HOUSTON— They had come so far together, almost 3,000 miles across three countries and three borders: a mother with three children, fleeing a gang in El Salvador that had tried to kill her teenage son.
Her kids were being taken from her.
She handed her sleeping preschooler to her oldest, a 16-year-old with a whisper of a mustache whose life had been baseball and anime until a gun was pointed at his head.
“My love, take care of your little brother,” she told him on Dec. 17.
“Bye, Mommy,” said her 11-year-old daughter, sobbing.
And then her children were gone.
Once a rarity, family separations at the border have soared under President Trump, according to advocacy groups and immigration lawyers.
The administration first put forth the idea a year ago, when John F. Kelly, then secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, said he was considering separating parents from their children as a deterrent to illegal immigration.
Kelly, now the White House chief of staff, quickly walked back his comments after they triggered public outrage, and the controversy ebbed as illegal immigration plunged to historic lows.
But when border apprehensions began to rise again late last year, so, too, did reports of children being stripped from their parents by Border Patrol or Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.
“Separating children from their parents is unconscionable and contradicts the most basic of American family values,” 71 Democratic lawmakers said in a letter to DHS in February.
The separation of a Congolese mother from her 7-year-old daughter generated headlines and spurred a class-action lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union this month.
“We are hearing about hundreds of families,” said Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project.
“DHS does not currently have a policy of separating women and children,” according to an agency statement released this month, but retains the authority to do so in certain circumstances, “particularly to protect a child from potential smuggling and trafficking activities.”
“The truth is that whether they call it a policy or not, they are doing it,” Gelernt said.
For Silvana’s children, the separation was bewildering and frightening.
They had no idea where their mother was. Did their father, who had fled to the United States months earlier, know where they were? They were told they’d join their family in a few days, but days turned into weeks.
Surrounded by strangers in a strange place, they wondered: Would they ever see their parents again?
'My soul left me'
The family’s crisis began a year ago, when Silvana’s husband, Yulio Bermudez, refused to help MS-13 members in San Salvador escape from police in his taxi. The gang beat him and threatened to kill him.
Yulio fled north and crossed illegally into Texas, where the 34-year-old claimed asylum and eventually joined relatives.
Then one night in November, Silvana sent her oldest son — Yulio’s stepson — to a pupuseria down the block. As he was walking, the teenager saw a car pull up. A member of MS-13’s rival, the 18th Street gang, peppered the restaurant with gunfire.
The gang member then turned his gun on the teen, who was frozen with fear. But when he pulled the trigger, there was only the click of an empty chamber.
“Must be your lucky day,” the gangster said and sped off.
Silvana, 33, and her son reported the incident to police, also describing Yulio’s run-in with MS-13. Within days, MS-13 members showed up to their door to tell Silvana she’d pay for snitching, she would later tell U.S. immigration officials. And when the 18th Street member saw her in the street, he pointed his finger at her like a gun.
“It was a clear sign that he was on to us and he wanted to hurt me and my child,” she said in immigration court filings.
Relatives drove Silvana and her kids to the border with Guatemala, where they caught the first of many buses on their way to America.
When they arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border several days later, Silvana and her children followed a group of migrants through the night to a tall brick wall.
“When I saw they were jumping a wall, I said, ‘Oh my God, where do I go from here?’ ” Silvana recalled in an interview. But it was too late to turn back, so she ushered her daughter forward and watched as the 11-year-old disappeared over the wall. Then she handed up her 3-year-old.
“My soul left me, because the wall was very high,” she recalled. Out of sight on the other side of the wall, migrants caught the boy using a blanket.
They had been walking through the desert for a few minutes when they were caught and taken to a “hielera,” or ice box, the nickname for the cold, barren Border Patrol facilities along the frontier where detained migrants sleep dozens to a room.
There, Silvana was told she was being separated from her kids because she had tried to enter the country illegally a decade earlier. Border Patrol agents said she would be charged with “illegal reentry” — a felony punishable by up to 20 years in prison — and that her children could not join her in court, she recalled later. (The Washington Post is not naming the children because of the family’s fears about their safety.)
Instead, the kids were loaded onto a van and driven for four hours. As his baby brother slept in his arms, the 16-year-old could hear his sister crying out for their mom. He tried to comfort her, but a metal divider stood between them.
The desert gave way to neighborhoods, and the 11-year-old said she began to believe they were being taken to their dad’s house. When the van finally stopped in front of a large building on the outskirts of Phoenix, she thought: My dad lives in a hotel?
But the building wasn’t a hotel. It was La Hacienda del Sol, one of dozens of shelters around the country for unaccompanied minors. And it was surrounded by a six-foot fence.
Silvana’s sons were given bunk beds in a room with several other boys. The windows were equipped with alarms, which often went off during the night. Each evening, the 16-year-old would lie awake worrying about their fate.
And each morning, the 3-year-old would wake up and ask the same question.
“She had to go to work,” his older brother would say. “She had to go shopping.”
The boys had each other, but their sister was by herself in a wing for girls. They only saw her at meals and for a few hours in the evening, when they would play Battleship or Connect 4.
Silvana had given her oldest son a scrap of paper with his stepdad’s phone number on it. But he’d lost it. There was no Internet at the shelter, and when the teen asked to access Facebook to contact Yulio, he said he was told he’d have to make an official request.
Days passed as the children waited for Yulio or Silvana to find them. They took classes, spoke to therapists and received vaccinations. All the while, there was a constant churn of children around them. They would make new friends, only to lose them a few days later, writing their names in notebooks in the hopes of one day re-connecting.
At one point, the 11-year-old’s only roommate was a 4-year-old. Shelter employees asked her to help care for the girl by warming up her bottle and putting her to sleep.
“She was alone,” Silvana’s daughter said. “Without her mom. Without anyone.”
Christmas arrived without word from their parents. Instead of dinner with family and fireworks in the streets of San Salvador, there was pizza and a shelter employee dressed as Santa Claus dispensing winter hats and plastic yo-yos. When Silvana’s daughter began shimmying to Latin music like she had in her dance troupe in El Salvador, she was told to tone it down. And a no-touching rule meant she wasn’t allowed to hug her older brother, even when the clock struck midnight on New Year’s Eve.
The 11-year-old began to despair.
“At first I thought it’d only be a few days before I saw my dad,” she recalled. “But after a month there, I was going crazy, thinking, When? When? When?”
'Is Mom with you?'
For Silvana, the days after the separation were a blur. She was taken to U.S. District Court in Yuma, where she pleaded guilty to illegal entry, a misdemeanor.
She was sent to a detention center in San Luis, Ariz., to serve a five-day sentence, and then transferred back to the same hielera. The officers told her they didn’t have any information on her kids. She says she wasn’t allowed a phone call.
“The first week was torture,” Silvana recalled.
On Dec. 23, she was put on an airplane with dozens of undocumented detainees. Silvana thought she was being deported to El Salvador.
“The majority of the immigrants were happy, saying they were on their way home,” she said. “I was the only one crying because I didn’t have my kids with me.”
She only realized they were flying north instead of south when she saw snow from the window.
After the plane landed in Buffalo, Silvana was finally able to call her husband from a federal detention center.
“I asked him if he had the kids,” she recalled. When Yulio said that he hadn’t heard from them and couldn’t find them, she became distraught.
“Do something!” she snapped. “You are the only one that is out.”
Yulio’s relatives posted pleas for help on Facebook, and one message came to the attention of Bridget Cambria, an immigration attorney in Reading, Pa. Her office helped Yulio locate the children. On Jan. 7 — 21 days after they’d been separated from their mother — he was able to call them, he said.
“Is Mom with you?” asked his daughter, dejected when he said no.
“When do we get out of here?” asked the teen, but Yulio said he didn’t know.
When it was the 3-year-old’s turn to speak, the boy was silent.
“I’d say, ‘Hello. Hi, son, how are you?’ The kid did not answer,” Yulio recalled. “After two or three minutes of trying to talk to him, the social worker gets on the phone and says the kid does not want to talk, and that is when the call ended.”
A few days later, Silvana was also finally able to call the kids. She told the teen to be strong, and the younger kids to behave, and all of them that she loved them. The conversation was only a few tear-filled minutes, but it was enough to give the family hope.
On Jan. 31, after six weeks at the shelter, the kids were told to pack their things. Within hours, they were on the first flight of their lives. When they touched down in Houston, Yulio was waiting for them at the airport.
But Silvana was not. She remained in detention, where she’d been prescribed pills for her anxiety and pills to help her sleep. She met eight other women at the facility who had been separated from their children, she said.
After a month at the detention facility, Silvana finally had a chance to tell immigration officials about the gang and death threats in El Salvador. They determined she had a reasonable fear of persecution if she returned — the first step toward being able to stay in the United States.
And on March 8, she appeared before Buffalo immigration judge Walter Ruehle, who agreed that she could be released and set her bond at $2,000.
“I hope you get to see your children soon,” he said.
'Who am I?'
The teenager was the first to spot her. Yulio had told the children they were at the bus station Friday to pick up a cousin, but the 16-year-old sensed something else was going on. And when he saw a woman in ICE-issued sweatpants stepping out of a bright yellow taxi, he knew the long wait was over.
“Mom,” he yelled, racing through the terminal in sneakers and skinny jeans, a huge smile across his face.
For Silvana, her release had been as abrupt and disorienting as her incarceration. After 12 weeks in a cell, she had suddenly found herself shivering at a gas station, waiting for a bus. Then came the long ride from Buffalo to Houston: 40 hours to wonder what the separation had done to her family.
Would the 16-year-old be angry? Would the 11-year-old forgive her? Would her youngest even recognize her?
The taxi door barely slid open before the teenager was upon her.
“I love you,” she whispered into his ear, tears streaking down her face.
“I love you, too,” he answered.
As Silvana hugged her eldest, she felt a gentle tug on her ponytail.
“I like your braids,” her daughter said softly of the cornrows she’d acquired in Buffalo.
Silvana’s 3-year-old hovered at the edge of all the embraces until she lifted him up.
She knew that much about their future remained uncertain. There would be immigration check-ins and asylum hearings and a judge’s ruling to decide if they could have the life they’d come so far — and endured so much — to build.
But in this moment, all she cared about was seeing recognition in the eyes of the son she hadn’t held in three months.
“Who am I, my darling?” she asked in Spanish. “Who am I?”
The boy rubbed his eyes, looking elsewhere.
“What’s my name?” Silvana said.
The boy put his fingers in his mouth, saying nothing.
“Mommy,” she answered for him. “I am your mommy.”