BLOOMINGTON, Ill. — The boy stood in the front of the church, flanked by his cousins yet utterly alone.
It was the Sunday after Thanksgiving, and the four children had been called before their congregation to speak. One by one, they listed the things for which they were grateful: their friends, their siblings and, above all, their parents.
When it was his turn, the boy took the microphone reluctantly.
“I’m grateful for my life and —” Isaac Flores Amador began.
Then the 11-year-old burst into tears.
“And for my mom,” he sobbed as his pastor, David Santana, hurried to give the child a hug.
“His mom is in another country,” Santana told the congregation. “But the boy is here, thank God.”
Eleven months earlier, Isaac and his mother had made the dangerous two-week journey from Honduras to the U.S.-Mexico border to ask for asylum. Instead, they were separated. His mother was deported. And Isaac was left behind.
More than 2,500 migrant children were taken from their parents at the border earlier this year under the Trump administration’s now abandoned “zero tolerance” immigration policy. After months of court orders and administrative chaos, the majority of these children have been reunited with their parents — some in Central America but most in the United States.
In more than 200 cases, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, deported parents have made the painful decision to leave their separated sons or daughters behind in the hope that they will have a better life in America.
For these families, Trump’s short-lived separation policy threatens to become permanent.
Isaac had never slept apart from his mother until she was taken from him. Now he lives in central Illinois with an uncle he hardly knew while his mother tries to parent him via text message from 2,000 miles away.
As he struggled to adapt to a new life in a new country, Isaac often escaped his loneliness by playing the online video game Fortnite, which offered a sense of community and belonging.
But it was the game’s objective that resonated most with him: Survive, on your own and against long odds, as long as possible.
His lifeline to his mother was a Samsung Galaxy with a shattered screen.
Sometimes they video chatted as he rode to school in the morning. But most days, Jeny Amador could afford only to text her son, each message accompanied by an emoji heart or kiss.
Sometimes her texts would suddenly stop. Usually it meant her phone needed to be charged. But once, when her phone was stolen in Honduras, Isaac didn’t hear from her for days. Each lull in communication was like holding his breath.
“Hello,” he texted her in Spanish one Saturday evening in December.
“What are you doing.”
“Are you at church.”
“Where are you.”
By the time they spoke, it was Sunday afternoon.
“Hola mi amor,” she said from Honduras, where it was the rainy season. “Cómo estás?”
“Bien,” he replied from his cousin’s house in a snow-dusted trailer park decorated with inflatable Santas and plastic nativity scenes.
Amador still harbored hopes that they would somehow reunite in America. But she had little chance of appealing her deportation, and she refused to let Isaac return to Honduras.
He was her baby: the youngest of five who always slept beside her until the day they were separated. His first memory was of her feeding him the mangoes that fell behind their pink cinder-block house in Omoa, on the Caribbean Sea.
Since splitting from his father a few years ago, she had scraped together a living by baking. He used to wake to the smell of her homemade chocolate doughnuts.
But sometimes she didn’t have enough money to buy baking ingredients, or even food, and so they ate mangoes for days. She began talking about taking him to the United States to escape not only poverty, but also gangs. At 10, he was approaching the age where he could be recruited, she said.
Instead, she became the target. She had campaigned for the incumbent in Honduras’s 2017 presidential election. When he was declared the winner amid weeks of turmoil, she said, gang members came to her home.
“They said, ‘Your party stole the election, and we are going to burn your house and kill you,’ ” she would later tell a U.S. asylum officer.
A few weeks later, she paid a smuggler to take her and Isaac through Guatemala to the southern border of Mexico, where they and four unaccompanied minors crossed a river in a small boat. On Jan. 13, 2018, they walked across a bridge in El Paso and asked for asylum.
But when Border Patrol agents questioned the unaccompanied minors, they said one was actually 21 years old. Amador, the agents would later testify, had been given money to help him reach the border.
Amador denies this, saying that she was never paid and that she played no role in helping anyone other than her son.
Agents took Isaac aside and asked him whether Amador was really his mom.
“Sí,” he pleaded. “Es mi mamá.”
They spent the night on the cold floor of a holding cell. The next morning, Isaac recalled, “A man came in and grabbed my mom and said we were being separated.” He screamed and clutched at her, but agents pulled them apart.
One promised they would be reunited soon, Isaac recalled. Instead, he was taken to the airport and put on a plane to a children’s shelter in Arizona. The boy who once wanted to be a pilot spent his first flight in tears.
“They lied to me,” Isaac said.
Although the Trump administration wouldn’t announce zero tolerance until April, it had already begun splitting families in El Paso under a 2017 pilot program, charging parents with federal crimes and sending their children to shelters.
As Isaac was taken to Phoenix, his mother was taken to jail and then federal court, where she was charged with “bringing in and harboring aliens,” a felony.
For two weeks, Isaac didn’t hear from her. Instead, he tried to navigate a new world of roommates and chores and English classes and soccer games surrounded by chain-link fences.
“Where are you?” he asked her when they finally spoke by phone.
She said she was in a big house with a swimming pool. He knew she was lying but didn’t say so. He didn’t say much of anything.
“He was very quiet,” Amador recalled. “His social worker said it was normal, but I told her no, it wasn’t normal.”
They were supposed to be able to talk twice a week , but Amador said that she sometimes called a dozen times without reaching him and that they spoke just four times in 50 days.
“I started going crazy,” she said. After six weeks in jail, prosecutors dropped the charge against her and sent her to immigration detention. An asylum officer found her credible, but her request for parole was denied. On May 9, with no money for an attorney and no faith she would ever be released, she agreed to be deported.
By then, Isaac was in Illinois, where his uncle had agreed to take him in.
He was able to talk to her more easily after she was deported in June — and after a relative gave him his phone this fall — but the distance between them seemed to grow by the day.
In Honduras, Amador had always awakened him on his birthday by singing “Las Mañanitas,” a Latin American birthday song. When the day arrived in July, she could only leave a message for him.
She had thrown him birthday parties on the beach with homemade cakes and pinatas. But in Bloomington, there was no beach, no party and no pinata. The cake came from the grocery store.
In their phone calls, she tried to bridge the chasm between them with questions.
“Is your school going well?” she now asked as he sat in his cousin’s kitchen.
“What did you do last night?”
“What did you eat for breakfast?”
But the mother who had meant everything had been reduced to a broken voice coming from a broken screen.
“You’re very intelligent, my love,” she told him. “You have to do all your homework. You can play video games or watch TV but only after you finish your homework. Okay, son?”
“Okay,” he said as he silently watched a Fortnite video on his phone.
“What’s wrong, my love?” she asked. “You seem a little — sad.”
“Nothing,” he said, as the game flashed on screen.
“Are you sure?”
“I’m sure,” he answered, tapping on another video.
“You have to tell me everything,” she said. “The good, the bad, the happy, the sad. Everything.”
“Okay,” he said again, as the video began to play out loud, drowning her out.
With his avatar perched atop a building, rifle in hand, Isaac waited for his target to appear.
“Snipe him!” shouted his American-born cousin, Yariel.
Isaac tapped a button on his PlayStation controller. His opponent sank to his knees and then disappeared, leaving behind weapons and ammunition.
“Nice,” Yariel said as the boys sat on the floor in front of a large television.
“Thank you, bro,” Isaac said in English, collecting his spoils. “Thank you very much.”
This was how the two 11-year-olds spent their weekends: in the world of Fortnite.
They played for hours, together and separately, on PlayStation and cellphones, bragging and laughing and dancing and occasionally fighting until Yariel’s mom made them go to sleep. Then they’d wake up the next morning, slip out of Yariel’s bunk bed and fire up the game again.
For the two boys and their friends, Fortnite was how they bonded. But for Isaac, it was something more. It was an escape.
“That’s the way he’s found to close himself off, to not feel, to forget,” Amador said. “When he feels sad, he starts playing so he doesn’t have to think.”
In Honduras, he rarely played video games, instead spending free time at the beach or the river or the soccer field with his older siblings.
In Illinois, his fascination with snow had lasted about 30 minutes. Now he stayed inside, dressed in a T-shirt, shorts and secondhand Batman sandals, playing Fortnite.
With its hundreds and hundreds of characters or costumes and vast, colorful landscapes, it distracted him from more than his loneliness. When his midterm grades came back with two F’s, his uncle set a rule: No Fortnite on school nights.
The uncle, who declined to participate in this article but allowed a reporter to spend time with Isaac, hadn’t been Amador’s choice for a sponsor. Her ex-husband’s brother worked long hours doing construction and liked to drink on weekends. Amador had tried to place Isaac with Yariel’s mom — the uncle’s ex-wife — but she wasn’t a blood relative.
When Isaac had first moved into their three-bedroom bungalow, his uncle had been living with a girlfriend and her children. But Isaac and her son had fought, and the woman moved out, taking her furniture. The only items left in the living room were the uncle’s lawn chair with cupholders and a speaker that belted Honduran music.
Isaac looked forward to weekends at his cousin’s trailer across town, where there were couches and a Christmas tree and stockings, even if none had his name on it.
Yariel’s mom worried that the bungalow wasn’t a good place for Isaac. She tried to nurture the boy when he came over, but she had three children of her own, including a newborn.
“It’s important for him to have his mom,” she said.
In Honduras, Isaac had loved watching his mom sing in the church choir. His uncle didn’t attend services, so Isaac went with Yariel’s family instead.
When he had first arrived, the pastor had asked the congregation to stand and pray for Isaac, their hands stretched out toward him.
“He’s started to participate, but it’s been hard on him,” Santana said two weeks after the boy burst into tears at Thanksgiving. “This time of the year is the worst, since it’s all about family.”
A light snow fell on a Monday in mid-December as Isaac walked from the school bus stop to his uncle’s house. Christmas was coming, but the bungalow had no wreath or creche, no tree or festive lights.
In Honduras, Isaac had spent the day poor but happy, hawking fireworks on the street alongside his mom and siblings as he begged her to let him light the rockets he was supposed to sell. With the money they earned, they bought a holiday dinner the next day.
Isaac didn’t know how he would spend Christmas here — his first without his mom — but he guessed it would be at his cousin’s house, playing Fortnite.
He had asked his uncle for his own PlayStation, but the present he most wanted was the one he increasingly feared would never come.
He opened the front door and entered the quiet house, sitting down on a gray carpet in the empty living room with his back against a gray wall.
He plugged his phone into the socket and texted his mother he was home, but she told him she couldn’t afford to call him. So he turned to the game, its bright lights filling the barren room.