PHILADELPHIA — In a cramped house with mice in the kitchen and music booming outside from passing cars, Keldy Mabel Gonzales Brebe lays bare her three-year journey from Honduras to the United States and all that lies ahead to adapt to life as an immigrant.
She fled the Central American nation with her family and a price on her head to seek asylum at the U.S. border. Instead, U.S. officials separated her from her children, jailed and deported her under President Trump’s “zero-tolerance” policy to prosecute adults entering the country illegally. While the boys were allowed to live with relatives in Philadelphia, their mother made her way back to Mexico, where she fought to join them.
Keldy missed celebrating birthdays and holidays together. She watched from afar as her teenagers filled out and grew facial hair.
“There were times I thought I would never see them again,” she said.
Three years later, America has jettisoned many of Trump’s hardline immigration policies.
Keldy was one of four parents who returned to the United States during the first week of May with temporary legal status to join their children. Her family’s ups and downs illustrate what many parents and children may encounter as they try to make up for lost time.
Keldy and her family lived on the north Caribbean shore of Honduras, a tourist area. Her husband was a guide, taking American tourists to a region of tropical rainforest, pine savannah and marsh called La Mosquitia, or whitewater rafting on the Cangrejal River.
Keldy described herself as middle-class housewife. She would cook for the tourists on the expeditions.
Drug trafficking gangs controlled some areas and required payments from businesses and people for protection. For those who didn’t pay, the penalty was death.
Hit men killed four of her siblings. When she testified against the killers in one case in 2011, she received numerous threats and was told there was a price on her head.
The whole family fled to Mexico in 2013 but were deported by the Mexican government right away.
Back in Honduras, they fled to a rural mountainous area called El Naranjo in attempt to hide from the gangs. But in 2017, neighbors told her there were people asking about her, and the family left for the United States.
She crossed the border with her youngest son Erick, now 17, and her middle child Mino, now 19, in the fall of 2017.
Keldy flagged down a Border Patrol cruiser, and she and her sons were taken together to a cell in a detention center in Deming, New Mexico, 35 miles north of the border.
Less than two days after the family had arrived in the U.S., Keldy was handcuffed and separated from the boys.
The children were both soon released, and family members paid for their flight to Philadelphia. Their older brother, Alex, now 21, eventually became the legal guardian of his brothers and cared for them while they went to school, working construction.
But Keldy was kept in an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facility in El Paso, Texas, for a year and a half and then deported to San Pedro Sula, Honduras, in January 2019.
She traveled back north and settled in Tapachula, Ascensión and then Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, waiting for a chance to enter the United States. She got by with money sent to her by her kids, her sisters and her husband. She video messaged with her boys, and remembers with pain of missing graduations and other big moments
Finally, last month, Linda Corchado, director of legal services at the non-profit Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, contacted her: Biden’s task force was working to reunite families separated at the border. Keldy needed to get passport photos.
Keldy entered on May 4, in a car with Corchado, through the Bridge of The Americas, then flew to Philadelphia.
A video shows the family reunion on May 4 in the Philadelphia home of a niece, with Keldy crying while her kids hug her. “Hola mi amor, amor mío (“Hello my love, my love”),” she says, her face buried in the arms of her sons.
Keldy counts her blessing to be a family, free from death threats in Honduras and and pain of separation.
But there are many difficulties. Keldy’s son, Mino, dropped out of school to help pay the rent on the house that six of them share and where Keldy sleeps on the living room sofa. She wants to get a job, but is caring for her 7-year-old autistic niece and an unsteady 75-year-old mother, along with cooking and cleaning for the family. She sees drug use and hears gunshots in the streets of the Kensington section of Philadelphia where they live.
It’s enough, now, to be with her children. She knows that is more than many of her fellow migrants have.
“Everyday I pray to God for other mothers to be able to come in. They cry for their kids”, she said. “They ask me ‘do you know anything new?’ and I tell them to have patience. And I tell them they will succeed.”
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