FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — The boy stood at the airline counter, doodling on a tablet as his foster parents tried to check in the 9-year-old with no passport for an international flight.
“He is going back to his mom,” Galo Solorzano told a skeptical Spirit Airlines employee last month.
“Her?” the employee asked, pointing to a woman from the Guatemalan consulate who was supposed to accompany Pascual Raymundo from Fort Lauderdale to Guatemala City.
“No,” said Galo and his wife, Millie Rosa, in unison.
“Who’s the parent?” asked the Spirit employee, shaking her head in confusion.
“His mom and dad are waiting for him,” Millie replied.
It had been almost two years since Pascual’s parents had entrusted their firstborn child to his older cousin for a journey from their remote Guatemalan village to the United States. They wanted him to have a better life.
And by many measures, he had found it in the home of Galo and Millie. In the four months since the couple had taken him in after his cousin was accused of abuse and deported, Pascual had flourished. The boy who had only occasionally gone to school in Guatemala now loved to learn. He had forgotten his parents’ Mayan dialect but quickly picked up Spanish and English. He missed his younger siblings but had bonded with his two foster brothers. He had new toys, new clothes and new teeth to replace the ones that had rotted.
He had started calling Millie and Galo “mom” and “dad,” even as the state of Florida tried to strip his real mother and father of their parental rights. Child welfare officials argued Pascual’s parents had abandoned him and launched proceedings to have him adopted — a form of family separation that plays out in hundreds of U.S. courtrooms each year with little scrutiny.
But in Guatemala, the parents who had sent him away waged a legal battle to get him back.
Now, as thousands of children from Central America seek entry into the United States, one boy was heading in the opposite direction.
For months, Millie and Galo had wondered what was best for the boy they had come to love like their own son.
But then they watched Pascual burst into tears when he FaceTimed with his parents on Christmas Day, and they knew what they had to do.
“Final call, Guatemala City,” Spirit announced.
“Final call, Guatemala City,” Pascual echoed excitedly, looking up from his sketch tablet, where he had been drawing the mountains where he used to collect firewood with his parents.
He bounded toward the security checkpoint with a new backpack bursting with snacks, books and toys. And yet it was hard to go. Pascual hugged his foster brothers goodbye. When it was Millie’s turn, he began to sob, tears wetting his Flash face mask.
“I love you so much,” Galo said in Spanish as he stooped to give Pascual a hug. “I’m going to come see you soon in Guatemala.”
As the woman from the consulate guided Pascual toward the security checkpoint, Millie pressed her face to a plexiglass window.
Pascual looked up and saw Millie making a heart with her hands, mouthing “I love you.” His skinny shoulders slumped into a sob his foster mother couldn’t hear.
Then the TSA agent waved Pascual through, and the boy was gone.
Millie crossed herself, praying he would be okay.
‘A better life’
Pascual had just celebrated his eighth birthday when he boarded a bus with nothing but some of his mother’s tortillas and a few sets of clothes. As the bus pulled out of his family’s village and onto the bumpy dirt road, he began to panic.
“I don’t want to go,” Pascual recalled telling his 22-year-old cousin, Marcos Diego, seated next to him. “I want to stay.”
But Marcos didn’t answer, and by the time Pascual stopped crying, they were miles away from the wooden shack where the boy had spent his entire life.
In Las Pilas, a cluster of 60 houses perched in the mountains near the border with Mexico, he climbed trees and plucked limes from full-grown saplings he had planted with his father, Federico Pascual. He and his younger brother helped their mother, Lucia Raymundo, watch over their little sister, spark the stove fire or make masa.
And then one day in May of 2019, his cousin arrived from the capital.
Marcos had been caught trying to enter the United States illegally three months earlier and deported, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement records. Now he’d heard people were being allowed in with a child.
He asked his uncle, Federico, if he could take Pascual to the United States.
Officials from the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) would later claim Marcos paid 100 quetzales — around $13 — to take the boy. Pascual’s parents deny that. Instead, they say Marcos offered them something far more valuable.
“Marcos said, ‘Since you’re poor, maybe it would be better to give me your son so that he can have a better life,’ ” Federico recalled.
As day laborers, Federico and Lucia only made a few dollars per shift in the fields. Pascual already skipped class sometimes to help his parents work by watching out for poisonous snakes, and when he finished primary school, the family wouldn’t be able to afford costly tuition fees.
“I wanted my son to study,” Federico said. “He would have more ideas. He would be smarter in every way. I wanted to give my son an education here in Guatemala, but I don’t have money.”
Federico told Pascual he would be leaving with Marcos.
When it was time to go, his father gave him some quetzales and told him to be good. Then he made Pascual a promise: Marcos would take care of him. His mother hardly said anything, Pascual recalled, but her eyes got red.
Two buses and a motorcycle got them to the frontier with Mexico, where Marcos lifted Pascual onto the back of a train so long the boy couldn’t see its engine. In the moonlight, Pascual could make out the shapes of other families clinging to the freight car.
At the U.S.-Mexico border, a guide directed them through a hole in a metal fence. Then Marcos told him to close his eyes and mouth, and Pascual was suddenly being pulled through water. They’d crossed the Colorado River near Yuma, Ariz., where Marcos and Pascual turned themselves in to U.S. Border Patrol agents.
They were part of a record-breaking increase in Central American families entering the United States illegally that spring — so many that, despite a Trump memo ordering the end of the practice the previous fall, the migrants were often given immigration court dates and quickly released.
After Marcos provided a fake birth certificate stating he was Pascual’s father, they were let go and took a bus to Orlando, where Marcos’s father and stepmother lived.
But the house in Central Florida was not the bright future Pascual’s parents had envisioned for him. Instead of enrolling the boy in school, Marcos left him with a babysitter. And Marcos would often come home from his construction job drunk and angry, Pascual recalled.
One day in November 2019, Marcos returned home to find the door locked to the room he and Pascual shared. He took out his anger on the boy, kicking him in the back as he lay on the ground, Pascual recalled.
The next day, while Marcos was at work, there was a knock on the door. It was a DCF social worker.
The department, which had been alerted to the alleged abuse, would determine that Marcos had “pushed,” “punched” and “hit Pascual on the back with a belt,” according to documents later filed in court, which also noted the boy had “severe tooth decay.”
Marcos could not be reached for comment.
The social worker tried to tell Pascual what was going on, but he couldn’t understand her. When she brought in a colleague who spoke Spanish, he heard one word he did comprehend.
His fate was now in the hands of the Orange County Family Court.
‘Where is Pascual?’
Lucia Raymundo was doing chores outside of her house in Las Pilas in late 2019 when she looked up and saw a familiar face.
It was Marcos, who had taken Pascual to the United States six months earlier. But now he was thousands of miles from central Florida, and there was no sign of her son.
“Where is Pascual?” Lucia shouted as she chased after him.
Marcos said the boy had been taken from him and that he had then been arrested and deported, but refused to say more, Lucia recalled.
The separation of immigrant families sparked outrage in the summer of 2018 when the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy split migrant children from their parents so the adults could be criminally charged for entering the country illegally.
But another brand of family separation has long occurred in state courts across the country, where hundreds, perhaps thousands, of undocumented parents permanently lose custody of their children. In some cases, judges strip mothers and fathers of their parental rights after criminal convictions or serious allegations of abuse or neglect. But activists say migrant families are often too easily torn apart over immigration issues, minor infractions or cultural misunderstandings.
The American legal system has long treated poor or minority families differently than White families, said Vivek Sankaran, a law professor at the University of Michigan who has studied termination of parental rights cases. But while some states track those cases by race, few, if any, track them by immigration status, Sankaran said. And the cases aren’t public.
“It’s really hard to figure out how common this is,” he said.
DCF did not provide data on how often immigrant families are stripped of their children in Florida, and the department did not respond to requests for comment on Pascual’s case.
By the time Lucia spotted Marcos in Guatemala, she and her husband had gone six months without speaking to Pascual. Now they had no idea where Pascual was or who was caring for him.
Eventually, they were put in touch with Sylvia Rodriguez, a volunteer for Every Last One, a U.S.-based nonprofit created to reunite separated families and help them recover from trauma.
Rodriguez discovered that Pascual, who’d turned 9, had been placed with a foster mother. And she discovered something else: Federico and Lucia were weeks away from losing him for good.
‘That’s my mom’
It was Christmas afternoon and the house in Kissimmee was full of noise. New toys covered the tile floor as a movie played on TV. Wearing a red and white Santa hat, Pascual flitted between the dancing robot he had unwrapped that morning and a remote-controlled monster truck.
“Pascual,” Galo said, handing him a cellphone. “You have one more present.”
On the screen were a man in work jeans and a woman in an Indigenous skirt. Millie asked Pascual who the woman was.
“That’s my mom,” he said and began to cry.
In the two months since Galo and Millie had taken over as foster parents from the woman he was originally placed with, the couple had watched the boy become a different child. He had arrived shy and sad. But with every meal, every trip to the beach or Chuck E. Cheese, every hour spent exploring the backyard with his foster brothers — small, medium and large, Millie liked to joke — Pascual had thrived.
He had also opened up. Galo told the boy about his own journey from Ecuador to the United States nearly 20 years earlier, when he had crossed the border and spent a week alone in the desert before making his way to safety and, eventually, legal status.
Slowly, Pascual shared his story. His parents hadn’t sold or abandoned him, he told Galo. They were trying to get him back.
During the Christmas phone call, which had been set up by Rodriguez, Galo paid close attention to their interaction with their son.
“Within the first 30 seconds I knew the parents were suffering,” he said.
Lucia wept as she asked Pascual in their native language of Q’anjob’al if he was eating enough. Pascual understood what she was saying, but replied in English that Millie had made him pancakes, bacon and eggs that morning. Then he showed his brother and sister his bunk bed and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles blanket.
With each subsequent call, Galo and Millie felt more resolved to send him back.
The social workers argued that Pascual would have a better life in Florida, but Millie disagreed. “I don’t care about a better life,” she said. “Money is not a replacement for anybody. He doesn’t care if he eats again tortillas and frijoles. He wants to go home.”
In January, Galo called into a court hearing from a construction site to say that he thought Pascual should be with his parents. In early February, after traveling four hours to the nearest town with Internet, Lucia and Federico were finally able to tell the court the same.
“What we want, of course, is for our child to come back,” Federico said through a translator.
Lucia promised to send Pascual to school, adding that the family had saved money to pick him up in the capital.
“Is my son going to be sent back to us?” she asked. “Because I need to be with my son.”
But the judge seemed unmoved.
“The court continues the child in the care of the department and finds that conditions for return to neither parent have been met,” said Ninth Judicial Circuit Court Magistrate Kathryn E. Durnell.
A few weeks later, everything changed.
Amy Cohen, Every Last One’s executive director, had reached the head of Embrace Families, a child welfare provider overseeing the nonprofit managing Pascual’s case. The boy’s parents were eager and able to take him back, she said, so why was the state about to separate them forever?
By Feb. 19, the same officials who had insisted days earlier that Pascual be adopted reversed course, requesting the boy be given permission to go back to his parents. They would even pay for his flight.
The court agreed.
Millie told Pascual the news that weekend.
“It’s now only 10 days, practically, until you go with your mommy and daddy and your little sister and little brother,” she told him, nearly dropping the phone she was using to record the conversation when he ran over and hugged her.
Millie and Galo had often heard Pascual crying in the shower. But that night, shortly after he told his parents he was coming home, they heard him singing.
On his last day of second grade in the United States a week later, his teachers gave him a Dr. Seuss book in Spanish.
“¡Oh, cúan lejos llegarás!” it was called. “Oh, The Places You’ll Go.”
That afternoon, Pascual tried to squeeze a Captain America figurine into an overstuffed duffel bag as Millie put leftover Valentine’s Day candy and toothpaste into his backpack for the boy who had learned to love the taste of processed sugar. Then she tucked his school photo into the picture album she had made for his parents.
As he played in the yard one last time with his foster brothers, Pascual spotted a bird eating from the feeder he had made with Galo. Pascual had painted it Millie’s favorite shade of purple. He couldn’t remember his mother’s favorite color.
‘I’ll never let you go again’
In Guatemala City, his mother and father sat for hours in a beige and white government waiting room. They’d never been to the capital before and brought along Francisco Figueroa, who lived near them in Las Pilas and spoke Spanish, to translate.
Pascual’s 8-year-old brother, Diego, fidgeted as his 5-year-old sister, Juanita, combed her hair. A poster advertised a smartphone app for migrants heading north. Suddenly, a pickup truck crunched to a stop in the street and Lucia and the children clambered to the window to catch sight of Pascual.
But before they could turn around, the boy they were waiting for was embracing the father who had sent him away.
Lucia led her son to a seat, where she hugged him and whispered into his ear in Q’anjob’al.
“I’ll never let you go again,” she promised, as the boy nodded and silently returned her embrace.
The newly reunited family’s journey back to their village took almost two days.
As they took one winding mountain pass after another, Pascual began to feel the pull of home. When the truck finally came to a stop, he raced away along a dirt path through thick foliage until he came to a wooden shack with a tin metal roof.
But in his excitement, or confusion, he had gone not to his house but his grandpa’s, where the old man rose from his seat and gave the boy a hug.
His own house looked different now. His parents had rearranged things and added a separate kitchen, yet the space felt smaller. In one corner, sheets created a bedroom where his mother and sister normally slept. In another, there was a second bed for Federico and the boys.
Pascual opened his duffel bags and began pulling out presents: a Barbie doll for his sister; an Iron Man figurine for his brother; a stuffed animal that sang ABCs in English — a language only he understood. When the two boys began digging into the dirt floor with toy dump trucks, Lucia scolded them and quickly patted the soil back into place.
They ate eggs and tortillas beneath bare lightbulbs before the siblings fell asleep in the same bed.
Pascual woke early the next morning to help his mother chop firewood, feeding the Barbie doll box into the flames. Then the family sat on low-slung benches to eat Lucia’s vegetable soup.
Before he could finish, however, Pascual heard a frighteningly familiar voice from outside.
It was Marcos.
The cousin who had been deported from the United States for allegedly abusing Pascual was now living with their grandpa, barely 20 yards away.
Pascual squeezed himself behind the door and out of sight as Federico went outside.
Lucia stopped cooking and followed her husband. She had let Marcos take her son once, she told herself, but she wouldn’t let him near the boy again.
Between the gaps in the wooden boards, Pascual could see his mother watching the men in the distance. Then she turned and came back to her son.
Daniele Volpe contributed to this report. Jeff Abbott reported from Guatemala City and Las Pilas, Guatemala.