LAS NUECES, Guatemala — The United States government separated their family at the border, leaving them with an agonizing choice.
José Ottoniel was deported to Guatemala in June, a month into President Trump’s “zero tolerance” crackdown. But his 10-year-old son, Ervin, who made the journey with him, remained in Texas.
Now, back in this hilltop village, José and his wife, Elvia, need to decide what to do with their son, who is at a migrant shelter 1,700 miles away.
While the U.S. government scrambles to reunify migrant families separated at the border, some parents, such as the Ottoniels, think that the best option for their children might be the thing they most dread — to remain apart.
“It’s not that we don’t love him,” said José, 27. “It’s that we want him to have a better chance at life.”
José and Elvia are pushing for Ervin to remain in the United States — away from the crushing poverty of his birthplace. Elvia, 31, has a cousin in Arkansas who agreed to take him in. The couple explained the situation to Ervin on the phone. They hung up, and they cried.
Ervin Ottoniel was the top-ranked third-grader at the village’s elementary school. He drew pictures of himself holding a laptop. He told his parents he wanted to be a lawyer. They told him they couldn’t afford his schooling beyond sixth grade. His father earns $21 a week.
The Ottoniels know that if Ervin returns to Las Nueces, his life would be a foregone conclusion — sporadic work on a coffee plantation, helping pay off his father’s debts. But if he stays in the United States, he might not see his parents or siblings for years.
“Right now, we think it’s best for him to have this opportunity in the United States, to get out of this place,” José said.
Other families are making similar calculations. Although they never planned to leave children alone in the United States, the White House policy of separating families, along with the swift deportation of some parents, has forced the question: What’s best for a separated child?
Immigration lawyers estimate that between 180 and 400 parents have been deported without their children since Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy began in May. Now, legal-aid organizations are reaching out to those migrants to see whether they would like their children to return home.
“This is uncharted territory,” said Wendy Young, the president of Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), an organization that works with immigrant families. “Some of these parents are living in communities where there is no protection for their children, where they have no choice.”
That’s the case for Ana Lopez, who lives in El Carmen, a town about 50 miles from the Ottoniels’ home. She is trying to find a way for her son, Endil, separated from his father at the border in June, to remain with his grandparents in Maryland. For months, she said, the family in Guatemala has faced threats from a local criminal group.
“How can I bring him back to a place where it’s too dangerous for him to attend school?” Lopez said through tears.
In Las Nueces, a town that traces a dirt road up the side of a mountain, where almost every man is a miner or a farmer or unemployed, the question of what to do with Ervin Ottoniel is discussed almost everywhere. His parents asked the town’s priest, the Guatemalan consulate in the United States, the school’s principal and their own parents for advice.
“We believe this is what’s best for him, but not everyone agrees,” Elvia said.
“It’s 50-50,” José said.
As soon as they leave the house, the question comes up.
“So what’s going to happen?” asked Walter Lemos, one of José’s uncles, at his home one afternoon.
“Even the boy prefers to stay in America,” José responded. “He knows there’s more for him there.”
“But there’s no love like a parent’s love,” Lemos said under his breath, shaking his head.
José stopped attending school after third grade to work on a farm. Elvia dropped out after second grade to look after her younger siblings. They named Ervin after an engineer José had worked for in a local silver mine, the best-educated person he’d ever met.
Public school is technically free here, but parents have to pay for books, uniforms, materials and teacher fees — costs that can amount to around $150 per year.
“I already told Ervin that we won’t be able to afford that for much longer,” José said. “He became very angry. He’s a very motivated boy.”
Traveling to the United States was an imperfect solution. José paid $7,500 to a smuggler, most of it borrowed from a bank. The plan was for José to work and for Ervin to study. Elvia and the other three children would remain in Las Nueces until, they hoped, José and Ervin could get some kind of legal status, so they could move back and forth freely.
They didn’t know about the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy, which involved criminally prosecuting all illegal border-crossers and removing the adults from their children. When they were separated in early June, José lied to Ervin so he wouldn’t start crying. “They’re taking you to school, and they’re taking me to work,” he said. It was the last time they saw each other.
José was taken to an immigration detention center in South Texas, where agents told him that if he didn’t agree to be promptly deported back to Guatemala, he would be detained for as long as six months during legal proceedings — without seeing his son. He could work on his son’s case from Guatemala, they said, and seek to have Ervin remain in the United States or to return home.
Back in Las Nueces, José and Elvia hear twice a week from Ervin, on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Each call lasts 10 minutes. José is never sure what time the calls will come, so he sits outside his squat house, between two yucca trees, where there is a phone signal, waiting.
When Ervin calls, his voice is faint.
“It’s like he doesn’t have the energy he used to have,” José said. “It’s like he’s weaker or something.”
“We asked him his opinion,” Elvia said. “What does he want to do? He said he wants to stay in the U.S.”
“But we know it’s a lot for a boy to take on,” added José.
The logistics of keeping Ervin in the United States are complicated. He has been reclassified as an unaccompanied minor. The Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), which deals with such youths, could vet his cousins to make sure they are capable of caring for Ervin. He could then apply for legal status.
Lawyers across the United States are struggling to figure out how to handle these cases, and some worry that the children could be deported even if their parents protest.
“What we would like to see is for the child and parents to have an opportunity to speak to attorneys, and then for there to be a consultation so that the family can make a decision,” said Young, of KIND.
One of the challenges in Ervin’s case is that his cousin in Arkansas is undocumented. He paints houses and does construction jobs, earning about $3,000 a month. He has two small children, both American citizens by birth. In the past, immigration authorities have been willing to release immigrant children to relatives in the country who do not have legal status.
“As a father, I know it’s difficult to not see your child for a long time, but I’ve lived in America for 10 years, and I can tell you that life is better here for Ervin,” said the cousin, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of concerns about immigration enforcement.
Migrants have been leaving Las Nueces for decades, sending back money that helps build the largest homes and buy the nicest trucks in town. In a place with little well-paid work, José is surrounded by proof that traveling to the United States is the only guarantee of a decent life.
Earlier this month, he called the smuggler who took him to the United States in June and asked whether he would consider helping him get back to the border, given the failure of the first trip, given Ervin’s separation.
“He refused,” José said.
He still owes $4,000 that he borrowed to pay the smuggler, a loan he can’t imagine paying back, even though he knows the bank might eventually seize his home. A recent study on migration from Guatemala by scholars at the University of Arizona said that such debts could be pushing thousands into homelessness.
“What can I provide to my son here?” he asked.
Once a week, a group from the local church comes to pray for Ervin. The congregants take turns putting their hands on Elvia’s forehead. When they arrived this past Sunday, she was wailing.
“Ervin, wherever he is, only you can protect him, God,” the group intoned.
When they left, Elvia held her youngest son, 1-year-old Dilan, her eyes still red.
“It’s impossible to know what’s best for our son,” she said.
A neighbor, Maria Segura, stopped by the house.
“He’s an exceptional child,” she said. “But how is he going to be happy without his parents?”
Elvia didn’t answer. Later, she pulled out mementos, forming a small shrine to her oldest son.
A photo of Ervin standing next to the Guatemalan flag. A photo of him wearing a tie, arms linked with a girl in a tiara. The sash, neatly folded, that he got to wear for being first in his class.
“He’s a special child,” Elvia said.
Then she pulled out the piece of paper U.S. government employees had given José before he was deported. “Are you looking for information about a child who has arrived in the United States?” it said in Spanish.
Below it was a 1-800 number she couldn’t afford to call.
José returned from an afternoon of work in the coffee fields. The other children were picking up the photos of Ervin, looking at them quietly.
“We know they miss their brother,” José said. “I don’t know what to tell them.”
Gabriela Martinez in Mexico City contributed to this report.