A border runs through it: A tale of migration, separation, and reunification

A border runs through it: A tale of migration, separation, and reunification

Why We Wrote This

This migration story, told through tears of pain and joy, reveals the human cost of a father’s search for safety with his son in America.

Lucy Nicholson/Reuters/File

A group of Central American migrants is questioned about their children’s health after surrendering to U.S. Border Patrol Agents south of the U.S.-Mexico border fence in El Paso, Texas, March 6, 2019.

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February 3, 2021

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This is the story of Gabriel, a Honduran father forced by drug traffickers to flee his home for America, and Nicolás, the 4-year-old son he took with him. 

It is a gut-wrenching tale that began with gang threats, continued through their dangerous trip to the U.S. border thousands of miles away, and spawned endless pangs of parental guilt when Gabriel was forcibly separated from his son by guards on that border in 2018 and deported.

Now they are together again, for the time being at least, as Gabriel waits, and waits, for his asylum case to be heard. He is fortunate; few of the 5,500 parents separated from their children have been reunited, and the U.S. government cannot even find nearly 600 of them.

President Joe Biden has announced a task force dedicated to reuniting separated families, and he has pledged an immigration overhaul. In the meantime, Nicolás still asks his father several times a day why he left him behind. “I always try to explain what happened with patience,” says Gabriel. “I just hope one day he will understand.”

Atlántida, Honduras; and Mexico City

Gabriel tiptoed into his son’s cozy bedroom in New York City, quietly but expectantly. Even though it was the middle of the night, after 2 a.m., he was desperate to take a peek anyway. 

Gabriel had just flown in from Chicago and hadn’t been with his son for nearly two years. Now he just wanted to watch his 6-year-old boy breathe peacefully in his sleep, take in how much he had grown, see how his features had changed. 

The bedroom reunion in January 2020 was the culmination of a gut-wrenching journey that began with gang threats against Gabriel and his family in Central America, extended through their dangerous trip thousands of miles to the United States, spanned a bewildering thicket of legal battles once they got there, and spawned endless pangs of parental guilt for Gabriel about the decisions he made along the way. 

Gabriel was one of the thousands of parents separated from their children at the United States border with Mexico back in the spring of 2018. He’d traveled from central Honduras to the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, where he and his son Nicolás, then a slender 4-year-old with a ready grin, walked timidly toward a U.S. Border Patrol agent at a pedestrian bridge to ask for asylum. 

More than 5,500 migrant parents who were taken into custody were separated from their children as part of the U.S. Justice Department’s crackdown on the southern border. A recent lawsuit disclosed that the federal government has been unable to locate nearly 600 parents whose children were taken away from them.


Was Jan. 6 the end of an era – or start of a dangerous new one?

Many of the parents who were deported back to Central America at the time faced an impossible decision: whether to leave their children in the U.S. to pursue asylum on their own, or bring them back home to the very conditions the families risked their lives to escape. Gabriel chose to leave Nicolás in the U.S., where he lived in a children’s shelter for months and eventually moved in with an aunt he’d never met. 

As the U.S. transitions to a new president, the legacy of the Trump administration’s immigration policies won’t be easily untangled. President Joe Biden has announced a task force dedicated to reuniting separated families, and has pledged an immigration overhaul that could legalize some 11 million unauthorized immigrants living in the U.S., the boldest amnesty program since 1986. But parents like Gabriel, fortunate enough to be in the U.S. with his son now, still face daunting challenges as they try to apply for asylum in a backlogged system further complicated by COVID-19 court closures. 

And being together isn’t guaranteed to last: A recent analysis by the National Reunited Families Assistance Project, a legal cooperative, found that of 2,000 parents who were able to reunite with their children in the U.S., more than 250 currently face deportation orders, putting them at risk of being separated from their children once again.

Gabriel was able to return temporarily to the U.S. from Honduras after a lawyer successfully argued he was entitled to a “credible fear interview,” a legal right that immigration advocates say asylum-seekers were repeatedly denied over the past four years. While awaiting a decision on his claim, he was held in an immigration detention center in the Midwest for nearly three weeks. Authorities found that Gabriel did have legitimate reasons to fear for his life in Honduras, where he says local drug traffickers had killed several people he knew and were threatening him.

After the initial finding, Gabriel flew to New York for the much-anticipated reunion with Nicolás (all family members’ names have been changed at their request out of fear of reprisals). But it hardly went as he had hoped. Nicolás avoided being in the same room with his father for the first three months. Even now, a year later, the boy asks multiple times a day – often in tears – why Gabriel left him behind. Gabriel is concerned his relationship with his son will be forever shaped by their forced separation.

“We can be laughing, playing video games, or wrapping up virtual school and he asks. It’s a kick to the gut,” Gabriel says. “I always try to explain what happened with patience, even though this question regularly comes up two or three times a day. 

“I just hope one day he will understand.” 

Increasingly difficult choice

Family separation is an old narrative in Latin America, where migration has pulled apart parents and children for generations. Many adults have come to the U.S. seeking work and a better life, or fleeing danger, often leaving behind some or all of their family members for long periods. It is a choice they make – often risky, always emotional.

But the separations under the Trump administration added a wrenching new wrinkle. Asylum-seekers were finding themselves suddenly and unexpectedly separated from the children that they had brought with them. In the past, those who came seeking refuge in the U.S. may have been put in family detention or placed directly into immigration court hearings as a family unit. But the Trump administration, as part of its “zero-tolerance policy,” was putting the children in foster care or government custody while the parents were detained or immediately sent home. The majority of the parents who were deported decided to leave their children in the U.S. rather than subject them to the dangers they initially fled. 

It’s the most recent in a long line of difficult calls they’ve had to make as parents, particularly in Central America. Nations such as Honduras and El Salvador have seen organized criminal groups, from local gangs to international drug trafficking organizations, take control of communities and even entire regions. This, coupled with widespread government corruption and entrenched poverty, has forced many parents to make desperate decisions.

“It’s hard to find a safe space in this country,” says Scalabrinian Sister Lidia Mara Silva da Souza, national coordinator for Honduras’ Human Mobility Ministry. She says there are people in Honduras who judge parents for taking their children on the migrant trail – a dangerous journey that can lead to robbery, rape, and even death. 

“You only take this route to save your life,” she says. “You only do it with a child if you know the difference between today and tomorrow is the difference between life and death.” 

Ann Hermes/Staff/File

Lidia Mara Silva da Souza, a member of the Scalabrinian sisters and coordinator for Honduras’ Human Mobility Pastoral program, stands for a portrait at the Conferencia Episcopal de Honduras in Tegucigalpa, Honduras on Sept. 12, 2018.

“The perfectly worst time”

The day Gabriel and Nicolás arrived on the U.S. border back in the spring of 2018 marked one year since Gabriel had buried his cousin. He had been killed, Gabriel says, after repeatedly refusing to work for a group of drug traffickers. For years, Gabriel had been hounded by the same men. It could have been his burial, he says. 

It was also the day that Gabriel was sure would mark a new beginning. “I think I exhaled for the first time in my son’s life,” Gabriel recalls of his initial conversation with the U.S. Border Patrol agent. The officer asked for a visa, and when Gabriel told him he was seeking asylum, he was gently ushered away for what Gabriel expected to be an interview process.

Looking back, that spring day is when his nightmare began.

“I didn’t think about anything in the moment that I left,” says Gabriel of his decision to flee Honduras. But “I left at the perfectly worst time,” he says, referring to the tougher U.S. enforcement along the border.

Gabriel is from a village in a hilly department, or province, in central Honduras. Homicides in the region more than tripled between 2005 and 2014. Unlike many urban centers, his rural town isn’t overwhelmed by rival gangs charging extortion fees or controlling territories. It’s home to drug traffickers, who have been allegedly bolstered for years by powerful local politicians profiting from the illegal trade.

It’s been more than seven years since Gabriel was first approached by criminal elements in town: first invited, then cajoled, and finally threatened if he didn’t work for them, he says. They recruit residents to be “mules,” carrying drugs north, or to be lookouts. Gabriel always refused, but the implications of his resistance became more serious as he watched neighbors – and his cousin – murdered for the same reason, he says. 

In early 2018, when a local family, including the children, was killed after the father declined to work with drug traffickers, Gabriel felt as if he was putting his own family at risk. He was living at the time with his parents, his girlfriend, and their two children. So he moved out of his father’s home to a small house a four-hour hike up the mountain.

Not long afterward, his father suggested he should do more than hide. He needed to leave.

Jorge Cabrera/Reuters/File

Children look at soldiers patrolling during an anti-gang search operation at the Picachito neighborhood in Tegucigalpa, Honduras on Sept. 7, 2018.

Unexpected goodbye

It took Gabriel and Nicolás two weeks to cross through Guatemala and Mexico before arriving at the U.S. border in 2018. 

Gabriel had decided he wasn’t going to risk staying with his son at any shelters along the way in Mexico, since migrants can be easy prey for thieves, and informants are rumored to share the identities of migrants with criminal elements in Central America. He saved up to pay for buses and small hotel rooms instead. 

“[Nicolás] never went hungry. Everything I had I spent on feeding him and making sure he felt safe,” says Gabriel, who went days without food himself.

After their encounter with the Border Patrol agent, they spent two days together in a short-term processing center. Then agents came for Gabriel and his son. Nicolás clamped onto his father’s leg, crying. He seemed to be aware of something that Gabriel himself says he couldn’t see in that hectic moment: This was goodbye. 

Gabriel was deported one week after crossing the border. It wasn’t his first deportation. He had tried applying for asylum in 2015, but was denied. Because he had a previous deportation order, U.S. authorities told him he wasn’t eligible this time around. But experts say he should have been issued a “withholding of removal” order, which can be given by an immigration judge when someone has demonstrated a high chance of persecution at home.

Nearly two frantic weeks passed before Gabriel could find out anything about his son: that he was safe, that he had been fed, and – most devastatingly – that he believed his father had intentionally left him behind. For several months, Nicolás was in a center for children in the Chicago area. But other than a few tear-filled phone calls, Gabriel says he was given little information on when his son would be released to his sister, who had agreed to be his guardian in the U.S. “I knew family members had been killed” over the years in Honduras, says his sister Veronica, who came to the U.S. in 2014 and applied for asylum, which is still pending. 

“When something like that happened, I’d get a call or a message, but what could I do from the U.S.? Just brace myself for the pain of what my family was going through.” 

She says it took nearly four months before she was allowed to take custody of Nicolás, despite showing that she could pay for a ticket to fly him to her home and providing birth certificates and other documentation proving they are related.

Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the Immigrants’ Rights Project for the American Civil Liberties Union, sees the U.S. government’s family separation policy in 2018 as a “historic moral stain” on the country. “Part of the immigrant experience is to have to make big sacrifices,” says Mr. Gelernt. “That’s what seems so unfair about what happened in the U.S. You already had one separation that was voluntary from the rest of your family, just to get here and have your kid taken away.”

Some U.S. officials and hard-line immigration reform groups believe this is as it should be. While many law enforcement officials recognize the difficult situations families and minors are fleeing in places such as Honduras, the U.S. simply can’t take in everyone who shows up on its doorstep.

“There have to be consequences to violating the law,” says Jerry Robinette, a former Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent in San Antonio.

The cost and logistics of handling families that show up at the border can be particularly difficult. It requires detaining, housing, and then coordinating the deportation of migrants with the countries from which they came, Mr. Robinette notes. 

“Dealing with family units or whenever you encounter a juvenile … it creates an added stress on the system,” because the rules and requirements for dealing with minors are more strict and involve more manpower, he says.

The number of families trying to enter the U.S. on the southern border initially continued to rise even after the implementation of the family separation policy. The U.S. Border Patrol apprehended more than 474,000 family units and nearly 76,000 unaccompanied youth along the southwest border in fiscal year 2019. These marked the highest numbers of apprehensions since the U.S. began keeping track in 2008. Those numbers fell dramatically in 2020, however, when borders across the region closed due to concerns about COVID-19.  

Some advocates of a more secure border believe the flood of families seeking asylum was part of a deliberate calculation. As the U.S. stepped up immigration enforcement, more migrants were trying to come in legally by applying for asylum, they argue. 

The Trump administration sought to address this in a number of ways, including by requiring asylum-seekers to await their U.S. court hearings in Mexico. President Biden suspended new enrollment in this program, the Migrant Protection Protocols, during his first week in office, but there are still 67,000 asylum-seekers in the MPP, including families, many still languishing in Mexico.

Ann Hermes/Staff/File

Ana sits with her daughter, waiting for her mother at the Attention Center for Returned Migrants on September 11, 2018 in San Pedro Sula, Honduras. After fleeing violence in Honduras, Ana’s mother was picked up in the United States and deported back to Honduras.

Long-term trend

Many believe the demographics of migration are changing permanently. Gretchen Kuhner, director of the Institute for Women in Migration, a Mexican nongovernmental organization, says families will continue to be a substantial part of the migration north – and governments on both sides of the border need to focus on policies that address this reality, not wring their hands over the added challenges it presents.

“There have been so many complaints about families,” she says. “But the reality now seems to be if you’re going to [migrate], it’s best to travel as a family unit to avoid long-term separation.”

Too many families have watched loved ones make the trek north and disappear. Each May, the church that Rosa Nelly Santos attends in northern Honduras celebrates the “day of the family.” A few years ago, amid the festivities, she looked around the room and asked herself, “Who here doesn’t have someone missing or living abroad or outside of the home?” she recalls. “Our families and our communities aren’t complete. There’s always someone missing.”

Ann Hermes/Staff/File

Leticia Martinez holds a photo of her daughter, Merza, who went missing after leaving Honduras, outside of COFAMIPRO, Committee for Disappeared Migrant Relatives, on September 10, 2018 in El Progreso, Honduras.

Ms. Santos knows something about family separation. She’s president of the Family Committee for Disappeared Migrants of El Progreso, or Cofamipro, a 20-year-old group made up mostly of mothers who have lost loved ones on the trail north. 

Leticia Martínez is one of them. Her daughter has been missing for 14 years. A single mother of three, she took off for the U.S. in search of employment, last making contact in October 2006. She told her mother she was being pursued by organized criminals while traveling through Mexico.

Ms. Martínez has raised her grandchildren as if they were her babies. “I’ll never let them leave,” she says. “I can’t manage to lose another child without knowing where or how or why.”

While the circumstances behind separations of members of Cofamipro may be different from families like Gabriel’s, both highlight the reasons Hondurans migrate and the anguish their decisions can engender. 

“Children need to feel safe,” says Elizabeth Kennedy, a U.S. social scientist who has worked in the region for years doing research on why migrants leave Honduras and El Salvador. Even when a parent leaves for the purpose of keeping a child safe, it can backfire. “I have documented again and again that children view this like they’ve been abandoned, even though that’s the furthest thing from a parent’s intention.” 

“I want to do this right”

Nicolás is now enrolled in second grade, fluent in English, and “really big,” says Gabriel. In many ways, his son’s life is exactly what he dreamed about all those years when he was consumed by concerns about Nicolás’ safety and his family’s future in Honduras. 

“The best thing is that he’s healthy. He gets to be a kid, he’s in school, he’s learning so much,” says Gabriel, sounding like a proud father. “He’s just happy here.” 

It took a while to get to this point. When they first reunited, “I thought he was going to be the same kid as always. But once he started talking more I could understand [our relationship] would never be the same. He asked why I left him behind. Why I didn’t love him. Why the police took me but left him,” he says.

Yet Gabriel insists it was the right decision to bring Nicolás with him in 2018, and to leave him in the U.S. alone. “Security is a beautiful thing,” he says.

Gabriel is still dealing with a lot of his own emotions. He tries to cobble together informal jobs while navigating the U.S. legal system. One day in October he left his sister’s house at 5 a.m. to make a 9 a.m. court appearance. When he arrived at the venue, he was told there were no hearings because of the pandemic. Would this jeopardize his status in the U.S.? Would there be any way to register he had shown up?

He called a handful of lawyers who said they’d need thousands of dollars in retainers to help him. Finally, in December, he received a message that he was scheduled for a new court date in May. It feels like a long time to wait.  

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“I want to be able to work in this country. I want to do this right,” he says. That’s one of his biggest takeaways – and frustrations – from the long saga his family has survived the past two years. He still has a 5-year-old daughter back in Honduras. He’d like his children to be together in one safe place. 

“I don’t know what to do to bring her here. Besides the migratory path being incredibly dangerous, I understand it turns out better to do things legally from the start,” he says. “We just need to know how: What are the steps to take?”  

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