Melvin and his son, Néstor, were one family that was separated under former President Donald Trump's zero-tolerance immigration policy. Néstor says he would have frequent nightmares about the separation. (Jessica Pons/NPR)
"Coming here, we lost it all."
That's what Néstor, 14, says now about his journey to the United States three years ago.
His father, Melvin, says he received death threats from local gang members and leaving El Salvador was his best shot to protect his family. Néstor's mother was pregnant at the time, and so just father and son made the journey north. Néstor still hasn't had the opportunity to meet his new brother. "Whenever I think about that," Néstor says in Spanish, "I feel like crying."
Families who migrate to the U.S. from Central and South America to seek asylum know they will be leaving behind loved ones. What roughly 5,500 of those families didn't know is that if they made it all the way to the U.S.-Mexico border, they would also be separated.
Néstor and Melvin — they asked not to use their last name to protect their anonymity and safety as they apply for asylum — are among the families who were split apart by the Trump administration's zero-tolerance policy in 2018. The policy was part of a strategy meant to curb legal and illegal immigration, but it's been widely criticized by immigration advocates for being psychologically traumatic.
Melvin, 33, and Néstor shared with NPR some of the details of their story as they continue to process what happened to them and their asylum case makes its way through the courts.
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Melvin and Néstor left their home in El Salvador on May 26, 2018. Néstor's mom, pregnant with her third son, felt unable to make the dangerous journey.
"That is when I made the decision to bring [Néstor] because he was the oldest one," Melvin says in Spanish.
He and his dad covered over 1,000 miles as they made their way to the U.S. by car, raft and foot. Melvin sometimes carried his son, exhausted from the journey, in his arms and on his back. They say the journey was terrifying — navigating police extortion, death threats and physical suffering. They passed over the Rio Grande on a makeshift raft, scared for their lives.
When Melvin and Néstor reached the U.S. border on June 5 — a few months after then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions formally announced the zero-tolerance policy — they hoped their journey was over and could begin the process of applying for asylum. Unaware they would be separated, they turned themselves in at the Port Isabel checkpoint in Texas and got in vans headed for detention centers.
They were taken to separate facilities.
Néstor recalls being put in a van with other separated children and driven to a place he says looked like a prison. There were no cloth blankets. The children were given Mylar wraps to keep warm. Néstor doesn't know how many days he was there. He lost count. He didn't know where his father was.
" 'And the children? And the children?" Melvin says he and other parents begged detention center officials to tell them where their children were, but he says officials wouldn't say.
"[I'd] cry at night, feel sad, and not know what the future would be, because for me, every day what they told me was 'No, they're going to deport you. They're going to send you back and your kids are going to stay here. They're going to get adopted.' I would say, 'No, how are you going to take away my son? That's my son, he's mine. You can't, you can't," Melvin says.
Meanwhile, Néstor was also asking for his father. He says the adults caring for him always said "soon," but soon never came.
Eventually, officials transferred Néstor north, more than 1,000 miles away from his father in Texas, to New York to stay with a foster mom.
He says he cried at night, worried he had lost his whole family forever.
That fear was not unfounded. NPR's immigration team has reported that immigrant advocates believe at least 1,000 children remain separated from their parents. The Department of Homeland Security says it cannot find a record of reunification for at least 2,100 children, but that is partly due to poor record keeping.
"The most difficult part was not knowing anything about him, not even knowing where he was, not having any communication," Melvin says.
Néstor had been apart from his dad for about two and a half months when a man came to New York to pick him up from his foster home and escort him to the airport to fly to California, where his dad was living.
Néstor says he gathered what little possessions he had — mostly notes he'd been writing to his father to try to maintain their connection — and he boarded a plane to Los Angeles. He recalls this next moment with an audible smile: When he saw his dad at the airport, he ran into his arms and instantly cried.
"There were mixed emotions, something unexplainable in that moment to see him arrive," Melvin remembers. "After so much uncertainty of not knowing what would happen or know anything about him, it was something beautiful after so much pain."
It was a joyous moment, but Néstor has struggled in many ways since. As the months passed, there were times when Néstor didn't want to leave the house or play sports. He's had nightmares. Melvin says he watched his son withdraw and feel unmotivated — something many separated children feel, says Melissa Tith, a therapist and a program supervisor at Seneca Family of Agencies, a nonprofit organization working to get free mental health support to people like Néstor.
Néstor and Melvin are living in Southern California while they wait for their asylum case to be processed. But as NPR has reported, that could take years. And there is no guarantee they'll get to stay. The Biden administration says it's helping affected families with free therapy and is negotiating with immigration advocates about doing more. That could include granting legal status to families separated under zero tolerance, but there are no firm public commitments yet.
Since October 2020, Néstor has been seeing a therapist weekly through Seneca. He says it's helping. It's a slow process of untangling the feelings and fear he experienced while separated and it may be a lifelong effort, Tith says.
"I hardly have any more nightmares," he says. He's just graduated middle school and he's excited to start high school. He says he wants to grow up to become a surgeon in the United States.
They both imagine a life in the U.S., but that future is far from certain.
"The most valuable thing is to have our family together and have good health," Melvin says.
Joel Rose contributed to and Heidi Glenn edited the digital story.