A month without mom: 2 Guatemalan kids share what it's like to be all alone in the U.S.
The U.S. government struggles to reunite migrant kids with their parents after separating them at the border
Two children arrive at a church in northeast Los Angeles, clutching two black gym bags that contain everything they own.
The only other thing they have to cling to, says 12-year-old Sylvia, is their mom's parting words: That they shouldn't be sad. That she should take care of her little brother, and that he should take care of her.
She bursts out in tears at the memory of being led away from their mother by social workers. They haven't seen her in more than a month.
Sylvia and her 10-year-old brother Christian are among the nearly 3,000 migrant children who have been separated from their parents at the southern border — about a third more than previously reported by the U.S. government.
If Sylvia and Christian's situation is any indication, the government will need it.
Their family set out from their home in Guatemala on May 6, but were apprehended by Mexican authorities and sent back to Guatemala. So they tried again and eventually arrived at the U.S. border on May 24. After they were caught crossing into Texas, the kids were placed in a nearby shelter. Their mother was eventually sent to a detention facility in Eloy, Ariz.
Sylvia and Christian spent 32 days in the shelter, separated from everyone they knew, until early last Saturday morning. The shelter arranged to fly them to Los Angeles where their aunt Rebecca lives. The 27-year-old also came to the U.S. illegally, which is why CBC agreed not to share their family names.
'With me, no one will hurt them'
She'll be taking the children in, though she hasn't seen them since they were babies. By doing so, including filling out the necessary paperwork, she's put her own freedom at risk.
"I couldn't leave them in the shelter because they're my sister's children," she says, sobbing. "With me, no one will hurt them, no one will threaten them, no one will beat them."
All three of them join Rev. Fred Morris inside the North Hills United Methodist Church, where they stand in front of a map of the Americas pinned to the wall.
"They must have gone more or less like this," Morris says, tracing the likely route the family would have taken from their home in Retalhuleu, Guatemala, to McAllen, Texas.
Morris runs the San Fernando Valley Refugee Children Center, which helps connect migrant children with their relatives.
"These two children who arrived here today are totally traumatized," he says.
Rebecca says her sister went 15 desperate days without knowing where her children were after authorities took them away from her.
"She was crying because she didn't have any news about her kids. She didn't have any contact with anyone, and she didn't know what was going to happen to them," she says.
Rebecca says after she got in touch with her sister, locating the children wasn't easy. It took days just to find their shelter and plenty of wrangling to get them released.
"That's why the majority of children aren't finding their family," she says. "Because it took a lot of hunting around to find them and they didn't know where they were for several days."
It's a story Abril Escobar is hearing more and more often these days in her role as a program assistant at the San Fernando Valley Refugee Children Center.
She says federal officials and shelter workers are making it "as hard as possible" to place separated children with families in the U.S. They're making families jump through too many hoops and delaying their requests with red tape, she says.
"They might give up, and that might be the plan that the government has for these families," Escobar says. "There is no set plan to reunite them."
'I was in despair'
Morris says many families hoping to be united with the separated children are being burdened with expenses, such as the cost of plane tickets to fly the children to them.
That's the predicament Rebecca found herself in.
"I was in despair because I didn't have the money to pay for their plane ticket," she says. "Eventually, the director of the shelter said that they could help me, so they paid for the ticket."
Morris says the case of Sylvia and Christian is a happy exception.
He says he doesn't have much faith in the Trump administration's ability to reunite migrant children with their parents.
"There's no way you can reunify these children," he says. "There are 2,500 children who in all probability will never see their parents again."
Morris doesn't expect Sylvia and Christian will see their mother on this side of the border at all. She's still in detention, with little chance of being granted asylum.
"Their mother may be deported because [U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions] has said that domestic violence is no longer a justification [for asylum]."
Rebecca says her older sister fled because Guatemalan police did nothing to stop her abusive husband.
"He threatened to kill them, so my sister decided to leave and come here," she says.
Rev. Morris says "femicide in Guatemala is a national scandal.
"If you're a victim of domestic violence, you have no recourse except to leave the country."
However, the Trump administration says it will no longer take in most victims of domestic abuse.
And immigration officials are now asking parents to sign a form stating whether they want to be deported with their kids, or leave them behind.
Rebecca says if her sister can't get asylum, she doesn't know what she will choose.
"Here [the children] have many possibilities, much more so than in our country," Rebecca says. "That's what this country gives, the possibility to go forward. They have a future here."
Already, the children have started learning English.
"Good morning, good night, good afternoon," Rebecca says with a shy laugh.
The two children say they're happy to stay with their aunt, for now. But they're still hoping their mother can keep that promise she made as they were taken away.
"That she'd be fine, that we'll be fine," says Sylvia, in tears, "and that eventually we'll all be together again."