It was a birthday party they never dreamed would happen, a celebration not only of a girl turning 12 but also of a family reunited and a new life tentatively launched, far from the threats and deadly gang violence of Honduras.
For days, Helen and Julio Acosta planned the menu and guest list, including people from the Catholic church in Germantown, Md., where they found support and which had become a second home for the family since their arrival last June.
They pushed aside thoughts of the court hearings that await Helen and the children, who were stopped by Border Patrol agents as they crossed into this country from Mexico, or the potential risks facing Julio — an undocumented immigrant — under the administration of President-elect Donald Trump.
“I’ve never been to a birthday party before in this country,” said Julio as he looked at his daughter in a petite red dress with her hair side-swept. “After years of not being there, who would’ve believed that I’d be celebrating my daughter’s birthday here with my family? It feels weird because I don’t know how to act, but I know that whatever happens this is a moment I won’t forget.”
Julio Acosta left Honduras nearly a decade ago, frustrated that he couldn’t afford milk and other basic necessities for his family. He kissed his children goodbye as they slept.
“I had to find another way,” Acosta said. “It is humbling for a father to know you don’t have enough money for your children to eat.”
Walking through the pitch-black Mexican desert, feeling the vibrations of unseen rattlesnakes, Acosta thought about turning back. But his brother, who had joined him on the trek, urged him forward. By morning, the group of 25 migrants had dwindled to 15, with the others apparently having turned back or been separated from the group.
Crossing the desert was the last leg of what had been a two-week trip north from Central America through Mexico. After a few days walking in the desert, they made it over the border to McAllen, Tex. Acosta bounced around, working in Texas, North Carolina and New York, and then settled in Maryland four years ago.
Acosta lived simply to control his expenses, sending home the bulk of the money he earned doing construction jobs.
Holidays and birthdays meant a phone call or video chat with Helen and the kids, watching them open the presents he had shipped. He always planned to go back to Honduras, but months became years, and life back home was becoming bleaker, with gang and drug-related violence compounding the abject poverty.
Last spring, gang members began recruiting Julio, 15, and Alex, 14, and threatened to kill them if they didn’t join. They demanded that Helen pay an impuesta de guerra, or war tax, of several hundred Honduran lempira. She reported it to the police, but she said they told her to disregard it. But her brother had been murdered a couple years earlier, she said, for ignoring just such a demand.
Panicked, Helen took her children and headed for the border, just as Julio had done a decade earlier. Their treacherous sojourn lasted a month, on foot, ferry and finally, a raft a across the Rio Grande, with them suffering hunger, cold and mistreatment along the way, she said.
Within 10 minutes of crossing the U.S.-Mexican border one June night, border agents found them in the brush. They were taken to a detention center where Helen and her daughter were placed in a frigid cell apart from the boys. From there, officials took the family to another facility in San Antonio where they could shower and sleep.
Helen hadn’t told Julio their plans because she didn’t want him to talk her out of it. Meanwhile, Julio panicked because he had not been able to reach his family by phone. Then an immigration enforcement agent called him to say Helen and the children had been detained at the border.
The family was seeking asylum, and under the agency’s “catch and release” program, they could stay with relatives until a court hearing was set.
Could Julio buy four plane tickets to meet them at the airport in Baltimore?
“We didn’t even speak,” Julio Acosta said of the moment he saw his family in the airport. “It was just crying. We didn’t talk until we got home.”
Helen raves about the changes she has seen in her children since they arrived in a nondescript Montgomery County suburb just off Interstate 270 that has become an affordable oasis for immigrants in the wealthy Washington metropolitan area.
The boys seem much less anxious, and they participate in a community soccer league with many other newly arrived youngsters from Central America. At their schools, which are filled with nonnative English speakers like themselves, they are happy and earning good grades.
They and their sister, Dariela, have made regular visits to a psychologist to work through the trauma of their trip north, and are making friends at their parish, Mother Seton Catholic Church, which holds weekly charismatic services for its Spanish-speaking parishioners.
“We escaped death,” Acosta said. “And I know here, we can make something of ourselves.”
At night, the younger Julio and Alex lay on their backs in the room they share, staring up at the ceiling and marveling at what has happened. They remember the bad days, Julio said, but also can’t believe where they are.
“You do realize this could all end soon? Any day now,” the teenager recalled telling his brother one recent night. “I think about that all the time.”
For their father, the adjustment has been a bit more strained as he adapts to what he calls in Spanish a “new rhythm of life.” He went from living in a room for $350 a month to paying five times that for an apartment. Wages that seemed bountiful when wired to Honduras now are barely enough to make ends meet.
But he relishes the thought of giving his daughter and sons their Christmas gifts in person. At church last week, he sat next to his namesake, enjoying the moment as the teenager leaned against his shoulder.
“All this time growing up, my mother tried to fill two roles,” the younger Julio said in Spanish. “She did her best, but I felt I was missing something, the love of a father. . . . Now that I’m here, I feel complete.”
As Acosta savors each moment with his family, he is acutely aware of how short-lived it could be. His wife and children are fighting to stay, although the threat of deportation began the moment they were stopped near the border. And while Trump says he, like President Obama, won’t try to kick out longtime residents unless they have criminal records, Acosta knows there is no guarantee.
The number of asylum claims have soared in recent years, causing a backlog of cases in which authorities have to determine whether the fear of persecution or violence is credible.
The other day, worried about the future, Acosta called a private attorney, hoping for counsel on the process.
But the lawyer asked for a $15,000 retainer, which pretty much ended the conversation. The family just doesn’t have that kind of money, Acosta said.
Dariela walked back and forth to the door checking to see if guests were arriving. A church member had come over earlier to style her hair and color Helen’s. The estofado, or slow-cooked beef, was done, and a huge pot of horchata, a traditional pulverized rice drink, was on its way.
A three-tiered cake, decorated with princesses, and Disney “Frozen” Mylar balloons, were at the center of the living room. Alex cranked up the cumbia music. Soon, everyone was eating or singing or playing.
Acosta shed his paint-splattered work clothes for a dress shirt and slacks and sat down to take it all in. He seemed to be looking for assurance that this was real and at times, it appeared as if he were on the verge of tears.
“I’m not going to cry,” Acosta said with a nervous chuckle. But he couldn’t hide his worry. During the party, he referenced 1 Corinthians from the Bible, the verse about change coming in a flash or “twinkling of an eye.”
But with each passing hour, his face softened. When it was time to sing — first in English and then in Spanish — the father stood and clapped the loudest, mouthing the words to the mariachi version of “Las Mañanitas,” a Latin American birthday ode. Helen Acosta recorded all of it.
As the party came to a close, she stood to speak: “Thank you for your support and being present for my daughter’s birthday. . . . It’s the first year she celebrates with her father, and we only hope there will be more to come.”