He had been afraid to go outside since his mother was detained in an immigration raid 14 days earlier, but now someone was pounding on the front door of their trailer. Alex Galvez, 12, waited until the knocking stopped and then cracked the door open to find a small flier left behind on the top step. He carried it into the kitchen and read it to his older sister. “Emergency giveaway outside the Post Office! Free food in your time of need!”
“I’m not going,” Alex said, once he’d finished reading the flier. It had been the promise of free doughnuts that enticed his mother and dozens of her co-workers out of the planting fields and into the break room that day, where instead they had been met by 200 federal agents with plastic handcuffs and guns. Alex folded up the flier and tossed it onto the table.
“I’m sorry, but I think you need to go,” said his sister, Estefany, 18. “We could always use the food.”
“No. I don’t want to.”
“We can’t hide in here forever,” she said, handing him an empty plastic bag. “I have to go to work. You’re the only one who can do it.”
Since the day of the raid, they had been staying in the trailer with a rotation of older relatives — two more children adjusting to a life without their parents as a result of U.S. immigration policies. Even as President Trump and his administration promise to reunite families separated by Customs and Border Protection at the U.S. border, a similar crisis continues unabated within the country’s interior, where children are separated from their undocumented parents with little scrutiny and increasing frequency.
In the past few months, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has carried out the three biggest workplace immigration raids of the past decade, including one on June 5 at a nursery here in rural Ohio, where 114 gardeners, florists and other workers were detained and put into court proceedings for deportation. Many of them had lived for several years in a Norwalk trailer park of 74 homes known as Little Mexico, where now aid workers estimate that more than 90 children are missing one parent and at least 20 are left with no parent at all.
One of them is Alex, an American citizen like most children in the trailer park, with a wardrobe of Cleveland Cavaliers T-shirts and frosted tips dyed orange at the barbershop inside Walmart. He’d spent all 12 of his years in Norwalk, population 17,000, and for much of that time he’d lived in the trailer parks of Little Mexico, in a beige double-wide with his sister and mother, Nora Galvez, who first came to the United States in 1999. The air outside their trailer smelled of smoke and rubber from the neighboring pallet factory. The favorite community soccer field was in fact a gravel lot. But Alex knew every one of the 74 families in the two trailer parks, and he and his friends could wander freely on their bikes from one trailer into the next. Many people in conservative Norwalk regarded Little Mexico as an ugly annex, a place to be left alone, but to Alex that meant it had always felt peaceful and undisturbed.
Now he walked out of the trailer with his empty shopping bag into a scene that looked to him like something out of “Fortnite,” his favorite apocalyptic video game. There were gardens of dying flowers and trash cans overloaded with uncollected garbage. More than a dozen trailers had been abandoned in the hours after the raid, and many of them had windows left open or toys scattered in the yard. Five residents of Little Mexico had been deported, and 34 others remained in detention, including Alex’s mother. Several more residents had packed up and fled Ohio that night, after a rumor spread that ICE was also planning to raid the trailer park. Those who remained were mostly out of a job or too afraid to go to work, and after two weeks of unpaid bills, some had also lost their electricity.
“A ghost town,” Alex called it, as he made his way toward the one-room post office at the center of the park, but what bothered him more than the rows of darkened trailers was imagining what might be happening inside. He had heard about the 27-year-old who mysteriously stopped eating or speaking in the days after his sister was detained in the raid, eventually dying in the hospital a week later. He knew about the 23-year-old who had become suicidal after his girlfriend’s family decided to flee for Mexico, hanging a noose outside of his trailer until a relative took him to a hospital.
On the exterior walls of the post office, Alex saw a few new brochures for suicide hotlines and free mental-health counseling. A few dozen people were gathered outside, mostly children, young mothers and several volunteers from local nonprofit organizations. One of them handed out crayons and bubbles to children. A woman distributed crates of eggs from the back of her truck. A nurse checked residents’ blood pressure. Volunteers came up to Alex offering pizza, milk, vegetables and books, until he began to politely wave them away.
“We’re fine,” he said. “We don’t really need much.”
“Are you alone now?” one volunteer asked, and Alex shook his head.
“I’m with my sister,” he said.
“I’m sorry,” she said, reaching for his shoulder, tears welling in her eyes. “I can’t believe this is happening to you. It’s unthinkable.”
“Thanks,” he said. “It’s okay. I’ve been through it before.”
One of the things that had confused him during the past few weeks was the shock he sometimes saw reflected back at him in strangers’ faces — the volunteers who toured the trailer park in utter disbelief, or the TV anchors who broke down in the middle of their live broadcasts from the U.S. border. They said separating a parent from a child was cruel and un-American. They said the United States was in the midst of a singular humanitarian crisis. They said these were the actions of a country they no longer recognized. But, to Alex, the act of family separation seemed quintessentially American. It was the cornerstone of his American experience.
His father had been deported when Alex was 3, yanked from work during a raid at Casa Fiesta, a local Mexican restaurant, and then flown back to Chiapas. An uncle had been deported two years later, and then an aunt had left for Mexico a few months after that, forcing their two children to stay for a little while in Alex’s trailer. At age 8, he and his mother had been pulled over on their way home from Walmart by ICE agents, who detained them in a holding facility overnight before releasing them, since Nora was a longtime Ohio resident with no criminal record and therefore, according to her court paperwork, “not a priority for removal.” Four other relatives had been deported or fled to Mexico in the years since then, a family reshaped again and again by separation. Alex’s father remained in Chiapas, with a new wife and two half brothers Alex had never met. His half sisters had come and gone between Mexico and the United States. The only person Alex had never been separated from was his mother.
So that night, when his sister Estefany came home alone from work at Corso’s Flower and Garden Center, Alex suspected what had happened, even as his sister began filling in the details: ICE agents had arrived at 7:15 a.m., wearing camouflage and tactical gear, swarming the greenhouses with the help of barking K9s and helicopters, rounding up several hundred employees and then separating them into two lines. Estefany, who was born in Ohio, had gone into one line for U.S. citizens, and her mother had gone into the line for undocumented workers. Agents had handcuffed her mother with plastic zip ties and led her toward a bus, and Estefany had run to join her, trying to convince ICE agents that she, too, was undocumented. But inside her wallet was a U.S. Social Security card, so agents led Estefany back into the other line for citizens as her mother boarded the bus. Nora shouted over her shoulder that there was $140 cash in the house and that Estefany needed to remind Alex to wash out his knee. He had skinned it a few days earlier in a bike accident, a small surface wound. “Make sure he washes it twice a day,” Nora called out, before the bus pulled away.
Estefany was old enough to act as Alex’s legal guardian, and she had been trying her best to take care of him with the help of other relatives, even as she was learning how to take care of herself. She had originally applied to Corso’s for a summer job, hoping to make a little money before starting her final year of high school, but now she was the family’s primary earner, with no plans to return to school. She had written her first rental check and returned to work at the nursery wearing sunglasses big enough to hide her puffy eyes. Other relatives were helping with cooking, child care and errands, but Estefany considered herself responsible for Alex, even now, as the sky darkened outside their trailer on their 15th night alone.
“It’s getting late,” she told him. “We need to be better about going to bed.”
“I know,” he said,
“You should get ready,” she said.
“In a little while,” he told her.
They had been sharing a room for the past weeks, relying on each other’s company to make it through the night, since both of them struggled to sleep. On the first night after the raid, they had driven at 2 a.m. to the Customs and Border Protection station in Port Clinton, Ohio, to ask if their mother was inside, but Estefany said nobody would tell them. On the second night they had driven back, and this time they were told that Nora was inside but they couldn’t see her. On the third night they had tried one more time, and when they were stopped at the door Estefany had lost her patience. “Who benefits from this?” she remembered asking. Was it American taxpayers, who were paying to finance the raid and resulting deportations? Or American workers, most of whom were so disinterested in low-paying farm work that Ohio had announced a crisis work shortage of 15,000 agricultural jobs? Or Corso’s Nursery, a family-owned business now missing 40 percent of its employees?
She wanted to know, out of 114 minimum-wage workers detained at Corso’s, how many were narcos, or rapists, or cartel members, or killers for MS-13? “These were just hard-working people, making $9 an hour and going about their lives,” she remembered saying.
Alex, meanwhile, had decided to write a letter to ICE. His mother was still in detention, waiting for her first court date on the possible path toward deportation, and he thought maybe he could still help her. “The only thing my Mom ever did was work,” he had written. “She loved me so much. I can’t live without my Mom. I don’t have anybody but her. I have been crying every day. I can’t sleep.”
“Come on. Let’s go to bed,” Estefany said again. It was nearing midnight, but Alex turned on a Harry Potter movie.
“A little bit longer,” he said, and Estefany sat down next to him.
Alex was still on the couch the next morning, wrapped under a blanket and watching soccer on TV when his phone rang. He looked down at the restricted number and waved to his sister. “It’s her!” he said. Then he answered the phone and put it on speaker.
“Hi, Mom,” he said.
She tried to call home from detention a few times each week, even though it meant paying nearly $1 per minute. Alex and his sister had been allowed to visit her for the first time six days after the raid once she’d been moved to a detention facility in Tiffin, Ohio, where they spoke for 15 minutes through a shield of plexiglass. His mother had started to cry when she saw Alex, and the only way either of them could make it through a conversation was by talking about routine things, by pretending, which had become their habit ever since.
Yes, Alex always told her, he was getting along with his sister. Yes, he was sleeping well. Yes, everything was getting back to normal in the trailer park. Yes, his knee was healing just fine.
“See you soon,” he said, and then he handed the phone to his sister.
Only once they hung up and returned to the emptiness of the trailer did the uncertainty and fear begin to creep back in. On TV a few days earlier, Alex had heard Trump promise a “major increase” in immigration enforcement, and just a few days earlier 143 undocumented workers had been detained at a meat processing plant across the state in Salem. Alex had barely seen any of his friends since the raid, but their text messages told the story of families unraveling. One friend had fled with his father to Tennessee after his mother was detained in the raid. Another had moved in with relatives across the state. Two more were still living in the trailer park under the care of undocumented relatives, trying to avoid being seen.
Alex and his family had gotten advice from a volunteer lawyer, who told them it was still possible Nora could receive a bond and be returned home with an ankle monitoring bracelet. ICE had processed and released a few people after the raid because of humanitarian concerns, but so far she hadn’t even been given a court date.
“She’s going to get deported, right?” Alex asked his sister now.
“Maybe,” she said.
“Will we stay here?”
“I don’t know,” she said.
“Will we move back to Mexico?”
“I don’t know,” she said again, “but it’s going to be okay. We’ll find a way to stay together.”
He turned away and looked at the TV. Nothing about his 12 years in the United States suggested that was likely, and if he was going to be living without his parents, he didn’t want to be treated like a child.
“You don’t have to say that,” he told her. “I know it’s probably not true.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the federal agency responsible for separating families at the southwest border. It is Customs and Border Protection, not Immigration and Customs Enforcement.