After Long-Awaited Reunion, Guatemalan Family Braces for Challenges
Filomena, 5, holds hands with her father, Nazario and grandmother, Angela, at a migrant shelter in Guatemala City on August 8, 2018. The girl's mother, Marcela, carries 2-year old son Marvin as the family prepares to leave for their village in the country's western highlands. (Farida Jhabvala Romero/KQED)
After spending their second night at a migrant shelter in Guatemala City, Nazario and Marcela, a young Mayan couple, dressed their two small children and collected the scant belongings they had piled on the floor in plastic bags. Joined by Nazario's mother and brother, they set out Wednesday morning. This was they day they would return to their village, nine hours away in Guatemala's western highlands, as an intact family once again.
They had traveled to the capital to retrieve their 5-year-old daughter, Filomena, who was flown back from New York City on a commercial airplane by U.S. immigration authorities Tuesday. The anxiety and stress that had hounded Nazario, 32, subsided at last. He had not seen his daughter since she was taken from his arms at a Border Patrol station near San Diego three months ago. (KQED is not disclosing the family's last name because the parents are concerned for their safety in Guatemala.)
"I'm happy," beamed Nazario. "I feel like we are starting a new life as a family."
Filomena was one of hundreds of children who remained in the custody of the U.S. government after their parents were deported. Most were separated from their parents in recent months as part of the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" policy of criminally prosecuting all adults who enter the country illegally. As of Thursday, 559 children age 5 and older had still not been reunited with their parents (386 of them with parents outside the U.S.), in spite of a federal judge's order that all should be returned to their families by July 26.
On May 16, Nazario and Filomena crossed the border in eastern San Diego County and were arrested by U.S. Border Patrol agents. In court documents, Nazario said he and his daughter were both crying and screaming as she was taken away from him. Officials did not tell him she had been sent to a shelter in New York, and it was 10 days before his federal public defender was able to find out where she was. Case workers told the lawyers helping the family that Filomena cried often, sometimes to the point of vomiting, while in the care of the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement.
But that painful experience seemed like a thing of the past in Guatemala City this week, as a giggling Filomena clung to Nazario's knees and called, "Papi! Papi!" He knelt down and planted a big kiss on the girl's cheek.
"She looks alright," Nazario said in Spanish. "We were worried she would be sick."
Numerous mental health experts warn that the prolonged separation from parents increases children's risk of long term trauma, anxiety and depression. These impacts may not manifest immediately, but can surface later on.
"We've heard of children who just don't want to get out of bed," said psychologist Roxana Palma Coyoy, with the Casa del Migrante migrant shelter, where Filomena's family stayed.
Trump administration officials have suggested that the zero tolerance policy is deterring unauthorized migration to the U.S., after the number of Border Patrol arrests dropped for two months in a row.
"This decrease shows that when there are real consequences for breaking the law, the conduct of those considering crimes will change," said Department of Homeland Security Press Secretary Tyler Q. Houlton in a statement Wednesday.
But Houlton acknowledged that the number of people arrested in family groups by Border Patrol remains undiminished. Almost 78,000 parents and children together have been apprehended in the past nine months, compared to 67,000 in the same period last year. Almost half of them are from Guatemala.
Palma Coyoy, the Guatemalan psychologist, said the increasing difficulty of entering the U.S. isn't deterring Guatemalan migrants, rather it is pushing them to hire smugglers, known as coyotes. The price coyotes charge for the trek is skyrocketing, she added.
"Far from discouraging migration to the U.S., what is happening is that these policies are impoverishing people even more," she said. "Families are falling even more easily into the nets of human traffickers."
As Filomena's family prepared Wednesday for the long trip back to their mountain village in the department of Huehuetenango, Nazario felt the burden of the debt he had taken on to pay coyotes to take him and Filomena to California in May. He had planned to look for jobs as a farm worker once he arrived, to pay off his loan and support Marcela and the children.
Nazario borrowed about 15,000 quetzales, the equivalent of $2,000. He put up as collateral the small, rocky plot of land where the family lives and grows potatoes. If he can't pay it back within two months, he said, he could lose the farm.
"Now I need to work and work any way I can, because I have to pay that debt," he said. He added that before he tried to cross the border near the Mexican town of Tecate, the coyote demanded another chunk of money -- $1,500 dollars --which he borrowed from friends in the U.S.
Economic opportunity is scarce in rural Huehuetenango where the family lives. That, in turn, has led to the rise of gangs, and local people contend with violence on a regular basis.
Residents often face a difficult choice to survive: head north in search of work in the U.S., or join gangs that kidnap and extort, said Dionisio Mateo Simón, a Roman Catholic priest in the municipality of San Pedro Soloma, who grew up in the region.
"Given the lack of opportunity for young people especially, the lack of a good job that allows them to make a living, people look for something else to do," said Simón, 50. "Gang members rob houses in broad daylight here in Soloma, they rob stores and buses. We all have to deal with that."
Simón said many families in the area depend on remittances from relatives working in the U.S. But he's noticed more deportees are returning to the region since President Trump's term began, including parents who were separated from their children by U.S. authorities, he said.
"When they get here they can't find work and their families face big uncertainties," said Simón.
Nazario said he had been pushed to work for a local gang, and was threatened when he refused. That's why he made the decision to leave, he said, in hopes of finding safety and opportunity in the United States. He said it seemed like a good choice at the time to borrow money for the journey.
"But because I failed to get there, for me now it's a sorrow to have to pay all that money back," said Nazario, who was deported June 20 to Guatemala.
He said he is considering moving his family away from their village to find a better paying job. Marcela, who had never traveled as far as Guatemala City before this week, said that whatever they do, the family will take their next steps together.
"The separation from my daughter was so long and very difficult," said Marcela, 25, who often carries her two-year old son Marvin in a rebozo on her back. "The most important thing now is for our family to stay together."