WASHINGTON – With a bouquet of roses and open arms, Miguel Calix waited nervously at Washington-Reagan National airport Tuesday night for his wife, daughter and stepdaughter to arrive on a flight from Phoenix.
“I feel nervous,” Calix said as he stood in the airport’s Terminal C, waiting for their American Airlines flight. “I never thought I would see her again.”
His wife, Wendy Rosio Santos Aguila, and her daughters, ages 3 and 16, were arrested June 1 at the Arizona border, where they sought asylum from their native Honduras. The mother and daughters were separated two days later and held in Arizona immigration facilities.
“I was scared when immigration told me I would be separated from my mom,” Francis Valeria Quintanilla Santos, the 16-year-old, said Tuesday. “I didn’t know what would happen to her.”
Francis and her sister, 3-year-old Alisha Calix Santos, were two of the thousands of children separated from their parents at the border this summer under the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy for border enforcement. A Customs and Border Protection official said last month that a total of 2,342 immigrant children were separated from their parents at the border between May 5 and June 9.
President Donald Trump has since reversed that separation policy in the face of widespread criticism. CBP and Department of Homeland Security officials have stressed that families will not be separated if they cross at ports of entry, where it is legal to attempt to enter the U.S. without documentation if declaring asylum. But with lines as long as 14 days at some ports of entry, many families choose to take the risk of crossing illegally.
Calix, a U.S. citizen who has lived in the D.C. area for 27 years, said that people like his wife and kids come to the U.S. because they have no other option.
“I don’t have opportunity in my country, my kids don’t have opportunities,” Calix said. “The government is corrupt. Then narcos, then gangs, MS-13.”
After they were separated, Aguila said she was able to speak with her daughters by phone once a week, but knew “very little” about where they were being held or how they were doing. She said her youngest daughter was confused and at times wouldn’t even speak to her on the phone.
“Sometimes she said that I didn’t want her,” Aguila said in Spanish. “It was traumatic.”
Francis said she was able to spend a few hours a day with her younger sister, who she said was shy and cried often. The 3-year-old was among the youngest in the facility, where Francis said babies as young as 1 and teenagers as old as 17 were held.
“She was always scared, but I felt nervous too because she always asked, ‘Where’s my mom?'” Francis said. “She’s too little for that.”
The government has been trying to reunite families to comply with lawsuits that have been filed over the separation policy, but it’s been slow going as officials have worked to locate parents, confirm their identities and ensure that children are being placed in a safe environment.
Nexus Derechos Humanos, a pro-bono law group formed by Nexus Services, helped Aguila and her daughters submit immigration forms and facilitated the reunion Tuesday night at Reagan National.
Francis said that her mother and stepfather will continue to work while she and her sister go to school. When she found out that she would be coming to the U.S., she said she was happy to leave Honduras.
“Life in my country isn’t too good as it is here,” Francis said. “I’ll be safe here.”
-Cronkite News video by Dani Coble