May 17: Tijuana, Mexico

Just before dawn on a hot morning, Ingrid Hernandez Mejia, a fast-food cook from rural Honduras, stands in line with dozens of other migrants, almost all from Central America, on a pedestrian bridge leading to the U.S. border.

She has no passport. She wears clothes donated by strangers.

If U.S. agents admit her, her 2-year-old daughter Francis and 17-year-old son Moises, she knows they will spend weeks in detention. She hears on the news that U.S. officials are taking children from their parents. What if they take hers?

She had traveled in a caravan from Honduras for two months with her husband and three kids on buses, trains and trucks or walking, more than 2,700 miles, heading north to flee gangs that had killed her brother and were threatening her children.

She had asked police in her Honduran hometown for protection, but she didn’t know the names of those who threatened to kill her and who confronted her teenage son at school, demanding money they believed her brother left her.

“We can’t fight ghosts,” a policeman told her.

In that moment, Ingrid knew: “We will never be safe in my country.”

So she and her husband, Misael George Bonilla, took their three children, $400 in cash, birth certificates, a photo of Ingrid’s slain brother facedown in the dirt and newspaper clippings about his killing, and climbed aboard a 5:30 a.m. bus on March 17, their first step toward the United States.

The plan was to ask for asylum, safety and a new life. Ingrid’s father had lived in the Bronx for two decades and was offering them a place to start fresh.

When she finally reached the U.S. border, she slept in a plaza outside the San Ysidro border crossing for days and waited in a crowded shelter for weeks. This morning, she sat at a border entrance guarded by Mexican soldiers for more than seven hours.

Now it is Ingrid’s turn.

Mexican officials in orange uniforms emerge, and call out in Spanish: “No metal. Cellphones away. No metal.”

Ingrid tucks her phone into her silver backpack, one of her only possessions from Honduras. She takes off Francis’s earrings, bundles her in a down jacket to prepare for the freezing holding areas she has heard about and wipes a dab of yogurt from her face.

Then she starts up the zigzagging ramp to the United States.

Ingrid Hernandez Mejia walks with her 17-year-old son, Moises, and 2-year-old daughter, Francis, near the San Ysidro border crossing in Tijuana.

A swamped system

Ingrid and Misael and their family were part of a caravan of more than 1,000 Central American migrants who traveled across Mexico this spring to seek asylum in the United States. The caravan captured headlines around the world and caught the angry attention of President Trump, who portrayed them as a hostile force coming to attack America’s southern border.

Another, even larger, caravan is now nearing the United States, and Trump is reacting even more furiously, promising to keep migrants from entering the country and sending 5,200 U.S. soldiers to the border. He has called the caravan an “invasion” and warned that gang members and other criminals are among its members. He cautioned them in a tweet: “Our military is waiting for you.”

But the family and others say they were fleeing extreme violence, corruption and government incompetence with the goal of surrendering themselves to U.S. officials and requesting asylum in accordance with U.S. law.

The sheer numbers of asylum seekers are swamping a system that is already sagging under a backlog of hundreds of thousands of cases. New asylum applications have jumped fourfold since 2014 to 120,000 last year, and numbers continue to grow, according to government statistics.

For decades, most migrants along the southern border were Mexicans crossing illegally looking for work. Now they are mainly families whose lives are threatened at home, seeking shelter in the United States.

Asylum seekers from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala jumped from 7,600 in 2014 to almost 32,000 last year — and they now account for about a quarter of all asylum seekers.

Deporting them is complicated. Separating them from their children has proved disastrous. Processing them is overwhelming detention centers and courtrooms.

And they keep coming, forcing a painful political debate about what America stands for. The Trump administration says immigration is strangling the nation, spreading crime and stealing jobs. Immigration advocates say immigration built the nation, and they call for overhauling asylum laws written for the post-World War II era to reflect today’s realities.

The Washington Post followed Ingrid, Misael and their children — Moises, 17, Lionel, 8 and Francis, 2 — for two months as they traveled in the caravan and into the United States.

The Post interviewed, photographed and took video of them at every step of the process to illustrate the asylum system through the experience of a single family, from their middle-of-the-night departure from Honduras to their arrival in a country they hope will accept them.

Moises carries his younger sister, Francis, on his shoulders through the streets of Tijuana.

The journey begins

April 4: Southern Mexico

Misael, 31, holds the evidence of his family’s tragedy in his hands.

He’s standing in a field in Matias Romero, a town in southern Mexico 750 miles from his home. He and his family have been traveling for almost two weeks, and now are sleeping in a field with hundreds of other caravaners.

He’s holding a photo of a body lying in the dirt, hands and feet tied, gagged and bruised, with blood running from six bullet wounds, including two to the forehead.

He says this is Helin Hernandez Mejia, 27, Ingrid’s brother, who was found dead Nov. 23, 2016, near their home in El Progreso, a city east of the violent San Pedro Sula . He had been in prison for two years on weapons and drug charges, and within a month of his release he was killed.

El Progreso, a city of 300,000 people, averages three slayings a week, largely due to warring gangs. The city is surrounded by lush banana plantations and fields of palm and sugar cane, and the main downtown streets are lined with American chains: Pizza Hut, Burger King, Little Caesars, Popeyes.

But Colonia Primavera, where Ingrid and Misael lived, is a poor neighborhood crisscrossed by dirt streets. Local police say many people have abandoned homes there because of battles between rival gangs.

Police and prosecutors in Honduras declined repeated requests over more than three months to release even basic details of the slaying. They gave no explanation for their refusal.

Ingrid and Misael’s story is typical among those camped in this Mexican field, along the railroad tracks that many undocumented immigrants follow north. The caravan has been an annual event supported by activists hoping to highlight the plight of people fleeing Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, often because of gang violence.

Central American migrants approach the San Ysidro border crossing in Tijuana in April.

But this year’s caravans are the largest ever. The number of people from those countries seeking asylum in the United States has ballooned as gangs and corruption have crippled those three “Northern Triangle” nations. They have some of the highest murder rates in the hemisphere and are some of the world’s most violent countries.

And while murders in those countries are finally declining slightly, few are ever solved because of endemic corruption and weak governments, adding to the desperation and urgency of people fleeing — who are increasingly entire families.

Misael and Ingrid had been looking for a way out of Honduras since her brother’s killing. Within days of his death, they said they started getting phone calls, texts and Facebook messages. Ingrid said the callers mistakenly thought Helin had left her money, and they wanted it.

“We will kill you,” they said.

Even when she changed her number, the calls continued. Then someone fired a gun at their house, so they moved. But strange people kept coming around the new place. The threats never stopped. They moved twice more. Men threatened Moises in a park, so he changed schools.

“Imagine one day going to work, and you have this fear that when you come home your kids might have been kidnapped or killed,” Misael says.

They went to the police, but they said they wouldn’t investigate without more information about who was making the threats.

If the killers kept finding them after they moved three times, and the police wouldn’t help, they knew their only option was to leave. And the only place they could think to go was to New York, where family was waiting.

They applied for a copy of Helin’s death certificate, but they were told it would take months. They asked for emergency passports to leave the country, but officials said those were expensive and could take months, too.

They thought about hiring a people-smuggler, but they didn’t have enough money. They also feared making the dangerous trip with their children.

Then they heard about the caravan, with its safety in numbers.

Now, two weeks later, Misael has his daughter’s rubber shoes strapped to his belt loops, and a baseball cap pulled over his eyes to protect against the sun. Journalists from all over the world are in town, interviewing migrants Trump has said are coming to “invade” America. His rhetoric about the current caravan is even more intense.

Misael isn’t following the political debate closely, and he’s surprised at all the attention.

He slips his photos and documents back into a plastic folder. He sees no option except to keep moving north.

“You take the risk of staying in your own country, where they are going to kill you, or you risk taking this path,” he says. “We thought it would be better to flee.”

Misael George Bonilla, in the red hat, and son Lionel stand in line to present themselves at the San Ysidro point of entry.

Splitting up and waiting

May 5: Tijuana

Misael and Lionel woke early on the morning of May 4 at a migrant shelter in Tijuana. Carrying almost nothing but the clothes on their back, they said goodbye to Ingrid, Moises and Francis, walked across the pedestrian bridge to the U.S. border and requested asylum from the officers at the gate.

Volunteer lawyers assisting the caravan migrants had advised the family to cross in two groups. If they crossed together, they said, U.S. authorities would send Misael to a detention center for single men, and Ingrid and the kids to a family detention center.

The lawyers said the U.S. system tended to be harsher on single men, so Misael could easily be deported. But a father crossing the border as the sole guardian of a small child had a better chance, they argued. The plan also made sense because Francis had been sick and Ingrid worried she wasn’t well enough to travel yet anyway.

Trump and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen have called that “gaming the system,” but to the organizers to the caravan, and to the migrants, it’s simply being smart and following the law.

Now, a day after Misael and Lionel left, Ingrid is trying to distract herself. She busies herself running after Francis, who often crawls playfully into other people’s tents. The volunteer lawyers have explained that U.S. authorities will probably hold her family at the border for a few days, then send them to one of the three Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) family detention centers — two in Texas and one in Pennsylvania.

There they will have their initial “credible fear” interview to see whether their asylum claim is strong enough to warrant a court hearing before an immigration judge. If it is, Ingrid hopes U.S. officials will allow them to go to New York to live with her father. She knows that if they fail the interview, they could be deported immediately.

All Ingrid can do is wait in a yellow tent, about four by six feet, pitched on a shelter’s concrete floor, with more than 100 other migrants. They gather in plastic chairs around one old television, beneath a high corrugated metal ceiling and share bars of Fresh Spring soap for the couple of showers.

The staff members are kind, but the life is tedious and sometimes feels dangerous. The weekend before Ingrid handed herself in to U.S. authorities, 13 people turned up dead in Tijuana.

Ingrid Hernandez Mejia, right, and her daughter, Francis, left, make their way to dinner with friends they met at the migrant shelter in Tijuana.

On this sticky morning, Ingrid and the kids walk past Tijuana’s restaurants filled with mariachis and cheap tacos for the tourists, to meet with volunteer lawyers at Café Caracol, where migrants get legal advice, basic medicines and coffee to get them through the long afternoons of waiting.

Because of the intense publicity surrounding the caravan, organizers had advised only families with potentially strong asylum cases to hand themselves in to U.S. authorities. Others, including entire families and many single men, had left the group weeks earlier, presumably to settle in other parts of Mexico or to cross illegally into the United States.

But everyone here knows their odds are not good.

Flows of asylum seekers are increasing: A total of 30,179 cases were decided by U.S. immigration judges in fiscal 2017, up from 22,312 the year before. At the same time, judges are denying more and more cases: 61.8 percent of requests were denied last year, up from 44.5 percent five years ago, according to TRAC, a data research group at Syracuse University.

Denials are even higher for Central Americans. Between fiscal years 2012 and 2017, U.S. officials denied 79 percent of asylum applications from El Salvador, 78 percent from Honduras and 75 percent from Guatemala, according to TRAC.

That has only become more difficult under Trump, who has said the migrants probably include MS-13 gang members he calls “animals.” Trump has repeatedly moved to limit illegal immigration with his proposed border wall, as well as legal immigration.

To qualify for asylum, foreign nationals must establish that they have a fear of persecution in their homeland based on their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or “membership in a particular social group.”

That language was written after World War II, largely in response to the Holocaust and in the context of government-sanctioned oppression against Jews and other minorities.

In recent years, judges have sometimes interpreted the “social group” language to include victims of domestic violence or gang violence. But in June, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that most of those cases would no longer qualify for asylum.

Rights groups have argued that modern-era asylum seekers are less likely to be persecuted religious minorities than people fleeing domestic violence, gang violence or even violent extremist groups such as the Islamic State.

Even before the Sessions ruling, the caravan organizers told Ingrid that while her fear was well founded, her asylum request would probably depend on whether she drew a sympathetic judge. There was just no way to know.

At the shelter, Ingrid showers and then dresses sitting down in her tiny tent. She runs a yellow comb through Francis’s hair, washes her face with donated baby wipes and gives her a donated light-up wand to play with.

She hasn’t heard from Misael. She has nothing to do but wait.

Lionel and Misael sit at a bus station in Reading, Pa. After crossing the border 12 days earlier, they are going to New York City to meet Ingrid’s father, Hernan Hernandez, for the first time.

Free in America

May 16: Reading, Pa.

Misael and Lionel step out of a white government van at the bus station in downtown Reading, Pa. An immigration officer with them walks to the counter and buys them two $36 bus tickets to New York City, then leaves.

After turning themselves in at the border 12 days earlier, they had spent four days in detention in San Diego, then they were put on a plane to Dallas, connecting to Philadelphia — the first flight for either of them — then taken by bus to the Berks County Residential Center near Reading, an ICE family detention center.

There Misael had passed his initial, “credible fear” interview with an asylum officer, which meant he would be allowed to stay in the country pending a court hearing before an immigration judge.

The officials called Ingrid’s father, Hernan Hernandez, in the Bronx to confirm that Misael and Lionel had a place to stay. They strapped a clunky black electronic-monitor bracelet to his left ankle — an “alternative to detention” required of anyone who does not pay thousands of dollars in bond.

They gave him a navy blue duffel bag with some clean clothes and a letter instructing him to attend a preliminary hearing in Manhattan in two weeks, then drove him to the bus station.

Now, for the first time, Misael and Lionel are free in America.

Around them in the bus station: Two screaming boys argue over the lime green shotgun of the Big Buck video game, next to vending machines selling coffee and temporary tattoos. Tired-looking travelers sit on the stained beige carpet and charge their phones. Outside it is raining and cold.

Misael wears red pants and blue Adidas sneakers — the only possessions he still has from Honduras. Everything else was donated along the way, including his lime green T-shirt and “El Jalapeño” baseball cap.

He was scared crossing the border with Lionel. He had heard stories about U.S. agents taking children away. But the agents in San Diego treated them well and the plane ride was exciting, especially for Lionel.

And Berks County, he says, was surprisingly pleasant.

“They treated us very well,” he says. “My son had games to play and he had fun.”

The center is a complex of brick buildings set in grassy fields, with a soccer field and basketball hoop, a volleyball net and brightly colored swings and slides. Lionel had English lessons, and Misael says they shared a six-bunk room with other fathers and sons from Central America.

Activists regularly protest the family lockup, calling it a “baby jail,” especially when Trump started separating parents and children of immigrants. Berks is one of the facilities that had longer-term cases, including families held for more than a year, and it was the location of a hunger strike two years ago.

“I’m happy to be with my son, but I’m sad that my wife and kids are still on the other side,” Misael says. “It’s not easy. I can’t say yet whether it has been worth it. I will only know when I have my family.”

Lionel crawls on his dad on one of the black plastic chairs in the bus station, while Misael rubs his tired eyes, cracks his knuckles and stretches his shoulders.

“When everyone is here, it will all be worth the pain,” he says.

(Jorge Ribas/The Washington Post)

At 4:10 p.m., a big white bus pulls up to the station. Misael and Lionel find seats as it pulls into traffic in Reading, a worn-down city once so famous for its railroad line that it was on the Monopoly game board.

They start getting their first close-up look at America.

“Look, Papa!” Lionel says, pointing at a tall apartment building across the river.

For more than three hours, the bus rolls across Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Misael tries to sleep, but he has too much on his mind. Mainly his kids.

“I want them to have the best education, to be good men and women. I want them to contribute to this country,” he says. “I want to show them the right path. My dream is being able to give them a safe place, a place they’re not afraid of.”

In the early evening, they get their first glimpse of the New York skyline, spiking up through the mist and almost touching the low-hanging clouds.

Lionel presses his nose against the window, Misael pulls in close behind him. They say nothing but their eyes fill with excitement, awe, maybe fear.

Blinking billboards advertise Broadway shows and Cher appearing somewhere in August. U.S. mall culture whizzes by: Big Lots, Party City, Sprint, Carters, OshKosh, GameStop, ShopRite.

Traffic slows to a crawl entering the Lincoln Tunnel: Flashing lights, sirens, trucks, cars and buses, buses, buses.

“Are ALL these buses going to New York, Papa?” Lionel says, as his father nods and holds him tight.

In the dark of the tunnel, Misael looks at his reflection in the darkened windows. He is 3,500 miles from his home, safe from the death threats but tethered to an ankle bracelet, about to meet his father-in-law for the first time, facing an uncertain future in a foreign country, or maybe just a swift deportation. Trying to keep his son smiling.

And now: New York City, feeling far more menacing than welcoming.

“Sin palabras,” he says quietly.

No words.

Lionel Bonilla, 3,500 miles from Honduras, gets his first glimpse of the New York skyline.

‘You can stay as long as you want’

At the Manhattan end of the tunnel, the bus pulls into Port Authority Bus Terminal, Gate 19.

Misael and Lionel step into the fume-filled garage and push through the heavy doors into the terminal, where commuters carrying suitcases and briefcases hurry along. Misael wears his Super Mario backpack, squeezing Lionel’s hand.

Lionel looks down the long row of gates and starts to smile. An older man in jeans and a fleece vest is walking toward him, smiling back.

Lionel has never met his grandfather, but he recognizes him from so many Skype calls over the years. He runs up to his grandpa and gives him a long hug.

Misael follows and hugs him, too. Quick and a little awkward, but warm. No one knows what to say.

They all walk hand-in-hand toward the subway.

They change trains at 59th Street, heading further north toward the Bronx. At Tremont Avenue, they walk up the station’s concrete stairs and step out into a cold and rainy New York night. Purple and green lights frame the windows of King Concourse Deli & Grocery. They walk down the sidewalk past a Baptist church and the bilingual sign: “Foot Doctor. Doctor de los Pies.” The mailboxes are covered with graffiti.

They arrive at the one-bedroom apartment of Nolvia Garcia — Hernan’s sister and Ingrid’s aunt. Nolvia is staying with friends to make space for Misael and Lionel — and hopefully, eventually, Ingrid and the other kids.

Misael drops the plastic bag of clothes Hernan brought him. Tonight they will sleep in the living room, which has a purple beanbag chair, an air mattress, a couch, toys and a portrait of Nuestra Señora de Suyapa, a venerated religious icon in Honduras.

The Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets play basketball on a flat-screen TV propped up on the floor, and Nolvia’s tiny dog barks nonstop in the bedroom.

“You can stay as long as you want,” Nolvia tells them.

Misael thanks her and flops down on the couch. Mostly he wants to talk to Ingrid, who has been waiting to hear that he and Lionel have arrived safely.

(Jorge Ribas /The Washington Post)

He borrows Nolvia’s phone and calls her in Tijuana, and her image appears on the phone. She’s sitting on a curb in front of the shelter. Francis waves and says, “Papa! Papa!”

Misael points the camera toward Lionel, who smiles and waves at his mother.

“Show me the ankle monitor,” she says.

He turns the camera to show her the black bracelet.

He walks her through the basics of what will happen when she turns herself in at the border.

“When they bring you in, they are first going to take your belts, your shoelaces, your hair tie,” he says. “The only things they will need are the kid’s birth certificates and your ID.”

She is worried about Moises being taken away, but he reassures her that won’t happen.

“What about the American money I have?” she says. She has exchanged her remaining Mexican pesos for $19.

He says her money will be safe, and to make sure she has all her documents ready. They are going to ask you about the caravan and why you want to come to America, he tells her. Be ready for the questions. Make sure Moises is ready, too, since they might question him separately.

“Maybe since you’re a woman with the two kids, they will keep you for less time,” he says.

They chat for a few more minutes, their first extended conversation in almost two weeks. It’s all business. They both understand the stakes. If they say something wrong in the interview, they could be deported.

They say goodbye. Misael needs to sleep. Tomorrow starts his new life in America.

He has a list:

Get haircuts.

Get a phone.

Find a school for Lionel.

There is comfort in mundane, familiar chores in this unfamiliar place.

And in a few hours in Tijuana, Ingrid, Francis and Moises will step across the border.

Ingrid Hernandez Mejia stands near the San Ysidro border crossing in Tijuana. She does not want to present herself and two other children at the border until she knows Misael and Lionel are safe in New York.

Time to move

May 16: Tijuana

More than 2,700 miles away, Ingrid hangs up from Misael. Now that he and Lionel are safe, it is time to move.

The migrants who arrive in Tijuana every day organize themselves to make the process more orderly, since U.S. officials allow only a small number of people to cross each day. They sign up on a handwritten list maintained by other migrant volunteers, then check back in to see when their turn will come.

Ingrid’s number is coming up the next morning. If she misses her turn, she will have to wait another 10 or 12 days to try again, according to the Guatemalan man with a baseball cap who is answering questions when she goes to check.

She picks out the white, button-down shirt that seems most formal for the occasion. She packs small bottles of shampoo, basic medicines for Francis and a plastic Minnie Mouse cash register to keep her occupied.

“I’m not going to even bother combing my kid’s hair because they’re going to take everything away,” she says.

She tells Moises to find a pair of camouflage pants that will stay up without a belt. She sets aside her black Velcro sneakers, instead of the lace-up sneakers she has been wearing.

“We’re going to look like a total mess,” she says, laughing.

She’s been thinking a lot about her father. She’s can’t quite imagine what it will be like to see him again.

He left Honduras in 1998 after Ingrid’s mother died of cancer. She remembers him being depressed and struggling after Hurricane Mitch ravaged the country earlier that year, killing more than 7,000 Hondurans and leaving more than 1 million homeless.

So he paid a “coyote” human smuggler $4,000 and made his way to New York, where he has worked in maintenance and repairs ever since.

The route he followed has been taken by a generation of Central Americans, but he was among the first major waves of Hondurans to come to the United States.

He was one of more than 50,000 Hondurans who were granted “temporary protected status” after Hurricane Mitch and allowed to remain in the United States legally. In May, the Trump administration announced that, after 20 years, those Hondurans would have 20 months to leave the country or face deportation.

In Honduras, Hernan had left behind Ingrid, then 15, and Helin, 9, who were raised by Hernan’s mother in El Progreso. He sent money to them, never remarried and kept in touch with weekly calls. Now 61, he has never returned to Honduras, fearing that U.S. officials would not let him back in the United States.

“I told him we would all be together again someday,” Ingrid says.

In New York, she also has a couple of uncles, an aunt and several cousins, which makes the move easier. She wants to learn English so she can find a restaurant job like the one she had in Honduras. She’s determined her kids will go to school and learn English.

But when a friend calls to ask how everything is going, she breaks down crying.

“I don’t know what will happen, but I can never go back to Honduras,” she says.

While waiting for their chance to present themselves at the border to request asylum, Ingrid Hernandez Mejia and daughter Francis attend a free movie to help pass the time.

‘So much time’

June 4: New York

Terminal D at LaGuardia Airport is nearly deserted when Hernan arrives at 10:30 p.m.

Ingrid, Francis and Moises are due on a flight that arrives at 11:44, and Hernan wants to be there plenty early. Ingrid called from an ICE detention center in Karnes City, Tex. She said she had passed her “credible fear” interview and she and the kids were being released to him.

He hasn’t seen her in almost 20 years. He’s jittery.

He stopped to buy her some food at his favorite Dominican takeout place. He’s also carrying a Macy’s bag with a new jacket for Ingrid, in case she’s cold.

Since his son was killed, Ingrid is his only child. He and his wife had a daughter who was stillborn — they planned to name her Francis, which is what Ingrid named her daughter.

Now Hernan is filling with the old emotions. His wife’s death. The depression. Leaving his kids with his mother. His son’s slaying. He missed so much. He has watched his grandkids grow up on a telephone screen. Now he’s suddenly facing deportation when his TPS legal status expires. He’s just getting his family back, and he might lose them again.

Hernan on his way to the airport to see Ingrid for the first time since she was a teenager.

He stands alone in baggage claim, staring toward the escalator where he hopes they will soon emerge. He hooks his thumbs in his front jeans pockets and stands stone-still, glancing at the arrivals screen, then back toward the escalator. Over and over.

The coffee shop and the minimart close down. Only five planes remain on the arrivals board, including Flight 2907 from Atlanta.

“It’s been so long,” he says. “So much time.”

Misael couldn’t make the trip tonight. He’s helping an uncle who works as a house painter on Long Island.

He’s been trying to get Lionel into school, but he needs his proof of vaccinations, proof of residence and his birth certificate. It’s been a challenge to pull those documents together since Ingrid has most of them. He needs her.

Their reunion will come tomorrow.

Joanna Beltran, a family friend, drove Hernan to the airport. She also lent him the money for the plane tickets, more than $1,000. The immigration authorities wouldn’t let them leave detention until they had confirmed plane reservations.

Now Joanna watches Hernan waiting, staring at the escalator, glancing at the arrivals board.

“His life is going to change completely,” she says.

Ingrid Hernandez Mejia embraces her father, Hernan Hernandez, after arriving in New York. Ingrid had not seen her father since she was 15 years old.


At 11:52 p.m., they appear at the top of the escalator.

Hernan and Ingrid lock eyes for the first time since she was 15.

They are both crying.

They walk toward each other and meet in a long embrace, without a word.

Ingrid is carrying Francis and she cuddles between them in her tiny down jacket. The three of them embrace for a few quiet seconds more. Hernan reaches for Moises, his bushy-haired grandson, and they hold each other tight.

Hernan picks up Francis and strokes her hair and face, as Ingrid wipes tears from her eyes.

Ingrid and the kids started their day in the detention center in Texas. They were driven to San Antonio and flew to Atlanta. There, Ingrid, who speaks no English and had never been in an airport before this month, had to change planes and terminals in one of the largest and busiest airports in the world, carrying a 2-year-old.

(Jorge Ribas/The Washington Post)

Now they step into Joanna’s Toyota in the parking garage. They borrow Hernan’s phone to Skype with Misael on Long Island. As they drive, Misael coos at Francis.

Ingrid seems tired but happy. They are rolling into New York, but so focused on the phone and Misael that she doesn’t seem to notice the majestic skyline ahead.

Shortly after 12:30 a.m., they arrive at Hernan’s home in the Bronx. Few people are on the street as they pull their few small bags out of the car and set them on the sidewalk, next to big plastic bags of trash.

In the sulfur-yellow glow of streetlights, they walk through a heavy metal door, past the garbage bins and down a small hallway to the single room where Hernan lives.

Their new life starts in the basement of a Bronx apartment building.

Hernan Hernandez brings his daughter and grandchildren to his apartment after their late-night arrival from the airport.


June 5: the Bronx

In the morning, Ingrid relaxes on a couch in the basement’s common room, where laundry hangs next to a wall of electric meters.

It’s been a long couple of weeks: four days in detention at the border in San Ysidro, a couple of days at a lockup in San Diego, then her first-ever plane ride to Dallas with six other Central American women and their kids.

She ended up in the Karnes County Residential Center, where there was a gym, church, barber shop and English classes. They were given ID cards and medical checkups: Francis had six vaccinations and Moises seven. Ingrid and Francis slept in a room with other women, Moises had a bed in a male dorm. They always ate together.

When it was time for her “credible fear” interview, the officials wanted to know why she didn’t seek asylum in Mexico. She said she didn’t feel safe there.

“They asked me if I asked for protection to the Honduran government, and I said ‘Yes, but the police never do anything,’ ” she says.

The interview took two hours. The rest is a blur: the ankle bracelet, the panicky dash through the Atlanta airport, seeing her dad at LaGuardia.

“He’s a bit chubbier now,” she teases, shooting him a big smile.

Moises fidgets on the couch next to her. He’s restless. He finished primary school, but left high school after he was threatened. He wants to get his diploma. He wants a job.

“I’ll do whatever I can,” he says.

Ingrid holds his hand. They seem closer and warmer now than they were in Tijuana.

“I want my kids to go to school, and I want to work,” she says. “That’s what you do. We’re immigrants, not criminals. We are workers.”

Ingrid Hernandez Mejia, right, and Misael George Bonilla, left, are finally together again with their three children in New York.

At 10 p.m., Ingrid, Francis and Moises pull up to Nolvia’s apartment, where they will meet Misael and Lionel, who are coming in from Long Island.

Moises has a fresh haircut, high and tight and curly on top, with a little gel. Francis is swinging the stuffed blue dog that Joanna gave her at the airport the night before.

“Avion! Avion!” She shouts, pointing to the sky where she sees a plane.

It’s been a month and a day since they last saw Misael and Lionel.

At 11:30, Lionel comes in first — his hair is buzzed short and he looks different from the last time Ingrid saw him. She touches his head and laughs, then hugs him.

Misael follows him in and gives Francis a long bear hug. Then he sets the battery from his ankle bracelet into its charger cradle, and plugs it into a wall socket.

Misael and Ingrid sit side-by-side on the couch, and he gives her belly a tender rub.

He’s clearly exhausted. He was up at 5 a.m. to paint houses, then he and Lionel spent more than three and a half hours on trains to get here.

He rubs his red eyes.

Tomorrow morning, he is due back in court to check in with ICE.

Ingrid has her first check-in next week.

It’s taken two and a half months to get here.

They are safe, and together. And they have no idea what comes next.

From left, Hernan Hernandez, Moises, Francis and Ingrid Hernandez Mejia arrive at Hernan’s apartment the night of June 4.

‘People keep coming’

Oct. 4: the Bronx

Four months later, Ingrid sits in the basement utility room in Hernan’s apartment building, where she has made a home.

Nolvia’s landlord objected to all the extra people in her apartment, so they were forced to move into this basement space with no door and a small shared bathroom down the hall. Because Hernan works in the building, it’s free.

Francis naps on the queen-size mattress on the linoleum floor that Ingrid shares with her two younger children. A telenovela in Spanish plays on a cracked TV; half of the six bulbs in the overhead light are burned out.

The power light on Ingrid’s ankle bracelet blinks green, as it has every couple of seconds since May. Ingrid changes the battery every six hours because if it gets too low, the bracelet vibrates and actually speaks to her in Spanish: “Battery low, charge the unit.”

They still have no court date. Once a month they check in at an ICE office. They are required to be home every Monday from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. in case ICE wants to check on them. They came when the family moved in here; they have never returned. But every week, Ingrid and Misael sit here for 12 hours just in case.

Misael still spends most of the week on Long Island, but he’s here on Sunday and Monday.

Ingrid goes through immigration paperwork and evidence for their asylum claim while Moises looks at a photograph of the dead body of Ingrid's brother. It was the threat of violence in Honduras that prompted the family to seek asylum in the United States.

It’s all difficult, but Ingrid has no regrets.

“I am sure I made the right decision,” she says.

In September, Moises started ninth grade at a public high school that offers instruction in English and Spanish. He uses Google Translate to figure out his homework. Lionel just started second grade and relies on classmates to help him with English.

Shortly before 2 p.m., Ingrid loads Francis into a stroller, walks out to the main boulevard and catches a crowded bus 10 blocks to Lionel’s school. When school officials open the huge chain-link gate, Ingrid walks inside and finds Lionel, wearing his New York Yankees backpack, playing happily in a sea of kids in yellow polo shirts.

“Are you sure you don’t have homework today, not even math?” she asks him, handing him a cheese empanada.

“No homework!” he shouts, with a huge smile.

The walk home takes a half-hour, and Lionel can’t stop chattering about all the facts he’s memorized about New York City buses and trains. It’s his way of feeling a little bit in control in this huge city.

At home, as Lionel and Francis play on the floor with toys other tenants left behind, Ingrid scrolls through Instagram. She pauses on a Spanish-language news report about 50 Guatemalan migrants stuck in the Arizona desert.

It brings back memories of all her family has been through.

“The danger’s not only in Honduras — it’s also in other places,” she says. “It seems like people keep coming.”

Months after Ingrid and her family arrived in the United States, an even larger carvan is nearing the U.S. border, drawing the ire of President Trump. The president has called the caravan an “invasion” and warned that gang members and other criminals are among its members.

About this story

Design and development by Danielle Rindler. Photo editing by Karly Domb Sadof. Video editing by Reem Akkad.