For the last two months, Jose Caceres has been torturing himself with a question: Did he destroy his family trying to save it?
On May 4, after a treacherous 50-day trek through Central America, Caceres presented himself at the U.S. border with his 11-year-old son, Brayan. He was planning to tell U.S. immigration officials that he and his son were fleeing gang violence, the brutal murder of Brayan’s mother plus crushing poverty — that they were seeking asylum.
Instead, Caceres, 31, was led off in handcuffs while Brayan was taken away in another direction. Twenty days later, Caceres was deported without knowing his son’s fate. He has heard from the boy's grandmother in Orlando that his son is being held in a shelter in Maryland but information has been frustratingly hard to get in the 60 days since father and son were separated at the border without warning.
On Wednesday, as he sat on a porch in Yoro, a small agricultural town in central Honduras, back where he had started out, Caceres said he felt cursed.
“I gave up absolutely everything to try to protect my family,” he said. “Not only did I lose everything, but I feel like I’ve lost them also.”
Caceres is one of 36,580 Hondurans who have been deported this year from the United States, according to the Honduran government's foreign ministry — and one of more than 230 who have been separated from their children under the Trump administration’s short-lived “zero tolerance” policy. The practice of separating migrants from their children at the border was stopped amid a wave of protests, and a U.S. court on June 26 ordered that all children be reunited with their guardians within 30 days.
Unlike other recent cases of migrants being separated from their children at the border, Caceres isn't asking for his son back. Instead, he wants Brayan to be turned over to the child’s grandmother, who lives in Orlando. And while authorities have said that’s exactly what will happen eventually, Caceres is seized by dark thoughts.
“What if he falls into the hands of another person?” he asks. “What if he’s taken from us?”
Since returning to Honduras, Caceres gets phone calls from Brayan twice a week, as allowed by U.S. immigration, but he says the conversations are so rushed he’s never asked the boy where he’s being held.
“I just keep asking him if he’s all right and eating well,” he said.
His son has told him that he’s learning to count in English. But mainly he keeps asking when he’ll be allowed to see his family again.
According to Brayan’s grandmother, Rosa Caceres, the boy shares a room at the Maryland shelter with 10 other migrants, aged 8 to 14. She says she calls her grandson every day but sometimes can’t get through.
“The boy is depressed and my son is destroyed back in Honduras,” she said from her home in Orlando. “He can’t find a way out. He’s hurt and feels helpless.”
The Honduran government — along with other countries in the region — has called the U.S. policy “inhumane” and “alarming.”
“To migrate is a human right,” said Nelly Jerez, Honduras’ undersecretary for foreign affairs. “But our government is doing everything it can so that our people don’t have to embark on a dangerous journey and subject themselves to being separated at the border.”
For Caceres, the idea of fleeing Honduras began to develop two years ago, when Brayan’s mother was found murdered and stuffed in a septic tank in San Pedro Sula, one of the world’s most violent cities. Authorities initially jailed the woman’s partner, but he was released after he claimed she was murdered by a gang that also forced him to dump her body.
Caceres says that unresolved crime eats at his son.
“He was living in fear,” Caceres said. “To be so young and have your mother taken away? I wanted him to be able to think about something else.”
But according to the boy's grandmother, detention has made her grandson even more fixated on his mother.
“He tells me that when the lights are off he hears footsteps and that he knows it’s his mother coming for him because he didn’t get the chance to say goodbye to her,” Rosa Caceres said. “I tell him that his mother is like me, that she only wants the best for him. She would want to protect him…But he is only a kid and he’s scared.”
While fear of Honduras’ violence was one motivation for Caceres’ decision to flee, poverty was another. Caceres works on a small family plot growing corn and beans, but relies on getting work as a day laborer, making just $4 a day.
“We were leaving to find a better life,” he said. “Here we could barely survive, and then with all the criminality there was just nothing, absolutely nothing here for Brayan.”
Caceres said he began formulating his escape when he read about the migrant “caravan” — an annual gathering of Latin Americans seeking safety in numbers as they make their way through Mexico to the United States.
On March 17, Caceres, his partner, their 4-year-old son, Enir, and Brayan caught a series of buses to meet the caravan in Tapachula in southern Mexico.
At times they sat atop the infamous cargo train known as “La Bestia” that runs through Mexico. Other times they caught rides or simply walked.
The caravan of migrants provided a degree of safety and dramatically brought down costs. Human traffickers charge people $7,000 to spirit them from Honduras across the U.S. border.. The caravan was essentially free.
On April 28, the group finally hit the El Chaparral immigration point in Tijuana, where they waited for days to be processed. Caceres said he was determined to enter the U.S. legally — and make his case to officials at the border. Caceres’ partner and youngest son crossed the border on May 3 without being separated. But when he and Brayan tried to cross the next day, he says they were immediately pulled apart without explanation.
Caceres said he spent a full day alone in a room that migrants called "La Hielera," the Ice Box, and then he was put in a warehouse filled with bunk beds and a throng of people waiting to be sent home. On May 24, he was deported after signing a paper he didn’t understand.
During the plane ride, he was so distraught that he later told his mother that he had wished the plane would crash. The man sitting next to him, who had also been separated from his children, wouldn’t stop crying.
Caceres was let off the plane, penniless, in San Pedro Sula — the city where his ex-wife was murdered, the place that had sparked the journey. He says a news photographer at the airport took pity on him and gave him enough money to make the three-hour bus ride back to Yoro.
On July 4 — exactly two months since he’d last seen his son — Caceres sat on the porch of his brother’s house and obsessively scrolled through his phone. He lamented not having more pictures of Brayan, and wondered when he might be able to take another one. As part of his deportation, he’s been told he can’t visit the United States for at least five years.
If the U.S. “zero tolerance” policy was meant to discourage migrants from trying to cross the border, Caceres said it worked.
“The American dream is ugly,” he said. “You suffer so much.”