St. Louis

They Crossed the Border as Unaccompanied Minors to Reunite With Their Mom

“I was very, very scared. I came with people I didn’t know.”

Reena Flores and Alexia Fernã¡Ndez Campbell
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Reena Flores Alexia Fernández Campbell
Sept. 11, 2014, 10:11 a.m.

ST. LOUIS—Nearly 40,000 chil­dren from Cent­ral Amer­ica have moved in with re­l­at­ives in the United States in re­cent months after cross­ing the bor­der. Dar­win, 12, and his sis­ter Luz, 13, are two of them. Each traveled for days to reach the Texas bor­der from Hon­dur­as so they could re­unite with their moth­er here in St. Louis after nine years apart.

Miri­an, their moth­er, left Dar­win and Luz with their grand­moth­er as tod­dlers while she went to find work in the U.S. She was a single moth­er at the time and couldn’t sup­port the fam­ily with the money she made selling ve­get­ables on the street. So Miri­an crossed the Rio Grande in an in­flat­able raft and worked for years cook­ing and clean­ing in New Or­leans and St. Louis, send­ing money home each week. Last year, she de­cided to bring Luz and Dar­win to the U.S. after her moth­er fell ill and gang vi­ol­ence spread through their ho­met­own on Lake Yo­joa.

As they await their Oc­to­ber im­mig­ra­tion hear­ings, Dar­win, Luz and Miri­an met with Na­tion­al Journ­al re­port­ers in their St. Louis apart­ment to talk about what it’s like to live to­geth­er after spend­ing most of their lives apart.

Na­tion­al Journ­al is with­hold­ing the fam­ily’s last name to pro­tect their iden­tit­ies. These in­ter­views have been trans­lated from Span­ish and ed­ited for length and clar­ity.

***

Dar­win, 12, ar­rived in St. Louis from Hon­dur­as in May 2014:

Do you re­mem­ber the day your moth­er left to the United States?

Yes. I was ly­ing in a ham­mock and she came over. I said, “Mom, where are you go­ing?” My mom said, “I’m go­ing to San Pedro,” but she was ly­ing. I asked my grand­moth­er about it when she didn’t re­turn the next day. My grand­moth­er said, “No, Dar­win, your moth­er went to the United States.” Then I star­ted to cry.

Did you un­der­stand why she had gone to the United States?

No

How old were you?

About three.

When you talked on the phone with your moth­er, what did you talk about?

I didn’t talk, I just cried. Only now that I am older was I able to talk to her. When they passed her to me [on the phone], I would start to cry. I couldn’t talk to her. She would just say, “Son, don’t cry, be­cause one day we will see each oth­er again,” and that’s all she would say.

When were you fi­nally able to speak to her?

When I was eight years old.

Did you ever think you would come to the United States?

I didn’t think I was go­ing to come. Ever since my mom lied to me about go­ing to San Pedro, I stopped be­liev­ing her.

What did you think when you found out you would fi­nally be join­ing her?

I al­most didn’t want to come. She left me be­hind, so I was raised by my grand­moth­er.

How was the trip to get here?

Good. I crossed [the Rio Grande] with three boys.

Were you nervous or afraid?

Yes, be­cause we got off the boat and we had no shoes, and then we climbed up and I didn’t know where to go. There were two paths. So we took off on one path and fol­lowed some coyotes, and then a heli­copter ar­rived and then a car picked us up. A man asked us if we had per­mis­sion to enter here and we said no. And then they asked us if we were minors and we said yes. So they just took us and we got in the car.

How did the im­mig­ra­tion agents treat you?

They treated us well. They took us to the sta­tion where they were go­ing to drop someone off. And then only at night did they move us to an­oth­er place, and then an­oth­er place. Four places. They looked like jails.

Were there many oth­er chil­dren there?

Yes, there were many chil­dren. They told us to sit down be­cause later it would get so packed that some people had to sleep stand­ing up.

Did you talk to your mom at some point?

They called her and passed her to me, be­cause my mom asked the of­fi­cial to put me on the phone. So they passed her to me.

How long were you there at the de­ten­tion cen­ter?

I was at the cen­ter for about 19 days.

What was it like to be on a plane for the first time?

I got a little scared when it lif­ted off. It gave me goose bumps be­cause it felt hor­rible to as­cend so fast like that.

Tell me about see­ing your moth­er for the first time—was it at the air­port?

Yes. I was so happy and she star­ted to cry be­cause I looked so skinny. I thought I looked fat, but she thought I looked so skinny.

Did you cry?

No, I just felt happy, but I didn’t cry.

What do you think of St. Louis? Do you prefer liv­ing here or in Hon­dur­as?

Hon­dur­as. Be­cause over there it was just me with my grand­moth­er, so we went every­where to­geth­er. But not so much here.

Wouldn’t you miss your moth­er if you re­turned? Or are you used to liv­ing without her?

I’ve got­ten used to it.

***

Luz, 13, ar­rived in St. Louis from Hon­dur­as in May 2013:

So you said that you don’t re­mem­ber the day that your moth­er left. Did you ever won­der where your moth­er was?

When I was grow­ing up, my grand­moth­er told me where she was, and since I talked to her, I nev­er wondered, “Where is my moth­er?”

Did you un­der­stand that she had come to the United States il­leg­ally?

No.

Did you want to move to St. Louis?

I wanted to come here be­cause I wanted to meet my moth­er.

When she told you that she was bring­ing you over, what was your re­ac­tion?

I said yes, and then I be­came emo­tion­al on the way here. I was also sad, be­cause I had nev­er lived with her, only with my grand­moth­er.

How did you cross the river?

I crossed in a boat like she did.

Were you nervous or afraid?

Yes, I was afraid. I was scared, very scared. I came with people I didn’t know. Then a wo­man sent me alone with a man, so I didn’t eat for three days, I just cried for three days. I didn’t know the man and I felt as though he was go­ing to try and touch me or something. 

Tell me how you got to Texas.

I crossed the river, and im­mig­ra­tion was there and they de­tained me. That’s when they took me to a place just like a house, and then they asked me my mom’s name and where I was com­ing from. I told them I was go­ing to see my mom. They gave me a phone and I dialed my mom’s num­ber and a man from im­mig­ra­tion spoke to her. The people from im­mig­ra­tion took me to a fam­ily’s house. I went to school. I was there for about 15 or 16 days. Then the lady told me I was com­ing here with my moth­er and I came by plane.

Was it the first time you had been on a plane?

Yes.

How was it?

It was in­cred­ible, very scary too. I was over­whelmed be­cause I knew the next day I was go­ing to see my mom. And that’s when I met her.

Can you de­scribe what it was like to see your mom for the first time?

When I got of the plane, I thought my mom would be right there. I didn’t real­ize she would be on the oth­er side. Then I saw her. I had a suit­case, and I just wanted to throw aside the suit­case and run to hug her. And that’s when I walked to­ward her and hugged her and we star­ted to cry.

What was the cul­tur­al change between liv­ing in Hon­dur­as and then here?

I like it here more than Hon­dur­as be­cause in Hon­dur­as it’s ex­tremely dan­ger­ous. Many people kill oth­er people over there, groups of men—what you call gangs.

What do you like most about liv­ing here, aside from be­ing with your mom?

I like hanging out with my friends, go­ing to school. My friends are from Hon­dur­as. Most are from Cuba, from Mex­ico. We talk, we go to lunch. But my best friend moved to an­oth­er school. They trans­ferred her be­cause she already knew too much Eng­lish. She had already been here two years.

Is there any­thing that has been hard to ad­just to?

I’ve ad­jus­ted. I really love St. Louis.

Are you wor­ried that you might have to leave?

Yes. Be­cause over there, I can’t get what my mom can of­fer me here. And I would have to leave her and spend more years without see­ing her.

***

Miri­an, moth­er, 30:

What does it feel like to have both of your kids here with you?

I’m very happy.

What was it like when you saw Luz at the air­port for the first time?

It was very emo­tion­al. The night be­fore I couldn’t sleep, think­ing that I was go­ing to see her again after so long.

Did she look the way you ima­gined her?

No. She was so little when I left—about four years old—and see­ing her as a young wo­man all grown up was very dif­fer­ent.

You had trouble loc­at­ing Dar­win after he crossed the bor­der a few months ago. What happened?

An im­mig­ra­tion of­fi­cial called me and said, “I have a boy here.” And I said, “A boy?” I didn’t re­cog­nize the num­ber he was call­ing from. Then he told me the name and asked if I knew him. I said yes, so he passed him to me on the phone. That day I was with Luz and we star­ted to cry. I told her, “Dar­win is here.”

What was it like to be sep­ar­ated from your son for so many years? I know it was hard for him.

It was also hard for me. I was very sad here too, but some­times you have to do what is ne­ces­sary. I would al­ways tell him, “Son, I came here be­cause I want to build you a little house where we can all live.” And he would say no, that he could build me one.

Now he really misses his grand­moth­er?

Yes, al­ways. 

How does that make you feel?

Very sad. They de­veloped so much af­fec­tion for her. But un­for­tu­nately, my moth­er can’t take care of them any­more. She’s sick with dia­betes.

Do you think Dar­win will ever ad­just to liv­ing here?

Yes, he likes it very much. He’s already get­ting used to me. Be­cause when I was here and he was there, he would call me “Mom” and called my moth­er “Mommy.” Now that has changed. Now he calls me “Mommy” and calls her “Mom.”

What do you all do to­geth­er here in St. Louis?

Some­times we go out to eat. We go to the zoo, or I’ll take them to some of the parks. Some­times I take them to the mall.

Do you worry a lot about the pos­sib­il­ity that they will be de­por­ted?

We have to stay pos­it­ive, right? Whatever God wishes.

***

Pro-bono law­yers from the Cath­ol­ic Im­mig­rant Law Pro­ject in St. Louis are rep­res­ent­ing dozens of Cent­ral Amer­ic­an chil­dren in im­mig­ra­tion court, in­clud­ing Luz and Dar­win. Staff at­tor­ney Kristine Walentik is try­ing to get the sib­lings Spe­cial Im­mig­rant Ju­ven­ile Status, which gives per­man­ent res­id­ency to cer­tain chil­dren who have been aban­doned, ab­used, or neg­lected.

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