It was Jan. 8, 2018, and 14-year-old Emily stood in the bathroom at DuVal High School in Prince George’s County, Md., waiting for a friend. A soft-spoken freshman, Emily often felt overwhelmed in DuVal’s crush of rowdy students. But she was eager to make the best of second semester. She looked forward to competing on her school’s CyberPatriot team, to watching the latest Marvel Studios releases with her mom, and to drinking outrageously flavored smoothies with her friends as they wandered the shops at Bowie Town Center.
Now, Emily glanced down to see a news alert on her phone: The Trump administration was canceling temporary protected status for El Salvador, a government program that had allowed Emily’s parents, both Salvadoran natives, to live and work legally in the United States for the past 17 years. According to the news, on Sept. 9, 2019, her mother, Maria Rivas, and her father, Jose, would be ordered to leave the country.
As she took this in, Emily’s heart began to pound. She couldn’t breathe; she could barely stand. By the time her friend arrived, she was sobbing uncontrollably. “I didn’t know what was going to happen to us,” she told me a few months later. “We’d been so secluded from this. We’d always thought we’ll be okay.” But now she realized that her parents had only been feigning optimism about the future since Donald Trump was elected president. “They can’t hide it anymore,” she remembered thinking. “They can’t say nothing is going to happen.”
Emily’s friend tried to console her, but all too soon, the bell rang. Lunch was over and Emily had Algebra 1. She pulled herself together and went to class.
This is not a scene anyone could have imagined in 1990 when Congress created temporary protected status, or TPS, a category of humanitarian relief for foreigners residing in the United States who could not return to their native countries because of environmental disasters, armed conflict or “other extraordinary temporary conditions.” Most people from TPS-designated countries who had a generally clean record were eligible, even if, like Emily’s parents, they’d originally come here as undocumented immigrants. (The Washington Post agreed to withhold Emily’s last name, since she shares it with two non-American siblings whose immigration cases are currently in legal proceedings. We also agreed to refer to Maria Rivas by her given first name, though most people call her by middle name.)
As of October 2017, there were roughly 300,000 TPS beneficiaries from 10 countries living in the United States. These individuals came from a handful of Central American and African countries, along with Haiti, Syria, Yemen and Nepal. But by far the largest group were Salvadorans — close to 200,000 — who were granted TPS by George W. Bush in 2001, following two massive earthquakes that ravaged their country.
Salvadorans were given 18 months to live and work legally in the United States, after which the U.S. government would assess the viability of their returning home. But 18 months later, the Bush administration determined El Salvador had not adequately recovered from the disaster, so it extended TPS again, this time for 12 months. The following year, the administration extended TPS for another 18 months. When Barack Obama became president in 2009, his administration extended TPS again. And then again. By Jan. 8, 2018, TPS for Salvadorans had been extended a total of 11 times. Trump issued a 12th extension, saying it would be the last.
Over nearly two decades, Salvadoran TPS recipients settled into American life. They found employment, fell in love and married. Many of them bought homes and started businesses. They also gave birth to roughly 192,700 American-born children, some 38,000 of whom live in the District, Maryland and Virginia.
“While nothing in the [TPS] statute suggests a pathway to permanent status, a lot of links and dependencies were created,” says Jayesh Rathod, a law professor and founding director of American University’s Immigrant Justice Clinic. “It’s only reasonable to assume that alongside the statutory factors, [previous administrations were] looking at the practical reality and how uprooting that community wouldn’t be feasible, not just to El Salvador, but to American children.”
In canceling TPS for Haitians, Hondurans, Nepalis, Sudanese, Nicaraguans and Salvadorans, the Trump administration forced families like Emily’s to confront the question that past administrations had avoided: What would happen to all these American kids when their parents were officially ordered to leave the country?
The Department of Homeland Security had an answer. “We will coordinate with the Government of El Salvador to better understand what documents might be needed by U.S. citizen children to enroll in local schools, access local health services, or other social services,” a DHS spokeswoman wrote to me in June. In other words, the government expected nearly 193,000 American kids to leave the United States along with their parents. Simple as that.
Except it wasn’t. From the start, parents balked at the idea of uprooting their children from stable communities and removing them to a country plagued with poverty, corruption and gang violence. Come next September, many, perhaps most, will decide to take their chances by becoming undocumented and staying with their kids in the United States. But others, like Emily’s parents, may begin to see separation as a viable option — heading back to their country of origin while leaving their American-citizen children behind.
On a Sunday afternoon in late March, Emily’s home was busy. Six people lived in the modest split-level house in Glenarden, Md., which the family bought in 2011. There was Emily and her 7-year-old brother, Ethan; their parents, Maria and Jose; and two older siblings, Tita, 21, and Jose Jr., 19, who were born in El Salvador and had only recently come to the United States.
Ethan, though only 3-foot-11 and 54 pounds, was the main source of chaos. Dressed in a cobra sweatshirt, Spider-Man sneakers, and ninja sweatpants, he rocketed around the house, enacting imaginary scuffles, barely watching the cartoons blaring on the family-room TV. Neighbors dropped by with their kids as Emily talked about some of her favorite bands — Panic! at the Disco, Cage the Elephant — and how she loved musicals like “Hamilton,” “West Side Story” and “Wicked.” “There’s so much emotion in the songs,” she said, and spoke wistfully about her middle school chorus, where she’d sung soprano. It was all that Maria and Jose could have dreamed for their children: typical suburban life.
Yet the current situation was anything but typical. After the neighbors had gone and Ethan was momentarily absorbed in his Legos, Emily and her parents sat at their kitchen table talking about the future. Maria explained that if she and Jose were ordered out of the country, they would leave Emily here, in the care of an American family for whom Maria used to nanny. “El Salvador is not a place for her,” said Jose quietly. He took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. I looked at Emily and caught a couple of tears dripping from her chin onto the red-and-white checkered tablecloth.
Maria glanced at Ethan in the other room. She seemed determined to take him with them. “He’s too young,” she said. “He’d be too much of a burden” to leave here. It would be too dangerous to send him to school in El Salvador, but Maria believed she could home-school him. “I’ll make sure he learns,” she said and beckoned Ethan over. Suddenly shy, he crept to his mother’s side and nuzzled against her. “I try not to worry him too much,” Maria said, hugging him.
“Do you remember that we had a conversation about if we need to go back to our country, you’ll come with us?” she asked Ethan.
“I can manage to come back here,” Ethan said. “Or someone can pick me up.” He ran back into the family room.
“I want her just to worry as a teenager, not about taking care of us,” Maria said, taking Emily’s hand. “But she’s our only hope. She has to be strong.”
“My citizenship is what I have in my power,” Emily said.
In 2023, when Emily turns 21, she could petition for her parents to obtain permanent status in the United States. But to have even a shot, they would have to prove they’d been compliant with American law. And that would mean leaving the country when ordered to do so.
Still, as often as Maria and Jose repeated these intentions — to follow the law and leave the country voluntarily with Ethan in tow — they seemed paralyzed when it came to planning. There were so many questions: First among them, where would they go? To escape the gangs, Maria’s mother had fled to Nicaragua and Jose’s parents had moved into a gated community in San Salvador. But Maria, who cleans houses, and Jose, who installs and maintains cellular towers, covered the rent for both households. Without these American jobs, Emily’s grandparents would lose their homes, which meant her parents and Ethan would have nowhere to live in El Salvador.
It was all too overwhelming for them and even unimaginable. How could they be sitting in the suburban home they owned one day and then just up and leave it the next? Emily, however, was preparing for the worst. “My parents are going back to a terrible place, and I don’t want them to die,” she said, not quite looking at her parents across the table.
This sounded like hyperbole. But was it? If El Salvador wasn’t safe for her, she reasoned, how could it be for the others? In fact, just two days after the administration canceled TPS, the State Department updated its travel advisory for El Salvador, warning that “violent crime, such as murder, assault, rape, and armed robbery, is common; gang activity, such as extortion, violent street crime, and narcotics and arms trafficking, is widespread; [and] local police may lack the resources to respond effectively to serious criminal incidents.”
Of course, the family didn’t need a travel warning to tell them how dire the situation was. Emily’s two older siblings, Tita and Jose Jr. — who were born in El Salvador and had stayed behind with family when Maria and Jose came to America — were granted permission to leave El Salvador in 2015 under the Central American Minors parole program, an Obama-era initiative designed to protect kids from violence. Roughly 1,500 minors were granted temporary and renewable permission to enter the country. Then in August 2017, about five months before Trump canceled TPS for El Salvador, he canceled CAM parole. Tita and Jose Jr. would now be sent back unless they could make a case for asylum.
Over the past year, Emily watched with increasing alarm as her older siblings gathered details for their case. She learned that to escape the gangs, Jose Jr. had moved out of San Salvador to a small town where there was no school. He eventually returned to the city to continue his education. But life there was akin to house arrest. Both he and Tita left home only for school and to retrieve basic necessities from the store. Even so, they’d been held up multiple times on city buses. If they lingered for any amount of time on their front steps or in their yard, gangs might harass them or shake them down. On one occasion, the police had asked Jose Jr. why he was walking on the street — a warning that he understood as a threat. On another occasion, Emily’s siblings told her that a family friend in the neighborhood, a young man around Tita’s age, had recently been murdered by gangs.
Of all these stories, it was the break-in that haunted Emily the most. In the middle of the night, shortly before Tita and Jose Jr. were to leave for the United States, their grandfather spotted an intruder in the yard. When the police came, they beat the intruder up. He was, they told the family, a wanted gang member.
The family watched, horrified. “It’s established that there’s always retribution on people who call the police on gangs,” Maria told me. They not only declined to make a formal report about the incident, but quickly made plans to move into a gated community — the one for which Maria and Jose were paying. “They just left the house,” Maria said. “They left most of their stuff behind.”
Emily couldn’t wrap her head around any of this. She certainly couldn’t fathom her siblings, let alone her parents or little brother, living in such a world. She could barely fathom the world itself. “I don’t know how to connect to that,” she told me. “I don’t know what to say to my brother and sister. I just want them to realize they’re here now. They don’t have to worry about being unsafe going to the bus stop or to school.”
In light of this, Emily’s own concerns felt almost trivial: moving in with another family, transferring schools, being separated from her friends, whether she’d still have health insurance. She tried to put on a brave face. “I can take care of myself,” she would tell her parents. But panic attacks, like the one on Jan. 8, continued. She also began experiencing debilitating migraines, which forced her to retreat to the nurse’s office or miss school altogether. (Emily eventually received a scholarship to a smaller, private school for the fall.) Maria took her to the pediatrician, who suggested that Emily visit both a neurologist and a therapist.
By spring, Emily was regularly retreating to her room, to lie on her twin bed and read through the affirmations she’d devised with her therapist and hung on the wall: “You can do it.” “Everything is OK.” “Don’t worry about it.” She’d also been working on visualization exercises, closing her eyes and imagining herself in a peaceful spot. She often chose a beach at sunset. “The sand is really warm,” she said. “There’s blue, clear water and a forest behind us. And I’m there, with my friends and family, just having fun.”
In March, the ACLU of Southern California, the National Day Laborer Organizing Network and the law firm Sidley Austin filed a lawsuit against the federal government for canceling TPS for El Salvador and other countries. This wasn’t the first such suit, but it was unique in this respect: Five of the plaintiffs were the U.S. citizen children of TPS holders. According to the suit, forcing school-aged American kids to be separated from their parents would “impose extraordinary harm.” The assumption is that American children have a right to live in their native country, but that once TPS ends, only familial separation would make that possible.
“It’s not that the government can never deport someone who has an [American] child,” says Ahilan Arulanantham, senior counsel at the ACLU of Southern California, “but that the government has to take into consideration the impact on the child in making this decision. If they’ve had children living here for five years, the government interest [in ending a temporary program] has to give way to the interests of the child.”
The claim, citing a 2017 study in the journal Frontiers in Pediatrics, states: “Children of immigrants acutely suffer when their parents face even the possibility of deportation. The fear of deportation is directly tied to the prevalence of stress-related illnesses in children, including higher levels of anxiety and trauma, depression, and family instability.” Further, the study found that fear of massive deportations creates “an environment of fear within the home, neighborhood, and the community at large, compromising the children’s fundamental right to safety.”
Nora Morales, equity officer for Prince George’s County Public Schools, which includes DuVal, says this has already happened. Since Trump was elected and, more recently, since the administration canceled TPS for El Salvador, she says that “a sense of urgency, a sense of fear and a sense of insecurity has all increased” across the district, especially among Salvadorans. In response to immigration policies, faculty across the district have increasingly asked her office for “trauma-informed practices” to help emotionally distraught students and their families.
Emily’s physical symptoms and fatalistic thoughts correspond to what therapists working with the adolescent children of TPS holders have been seeing. “The kids are experiencing mass anxiety,” says Rachel Osborn, senior clinical manager with the Mary’s Center School-Based Mental Health Program, which partners with schools with large Central American populations. “Tense muscles, fatigue, worry, distraction, catastrophic thinking. Even if it’s a specific anxiety about their parents’ immigration status, it can become more globalized. Stressors in school that are normally manageable feel daunting and overwhelming.”
Kathleen Roche, associate professor of prevention and community health at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University, published a study in the Journal of Adolescent Health about the impact of recent immigration actions and news on parents’ mental health. The study examined 213 Central American parents in the suburb of an undisclosed large Mid-Atlantic city and found that nearly 84 percent of TPS recipients feared their families would be separated and 61 percent said their children had been negatively affected. Most striking was the finding that nearly 49 percent of TPS holders were experiencing a high level of psychological distress, compared with 23 percent of undocumented parents.
“Whereas the undocumented parents may be accustomed to feeling that their status and security is vulnerable, the parents with TPS are accustomed to having protections and living lives legally,” Roche told me. “Now their children’s futures are very uncertain, which is something they’ve never faced before. News of the program ending was a really acute event in their lives.” She added that when teenage children are raised with parents suffering from anxiety, the kids are more likely to endure a slew of problems including the risk of substance abuse, falling behind in school and mental health problems.
Maria Rivas says she has tried to remain stalwart and optimistic. “It’s been hard for Emily, and my husband has had a very difficult time,” she explains. “So I am the person in the family who has to be positive for everybody and put my fears under control. Otherwise it will be a terrible mess.”
For her part, Emily was coping as best she could. Among her friends, she combated the fear with humor. “After the election everyone was really mad, so we started making jokes,” she recalls. “ ‘Now World War III is going to start.’ We joke about things because we don’t know how to let out how really scared we are.”
It was Mother’s Day and the weather was gloomy. A humid drizzle wasn’t what anyone hoped for. But inside the beautifully renovated home of Lynette and Ryan Craig, perched atop a hill in Northeast Washington, everyone was making the best of things. Emily had just gotten her hair cut, tied it up with a lavender headband that matched her nail polish, and donned a favorite pair of jeans — adorned with a rocket ship she’d sketched one day, bored in class. Ethan had come hurtling into the Craigs’ home, where he leaped into Ryan’s muscled arms, before rushing off to play with the couple’s two boys, Harvey, 10, and Hudson, 8. And Lynette, easygoing with a mess of blond hair, a big laugh and a sharp sense of humor, was telling Maria how much they’d enjoyed the family’s recent vacation to Costa Rica.
“It’s paradise,” she said. “You should really visit sometime.” The two women rolled their eyes. TPS holders can only leave the United States — and return — for very specific reasons, and a beach vacation isn’t on the list.
The two mothers were close enough to joke like this. Maria had spent six years as the Craigs’ nanny. But it wasn’t long before the relationship evolved into a genuine friendship. Emily and Ethan often accompanied their mother to her job at the Craigs’ home, sleeping over, playing with the boys. The Craigs — high school sweethearts from rural Utah — had been to parties in Glenarden and joined the family on their summer camping trips. Lynette, who spent a decade as a health-care account manager for General Electric before leaving to run a political action committee that advocates for D.C. sovereignty, and Ryan, a real estate lawyer, had often helped Emily’s family pay for their immigration lawyer.
Back in 2011, when Maria was still working for the family, Lynette and Ryan connected Maria and Jose with an attorney for consultation. The lawyer said the couple’s chances of one day gaining permanent residency would increase if they could demonstrate legal entry into the United States. And so the family decided to take a major risk: Maria, Jose and their American kids — Emily was then 9; Ethan was 17 months — would travel to El Salvador to visit family there, including Tita and Jose Jr., who hadn’t seen their parents since they were toddlers. Then, when they returned, they’d get their passports stamped. But with TPS, there was no guarantee immigration officials would let them back in; it was entirely at the discretion of the official who happened to be sitting behind the desk that day. If Maria and Jose were detained at the airport and deported, Emily and Ethan would enter the state’s custody.
When the Craigs heard all of this, they immediately offered to become Emily and Ethan’s guardians. Maria wrote a letter nominating them and had it notarized. In the end, immigration let the family back into the country without a hitch, and for the next six years, the letter sat in a drawer in the Craigs’ home. Lynette says she didn’t seriously think about the issue again until the administration canceled TPS for Haiti in November 2017. “That’s when I really started to panic and started having conversations with [Maria] about what we’re going to do,” Lynette recalls. “I told her, ‘Of course, I’ll take the kids.’ ”
Over the next few months, the Craigs began to explore more formal options for guardianship and to think about some of the practicalities involved: Could Emily and Ethan get sibling preference alongside Harvey and Hudson in the D.C. public school lottery? Could they get the kids on Ryan’s health insurance plan? The couple wanted to be ready to take in both kids, though they knew Maria was extremely reluctant to leave Ethan behind. Maria spoke frequently about how her son needed his mother — and how she didn’t want to take advantage of Lynette and Ryan’s generosity.
Whatever Maria and Jose’s eventual decision, it was impossible to ignore the fact that the Craigs had become their lifeline; everything — no matter how small — reminded the mothers of this fact. On Mother’s Day, as the kitchen filled with the commingling smells of syrup and salsa, they began to reminisce about the photos they’d taken of their boys as newborns. “Do you remember the ones of Ethan lying on your chest?” Lynette asked Maria.
“We sent those pictures to El Salvador,” Maria said. “My family only knew him and Emily from pictures.”
“El Salvador is like Ghostopolis,” Harvey said suddenly, his mouth full of waffle. It was a graphic novel he’d recently checked out of the school library. In it, a government organization called the Supernatural Immigration Task Force rounds up ghosts in the human world and returns them to a frightening, violent afterlife called Ghostopolis.
Lynette laughed nervously. “I don’t know that it’s that bad,” she said. “I think the vision you have of El Salvador is maybe a little more dystopian than the actual case?”
At present, it was the increasing dystopianism of American society that struck Emily as the more immediate threat. Maria could arrange for a warm and loving family to embrace her daughter, but she could not protect her from a culture that felt increasingly hostile.
On Mother’s Day, as Emily gave me a tour of the Craigs’ house, she talked with a kind of nostalgia about the girl she’d been before the presidential election and the Jan. 8 announcement. “I knew racial prejudice was still a thing, but I had complete faith in the U.S.,” she said. “I thought we were good people.” It was startling how quickly the new reality set in. The morning after Trump won, a neighborhood girl she’d known for years walked over to her at the bus stop and said, “Now you’re going back to your country.”
From then on, it just got worse. Sometimes, Emily was afraid to leave the house. “Every time I step outside, I fear that somebody might be watching us and come and take away my parents,” she said as we peered into Harvey and Hudson’s bedroom, where the boys and Ethan were engaged in some kind of rowdy make-believe. She said she even began to fear for her own safety. She’d read news reports about politicians trying to strip birthright citizenship from the children of immigrants. She’d said that her citizenship was her one power, but what if that wasn’t true?
By this time, we’d gone down to the basement, and Emily was showing me the room that Lynette had reserved for her: large, white and, unlike her small, cozy Glenarden bedroom, impersonal. Still, it was her designated safe haven — which made it jarring to hear her express doubts about America here. The whole house was a bastion of American privilege; Lynette and Ryan had every resource at their disposal and were prepared to do whatever it took to keep Emily and her family safe. But the forces working against them were just too great.
“It really feels like the government doesn’t care,” Emily said. “Like they want to turn this nation white.” The previous week, on her way to an anti-gun protest, a family of counterprotesters wearing pro-Trump clothing overheard her speaking Spanish. They looked at her and said with menace, “We see you.” Emily could brush that off. But the notion of the government abandoning its own citizens felt almost existential. Emily had seen the country as one thing and then, almost overnight, it had become something else entirely.
“In school we’re learning about McCarthy and the Red Scare,” she told me. “It’s like that. They’re calling us a gang member or a rapist or a drug dealer. Because of those labels, people are scared of us. It really hurts that history is repeating itself.”
Across the D.C. area, there is widespread concern about how the federal government’s TPS policies will potentially harm American kids. Parents are especially worried about what happens should the government detain them after issuing deportation letters. “Kids go to foster homes, and then sometimes the parents can’t get them back,” Maria says. “We have Lynette and Ryan, and it’s a big peace of mind. Most of my friends don’t have that.”
If large numbers of Salvadoran parents are detained once they fall out of status in 2019, “there are consequences on the school system, on child social services,” says Matt Verghese, spokesman for Rep. Anthony G. Brown, who represents Maryland’s 4th District, including Glenarden. “Hopefully it doesn’t come to the point where we’re forcing kids into foster care.”
Recently Maryland’s governor signed an emergency bill that allows immigrant parents to appoint a standby guardian in the event of an “adverse immigration action.” (Before that, standby guardians in Maryland could be designated only in the event of parental incapacitation or death.) In Washington, the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center has created an online custodial power of attorney form, which doesn’t require the signature of a notary or lawyer.
But immigration advocates say there’s been only a modest uptick in TPS families taking such steps. “Everyone I’ve spoken to plans to remain in the country,” says Hannah Groff, language access coordinator for Center City Public Charter Schools in Washington, which have a large Salvadoran population across their multiple campuses.
Even Maria and Jose, while talking about the importance of leaving voluntarily, seemed not to entirely know what they would do come September 2019. At times, they appeared to be charting a course based on the hope that some political or legal intervention might allow them to stay. Between the magnitude of the decision, the logistical hurdles that face families who choose to return to El Salvador, and the uncertainty surrounding the many lawsuits slowly wending their way through the courts, it’s possible that most Salvadoran TPS holders will simply fail to act — and overnight, will become undocumented.
Such an outcome would put them and their 192,700 American children — including Emily — into the shadows. Yes, these kids have citizenship, but having undocumented parents will dramatically increase their chances of living in poverty. Undocumented immigrants face severe employment limitations, which often prevents their children from receiving health care and can make it difficult for them to house or feed their families. Many states prohibit undocumented immigrants from obtaining driver’s licenses, which also affects families’ livelihoods. And undocumented immigrants and their American children often decline to seek out medical care or report crimes, fearing that undue attention will lead to parents’ deportation.
“Quality of life for American kids is our foremost concern,” Verghese says. “Can they continue to get the education they need, the health care they need? Fundamentally, it comes down to trauma. We are contemplating ripping them away [from their homes] or forcing them into the shadows. How will this impact their development and their ability to be contributing members of society?” The federal government, Verghese says, “is creating a crisis because of their positions.”
Of course, not everyone agrees. Ira Mehlman, media director at the conservative Federation for American Immigration Reform, disputes that the Trump administration is responsible for any kind of impending crisis. “We have to let you stay here because, if you don’t abide by the deal you made with the government [and refuse to leave], that will somehow be worse for America?” he asks. TPS, he says, was designed to be a temporary program: “Under the terms of being here, [parents] should have been aware that the government would say you have to leave and that would entail taking their kids with them.”
This summer, for the first time, Emily had the chance to experience a quintessential ritual of American childhood: a week at sleep-away camp. The idea was Lynette’s. Her older son, Harvey, had attended Camp Hidden Meadows in West Virginia last year. Now, she had offered to cover Emily’s tuition. Emily and Maria both knew it was a tremendous opportunity. The camp boasted an arts program, which Emily loved, and horseback riding, which she’d always wanted to try.
Emily, however, had never been apart from Maria for any extended period. For a lot of kids, summer camp is the first real separation from home, an exciting taste of independence. But for Emily and Maria, camp was much more complicated. To them, separation was something forced upon you, and independence wasn’t a choice.
On the night before camp, mother and daughter sat in their living room with Emily’s suitcase between them. Scattered around were socks and shirts, Emily’s journal and a favorite pen, a stuffed monkey and a copy of “Memoirs of a Geisha,” one of Emily’s favorite books.
In fact, Emily had already packed her bag while Maria was at work. But as soon as she came home, Maria took everything back out. Now Emily watched as her mom unpacked everything and then repacked it, double- and triple-checking items on the list. “She kept asking me, over and over, if I was sure I had everything,” Emily told me. At the time, Emily did not interpret this as nerves but as typical mothering. It was only later that Emily began to see Maria’s actions in another light: She was teaching her daughter how to be on her own.
At camp, surrounded by a dozen bunkmates, Emily felt truly alone for the first time. “I was thinking, ‘This is what it’s going to feel like if my parents have to leave,’ ” she said. One night, Emily was shaken awake by a girl in her cabin. Emily had been thrashing in her bed and calling out. A nightmare. Emily remembered nothing about it. She lay back and closed her eyes. Then, suddenly, the carbon monoxide alarm went off, waking the entire cabin. It was a false alarm and everyone quickly fell back asleep. Except Emily. She lay in the dark, her heart thumping, her body rigid with panic. A full-blown attack. Emily knew she could rouse a counselor, but she forced herself to stay in bed and started running through exercises from therapy. She took deep breaths, three in, three out. She thought about her parents and imagined that she was lying in her own bed in Glenarden. It was almost like a test. “I was trying to get through it on my own,” she said.
Weeks before camp, Emily had been the target of a classroom bully: another kid spewing racist comments at her. The teacher called security, but they never arrived. Here at camp, she was one of the few kids of color. She worried how the others would treat her. Maria had advised her daughter to keep her family’s immigration story quiet. “Don’t tell the other girls about your situation,” she warned. And then with her typical dry humor: “You’ll traumatize them.”
Emily did not heed this advice. “I was thinking about the future at camp,” she said. “I actually expressed that to some of the girls in my cabin. I told them about TPS. They were so shocked that something like this is happening.” The sympathy and outrage of these strangers, these teenage girls, was equally shocking to Emily. They understood that she was a regular American girl like them. She was entitled to the same rights. It wasn’t a question in their minds.
Yet even before Emily garnered the courage to share her story, and even before the 3 a.m. panic attack, there was the zip-line. It stretched for 1,000 feet across the property: spanning the tops of trees, fields, cabins, even a river. It was, for this slice of West Virginia, its own wonder of the world. On the second day of camp, Emily stood on the small platform, looking down from a dizzying height. “I’d been zip-lining before, but that was with my family,” she said. “I had the comfort that they were there. Now I knew nobody.”
Emily was petrified. And paralyzed. But the campers and counselors were waiting.
I know my family wants me to be happy, she thought, reassured. The counselor counted down, and Emily jumped.
Jennifer Miller is a writer living in New York. Her latest novel is “Mr. Nice Guy.”