Steven Chicas burst through the front door, flushed with excitement. It was his first day in second grade, and he had brought home a backpack full of crayons, books and a sketch pad with his drawing of an apple tree, surrounded by stick figures.
“There’s Mami and Papi, Carlos and Kevin, Rafael and Anthony,” said the wiry boy of 9, pointing to each figure that August afternoon. “And there’s me and the cat,” he added happily.
Milagros Chicas, a house cleaner in Hyattsville, Md., listened to her son with a mixture of pride, relief and remorse. When Steven was only 6 weeks old, she left him with relatives in El Salvador and made her way to Maryland. She did not see him again until he reached here early last year.
Steven was among a wave of about 65,000 children from Central America who flooded the U.S.-Mexico border during 2014, most of them smuggled north to rejoin parents who had left them behind. The unprecedented influx raised public alarm and taxed government resources.
Today, the surge of minors has ended, but the presidential race has injected new venom into the debate over illegal immigration. Republican candidate Donald Trump has proposed that all 11 million illegal immigrants be deported and that their U.S.-born children lose their constitutional birthright as American citizens.
Meanwhile, 90 percent of the surge children have been resettled into Latino communities across the country, including about 3,000 in the Washington region. By law, all of them could face deportation, but few hearings have been held and some are applying for humanitarian visas or political asylum.
Some of the youngsters have adapted well, according to counselors, but others have continued to struggle with language barriers, emotional trauma from the past, and conflicts with new or estranged relatives.
Steven, withdrawn and nervous when he arrived, has evolved into a confident, cheerful child. Although he barely attended school in El Salvador, he made remarkable progress in first grade and already speaks better English than anyone in his family.
But he was not the only son Milagros left behind when she fled her homeland to find a toehold in America. Carlos, now 15, made the cross-border journey five years ago and has had a rockier transition. Kevin, 16, waited the longest to make the attempt, while Milagros pulled together funds to pay smugglers one more time.
“I don’t know if I made a right or wrong decision to leave them, but I made sure they never lacked clothing and other things,” she said in a tearful interview in July. “Now two of them are safe with me, but my job will not be done until the last one is here. My heart is still in two places.”
To be reunited with one’s family is “a lovely idea,” said Alma Hamar, a psychologist in the District. “It starts out marvelous, but then conflicts emerge.” At home, many have to deal with new siblings or stepparents; at school, they may feel isolated and ashamed. “They don’t know who to trust, and their parents don’t have the time or the tools to help them,” she said.
For these long-separated children, two key factors determine whether they make successful transitions, according to Hamar and other counselors.
One is what they experienced back home — how they were treated by caretakers, how far they went in school, whether their parents stayed in close touch. The other is what they faced after arriving here — how they navigated living with new relatives, how fast they learned English, whether they got professional therapy.
Steven and Carlos suffered more than many. Farmed out to reluctant relatives, both were mistreated by some of their caretakers, Milagros says, and both carried emotional scars.
Although their mother originally hoped to save money and return home, she met and married a Guatemalan immigrant and had two more children, giving up on her plan to go back to her children.
On the other hand, Milagros has worked hard to make up for the years of separation. Once Carlos and Steven arrived, she made sure they attended school, accompanied her to church and signed up for counseling at Mary’s Center, a nonprofit health agency.
Maria Vethencourt, a counselor at Mary’s Center, said that the family is unusually close-knit and that Milagros is determined to keep it together. She never learned English, and she still has trouble finding the right bus, but the mother who once abandoned her children is now the rock in their lives.
“I often ask myself what qualities make family reunification a success,” Vethencourt said. “Resilience is important, and faith can help. They also need time to get to know and trust each other. The children have already been abandoned once. Milagros has made it clear she won’t let that happen again.”
The day Milagros left El Salvador in 2006, Steven was too young to understand what was happening, but 7-year-old Carlos clung to her in tears.
“He said, ‘Don’t leave, Mami, we can eat dirt, you don’t have to go,’ ” she recounted with chagrin. ‘I told him, ‘I am doing this for you, my son.’ ”
In 2010, smugglers dropped Carlos at an exit on the Capital Beltway. He was now a taciturn adolescent, prone to angry outbursts. With therapy, he began to talk about the experiences that had scarred him. He also began rescuing small animals and caring for them in the family’s tiny apartment.
“Once he brought home some kittens full of fleas. They had no mother,” Milagros recalled with a grimace. “He suffered a lot during those years, so now he wants to help every other creature.”
One recent afternoon, Carlos cradled a small orange cat while he described how some older relatives had treated him in El Salvador. “They tied me to a tree and hit me,” he mumbled. “I really wanted to go to school, but they said it was a waste of time.”
Carlos has now spent five straight years in school. He made the honor roll in the seventh grade and recently began his freshman year at High Point High School. “I like science and math and soccer,” he said, dangling a piece of string for the kitten. “But I like animals most.”
By 2014, when Steven reached Maryland in a smuggler’s van, he had endured far worse. According to Milagros, relatives in El Salvador denied him food and forced him to stand on his head as a punishment. Whenever she called, though, they insisted everything was fine.
“I never knew how much he suffered,” she said. “He never told me.”
At first, Steven was too nervous to take off his dirty clothes for washing. He was soon enrolled in counseling, but he drew more emotional strength from his newfound family.
He often clung to his mother, lying in her lap. He found a natural protector in Carlos and new playmates in his younger half-brothers Rafael and Anthony, now 7 and 4. He also liked to pet the orange kitten.
Despite his lack of education, Steven also proved an eager student. By June, after just one year of school, he was easily using words such as “lobster” and “guitar.” After his birthday party in August, he announced, “Now I am 9, and next I will be 10. Then I will know a lot of words.”
Even with Carlos and Steven safely settled, Milagros continued to worry about Kevin, still in El Salvador. Last year, the growing threat of gang violence made him anxious to leave. So once more, she borrowed several thousand dollars to pay a smuggler.
In May, Kevin reached the U.S. border. He turned himself in and spent four months in a government shelter, waiting to be processed for release. One day in August, Milagros was waiting when Kevin landed at Dulles Airport. When they reached Hyattsville, Kevin was greeted by two brothers he had not seen in years and two half-brothers he had never met.
A week of school visits, health exams and legal consultations followed. Milagros hopes Kevin will qualify for a humanitarian visa, and she says she will do whatever she must to keep her boys with her.
For now, she has told them not to fight over the bathroom, and to watch out for each other. Kevin, the biggest, is shy and speaks no English, but he completed middle school in El Salvador and is now starting at High Point with Carlos.
“Don’t let anyone bully him,” Milagros instructed Carlos.
One recent afternoon, Kevin and Carlos wrestled on the sofa, then devoured a stack of sandwiches while listening to Latino rap. Steven helped Rafael with his math. Anthony fell asleep, and Kevin carried him into the bunk room.
“Finally my heart is in one place,” she said in Spanish. “At night, I can look at all my boys sleeping. They are crowded together, but they are here. I swear, I will never leave them again.”