach fell. I remember my stomach just falling and feeling like it was just dropping in my chest. And that music kicks in just as she's dying. And whenever I hear that music, I just tear right up.

Lina Misitzis

And Ira, this is what the scene looks like.

Ira Glass

All right, hold on. Let's put this up. OK, you're now watching a video that we're seeing online.

Lina Misitzis

OK, so you're the protagonist. You're Cloud. His name is Cloud Strife.

Ira Glass

So that's the character with the orange hair.

Lina Misitzis

Uh, yeah. I mean, it's yellow, but you can call it orange. It's his job to protect her.

Ira Glass

And so they're standing on some sort of platform. There's mist all over the place.

Lina Misitzis

Yeah, and you can see this girl up here. That's Aeris. Can you see what she's doing?

Ira Glass

Oh, she's kneeling-- praying?

Lina Misitzis

She's praying, yeah.

Ira Glass

She's praying. She has long hair braided in a bow, I guess. Pink dress. She looks up. Cloud looks back at her, very dramatic. Oh, a menacing figure in a cape drops down.

Lina Misitzis

So I had Mike watch this with me when I talked to him.

Ira Glass

Wait, he wrote a whole article saying, I can't go through this again, and you made him watch it again?

Lina Misitzis

Uh, yeah, he was fine. It was just a video clip.

Mike Fahey

And here we go. Sephiroth plunges from the heavens. Oh my god.

Ira Glass

I have to say, it's very sudden.

Mike Fahey

And she just slumps over like that, and her eyes are still open. Her mouth parts just a little bit. This is right about where the music starts. And is when the tears start to fall. Ugh, I mean, there's that moment of shock when that sword goes through her. And then, "This can't be real."

Lina Misitzis

He's reading off the screen.

Mike Fahey

Cloud says, "This can't be real." And that's really what everyone was feeling right there. That line right there, "Aeris will no longer talk, no longer laugh, cry, or get angry." Oh my god. [SNIFFLES] OK. Damn it. "His fingers are tingling, his mouth is dry. His eyes are burning." I'm right there with him. Yeah, I'm tearing up.

Ira Glass

OK, so why of all the characters in all the video games in the world, why do they tear up for this girl?

Lina Misitzis

Well, in part, it's because it's one of the first times it's happened. I mean, it was just like a surprise. It was really new. And to clarify, Mike knows that Aeris is just this one-dimensional character. The official game description of her is literally, quote, "young, beautiful, and somewhat mysterious."

Ira Glass

Wait. Could we pause on the word, "somewhat"? That seems so weirdly insulting. Like, well, you're just somewhat mysterious.

Lina Misitzis

[LAUGHS] OK. Right. And in the game, she really does just two things. She stands next to people and calms them down. Like she'll put her hand on someone's chest in this meaningful way. She's this reassuring presence, this healer. And then the other thing she does is she asks for help.

Ira Glass

So that's the two basic female functions, right?

Lina Misitzis

It's like fix and help. Fix and help.

Ira Glass

Right. OK.

Lina Misitzis

And Mike knows all of this. But he says that's enough. It's enough about her to make you, the protagonist, care.

Mike Fahey

She sort of is one-dimensional. She's like the ray of hope. She grows flowers in this disgusting slum. She's almost like a billboard that things can be better. Her sweetness and lightness is what they're really trying to squeeze out of her. So that's what they focus on. And she's understanding. And maybe that's why one of the other reasons you feel for her. Because you feel kind of like she would understand you.

Lina Misitzis

Also, of course, she's pretty.

Mike Fahey

Yeah, she's adorable. She really is. It's those big blue eyes. They bore into you, really. They're in my head, and they have been for 20 years. They're blue, aren't they?

Lina Misitzis

Um, actually, they're green. And Mike realizes that later in the interview, and he wanted to make sure that I make it clear to you that he knows that they're green.

Mike Fahey

Check. If Aerith weren't as likeable, maybe if she weren't as pretty, if she didn't have those big green eyes, and she weren't as sweet, her death wouldn't have meant as much.

Lina Misitzis

Would Aeris, the character, have been as effective if she were a little brother?

Mike Fahey

Wow. That is a good question. I mean, I think she might have had to work harder as a little brother. Gosh, that's an awful thing to say. Yeah, I think he would have had to have a stronger personality. There would have been some more scenes of bonding with that character.

Lina Misitzis

I mean, she has no personality.

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Lina Misitzis

There's a bird in the game that's called like a Chocobo, I think, that has more personality than Aeris does.

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Lina Misitzis

Yeah, she's young and she's innocent. And I don't know. In the game, it's confusing whether or not she's like you, the protagonist's romantic interest, or like your little sister. And I think that that's intentional. Those are the things that it takes for you to feel protective of her. And then her death is the thing that energizes all of them to fight and win.

Mike Fahey

It motivates the remaining party members. I think her death makes the stakes real. It's a game up until her death.

Even after the Shinra drops the plate and crushes that entire city, you're like, wow. They mean business. But we've got a party of kickass heroes that's going to save the day. And then Aeris dies, and you're like, we might not save the day. It adds a layer of reality.

Lina Misitzis

And her death sends them to their actual mission-- to save the world. She's just a prop that gets them there. That's her whole function in the game.

Ira Glass

So basically, it's like she's this barely filled in character, and yet, just, that's enough to work, to make people have all these feelings and to actually cry when she dies.

Lina Misitzis

All she needs is to seem vulnerable and nice.

Ira Glass

This kind of story, the girl who needs rescuing, is still around. It's persistent. Despite all the films and stories that try to leave it behind, despite best efforts to quash it, you still run into it.

And you run into it in real life. People jump in, in real life to rescue young women and get so caught up in that heroic mission, that sometimes, like with Aeris, it kind of doesn't matter who the girl really is or if she wants to get rescued. She's sort of just a girl getting rescued. They don't see what the girl actually wants or needs. They don't see her. We have examples, real life examples. Stay with us.

Act One: My Very Unhappy Birthday

Ira Glass

Act One, My New and Happy Birthday. So let's begin with a young woman that the United States government thought needed to be rescued, meaning well with good reason, at first anyway. Nadia Reiman explains.

Nadia Reiman

I'm looking at a sheet of paper with a couple photos of a young woman, a front view and a side view. Pretty small. She's got brown hair, brown eyes. But right below the photos is an X-ray of her jaw. The paper says the X-ray was ordered from O'Hare Airport in Chicago. And this X-ray is what sealed her fate.

Two years ago, the woman in the picture lands in Chicago. She's coming from Laos disoriented and jet lagged. Her name is Yong Xiong. She's meeting her fiancé, who's waiting for her with his mother and sister at the airport in Minneapolis. All she has to do is get through customs and make her connecting flight. So she steps up to the customs desk, all 4 feet 7 inches of her.

Yong Xiong

[SPEAKING HMONG]

Interpreter

They asked me how old I was. And I didn't know how to say it in English. So I showed them by fingers how old I was.

Nadia Reiman

Can you show me? What did you do?

Yong Xiong

[SPEAKING HMONG]

Interpreter

I did this, and I did this.

Nadia Reiman

Yong holds up 10 fingers, pauses, then holds up nine more. 10 plus 9, 19. The Customs and Border Protection officer asked to see her passport. Yong doesn't speak English, and the officer doesn't speak her language, Hmong. There's no interpreter.

Yong Xiong

[SPEAKING HMONG]

Interpreter

I gave them my passport, and then they looked at it and asked me to write down my birthday.

Nadia Reiman

What did you write down?

Interpreter

[SPEAKING HMONG]

Yong Xiong

[SPEAKING HMONG]

Interpreter

6/4/1997.

Yong Xiong

[SPEAKING HMONG]

Interpreter

June 4, 1997. So then they asked me about my birthday again and again. After they got my birthday, they looked at me and kind of just thought whatever they're thinking, that maybe I was too little, or my size was something that they were looking at.

Nadia Reiman

At this point, the officer pulls Yong aside and calls another officer, and another, and another. At least five Customs and Border Protection officers all inspect Yong and conclude that she, quote, appeared to be under the age of 18 based on her physical characteristics and childlike mannerisms. That's what it says in her immigration documents. I saw a bunch of them.

Customs and Border Protection, or CBP, is trained to watch out for child trafficking. And they thought Yong looked too childlike to be 19. For what it's worth, Yong does look very young. When I met her, I thought so, too. She didn't look like a young woman. She looked 13.

So the officers went through her papers. They learned that she's here to get married. She has a fiancee visa, so to get it, she's already had to do an interview at the American embassy back in Laos. She's gone through a whole process to confirm that she wasn't lying, that her engagement wasn't a sham. And the government decided that yes, everything checked out. Visa approved.

But now, here she is, watching the officers going through her stuff, her bags, her suitcase. And they find pictures of her with her fiancé. I've seen them. Some are totally innocuous. They're from their engagement ceremony. Yong and her fiancé are both dressed up, tons of flowers.

But in a couple pictures taken in some park, Yong's fiancé is kissing her on the mouth, and Yong is looking away. Her face is contorted. You could say she looks put off, disgusted even.

Yong's family told me that Yong almost always looks grumpy in pictures. A cousin said that Yong never smiles, not even in the ones with just us girl cousins. But the officers note that in the photos with her fiancé, Yong seemed, quote, "physically scared and uncomfortable." They wonder whether Yong has been brought here against her will. Fiancé visas and work visas are a common way traffickers use to get people into the country legally.

So they get an officer who speaks Hmong and start to ask Yong a bunch of questions. What's your full name? Is this your passport? How many siblings do you have? Where did you meet your fiancé? Oh, and what was your age again? All of which Yong seemingly answers without hesitation. Yong Xiong. Yep, that's her passport. Seven sisters. Met her fiancé in Laos at a New Year's party. He's a US citizen, naturalized. He's also Hmong. Her date of birth? June 4, 1997. She's 19. He's 22.

Nadia Reiman

So did they tell you at some point that they were worried that you were being trafficked?

Yong Xiong

[SPEAKING HMONG]

Interpreter

Yeah, they did tell me that.

Nadia Reiman

What did you say when they told you that?

Yong Xiong

[SPEAKING HMONG]

Interpreter

I just thought no, that's nuts. That's not what's happening.

Yong Xiong

[SPEAKING HMONG]

Interpreter

I just told them it was my choice. That I was not being trafficked, and it was my decision to come to the US to be with my fiancé. Because it was my choice.

Yong Xiong

[SPEAKING HMONG]

Nadia Reiman

The officers go through a checklist of 11 questions to determine whether Yong is being trafficked, stuff like, is she missing any documents? Does she appear scared? The answer to 10 of them is no. But then there's one about whether or not she's been coached on what to say. And that one the officers write down, quote, "Appear to be." That, plus the fact that she looked so young, seemed to make the officers believe that, yeah, she's probably trafficked.

This checklist is just normal procedure. It's what officers have to do if they think something's going on. But then they did do something unusual. They wrote a new birthday into her file, January 1, 2000, making her a minor, 17 years old. There were a lot of unusual things that happened in Yong's case, and this made-up birthday is the first one.

The officers tell Yong she has to stay at the airport overnight. In the morning, they tell her through a Hmong speaker that they need to figure out if she's over 18. If she is, fine. If not, it'll be a problem. They tell Yong to find out how old you really are, we're going to take you to a dentist. Yong had never been to a dentist before. As she took a seat in the waiting room, she just thought, I guess this is normal. This is what they do when you enter the United States.

Yong Xiong

[SPEAKING HMONG]

Interpreter

I waited until they called my name, took me to the dental chair and told me to just sit down and lay back. And then they told me open my mouth. And then they had a stick that looked like it had a mirror on it. And they went to the side here and this side, all around on the inside.

Nadia Reiman

So did you know what was happening?

Interpreter

[SPEAKING HMONG]

Yong Xiong

[SPEAKING HMONG]

Interpreter

I didn't. It was just pointing and hand gestures. [SPEAKING HMONG] They said, open your mouth, like this.

Nadia Reiman

Yong shows me how they moved their hand, like a sock puppet who just opened its mouth wide.

Nadia Reiman

Like with your hand?

Interpreter

[SPEAKING HMONG] Yes.

Yong Xiong

[SPEAKING HMONG]

Interpreter

I remember they told me to bite down, too.

Nadia Reiman

The dentist took the X-ray. No one would talk to me on the record about this, but because it's the government, there is a massive paper trail. And not just in Yong's case. I'm going to go deep on these tooth X-rays for a second, so bear with me. They're used all kinds of immigration cases, not just trafficking. And a lot rides on the results. If you're under 18, you have more protections. You get put into a shelter instead of a detention center. It's harder to get deported.

But tooth X-rays are just not a very precise way to determine someone's age. The way it works is they measure how developed the roots of your molars are, and then based on that, the dentist can determine your age, but only within a range, usually around five years. So these X-rays can't tell you the difference between a 17-year-old and a 19-year-old. The same teeth might belong to a 15-year-old or a 20-year-old.

Back in 2007, Congress told ICE they were, quote, "troubled by the use of these exams," by their lack of accuracy and by the fact that migrants don't necessarily give consent. Congress said please stop. And yet, the government keeps using them anyway.

And also, I found out the way the government is using these X-rays is alarming. They're using the teeth to make migrants the age they want them to be. A political science professor at Northwestern named Jackie Stevens is the one who told me about this. Back in 2018, Jackie was helping research a legal case. She runs something called the Deportation Research Clinic, which reports on government misconduct.

And she got a giant document dump from the Office of Refugee Resettlement, ORR, people putting migrant kids into shelters. She got about 5,000 pages. The documents revealed that ORR had done hundreds of these forensic exams on migrants over the past couple of years.

Jackie found two things that ORR was doing wrong. One is they were using exams they weren't supposed to. The rule is that, legally speaking, if you're trying to prove someone is an adult, you can only take into account exams that show that with at least 75% probability. If they're below that threshold, you can't use them as evidence. But Jackie found that ORR was consistently determining people's ages with reports they weren't supposed to use.

The second big thing Jackie found, time and again, ORR used the age range in the report to make the migrant 18 or over. So if they got a range that said this person could be 15 to 23, they'd pick at least 18. It's hard to know exactly why ORR would do this. I asked ORR why. Like, what's in it for them? They never responded.

But the way the teeth are usually being used is mostly to turn boys into men. In Yong's case, the opposite seemed to happen. Her X-ray was used to make her officially a child in the bureaucracy of the US immigration system. CBP had flagged her as a possible trafficking victim. She looked young. Southeast Asia is a trafficking hotbed.

And once that idea took hold of US government agencies, it was very hard for Yong to shake. Because the way I see it, if the government sees Yong as a girl entering the country in danger, as a girl coerced, a girl too small to be a bride, then they had to protect her. And even if part of the officer suspected she might be telling the truth, that she might really be 19, that she might really be here because she wants to get married, they'd have to be sure-- like 100% sure. So they had her teeth X-rayed.

In the documents, the dentist writes, quote, "The range of possible ages is 14.76 to 19.56 years." In other words, it's totally plausible that Yong could be 19 as she's been saying. But she could also be 17, like the officers decided. They seemed to use the X-rays as proof that they're right. Yong's new birth date of January 1, 2000, it sticks. And it starts to reshape her life.

The agents drive Yong straight from the dentist to a juvenile shelter. It's in Chicago. It looks like a school. It's run by ORR. She's told she can't talk to her fiancé, the supposed trafficker. As soon as she is allowed to, Yong calls her mom.

Yong Xiong

[SPEAKING HMONG]

Interpreter

I just told her they brought me to this place to stay with all these kids. I just thought, now I'm in their hands, and this is where they put me. I don't know what's going to happen next.

Yong Xiong

[SPEAKING HMONG]

Nadia Reiman

Yong is assigned to a room with four other girls. There are 13-year-olds at the shelter, but also babies. She spends her days doing all these kids things, like she has to vote for which kids movie to watch during movie night. She goes on trips to the zoo. She does math worksheets. She gets clothes to wear while she's there, but they don't fit her because she's so small. At first, Yong soldiers on. She starts to learn English. She thinks she'll just sit tight, and it'll all get sorted out. She's pragmatic, keeps a tight lid on her emotions.

When she's assigned to a clinician, Yong tells her right away, like the day they meet, that she's 19. She's here to be with her fiancé. Two days later, she brings it up again. Nothing changes. She brings it up dozens of times. It's in all her shelter documents. In one note, the clinician writes, quote, "Minor repeated to clinician she is not under 18. Clinician told minor she believes her. But there needs to be documentation to prove her statement."

Day in and day out, Yong keeps asking, what's happening? Why am I here? Her frustration starts to bubble.

Yong Xiong

[SPEAKING HMONG]

Interpreter

I told them I'm almost 20. I came here in April, and my birthday's in June. So I'm almost 20. They told me, we can't change that for you. We can't help you with that because this birthday that is on the paperwork is what came with you when you were admitted into this building.

Nadia Reiman

This is not true, by the way. ORR makes changes to ages based on dental X-rays like the ones I mentioned at any point. They can happen even after someone's been admitted. Yong has an aunt named Xia in Minnesota, one she doesn't know very well. They met once back in Laos.

And she asks, since they won't release her to be with her fiancé, can she be released to go live with her aunt? The shelter contacts the aunt to test her DNA to make sure she and Yong are related. They are. But the shelter decides not to release Yong to Aunt Xia because Xia tells them that Yong is an adult. So the shelter concludes she might let Yong run off with the fiancé/supposed trafficker.

At one point, her documents say, quote, "Minor began to state she doesn't know what to do anymore. And she cannot think of any solutions and feels stuck in the program." And also, quote, "Minor states that she is 20 years old, and no one believes her."

January 1, 2018 was looming closer. At that point, Yong would reach her fake 18th birthday, after which she'd be a legal adult, again, and not really shelter material.

Yong Xiong

[SPEAKING HMONG]

Interpreter

So as I stayed there and it got closer to my 18th birthday, the 18th birthday that they gave me, they had informed me that once I had turned 18, they were going to take me out and put me in a different facility. And so that's when they switched it and gave me a new birthday, September 1, 2002.

Nadia Reiman

Wait, so they switched you and gave you another fake birthday?

Yong Xiong

[SPEAKING HMONG]

Interpreter

So they gave me a new fake birthday, but one that made me younger, too.

Nadia Reiman

Did you ask why?

Yong Xiong

[SPEAKING HMONG]

Interpreter

I did. And I asked them, why couldn't they just give me my real birthday? And they said, no, they couldn't do that. And they didn't know why they couldn't do that.

Nadia Reiman

I looked into it. It turns out ORR resubmitted the X-rays of Yong's teeth to a second dentist who concluded Yong could be anywhere between 15 and 20 years old. After which, ORR did change her birth date. But they used the lowest end of the range possible. The documents say DHS, the agency that oversees everything related to immigration, told them to. Her new, new birth date is now September 1, 2002.

The shelter orders a wrist X-ray to assess the age of Yong's skeleton. The results come back that Yong is likely 18. The doctor concludes that Yong is still 15, just has, quote, "advanced bone age." She's gone from being 19 to 17 to 15, just like Benjamin Button.

You know that kind of nightmare where you're trying to run, but you can't move? Yong says living inside the shelter was just like that. Day after day, she watches the kids around her leave to go stay with relatives. But she's trapped. The clinician notes that Yong's become more irritated. And then about 10 months into her shelter stay, something pushes Yong over the edge.

Yong Xiong

[SPEAKING HMONG]

Interpreter

I was hanging out with my friends, and then my friends had asked me what my name was. I told them my name was Yong Xiong. And so the friend came and said, well, who is Jane Doe? And I told them, huh? I don't know who Jane Doe is. The friend said come here. I wasn't able to read and write well enough yet. And so the friend said, let me show you.

On the outside of my door, it said Jane Doe as my name. I was so angry. And I had a permanent marker with me, so I went outside of my room and blacked out the Jane Doe name that was on the outside of my door. And I just marked it all off. A worker came by and said, who vandalized my name on my door? And I told her, I did it, because that's not my name.

Yong Xiong

[SPEAKING HMONG]

Nadia Reiman

Yong had had it.

Nadia Reiman

And then what did you do after that?

Yong Xiong

[SPEAKING HMONG]

Interpreter

Then after that, I refused to pick up my meals under the name Jane Doe. And they were asking why I wouldn't pick up my meals. And I said because I don't know who Jane Doe is. I'm not Jane Doe. At that moment, I was really angry, thinking I have a mom. I have a dad who gave me my name. Why not use my real name? Why give me that name? I didn't like that name at all.

Nadia Reiman

So the shelter is like, fine. We won't call you Jane Doe anymore. For the first time in almost a year, Yong is heard.

Meanwhile, in the outside world, many parts of the US government with many different acronyms are trying to figure out what the hell is going on with Yong. ORR, the shelter people, who've been given the new age by DHS, the immigration people, are running around with the OS, the State Department people, to confirm what CBP, the Border Protection people, originally thought of Yong, the migrant person.

It turns out, according to Yong's family, someone from the US embassy office in Laos went around Yong's village asking questions, asking to see her family registry, which is this record that families in Laos keep that basically lists who was born when. Also, they asked the Laos embassy to confirm Yong's fifth grade and ninth grade school certificates. Both have her age, and the embassy says they're both legit

I talked to an ICE spokesperson, more immigration people, and they say that going deep like that doesn't sound uncommon. Like if they think they have a case of human trafficking on their hands, they spend time and resources checking it out, especially if they think the victim is a minor and especially if the region is known as a place where trafficking is common, which Southeast Asia is.

In the embassy's report about Yong, it says that, quote, "It does occur that the Hmong population will represent themselves as older for the purpose of applying for a visa." And quote, "Usually under questioning, the girls will admit their real age if they lied." And quote, "Common for them to look very young, malnutritioned, underdeveloped."

In Laos, the average height of a woman is about 4 foot 9 inches. This makes them one of the shortest populations in the world. At 4 foot 7, Yong is shorter than average, but not unusual for Laos. It's obvious that Yong is being measured with a Western ruler.

The fiancé was never charged with anything. He says no law enforcement came to talk to him. Lawyers that deal with cases like this told me this is unusual if he was actually a trafficking suspect. Normally, an investigator from ICE would show up to interview him, but as far as I can tell, no one did. There is one thing I found out, though-- something about Yong's fiancé that troubled me when I heard it.

One person working with Yong told me that he was kind of a big jerk, that he yelled and threatened the shelter when he was talking to them about Yong, and that when the shelter said this will be a process to get her out, he said fine. If you don't let her out, then I don't want her anyway. The person I spoke with said that's why the shelter didn't want to release her to him. They were afraid he didn't really care about her.

I ran this by Yong's fiancé, and he says none of this is true. He would have loved to talk to Yong, but he says the shelter wouldn't let him. He says that at one point, he took a week off and weighted by the phone because the shelter said they would call him. They never did.

Finally, on June 8, 2018, about 14 months after entering the shelter and four days after her 21st birthday, Yong is released. They release her as a minor under the custody of her aunt, Aunt Xia. This is her.

Xia Yang

[SPEAKING HMONG]

Interpreter

They said, we are releasing her to you. You need to be aware that she is only 15. We've given her multiple birth dates, but that's the birthday that she's coming home with. It is the birthday that she is 15 years old. You need to keep an eye on her. You must know that anyone who is 18 or older comes and takes her to go get married, you will go to jail for it.

Xia Yang

[SPEAKING HMONG]

Nadia Reiman

What did you think about that?

Xia Yang

[SPEAKING HMONG]

Interpreter

So I didn't say much, and I didn't think much. I just thought, OK, the Lord gave her a birthday. But you choose to give her a birthday, and just send her home with the birthday you gave her. Even if she's just 10, I just want her home.

Nadia Reiman

So Yong went to live with her Aunt Xia in St. Paul, 15 miles from her fiancé. In May, I visited them. Yong's been living with Xia for a year. She has to, because according to one part of the government, she's 17, which means--

Teacher

OK. So the first thing that I want to do is we finished female reproductive system, right? We've finished male reproductive system with the parts, right?

Nadia Reiman

She has to go to high school. It's one of the conditions of her release. I went with her on a Monday to her health class, where she was learning about pregnancy and the placenta. She's a freshman there. And you know what? She likes high school. She's there with a bunch of English language learners. So the teacher helps the students repeat everything.

Teacher

Can you say it with me, everybody?

Yong Xiong

Yeah.

Teacher

Passes into the--

Yong Xiong

Passes into the--

Teacher

--cord--

Yong Xiong

--cord--

Teacher

--to the mother--

Yong Xiong

--to the mother, then--

Teacher

--then out. Yeah. So the mother, she gets the waste, and she has to say, oh! Bathroom.

Nadia Reiman

She's in a school full of other immigrant kids. Most of them don't know how much older she is. She doesn't bring it up, and they don't seem aware of it. And then finally, after more than two years of waiting, Yong got her identity back. She had an immigration hearing just two weeks ago at the end of June, a little after her 22nd birthday.

DHS told Yong's lawyers that they were dropping the age thing. They said they were not contesting her passport or, quote, "any of its contents," which of course include her birth date-- you know, the one she says is real, June 4, 1997.

Yong went home that day and called her fiancé at night. It was the first time they were allowed to talk since she got to the States. They cried. Then they made dinner plans. Yong was happy, but sort of isn't used to the idea that this is real. Same thing for her fiancé. He says he keeps wondering if she really is here for good and if legally, he really is allowed to marry her. So for now, he just waits for Yong to call him and make plans.

So I still can't say exactly why any of this happened to Yong. I reached out to all the immigration agencies involved in this case. CBP and ICE both declined to comment on Yong, and ORR as well, because, they say, she's a minor. Her lawyers' take on why this happened is they think the government made a judgment call and screwed up, and just started something in motion they didn't know how to stop.

On some level, it seems like maybe everyone was just afraid to miss a trafficking case. And then her passport, her visa, all her documents from Laos just didn't matter anymore. Yong's still here under a fiancé visa, so she has to get married. If she doesn't, she has to go back to Laos. She's back at square one. It's like she just came into the States, holding her passport and her suitcase. Like no time has passed when she landed at O'Hare in 2017-- except it has.

Ira Glass

Nadia Reiman is one of the producers of our show.

[MUSIC - YOUTH GROUP, "FOREVER YOUNG"]

Coming up, a whole country gets obsessed with rescuing a girl-- a missing girl. This in a minute from Chicago Public Radio, when our program continues.

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today's program, Save the Girl, real life damsel-in-distress stories, where rescuers charge in, going full force on the rescuing, assuming that they know what is best for the girl that they're saving-- but really, not paying too much attention to what she might like or who she really is.

This kind of saving the innocent girl, damsel-in-distress story, there's this old video that I love of the novelist Kurt Vonnegut, and he's talking about the effect of that story on people. In the video, he's standing at a blackboard, explaining that classic stories each have their own formula. And then he's literally mapping them out on the board.

Kurt Vonnegut

So there's no reason why the simple shapes of stories can't be fed into computers. They are beautiful shapes.

Ira Glass

And then he starts to draw graphs, draw these shapes representing different types of stories. So picture, OK, like in school, an x and a y-axis, right? With me? And then the vertical axis represents here how good or how badly a person is doing in their life. So bad fortune at the bottom of the line, good fortune at the top.

Kurt Vonnegut

Sickness and poverty down here, wealth and then boisterous good health up there. Now this is the BE axis.

Ira Glass

BE axis, that is the horizontal line that stretches from the left side of the chalkboard to the right side of the chalkboard. B is the beginning of the story. E is the ending. And then Vonnegut demonstrates how this works. He says that some stories start with the person who's kind of happy, so they begin more than halfway up that vertical line that measures good or bad fortune.

Kurt Vonnegut

So I would start a little above average. Why get a depressing person? We'll start-- The whole thing, we call this story man in hole. But it needn't be about a man, and it needn't be about somebody getting into a hole. But it's just a good way to remember it. Somebody gets into trouble, gets out of it again.

Ira Glass

He's drawing a curve, like a sine wave. And it dips down into bad fortune when he says somebody gets into trouble and then comes back up again for gets out of it.

Kurt Vonnegut

People love that story. They never get sick of it.

[APPLAUSE]

All right.

Ira Glass

All right. So Vonnegut's done, man in hole. He then does boy gets girl and draws a diagram for that kind of rom-commy story. And then he tells the audience he's going to clue them in on the most powerful kind of story of all. This kind of story starts, he says, with the main character not doing well at all. Like the curve starts near the bottom of the good fortune and bad fortune vertical line.

Kurt Vonnegut

But we're going to start way down here. Who is so low? It's a little girl. What's happened? Her mother has died.

Her father has remarried a vile-tempered, ugly woman with two nasty daughters, big daughters. You've heard it. See?

Anyway, there's a party at the palace that night. She can't go. She has to help everybody else get ready. She has to stay home. OK, so the fairy godmother comes. Gives her shoes, gives her a stocking, give her mascara.

Ira Glass

They're laughing because with each item, he gives the curve a big bump up, like a series of stairs heading upwards.

Kurt Vonnegut

Gives her a means of transportation. Goes to the party, dances with the prince, has a swell time.

Ira Glass

Now we're way high up on the graph.

Kurt Vonnegut

Boing, boing, boing, boing.

Ira Glass

With the boings of the grandfather clock striking, he draws a vertical line going straight back down towards misery, though not quite as low as she was at the start.

Kurt Vonnegut

Does she wind up at the same level? Of course not. She will remember that dance for the rest of her life. Now, she poops along on this level till the prince comes, and shoe fits.

Ira Glass

He draws the curve upward until it hits the very top of the blackboard, as high as he can go, and writes an infinity sign.

Kurt Vonnegut

She achieves offscale happiness. It so happens that this is the most popular story in our civilization, Western civilization, as we love to hear this story. Every time it's retold, somebody makes another million dollars. You're welcome to do it.

Act Two: Frida Be You and Me

Ira Glass

Which, really, all of that is the perfect introduction to our next act, Act Two, Frida Be You and Me. When an entire country becomes obsessed with a version of this story, it becomes obsessed with rescuing a girl, like the prince rescued Cinderella, until that venerable old pot took a weird twist. Aviva DeKornfeld explains what happened.

Aviva Dekornfeld

Every year on September 19, Mexico runs through an earthquake drill. And on September 19 in 2017, the whole country ran through the drill as usual at 11:00 AM. Roughly two hours later, a real earthquake hit. It was a big one, an estimated magnitude of 7.1. Over 300 people died. Thousands of buildings were damaged. And one of those buildings was a school in southern Mexico City.

When the school fell, it wasn't a total collapse. Only one side fully crumbled. There was a big hole in one of the walls. And through it, one of the classrooms was visible-- posters, and kids' drawings, and big colored letters in the midst of destruction. 19 kids were killed at the school, and a bunch more were injured. So pretty quickly, tons of media showed up. And the school became crowded with people trying to help.

Felipe Duran Emiliano

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Interpreter

We started digging, and digging was really not easy.

Aviva Dekornfeld

This is Felipe Duran Emiliano. He's a member of the Topo Azteca, which is a volunteer rescue brigade. Felipe and the other Topos find a tiny gap in the collapsed part of the school about a foot wide. They worked to open it up, and soon they find the body of a teacher. Felipe said she had her arms stretched out open, as if she'd been trying to protect others. The Topos lift the teacher's body out and place her on a stretcher. Then they keep hammering the concrete, looking for other victims.

Felipe Duran Emiliano

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Interpreter

And once I remove this piece of concrete, I noticed two small feet.

Aviva Dekornfeld

The feet belonged to a little boy. They find three more kids. The other volunteers want to pull the bodies out as quickly as possible, keep looking for other people. But Felipe paused.

Felipe Duran Emiliano

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Interpreter

And so what I said to my co-worker, Machete, can you please ask them to wait?

Felipe Duran Emiliano

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Interpreter

Because I want to say a prayer for this small child and also for the other children that have already been taken out.

Aviva Dekornfeld

They keep going, though the chances of finding survivors is shrinking. As time passes, the rescue mission becomes less heroic and more tedious. And then on Wednesday morning, there's news. The TV news program interviews Navy Admiral Jose Luis Vergara, who's on site. The Navy's overseeing the rescue.

Jose Luis Vergara

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Aviva Dekornfeld

He says we have indication of a girl who is alive. Rescuers have used a thermal scanner and a motion sensor, and they've detected what seems to be a person moving.

Rescuers

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Aviva Dekornfeld

One of the rescuers says they can see her moving her fingers. News of this girl trapped alive quickly becomes the biggest story of the earthquake. The first reporter led into the cordoned off area around the school is this woman named Danielle Dithurbide. She works for Televisa, the largest Spanish language broadcaster in the world. She's dressed like she's going into battle, khaki vest and a hardhat that looks like a helmet.

And anytime there's new information, Danielle hears about it. She's giving constant updates. The girl seems to be trapped underneath a table.

Danielle Dithurbide

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Aviva Dekornfeld

We don't want to break it because it could collapse, Danielle says. So the rescue workers figure out how to insert supports around the wreckage. The Navy threads a hose through a crack in the rubble to try to get water to the little girl.

Angel Enrique Sarmiento

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Aviva Dekornfeld

This is another Navy official, undersecretary Angel Enrique Sarmiento. He says they've been giving the little girl water through the hose. The rescue workers try to contact the person. They say, tap twice if you can hear us. But there are so many people around the school, it's way too loud for them to hear her.

One of the rescue workers holds up his fist to signal for silence. Everyone on site stands motionless, straining to listen for muffled signs of life from under what's left of the school. This is all being covered live and broadcast all over the country.

They hear a tiny voice poking out.

Rescuer

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Danielle Dithurbide

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Rescuer

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Aviva Dekornfeld

This rescue worker tells Danielle, I heard a very weak voice that belonged to a little girl named Sofia. Danielle asks him, did she say her name? And he says, yeah, I asked her, is your name Sophie? And she said, Sophie. Sophie.

The workers keep talking to the girl. They learn her full first name is Frida Sofia. And she's 12 years old. The Navy asks around for someone who knows Frida, a teacher or a family member, to try to make her feel more comfortable.

The principal of the school, Monica Garcia Villegas, she survived the collapse. So did her daughter, who's also named Monica. She's a teacher at the school. They're both they're trying to help the rescue efforts.

Monica, the daughter, offers to talk to Frida. She crouches near the wall where Frida's trapped. She calls her princesa and Evita, terms of endearment. Frida responds, telling her that she's tired.

Danielle Dithurbide

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Aviva Dekornfeld

Danielle explains that Televisa's withholding Frida's last name out of respect for the family's privacy.

Danielle Dithurbide

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Aviva Dekornfeld

Frida has said that there are two bodies near her, but that she doesn't know if they're alive or who they are.

Rescuer

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Aviva Dekornfeld

Televisa reports that rescuers have gotten a phone to Frida. She's been able to send messages to the school principal. The whole country becomes emotionally involved with this girl. People are donating supplies and posting all over Twitter and Facebook about her. There's a hashtag, #FridaSofia. One person tweets, "She moved her hand, moved Mexico's heart." Another says, "Retweet if you're not going to sleep until you see Frida Sofia out of the rubble."

Laura Tejero Nunez

She's the coverage of the earthquake. She becomes the center of all the earthquake stories.

Aviva Dekornfeld

That's Laura Tejero Nunez, a filmmaker who made a documentary about this.

Laura Tejero Nunez

Everyone's talking about it. It's like a minute by minute. Everyone's following every step of Frida's rescue. Like when they leave their houses, when they leave their couches, they are like, well, what's up with Frida? Is she out yet?

We know that there's been other victims, that other areas of Mexico have been strongly affected. But Frida is the center of all the eyes. Because she's also a story of hope.

Aviva Dekornfeld

Everyone's waiting to see what's going to happen. And then finally, word spreads of good news. A rescue worker on site says, she's been rescued. This was shot on a cell phone by someone standing outside the school.

Rescuer

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Aviva Dekornfeld

She's OK, he says. She has vital signs. Televisa doesn't report the rescue. Presumably, they couldn't confirm it. Another reporter tweets that it's just a rumor. But then the Secretary of Education goes on the news.

Secretary Of Education

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Aviva Dekornfeld

He doesn't say she's been rescued. But he does say if you're Frida Sofia's parents or related to her, please come to the school. The city is in complete disarray, and lots of people are missing. This call for her parents rips across social media.

And then the story takes another turn. Here's Laura the filmmaker again.

Laura Tejero Nunez

So the earthquake is the 19th. We hear about Frida the morning of the 20th. And it's about 30 hours later, like the 21st of September, that the rescue authorities say that Frida never existed. The story of Frida Sofia is a lie.

Aviva Dekornfeld

No Frida Sofia was enrolled at the Enrique Rebsamen School. There is no Frida. The way everyone finds this out, the head of the Navy, the guy who's been giving, essentially, minute by minute updates on national television about Frida's condition, he goes on TV and gives this awkward press conference.

Head Of Navy

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Laura Tejero Nunez

He says that Frida Sofia is not a reality.

Aviva Dekornfeld

That seems like very specific word choice.

Laura Tejero Nunez

Yeah, like he wanted to say like, oh, this wasn't a reality. I'm not going to say that anyone told lies. I'm not going to say that this wasn't true. Because that sounds much worse. I think he was aware of how big the idea of Frida had become, how prescient in the minds of the Mexicans she had become. And he knew that he was going to be accused of falsehoods.

Danielle Dithurbide

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Laura Tejero Nunez

Shortly afterwards, Danielle Dithurbide, the reporter, comes out in Televisa saying that there is no girl called Frida Sofia. So she's not very straightforward on what's happening. She just kind of waters it down.

Danielle Dithurbide

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Laura Tejero Nunez

And then she says that she has gotten all the information from the authorities. So she kind of is-- do you say guarding her back? No. She's kind of--

Aviva Dekornfeld

Protecting herself. Like I didn't spread this. I just heard from the authorities.

Laura Tejero Nunez

Yeah, exactly. Like I was giving official information.

Aviva Dekornfeld

So after the news of Frida breaks, what happens?

Laura Tejero Nunez

The audience is furious. They are really mad. The social media is burning, like with hate messages towards Televisa. They accuse them of creating lies, spreading lies of literally having made up a character for everyone to follow to increase their ratings.

Aviva Dekornfeld

People sent Danielle, the Televisa reporter, hate mail and death threats. A few of the rescue workers said it was clear all along that Frida didn't exist, like Felipe, who you heard earlier.

Felipe Duran Emiliano

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Interpreter

I yelled out that that was a great lie. That there was no such Frida.

Aviva Dekornfeld

Felipe said he was one of the people who'd made the hole where everyone thought Frida was trapped. He says he tried to tell people at the time that Frida wasn't real-- Danielle, authorities from the Navy.

Felipe Duran Emiliano

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Interpreter

And I told them, look, if you don't believe me, let's all go together in the hole. We are the ones who dug the hole. We explored absolutely everything in the area. And there is no small person there.

Aviva Dekornfeld

It didn't seem to matter.

Interpreter

It was as though they didn't like it. The Televisa lady didn't like it. The Red Cross didn't like it, and neither did the Admiral.

Aviva Dekornfeld

What do you mean they didn't like it?

Felipe Duran Emiliano

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Interpreter

They didn't like it because I told them that everything they were saying was lies.

Aviva Dekornfeld

I called up Danielle, the Televisa reporter. She said she has no memory of talking to Felipe or of anyone telling her Frida wasn't real before the Navy broke the news.

Aviva Dekornfeld

He said he invited you into the hole with him, and he said like, I'll show you she's not there. Do you remember anyone inviting you into the hole?

Danielle Dithurbide

No, that's not true. No, that's absolute-- that's a complete lie. That's not true. I swear on my life on it. That's not true.

Aviva Dekornfeld

When the Navy Undersecretary Sarmiento said Frida wasn't real, he also denied ever telling reporters that she was, which made Danielle furious. She saw him saying that to another reporter just a few feet away from her.

Aviva Dekornfeld

I mean, if I'm you, I feel like I would want to run over there, and--

Danielle Dithurbide

And kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Yes, exactly. That was my exact feeling. I wanted to kill him.

Aviva Dekornfeld

Later on TV, the Navy Undersecretary apologized. He said Danielle was right. He had passed on wrong information. We reached out to the Navy multiple times, by the way, but never got clearance to do an interview.

Aviva Dekornfeld

Who do you think started the Frida myth?

Danielle Dithurbide

I don't know. I've been thinking about it for one year and a half, and I don't have any answer.

Aviva Dekornfeld

I don't have an answer either. But here's what I do know. Let's go detail by detail. The motion sensor and thermal scanner that detected Frida's body heat and movement, that technology can be imprecise. The movement it detected, that could just be the rubble shifting. The body heat it detected, that could be a piece of metal that's just exposed to the sun, and therefore warmer than the things around it.

As for the workers who heard Frida's voice, well, rescue workers pulled the body of a 58-year-old woman from the rubble after they'd talked to Frida. Maybe it had been her voice they had heard. Though her name wasn't Frida Sofia, it was Reyna Dávila.

Or maybe the name Frida Sofia came from somewhere else. There was a Sofia there. She was one of the kids rescued earlier in the day. And there was a Frida on sight, too, a rescue dog helping to look for victims. I have no idea if that explains anything.

There are some details that no matter how I turn it, just don't seem like mistakes, like the cell phone and the text messages. A volunteer told the press that story. I couldn't find him to follow up. And that rescue worker who told the public that Frida had been rescued, we looked all over for him. Couldn't find him anywhere. Felipe, that rescue worker I talked to, he feels like, of course, I couldn't find the answer.

Felipe Duran Emiliano

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Interpreter

These are people that like to show up on TV, those people that enjoy telling lies, and people that just don't like to accept the truth.

Felipe Duran Emiliano

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Interpreter

I really can't explain to myself how it is that this was made up.

Felipe Duran Emiliano

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Interpreter

I imagine that this was the smokescreen, the whole Frida situation, in order to detour or to mask up the information. Merely a distraction.

Aviva Dekornfeld

He means a distraction from the person who's taken a lot of blame for the school collapse. Remember the Monicas? The principal of the school and her daughter, who worked there as a teacher and who said she talked to Frida. The principal, Monica García Villegas, she's also the owner of the school. It's a private school, and she lived there with the rest of her family.

The building was originally just two stories, but they built two more stories on top and made that their apartment. The principal used all these heavy materials in the construction. She built marble floors and granite countertops. She added a new terrace, but didn't add any columns underneath to support it. She installed a Jacuzzi. When the earthquake hit, all of that overwhelmed the bottom two floors of the building, and it crumbled. It was likely the principal's apartment that killed 19 kids and at least seven adults.

The principal fled the scene shortly after the school fell, though not before her daughter and other family members had recovered some of their valuables from the rubble, like purses and shoes, their car, a Mercedes Benz, and a bathtub they got four of the rescue workers to carry for them.

Authorities offered a five million peso reward to anyone who could find her. After nearly two years, the principal was finally arrested on charges of manslaughter in early May of this year. I reached out to her for a comment, but never heard back.

If the principal and her daughter knew all along that they didn't have a student named Frida Sofia, if the daughter was just pretending to talk to someone trapped under the rubble, if the Navy, for some reason, was passing along unfounded details to the press, or if the deception was more innocent-- volunteers hoping for the best and spreading rumors-- it all fell on willing ears. Hundreds of people had been killed by the earthquake. Lots more were still missing. Of course people wanted a little girl to root for.

Ira Glass

Aviva DeKornfeld is one of the producers of our show.

[MUSIC - LITTLE JACKIE, "TO THE RESCUE"]

Credits

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by Lilly Sullivan with Elna Baker. The people who put this show together today includes Bim Adewunmi, Emanuele Berry, Susan Burton, Sean Cole, Hilary Elkins, Damien Grave, Jessica Lussenhop, Miki Meek, [INAUDIBLE] Stowe Nelson, Catherine Raimondo, Ben Phelan, Nadia Reiman, Robyn Semien, Christopher Swetala, Matt Tierney, and Julie Whitaker. Our managing editor is Diane Wu. Our executive editor is David Kestenbaum.

Aviva DeKornfeld, who did the last story in the show, that last act, has been our production fellow for the last six months. The fellowship is now over. This is our last new show with her. She is super capable. We are sorry to see her go. Podcasters of America, you heard that story. Give her a job.

Special thanks today to Jose Acevedo, Yannos Misitzis, Jason Krouse, Rose Kue, Linda and Laura Xiong, Jackie Stevens, David Wilson, Calleigh McRaith, Lor Xiong-Roby, See Yang, Steve Bansbach, the Customs and Border Protection Chicago field office, Tesia Williams, Andrea Helling, Mark Greenberg, Bell Woods, Zoe Mendelson, Diego Salazar, and Luke Malone.

Our website, ThisAmericanLife.org. This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks, as always, to our show's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia. He really believes in the power of a hero sandwich. No kidding. Ordered a whole bunch for this big meeting we were going to have this week with some public radio stations and told me--

Mike Fahey

They mean business. But we've got a party of kickass heroes that's going to save the day.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.