Pedro Godinez-Aguilar clenched his 7-year-old daughter’s delicate palms in his calloused hands.
Just moments before, the sobbing father braided his “princess’ “ long black hair, cleansed her sweaty skin with crinkled baby wipes, and prayed over her “journey” — a journey that would soon end with him in jail and his daughter more than a thousand miles away.
The Guatemalan asylum-seeker had arrived at the U.S. border in Arizona in May, days after the Trump administration announced that all adults crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally would be prosecuted — a “zero tolerance” policy imposed in April that has resulted in more than 2,000 children being removed from their parents by U.S. border agents.
Last month, President Donald Trump signed an executive order ending the process of separating children from their families at the border. But the order did not take into account how the administration would reunite the children already separated from their parents.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
“They told him to prepare his daughter,” his wife, Buena Ventura Martin-Godinez, told the Miami Herald late Monday. “They never explained that he would be going to prison and that she’d be yanked away from her daddy until the very last minute.”
Their daughter, Janne, was placed on a plane to Michigan. There she would be housed at detention center and ultimately catch a high fever and contract a major tooth infection.
Martin-Godinez, 29, who arrived at the United States with her 10-month-old son a week before her husband, was reunited with her child at Miami International Airport late Sunday night after two months with no physical contact.
Her husband, 34, remains behind bars in Atlanta.
“He tells me over the phone that nobody speaks Spanish at the jail. My daughter said the same,” Martin-Godinez said. “He also said there’s lots of hunger and no water. They’re forced to drink from the faucet next to the toilet, which has so much chlorine that he now has burns on his mouth. He’s hungry and desperate.”
THE AMERICAN DREAM
The family of four were on a mission — to chase the American dream.
Martin-Godinez worked as a nurse in Huehuetenango, a municipality in the highlands of western Guatemala, and Godinez-Aguilar had just started a business.
“The gang members kept stealing our money and threatening to kill our family if we didn’t pay up,” Martin-Godinez said. “What would you do? You hear about America, ‘the land of the free.’”
The teary-eyed mother wrapped her arms around her sleeping son and gulped.
“That’s a lie.”
The couple packed up enough items to fill a small book bag and decided they would venture to the border at separate times. She would take the baby first, and he would take Janne later on.
“It just made sense. She’s daddy’s princess and they were inseparable. Well, up until two months ago when they were separated,” she said, noting that the escalating death threats against her husband caused him to head to the border earlier than planned, giving her no time to contact him.
Martin-Godinez tells of a bus ride through Guatemala to Mexico and from Mexico to Phoenix, Arizona. There was excitement. A sense of safety. Peace and joy.
When she arrived, however, that quickly changed.
“There were so many women crying, yelling that children were being taken away from parents. By the grace of God, my son and I remained together.”
She questioned herself: “What am I doing here?”
“If I would have known this would be like this, I would have chosen another country to seek asylum in.”
The first phone call Martin-Godinez received from her daughter was that of a weeping, frantic young girl, she said.
“She kept screaming, ‘Take me out of here!’” she said in Spanish. “As a parent, you are powerless. All I can do was promise to hug her soon and to buy her toys and clothes to calm her down.”
Today, Martin-Godinez lives with her brother-in-law in Homestead. She wears an ankle monitor. The mother and father had trained Janne to memorize the Miami phone number in case of an emergency.
In between court appearances and check-ins with immigration every Wednesday, the mother loads up an old cellphone with minutes from an international calling card so she can communicate with her husband and daughter.
Despite the tragedy of being split up, she said it was a recent phone call from her husband that shattered her world.
“He said that the authorities at the detention center told him to sign some papers. They told him the papers were about him being released from there. But they lied. Turns out what he signed were papers for deportation.”
Nora Sandigo, an immigrant advocate based in Miami, has now stepped in. Her organization, the Nora Sandigo Children Foundation, is working with a pro-bono immigration attorney to represent Godinez Aguilar.
“What they’re doing is diabolical,” Sandigo said. “We’re hoping the court will judge this case for what it is — a family seeking asylum because they are in fear for their life.”
Janne, who whacked away at mosquitoes late Monday, battled tears as she sat on Sandigo’s lap.
“You were finally reunited. What are you in need of now?” a reporter asked.
She answered: “My daddy."