When news of family separations at the U.S. border reached the city of Malacatán in Guatemala, Evelyn Becerra was confronted with a difficult choice: Either leave for the United States and risk losing her 2-year-old daughter, Jennifer, at the border, or stay in her home country, where, she says, her husband had threatened to kill her.
“My biggest fear is that they'll separate me from my daughter," said Becerra, 21. "She's all that I have."
In the end, President Donald Trump made the decision for her when he issued an executive order two weeks ago ending the separations, which have generated widespread outrage. Becerra heard the news and decided to leave Guatemala.
Last month, Becerra and Jennifer traveled by bus from Guatemala to Mexico, planning to seek asylum at the border. Their chances, however, look slim: In June, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions reversed an immigration appeals court ruling that had granted asylum to victims of domestic violence, a decision that will make it nearly impossible for immigrants to gain entry to the country by citing fears of spousal abuse.
Still, on Thursday, Becerra and her daughter sat together underneath a black and white umbrella on the bridge between Brownsville and Matamoros as they waited for immigration officials to let them into the U.S to make their asylum request. Two days later, after crossing the border, they were on their way to Birmingham, Alabama, where Becerra planned to stay while the government processes her case, according to her brother, Edilberto Becerra, who lives in the city.
“It’s a dangerous time, and sad — not to know how she is, if she’s eating or if something bad’s happening to her,” Becerra's brother said in a phone interview last week. “I’m happy that she’s coming.”
Not every parent seeking asylum this month chose to postpone traveling to the border as stories about family separations filtered to Central America.
Jose Santos Garcia, 27, a logger and carpenter from El Salvador, left for the U.S. with his 8-year-old daughter, Brenda, at a time when the American government was still separating immigrant children from their parents. Garcia left behind his other four children, who he said were too young to make the grueling trip. Despite the risks, he was convinced that he and his oldest child had no choice but to flee the gang violence and economic stagnation in their home country.
And in any case, Garcia said, he didn’t think he could trust everything he saw on the news about the United States’ rapidly changing immigration policies.
The Texas Tribune's reporting on the Families Divided project is supported by the Pulitzer Center, which will also help bring discussions on this important topic to schools and universities in Texas and across the United States through its K-12 and Campus Consortium networks.
“We see the Salvadoran news, we see the Mexican news. These are not truth,” he said at a bus station in McAllen. “This is our only option and our last option.”
Garcia said he and his daughter traveled to the U.S. border in a van with dozens of other migrants from El Salvador before requesting asylum at an official port of entry. On Saturday, father and daughter sat together at the bus station, bound for California, where Garcia’s mother lives. As he described his struggle to find work in his home country, Garcia bent down to roll his pants leg over the ankle bracelet he is required to wear until his next court date later this month.
“I would stay in my country if I could, but I want my children to have a better future,” he said. “I came here for them.”