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'I Want To Be Sure My Son Is Safe': Asylum-Seekers Send Children Across Border Alone

Migrant parents in the tent camps in Matamoros, Mexico, are sending their kids across the border and taking advantage of the rule that unaccompanied children can't be returned to Mexico. Here,  Alexis Martinez holds a cellphone photo of his 7-year-old son Osiel.
John Burnett

Alexis Martinez, a Honduran man who traveled with his two young sons to seek asylum in the United States, last saw them holding hands, their faces streaked with tears, bravely walking across the Gateway International Bridge into Texas — alone.

After weeks in a makeshift refugee camp in the Mexican border town of Matamoros, Martinez knew he had to send 5-year-old Benjamin and 7-year-old Osiel without him. Benjamin had contracted bronchial pneumonia, and Martinez couldn't afford any more antibiotics.

"They were sleeping on the ground, in the cold. These tents are not good for children because the cold goes right through them," Martinez said in Spanish. "Sometimes you do things not because you're a bad father, but because you want what's good for them, and you don't want to see them suffer."

Asylum-seekers such as Martinez have become so desperate that they are giving up their children. In an extraordinary development, some migrant parents who were told to wait in Mexico under President Trump's asylum policies are sending their children, unaccompanied, across the bridge to surrender to U.S. agents.

About 2,000 asylum-seekers are stuck in this dangerous, squalid camp that sprang up in Matamoros, just across the Rio Grande from Brownsville, Texas. The migrants are living in camping tents designed for weekends at the lake — not as a winter refuge for a family for many months.

When it rains, the tents leak. When a cold front blows in, the migrants shiver. The camp is filthy. People are sick. The port-a-johns are overflowing. And there are thugs and kidnappers who hang around the edges of the encampment, looking for victims.

Under the asylum policy called Remain in Mexico, applicants have to wait up to six months in these grim conditions before they get a hearing in U.S. immigration court. And then, nearly all of their claims are being rejected.

Adults and families who apply for asylum together are sent back to Mexico, but the federal rules are different for unaccompanied kids. They cannot be returned to Mexico.

Instead the children are sent to juvenile shelters overseen by the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement, and eventually placed with sponsors in the U.S. while their asylum cases play out. Often, those sponsors are relatives already living in the U.S.

So the migrant parents are taking advantage of this, and sending their children across the border. In the camp, people call it la separación and consider it an act of desperation, and of love.

Jodi Goodwin is a longtime immigration lawyer in the Rio Grande Valley. She says she has four clients in Matamoros who have sent their kids to live in the U.S.

"That choice meant giving their children away. That haunts me at night," Goodwin says. "And I'm snuggled in bed and hugging my 7-year-old. I can't imagine, I mean, one mom sent her 3-year-old. How do you push a 3-year-old across a bridge and say, 'Go, mijito, go. This is better for you.'"

Goodwin was involved in lots of family separation cases last year, when the Trump administration decided to punish parents for crossing the border illegally by physically removing their children from them.

She says those cases were wrenching.

"But when a parent decides, 'My child is better off without me,'" Goodwin says, "That's so much worse."

The Department of Homeland Security did not respond to a request for comment.

When questioned in recent months about appalling conditions in Mexican border towns where asylum-seekers are waiting, senior DHS officials have said that parents should not bring children on these harrowing journeys in the first place. And further, they have said that Mexico has assured the Trump administration migrants are being taken care of.

Martinez's two sons are now being held in a juvenile shelter in Philadelphia. He hopes his boys will be released to live with their mother in New York City. He and his wife are estranged.

These ORR shelters have been criticized for their rigid rules and extended confinement. But conditions there are a dramatic improvement over life in the camp.

"What's happening down here is breaking my heart. These are some of the most vulnerable people on the planet," says Dr. Maura Sammon, who is on the faculty at Temple University and is volunteering at a pop-up clinic in the Matamoros camp.

Dr. Maura Sammon, a volunteer who is also a faculty member at Temple University, gives an ultrasound to a patient in the pop-up clinic at the Matamoros refugee camp.
/ John Burnett/NPR
John Burnett/NPR
Dr. Maura Sammon, a volunteer who is also a faculty member at Temple University, gives an ultrasound to a patient in the pop-up clinic at the Matamoros refugee camp.

Sammon says the Mexican state provides no health care to the migrants. As a vivid example, she says she recently diagnosed an 8-year-old boy from Chiapas, Mexico, with acute appendicitis. They sent him to a Mexican hospital, and the hospital sent him back to the camp untreated. He got worse.

Volunteers frantically tried to get U.S. immigration officials to accept the child and his father, so the boy could be treated at a Texas hospital. But Sammon says the entire process took too long.

"Because of the delay in his care, us having to go through all of the legal hoops to try to get him across, his appendix ruptured," she said, adding that the child eventually made it to a Texas hospital and is doing well.

Other fathers have made the same choice as Martinez, who sent his two young sons away.

Marvin Yobani Zelaya and his 17-year-old son, Marvin Joel, fled Tegucigalpa, Honduras, because he says MS-13 was pressuring the teenager to join them. Now the same thing is happening in Matamoros — gangsters want to recruit Marvin Jr.

"It's hard to be a teenager here," says Zelaya, lounging in the hammock that he's been sleeping in since August. He has no tent.

Zelaya said goodbye to his son two weeks ago. He crossed the bridge, and he's now in a child shelter in the U.S. Zelaya hopes Marvin Jr. will be released into the care of a great uncle in Dallas.

"I don't know what's going to happen to the parents," Zelaya said. "I don't know if the laws will ever permit us to reunite with our children. What happens to us is in God's hands. But I want to be sure my son is safe."

Delmer Lopez made the same anguished decision three weeks ago. He told his 10-year-old, Jose Armando, to cross the bridge, alone, to go be with his mother and little sister, who live in Houston. The parents are divorced.

"How do I say it? This was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life," Lopez says, his voice husky with emotion. "I told him, 'Don't worry, I am coming.' He said, 'Promise me, Papi.' I had to tell him a white lie."

Delmer Lopez holds his cellphone showing a picture of his son. Lopez has lost his asylum case, but decided to send 10-year-old Jose Armando across the bridge alone three weeks ago.
/ John Burnett/NPR
John Burnett/NPR
Delmer Lopez holds his cellphone showing a picture of his son. Lopez has lost his asylum case, but decided to send 10-year-old Jose Armando across the bridge alone three weeks ago.

Lopez has already lost his asylum case. He remains in the Matamoros camp without a plan. But he's too afraid to return to Honduras where he says criminals threatened to kill him.

The father describes walking Jose Armando to the bridge with his little backpack. Inside was his favorite toy, a stuffed turtle, along with his jacket, passport and his mother's phone number.

"I gave him five pesos to cross," he says. "He walked away and then turned around and waved. The last thing I saw was my son being escorted away by two American officials."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.