This mother waited 12 years to embrace her daughter again. After the 14-year-old finally arrived in the United States from Guatemala, the long-awaited hug would be delayed for another four months.
That's how long the girl was held in a shelter for immigrant children in Texas, where she arrived at the end of January. That's how long it took for her mother in South Florida to get through the family reunification process.
“It was very difficult, because they made my life impossible with so many requirements,” said the mother, who asked to be identified only as "Elena" out of fear her statements would affect her pending asylum case. “I don't know why they make us suffer so much just to get our children. We should have the right to be with our kids.”
The debate over immigrant children has centered on the more than 2,000 minors separated from their parents under the Trump administration's “zero tolerance” policy after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally. But some 9,000 other youths who are in shelters across the United States entered the country without a parent or rather "unaccompanied."
Their detainment is not the result of the zero tolerance policy implemented in April — thousands of unaccompanied minors also were housed in temporary shelters during the Obama administration following an exodus primarily out of Central America in 2014. Children entering without a parent is a reality that has long been part of U.S. immigration history.
Also part of the immigrant experience: the sometimes long, arduous process of reuniting these youths with their relatives waiting for them in the United States. Authorities have said their priority is to protect the children and that it takes times to fulfill all the legal requirements. The average length of stay at shelters for minors is currently 57 days.
This is one immigrant mother's tale of what she went through to get her child out of a shelter.
One immigrant mother's odyssey
The reunification process for Elena began with the basics: “They asked for her birth certificate, my birth certificate,” Elena said. “That's understandable. They want to make sure that I am the mother.”
But then came a torrent of other requirements, including tax returns for the past four years; utility payments for the past two years; and the last two tax returns of a U.S. citizen who would serve as a financial sponsor for the family.
“They would tell me, 'Come and sign here. Go and sign there,” she said. “I would send in a document and they would tell me they could not read it well, and I would have to send it three and four times.”
Elena also was asked for documents proving she owns the trailer home where she lives. A social worker visited her and asked for improvements to the home to prepare for the daughter's arrival. Having worked in construction for 12 years, she did the repairs herself. She also had to go to the local police department to submit her fingerprints.
The lengthy bureaucracy forced Elena to miss several days of work, and she had to dip into her meager savings to make ends meet. Meanwhile, her daughter was allowed to talk to her mother by phone from the Texas shelter for 10 minutes every Tuesday. She always asked the same question.
“Mami, do you know when I will get out of here?"
"No, I don't know. They don't tell me anything," Elena responded. "They don't say when or what time or what day. All they say is wait, wait, wait."
Finally, in May, she received the long-awaited news.
“They told me I had to buy her (plane) ticket,” said Elena, her voice breaking as she recalled the conversation. “I was so happy.”
But by then she had spent almost all her savings. The ticket cost $860. She had only $400.
“I found someone to lend me the money so I could get her out of there as soon as possible,” she said.
Poverty and violence
Elena comes from a province in northern Guatemala where nearly 60 percent of the people live in poverty and 16 percent live in extreme poverty.
When she became pregnant almost 15 years ago, her boyfriend asked her to get an abortion.
"He told me, 'I want to stay with you, but I am not ready to be a father. Can you have an abortion?'" the 35-year-old woman said. “I ended up alone, with my little belly.”
By the time her baby turned two, life had become almost unbearable. She worked as a cook, making a pittance, struggling to even purchase milk for her growing girl. So she decided to leave her daughter in her mother's care while she made the same trek many others in Guatemala take: north to the United States.
“I said I was not going to die poor here,” she recalled, sitting on the brown leather sofa that takes up almost all the living area of her small mobile home in Broward County. A friend gave her the sofa to spruce up the place, as a gift for when her daughter joined her.
Elena lives modestly, but it's more than she ever dreamed of.
“All this space, this floor. This is a luxury,” she said. In Guatemala “we didn't have this. I lived in a little room, like a closet. The bed almost didn't fit.” Elena never went to school — “not even one day” — but wanted her daughter to have an education.
Working hard in the United States, she sent money home to pay costs tied to her daughter's education. The girl also played soccer, wore pretty clothes.
But like Elena, she had to leave her home country. The mother sought to escape poverty, the daughter fled gang violence in a nation with one of the highest crime rates in Latin America. So at the end of 2017, she followed the same path her mother took 12 years earlier.
She arrived in South Florida six months after leaving Guatemala; four months after being released from the migrant shelter.
It took Elena a few seconds to recognize her daughter as she scanned the faces of passengers at the airport. Sometimes, the whole experience still seems surreal to her.
“I can't believe I have her with me," Elena said. "I left when she was so small.”
The two are just getting to know each other. The dark-haired girl with a quiet demeanor has told her mother that she feels safer here and likes having her own bedroom and a TV. She is looking forward to playing soccer again, perhaps when school starts.
But Elena lives in fear. She has another child, a 2-year-old boy born in the United States, whom she is raising on her own. The boy's father, who was undocumented, was deported to Honduras in 2016, just a month after she gave birth.
She's afraid tougher immigration policies will derail her asylum claims. She's afraid immigration authorities will one day knock on her door and take her away. She's afraid she'll lose everything she's worked for. She's afraid for her children, of what will become of them if they have to go back to Guatemala.
"Like all immigrants, we all live in fear," she said.
Government officials, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions, have said that the tougher immigration policies are part of an attempt to dissuade undocumented immigrants, including minors, from entering to the United States illegally. Earlier this month, the government started checking the immigration status for relatives who are trying to get custody of children held in shelters. Some advocates worry the change could deter families from claiming children.
For Elena, the message is loud and clear.
"You think that if parents knew what is happening now they would want their children to come here?," she said. "No, Neither would I. I regretted many times having brought my daughter. And when I fell into depression, I thought about it a lot. I told myself 'I should not have done it."