It’s a Saturday night at the Amor Viviente evangelical church in North Lauderdale. And it’s rocking.
A church band has the flock on its feet, clapping and belting out pop Christian hymns. Most are Honduran migrants. And most are young — many were part of the wave of 60,000 unaccompanied Central American minors who showed up on the U.S. border in 2014.
Among them is a 15-year-old Honduran boy named Daniel, one of the thousands who came to South Florida. (He asked that his last name not be used because his immigration case is pending.)
At Amor Viviente services, Daniel sits with his mother, Mirta, and they look as well adjusted as any other family in this booming congregation.
But the reality is that until recently they were utter strangers.
“I’d say we didn’t know each other at all,” says Daniel.
When Daniel was 3, Mirta, a destitute single mother, left impoverished Honduras for Florida to find work. She left her son with her mother in Tegucigalpa. Daniel said growing up without his mom was hell.
“The gang that ruled my barrio robbed me on my way to school, beat me up and threatened to kill me,” he recalls. “Most days I felt alone.”
Mirta, meanwhile, watched from Florida as Honduras’ criminal bloodshed — until a year ago the country had the world’s highest murder rate — spiraled out of control.
“As a mother, it was killing me knowing the gangs could destroy him,” she said.
But because she was undocumented, she couldn’t go back to Honduras without jeopardizing her return to the U.S. — and the desperately needed money she regularly wired to Daniel.
So last year she sent for Daniel to make the harrowing trip through Mexico, where he says he was robbed and beaten up some more whenever he traveled on foot.
But when mother and son reunited, it was as if each had just returned from 11 years on a desert island — and Daniel again felt like a kid adrift.
“We fought about everything,” he says. “I think I was angry at her, really.”
Eventually they reconnected. Mirta, who before she left Honduras rarely dressed Daniel in more than toddler onesies, has finally learned what clothes teens like. Daniel attends high school in Deerfield Beach and helps Mirta with her home and office cleaning jobs.
Cases like theirs abound inside Amor Viviente — and South Florida — and resolving them often falls to community leaders like Amor Viviente’s Honduran-American pastor, the Rev. Gabriel Callejas.
“The people that [are] coming here, they need spiritual advice, but they also need legal representation and all kinds of other help,” says Callejas, who has watched his congregation swell from fewer than 100 members a few years ago to more than 300 today.
That means Callejas has taken on the added role of family reunification counselor.
“It’s like to have a new family,” he says. The parents, many of whom migrated to the U.S. a decade or more before their children, “have to know how to make the new relationship with the kids. I mean — they’re no more kids.”
In fact, in cases like Daniel’s, the daily brutality of life in Honduras has usually made them seem much older. That makes forging those new relationships more daunting, if not painful — and makes assimilation and legal immigration status for those newly arrived youths more complicated.
Few know that better than the immigration counselors at the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), a relief organization that helps migrants. Last month, a number of them gathered for a conference at Amor Viviente to hash out the challenges.
“A decade ago, I don’t think these parents envisioned themselves having to mount rescue operations to get their kids out of Honduras,” says Saulo Padilla, an MCC immigration education director.
“Often there’s a lot of resentment among the kids,” he says. “Back in Honduras they’re asking, ‘Why did you leave me here?’ Then they get here and all the trauma they’ve suffered starts coming out.”
“Many of them can’t verbalize it, all that has happened to them,” says MCC attorney Rachel Diaz. “And the parent doesn’t have the capacity to hear it because it compiles a lot of guilt on top of guilt.”
Worse, there always seems to be the looming risk of yet another separation.
One of Diaz’s clients is “Pablo.” (That’s not his real name; it’s what he asked that he be called because his asylum case is pending.)
“Pablo,” 18, is from Honduras’ rural Olancho province, where his single father entrusted him with relatives in 2005 before coming to Florida.
“The money he sent back allowed me to survive,” Pablo admits. “But you need your dad there. You need his advice.”
Especially as violent cocaine-trafficking gangs like Los Cachiros began taking over his community and murders became commonplace. An extortion ring killed Pablo’s uncle — and when he became a teenager, he says gangbangers tried to recruit him, threatening to kill him if he refused to join.
So last year Pablo, too, made the odyssey to the U.S. — sleeping most nights outside as he trekked through Mexico — and to Florida. He now lives with his father, a Lake Worth house painter. His dad asked that his own name not be used (he’s also undocumented), but he says he’s reveling in watching his boy play soccer for the first time.
“I lost my chance to be his father,” he says. “At least now I can be his friend.”
But getting an immigration judge to grant Pablo’s request for asylum won’t be easy. Chances are he could face deportation soon — meaning he and his father may not see each other again for years.
“I try not to think about it,” says Pablo, a high school junior who wants to be a military pilot. “I just think about the fact that here with my dad I can be someone I could never be in Honduras.”
But that’s a reality of this hemisphere’s migration maze. Kids like Pablo often see the finish line — only to find themselves back at the starting line.
More from the Migration Maze series:
Interactive Map: Inside the Northern Triangle