Last spring, Elsa Johana Ortiz Enríquez and 8-year-old Anthony left their village in rural Guatemala. Elsa had a boyfriend working construction who was waiting for them in the United States.
They trekked more than 1,300 miles to the U.S.-Mexico border. Elsa didn’t know it, but the Trump administration was systematically separating migrant families. Mother and son arrived at the banks of the Rio Grande in Texas in late May.
They were picked up by U.S. border agents soon after they crossed the river and were taken to a processing center in McAllen, Tex.
There was no family separation policy, according to the government. It said it was only stepping up prosecution of adults crossing illegally. And to detain parents, it had to place their children elsewhere. The result was chaos. Some were taken under the guise of being given baths. Others were held in chain-link holding pens. Some were babies. Many were lost in the system. Parents weren’t told where their sons and daughters were or when they would see them again.
Elsa was among hundreds deported without their children. She was quickly sent back to Guatemala; Anthony was still being held at a shelter in Houston.
Elsa didn’t know what else to do when she got home in early June, so she made a sign and protested outside the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala City. Her picketing drew media attention, and she met a lawyer there who agreed to help her. He worked with lawyers stateside on her case, including prominent Trump critic Michael Avenatti.
In the United States, stories like Elsa’s sparked public outrage and legal challenges. Under pressure, Trump signed an executive order on June 20 to keep migrant families together, and a judge ordered the government to reunite the ones it had separated.
At the Guatemala City airport in August, Elsa and Anthony saw each other for the first time in almost three months.
The Trump administration has identified more than 2,700 children who were separated over a six-week period in the spring of 2018. There may have been thousands more, according to a recent report by the inspector general for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The report noted: “The total number of children separated from a parent or guardian by immigration authorities is unknown.”
Also unknown: The number of families who remain apart.
Elsa is now an advocate for other separated Guatemalan families; she’ll keep helping, she says, until they’ve all been reunited.
But life at home remains a struggle for her, and she still thinks about going back to the United States.
They come on foot and in buses, in small groups and in caravans, carrying little with them. They rely on the generosity of strangers and are subject to the cruelty of traffickers.
The migrants arriving at the U.S. southern border are predominantly from just three countries: Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Some, such as Elsa, are escaping poverty; others are running for their lives.
Murder rates in parts of Central America are among the highest in the world. Gangs control entire neighborhoods — extorting businesses, recruiting children and killing with impunity.
Karla Oliva fled Honduras with her 6-year-old daughter, Estrella, and wound up in a shelter in the Mexican city of Matamoros.
Karla was seven months pregnant when she left home. For six days, she and her daughter hopped from bus to bus, barely sleeping, then they walked for three more. Her plan was to claim asylum when they reached the U.S. border.
But they were forced to wait in Matamoros, where drug gangs roam the streets and migrants make for easy targets. Almost 2,000 miles away from home, Karla was still afraid for her life.
Anyone who reaches U.S. soil has the right to apply for asylum.
Anyone who can establish a credible fear of returning home must be granted a hearing.
But immigration courts are backlogged, and asylum claims are soaring, which means asylum seekers can spend months in the United States before their case is heard.
The Trump administration says the system is being exploited by people fleeing poverty, not violence. With help from Mexican immigration agents, the U.S. government is trying to prevent asylum seekers like Karla from reaching the U.S. side of the border and making their claim.
Seven times, Karla has gone to the bridge connecting Matamoros to Brownsville, Tex. Seven times, she has been sent away.
For Karla, the question is how much longer she can afford to wait. Mexican authorities told her it can take months to get an asylum interview; she says she can’t imagine months more in the shelter. Returning home isn’t an option either. She worries about her daughter.
There are border agents waiting on the other side, and there are cold detention centers and overcrowded holding cells. Beyond the border are enforcement agents empowered to go after anyone in the country illegally. But there is also opportunity for those who make it — for generations of migrants, it has been a risk worth taking.
America has always fought bitterly over what it means to be a nation of immigrants, over who should be welcomed and who should be kept out. For decades, political leaders have lamented a broken system but failed to fix it. Trump has exploited the deep divisions on immigration, framing the issue in existential terms: ‘A country without borders is not a country at all.’ For many who crossed the border illegally and made the country their home, life feels newly precarious, circumscribed by fear.
They clean hotels and wash dishes; they work on construction crews and in nail salons; they are miners and landscapers. There were nearly 8 million undocumented immigrants working in the United States in 2016, according to estimates from the Pew Research Center.
In California’s Salinas Valley, they pick fruit and vegetables. Yolanda Perez worked illegally in the fields for 13 years.
Yolanda came to the United States from Mexico in 2003 with her first husband, who abused her. She testified against him. In 2016, she and her eldest daughter obtained U visas, reserved for victims of abuse who cooperate with law enforcement, and their immediate family. Just weeks ago, her new husband, Jorge, got his papers through the same program. Her other daughter is a U.S.-born citizen. They now live here legally and qualify for government benefits. But Yolanda worries that signing up would make her family a target.
In the Salinas Valley, the documented and undocumented work side by side in the fields. They go to the same churches and look after each other’s children.
When immigration agents make an arrest, word spreads fast. The whole community feels it, Yolanda says. She has friends without papers who are too afraid to go the grocery store or take their children to the doctor.
There have been fewer deportations under Trump than at the height of the Obama era, but immigration agents are arresting more people without criminal records. Trump has described migrants as “criminal aliens.” He warns they are bringing drugs and disease. Their caravans are an “invasion,” he says, and cause for a national emergency.
Jorge Castañeda Fernández built a life here; after 16 years, he has just secured legal status. But he still feels like an outsider.
President Trump has made migration to the United States more difficult.
And yet, migrant families are coming in ever larger numbers.
A record 40,000 parents and children were taken into custody at the border in February.
Even more are expected to make the journey this spring.
Reporting and filming
Plaza Pública and Pedro Pablo Solares
Design and development
Freelance field producers
Nic Wirtz and Enrique Lerma
About the story
Sources for this project include reports from the United States Customs and Border Protection, Office of Inspector General of Health and Human Services, and the Pew Research Center. Karla Oliva, who had tried to apply for asylum seven times at the port of entry in Brownsville, is no longer at the shelter in Matamoros, nor is her name listed in the database that Immigration and Customs Enforcement maintains of people who have been detained and processed. Her whereabouts are unknown.