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On a chilly night in January 2000 in a remote town in northern El Salvador, 17-year-old Jesús kissed her sleeping 14-month-old son’s head and turned to her mother. “Please take care of him,” she said, before walking out of the house to join a small group of migrants on their way to the United States.
As a single mother, she said she couldn’t afford to raise him, so she decided to migrate to Austin, where her father lived and worked in construction. As a rape victim, she said she wanted to leave her hometown because the man who had raped her — which resulted in her getting pregnant with her son — lived there, too. She said she never reported him to the police because she had no faith in the country’s criminal justice system.
She said she left her son behind because she didn’t want to risk taking a toddler on the dangerous journey through the desert and across the border. It was a decision that she said has filled her with guilt for the past two decades as she worked as a cook at a fast-food restaurant and her son grew up in El Salvador, raised by his grandmother.
“I came to understand that we were both victims, my son and I,” Jesús said through tears. “He didn’t deserve to be in a situation without his mother, and I didn’t deserve to be away from him all these years.”
Jesús asked to be identified by her middle name because she fears if she’s publicly identified her son may be targeted by gang members in El Salvador — where the country’s government recently suspended civil liberties after a spike in gang-related murders. Her son, Javier, is being identified by his first name only.
In 2015, she learned of the Central American Minors Program — an Obama-era policy created to provide a legal pathway for children from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras to reunite with their parents in the U.S. rather than using smugglers to enter the country illegally. The parents must have legal status in the U.S.
Jesús, 40, has temporary protected status, which allows migrants from certain countries where violent conflicts or major natural disasters have occurred to live and work legally in the U.S. Currently, 400,000 people in the U.S. from 14 countries, including Afghanistan, Haiti, El Salvador, Honduras and Ukraine, have temporary protected status.
She applied for the Central American Minors Program, and as part of the process, she and her son had to provide DNA test results to prove Javier was her biological son. In May 2016, Jesús received a notice in the mail that Javier, then 16, was approved and could legally migrate.
But before he could go to the U.S., he had to get a physical exam and submit the results to immigration authorities. He was waiting for officials to review those results when the Trump administration paused the program in early 2017 — then canceled it in August 2017.
Last year, the Biden administration restarted an expanded version of the program. Javier’s case was reopened in 2019 as part of a settlement stemming from a lawsuit filed by immigrant rights organizations in federal court.
He’s waiting in El Salvador to get final approval to fly to Austin. The pandemic has delayed the process, Jesús said.
But the program could once again be in jeopardy: Earlier this year, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton filed a lawsuit in a federal court in Dallas — one of nearly a dozen immigration-related lawsuits Paxton has filed against the Biden administration — asking a judge to halt the program because it rewards migrants “who break the law.”
“[President Joe] Biden’s latest round of flagrant law-breaking includes his Central American Minors Program, which has contributed significantly to many states being forced to take in even more aliens,” Paxton said in a statement after he filed the lawsuit earlier this year with attorneys general from seven other states.
Attorney Linda Evarts is representing Jesús and three other migrant parents who have reunited or are in the process of reuniting with their children through the program. The four Central American parents asked the judge to let them be defendants in the lawsuit so they can share their stories and defend the program in court.
“Texas and the other states are attempting to close off one of the only remaining pathways that migrant children have to reunite with their families,” said Evarts, a senior supervising attorney for the International Refugee Assistance Project, a refugee resettlement organization based in New York.
Last month, the judge let two of the four parents join the case as parties, but excluded Jesús, ruling that her interests will be represented by the two other parents who are still waiting a decision on their applications for the program.
“I have waited so long for my son to come to the United States, and I am losing hope,” Jesús said in a written statement to the judge. “My greatest fear is that the U.S. government will cancel the CAM Program again just like last time, and that, at the very last minute, my son will be prevented from joining me here in the United States.”
Since its creation in 2014 — amid a large increase in apprehensions of unaccompanied children at the southern border — the Central American Minors Program has received 12,100 applications. Of the 6,300 cases immigration officials made decisions on, 99% were approved before the Trump administration ended the program in March 2017, according to a report by the Migration Policy Institute, a think tank that studies immigration patterns.
Of those approved, 4,600 children of legal migrants have traveled to the U.S., where they are classified either as refugees, which gives them a pathway to citizenship, or as parolees, which allows them to receive a work permit but no pathway to citizenship. Both require a background check and clearance from the federal government.
“A beautiful moment”
Jesús said she crossed the border through the Sonoran Desert into Arizona in February 2000 as an undocumented immigrant. The following year, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security began to approve some migrants from El Salvador for temporary protected status after the country suffered two earthquakes that killed 1,100 people and displaced an estimated 17% of the country’s 6.2 million residents.
The status has since been renewed because other natural disasters and violence have delayed the country’s recovery. Currently, the status for Salvadorans is valid until December.
After she moved to Austin, Jesús met another migrant from El Salvador in 2005, and after dating for a while, they moved in together.
When Jesús finally received a passport, she flew to El Salvador in 2014 to visit her 14-year-old son for the first time since she left. She said she looked for him at the airport, and as soon as she saw the boy’s light-brown eyes and his smile, she thought, “That’s my son.”
“I remember seeing a young, handsome man, very charming, and I noticed he looked like me,” she said. “I hugged him, we cried together. It was just a beautiful moment.”
That trip was the last time she saw him.
In 2015, her husband was listening to a Spanish-language radio news segment about the Central American Minors Program. Soon after he told Jesús about it, she called Refugee Services Texas, which helped her apply for the program.
After getting the first notice that her son was conditionally approved, she sent $1,551 for a one-way plane ticket to the International Organization for Migration, a United Nations agency that was coordinating Javier’s trip to the United States.
“Every day we talked and celebrated the news that he was going to be able to be here, that he was going to be able to continue studying, that he was going to be able to meet his little sister, that he was going to be able to have a family that he had never had,” she said.
For years, her partner wanted to have a child, but Jesús told him she didn’t want to have more children until she reunited with her son. When Javier was approved to come to the U.S., Jesús and her partner decided to have their first child together. Their daughter was born in 2016.
“I felt a lot of guilt, I felt that it was selfish of me to have another kid here, who had all the comforts of a house and parents having left my son there with practically nothing,” she said.
But then President Donald Trump canceled the program. Javier said the news devastated him.
“I was very excited to be able to go to the United States. I felt it was a dream come true,” Javier said in a WhatsApp voice message to The Texas Tribune. “We had talked about it a lot with my mother, we had imagined that we were going to see each other again, that I was finally going to meet my little sister, that we were going to have good times as a family.”
Resentment builds over the years
In the two decades they have been apart, Jesús has sent $500 every month to her mother and son. She talks to her son on the phone several times a week, using WhatsApp to video chat.
When he was younger, the conversations were dominated by Javier’s obsession with Lionel Messi, the Argentine soccer player. But as he reached his teenage years, the conversations were filled with resentment.
“My son has told me he is hurt that I have not been able to bring him to the United States, and he thinks that I have not tried hard enough to bring him here and that I only care about my daughter,” Jesús said. “This is devastating for me to hear as a mother.”
Javier is 22 now, still lives with his grandmother and works at a hardware store. While no longer a child, he could still move to the U.S. through the program because he had been approved when he was still 18 or younger.
Both Javier and his mother feel more urgency to get him out of El Salvador.
The country’s Legislative Assembly declared a state of emergency in March that suspended civil liberties. Since then, Javier doesn’t leave his remote town out of fear of being targeted by the gangs or the government that has been targeting anyone it suspects of being a gang member. About 20,000 people have been arrested, including some children as young as 12, because of alleged ties to gangs, according to the country’s president.
Javier said he still hopes he can join his mother soon. If he comes, he said, he wants to work in construction. He’s looking forward to meeting his sister, who is now 5 years old, for the first time.
“I want to go for a better future. The U.S. has a lot of opportunities for young people,” he said. “In El Salvador, it’s not easy, there’s not a lot of opportunities, there’s a lot of insecurity, it’s dangerous.”
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