From the moment she fled poverty-stricken Honduras a decade ago, Allis Godoy knew she would find a way to be reunited with the children she left behind. She was desperate enough to have them smuggled across Mexico to the U.S. border, spending thousands of dollars and risking their lives so they could join her in Northwest Washington.
Four years ago, her teenage son David made the hazardous trip. Two and a half months ago, her youngest daughter, Madison, finally reached her side. By then, the pixie-like 10-year-old had endured two failed smuggling attempts and a third that landed her in the custody of U.S. immigration agents in Texas on April 14. Two weeks later, she flew to Washington and was greeted by the mother who had last seen her when she was 6 months old.
It was the crowning achievement of Godoy’s life.
“If people call this a crime, why is it a crime to want to give your children a better future?” asked Godoy, 39, who makes salads in a restaurant kitchen and lives in a tiny apartment in Columbia Heights. “I have only one goal in life,” she said. “To make sure my children never have to endure what I did as a child.”
Official Washington is in an uproar over how to handle the tens of thousands of unaccompanied children who have been arriving at the border since last fall, a surge that has overwhelmed the government and intensified the public debate over illegal immigration. But just a few miles from the Capitol, in neighborhoods such as Godoy’s, is a parallel universe where families are waiting for the same children with open arms.
Almost everyone in the region’s Salvadoran, Honduran and Guatemalan immigrant communities knows someone whose son or niece has traveled here from the border. New children often appear in school classrooms, health clinics and social service programs, speaking no English and still getting over their shock.
Godoy’s story might astonish and anger many Americans, but it is an utterly normal part of life in her world, where the ability to “send for” one’s children is a source of pride and relief for families who fled poverty and conflict in Central America, often entering the United States illegally. Many have struggled for years at menial jobs, worrying constantly about children back home.
With no legal options, these parents frequently pay $2,000 to $5,000 to have their children transported to the U.S. border — or more if they are smuggled further inland. Financially stretched immigrants often borrow the funds or pool resources with family members.
“It is not safe in Honduras. There is so much poverty and delinquency,” said Godoy. “I never wanted to leave them, and my dream was to go home after a few years. But it didn’t work out. Everything was so hard here, and I didn’t have the courage to go back empty-handed.” Some of her relatives faced the same dilemma, so they helped each other pay to bring their children north. “This is a family investment in their future,” she said.
In the past two years, reports of gang violence have skyrocketed in Godoy’s homeland, where the per capita murder rate is one of the highest in the world. The growing danger made her determined to bring Madison to the United States before she reached adolescence and became a target for gangs and other predators. Her oldest daughter, 23, is married and remains in Honduras.
Legally, Madison could face deportation back to Honduras — it says so in black and white on the documents issued by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers who processed her at the Mexico-Texas border.
She is part of the unprecedented wave of unaccompanied children reaching the border in recent months, mostly from Central America. Their numbers have soared from 5,200 in 2012 to more than 52,000 this year — and there are fears they could reach 90,000 by summer’s end, according to internalBorder Patrol estimates.
Unlike children arriving from Mexico, who may be immediately sent back, those from Central America and beyond are given shelter and if possible released to relatives because of U.S. laws against child trafficking. But they are also given papers saying they are “subject to removal” under U.S. immigration laws.
President Obama, who first framed the border surge as a humanitarian crisis, has come under sharp attack from Republicans and some Democrats. Last week, he promised that most of the youths will eventually be deported and asked Congress for $3.7 billion to stem the influx and speed up judicial processing.
Godoy had to provide immigration authorities with numerous personal documents to qualify as Madison’s temporary sponsor, and she attended a class on sponsorship at a Catholic Charities office in the District. She knows she is required to make sure the child appears at all immigration hearings and to report if she runs away or moves to another address.
But there is little in Godoy’s experience that suggests Madison will ever be forced to leave the country. Her son David, who has been in the United States since 2010, is in the final stages of obtaining a special humanitarian visa for undocumented youths. Several children of her relatives and friends are still here several years after arriving from the border. Godoy herself, while still undocumented, has applied for a resident visa through a program for women victimized by crime or abuse, and she expects this will protect her from being deported.
“We have followed all the immigration procedures for Madison, and I have faith she will be able to stay,” Godoy said one recent evening as she watched her daughter play on a jungle gym with her brother Adonis, 7, who was born in the United States. The children had never met until April, but they laughed and clowned familiarly. Madison, pretending to be a pony, whinnied in delight.
Godoy said that the girl had weathered her daunting journey well but that she is still nervous around strange adults. Since reaching Washington, she has had numerous health checkups and counseling sessions. After two weeks in summer school, she has produced reports in Spanish on animals and planets and picked up some useful English words. At one point on the playground, she ran over and tugged on her mother’s sleeve, saying, “Mami, tengo HUNGRY.”
Even in Spanish, Madison did not want to talk about her recent ordeal, answering questions with shrugs and monosyllables and then falling silent. But David, now 17, vividly described his trip from Honduras four years earlier. First, he said, a bus took him across Guatemala with a group of 10 or 15 other children. Then, they were told to walk across a desert for eight hours in the dark. Finally, they were pushed into a boat and crossed a river.
Later, Godoy mentioned that David had been stopped and held for ransom in Mexico. The smugglers called and forced her to send an additional $1,400 so he could continue his journey. When he and the other children finally reached American soil, the teen said, “we walked a little, and then we were caught. The people were nice. They let me call my mom. She cried, and she said everything would be okay.”
Madison’s interactions with American authorities appear to have been equally welcoming. According to documents sent to her mother, she was seen in Texas by social workers, teachers, doctors and lawyers, all of whom spoke Spanish. She was sheltered by several agencies, including a Baptist church and a nonprofit aid group called Raices. Then she was put on a plane, accompanied by a Spanish-speaking woman, and flown to Washington at her family’s expense.
Once the girl arrived in the District, an elementary school enrolled her for summer classes and several nonprofit clinics gave her checkups. A number of Latino community agencies, founded to assist an earlier generation of Central American refugees, are providing hundreds of border children with health care, legal aid and social services.
“This is what we were created to do,” said Alicia Wilson, executive director of La Clinica del Pueblo in Columbia Heights, established 31 years ago for war refugees from El Salvador. “We have been providing health care and services for newcomers and young people in exactly this situation for decades. The main difference this time is the larger volume. We need to make sure we have enough capacity to help.”
Despite the easy access to services, though, Wilson said many families still face a “real and persistent fear” that their reunion with long-separated children may be short-lived. “We try to deal with their immediate needs without creating the illusion that everything is going to be okay now,” she said.
For Godoy, who recently remarried after years as a single mother, Madison’s arrival has added new sources of stress to a chaotic daily schedule. Unable to afford child care, she constantly juggles work shifts with clinic visits, legal appointments and summer school pickups, spending hours driving the family van and texting at stoplights to plan her next move. With Madison and Adonis crammed into bunk beds, she often parks David with relatives. By the time she gets home, she is exhausted.
But for a few quiet moments on the playground one recent evening, there was undisguised joy in her laugh as she watched her two youngest children chase each other around a jungle gym, and there was a formidable set to her jaw as she vowed to never let them be parted again.
“When I was Madison’s age, my parents were so poor that they had to hire me out,” Godoy recounted with a grimace. Forced to leave school after the third grade, she said she worked as a domestic servant in a more affluent home, forbidden to sit on the furniture or eat on the plates, and was then sent onto the streets to sell tortillas.
“Madison has been through a lot, too, but that’s over now,” she said.
As she drove the children home a little while later, Godoy spotted a friend carrying groceries along the sidewalk. She honked and waved, and the woman waved back. “Her two kids,” Godoy explained, “just arrived from Honduras.”