Originally Published in The New York Times
Caitlin Dickerson and Ryan Christopher Jones - December 7, 2020
Leticia Peren waiting for her son, Yovany, at La Guardia Airport in February. They had been separated after crossing the U.S. border together.Credit...
When Leticia Peren bid her 15-year-old son, Yovany, good night in a Texas Border Patrol station three years ago, he was still small enough that she, standing less than five feet tall, reached down a little when she placed her hand on his shoulder and urged him to rest.
Earlier that night, the two of them had concluded their long journey from Guatemala by walking for hours in the whistling desert wind, losing sight of their own feet in mud that felt like quicksand. The Border Patrol agents who apprehended them outside of Presidio, Texas, placed them in separate cells. Exhausted, Ms. Peren fell into a deep sleep, but woke up to a new nightmare.
Yovany was gone, sent to a shelter in Arizona. Ms. Peren had no money and no lawyer. When she next saw him, more than two years had passed.
At the time of their reunification, Yovany was the last remaining child in custody who the federal government considered eligible to be released. The bonds broken during their 26 months apart — when Ms. Peren was a voice on the phone more than 1,500 miles away, as Yovany made new friends, went to a new school, learned to live without her — have been slow to regrow.
By the time they were reunited, her son had matured into a young man, taller than her and with a deepening voice, one he could use to hold a conversation in English. Ms. Peren, frantic during the time it took to get him back, had lost some of her hair and developed a condition that, when triggered by stress, caused her face to sag on one side.
Years after the mass separations of migrant families spurred a national outcry because of the trauma they caused, much of the public outrage over the policy eased as thousands of parents and children were eventually reunited.
But for families like Ms. Peren’s, swept up by the Trump administration’s most widely debated attempt to deter immigration, the story did not end when the policy did.
To some degree, Ms. Peren and her son are lucky. They are being sponsored by an affluent family who took them into their spacious house in a well-heeled Brooklyn neighborhood. Volunteer groups have acted as informal social workers, tracking down doctors to provide free medical care and answering crisis phone calls at any hour.
But such groups are running short of resources now.
“Everybody’s tapped out emotionally, financially, caseload wise,” said Julie Schwietert Collazo, the director of one such group, Immigrant Families Together. “The need is kind of endless. There are cases where I’ve called so many people and nobody will help me.”
And it is sometimes confounding to Ms. Peren that she could feel so troubled in the home where she and Yovany are living, with its fancy appliances and art from around the world. Her childhood home in Guatemala had a dirt floor surrounded in part by chicken wire rather than exterior walls.
When she was 8, her mother sent her away to do domestic work in the homes of wealthier Guatemalan families who could afford to feed her.
At 16, Ms. Peren fell in love with a boy her age whose home she worked in. But the boy’s family rejected her because she was poor, uneducated and Indigenous. After Yovany was born, she continued working with her baby strapped to her back as she dusted, swept and mopped until on the verge of collapse.
“I would say to him, I’m your dad, I’m your mom, I’m your brother, I’m your sister, I’m your friend,” she said. “We’ve always been together, the two of us.”
But by the end of 2015, the lawlessness in her city was starting to intensify. Gang members were urging Yovany, then in middle school, to join their ranks. At one point, she said, a man held a gun to her head and threatened to kill Yovany if she did not come up with several thousand quetzales a month, which she did not have.
She decided to move north rather than risk what might happen next. Word of the family separations at the American border, which had only just begun, had not made its way to most of Central America.
After Yovany was taken from a Border Patrol station cell overnight, Ms. Peren spent seven months trying to figure out how to get him back. Finally, seeing no other option, she agreed to her own deportation, believing she could fight more effectively if she were free.
After her release, she and Yovany kept in touch regularly through WhatsApp messages. Ms. Peren did not want her son to know how much she was suffering. Yovany did not want to tell her that his life was improving.
After spending about nine months in a children’s shelter in Arizona that he called the saddest place he had ever been, Yovany had been released to a foster family in Texas that welcomed him warmly. The parents gave him a tablet computer, which he used to film music videos with the other Central American boys living in the home. Yovany bonded with the couple’s 3-year-old son and helped to take care of him. A couple of times, the family floated the idea of adopting him, but Ms. Peren shut it down immediately.
In March 2019, lawyers who were soliciting support for separated families made a presentation in a Hindu ashram in Queens, which Sunita Viswanath, an Indian-born human rights activist, occasionally attended. She and her husband, Stephan Shaw, figured that their large home, where they often housed multicultural artists and other activists passing through New York, could easily accommodate a mother and child.
They agreed to take full financial responsibility for Ms. Peren if she were allowed back into the United States to be reunited with Yovany.
The night before Ms. Peren arrived in New York, more than two years after her first journey to the United States, Mr. Shaw spent hours on Duolingo practicing his halting Spanish. He was the only one in his family with any knowledge of the language.
Sitting in their living room with a reporter, Mr. Shaw and Ms. Viswanath, along with her parents and two of the couple’s sons, greeted Ms. Peren with big smiles. She looked at them nervously as her lawyers translated the family’s questions:
How was your flight? Are you tired? Hungry?
They sat down to a meal of Indian food, which Ms. Peren had never seen before. She pushed the food around on her plate. Ms. Viswanath asked if she would be taking a citizenship test soon. Ms. Peren’s lawyers explained that such a possibility was years away. Her asylum case, a first step, had not even begun.
Ms. Peren said good night and settled into her room: the first in her life that she had not had to share. But she felt so lonely and unable to communicate that she cried herself to sleep.
Without a job, Ms. Peren fell into a familiar role as a house cleaner while she waited for the government to approve her son’s release. The family discouraged her, but she insisted that the scrubbing and dusting was calming, and that she had nothing else to do.
After nearly a month of waiting for Yovany, she met his flight at La Guardia Airport, but their relationship did not immediately fall back into place. Standing at the gate to greet him, Ms. Peren burst into tears and hugged him fiercely. But then they both recoiled a little. As they walked to baggage claim to retrieve Yovany’s things, they did not make eye contact. In the car on the way home, he video-chatted with the friends he had left behind in Texas.
Yovany’s presence eased any tension in the home as he lapped up the affection of the host family. Ms. Viswanath began tutoring him in reading. Her parents grew enamored of him because he did chores without asking. Yovany beamed on the brink of tears one afternoon when, after he had announced that he wanted to become a filmmaker, Mr. Shaw gave him a hand-me-down Canon camera. Their 12-year-old son, Satya, started teaching him to play piano.
Establishing relationships outside the home proved more difficult. Yovany tried to reconnect with some of the children he had met in detention, who had since moved to New York, but they lived in immigrant enclaves in Queens and the Bronx, and worked when they were not in high school.
When the coronavirus pandemic hit, the household quarantined together for a few months, after which Mr. Shaw, Ms. Viswanath and their son decamped to their second home in New Mexico. Ms. Viswanath’s parents eventually joined them, but Ms. Peren and Yovany had to stay in New York as a condition of their pending immigration cases.
Mr. Shaw and Ms. Viswanath made arrangements for Ms. Schwietert Collazo’s organization, Immigrant Families Together, to deliver groceries weekly, and left enough money for anything extra Ms. Peren might need. There were a few weeks when the groceries could not be delivered, but Ms. Peren did not want to ask for more money. She was ashamed that she had been reliant on the family for so long.
She stormed out of the house one afternoon and walked down the street at a frantic clip, asking anyone who appeared to speak Spanish if they knew where she could find a job. Most, she said, looked at her like she was crazy.
A Peruvian woman told her about a Hasidic neighborhood where she could line up for work cleaning houses, but warned that she would have to compete against others who spoke English. The first several times, Ms. Peren went home empty-handed. Eventually, she began getting work at least one day a week.
“It’s something,” she said one recent evening, “But I don’t feel any closer to being able to be independent.”
In some ways, Ms. Peren said, her life is much better than before. She and Yovany have warmed to each other again. They laugh and stay up late at night talking.
But even now, they keep the conversation light, not yet ready to share everything, or listen to an honest account of the more than two years they spent apart.
Ms. Peren says she has come to understand that being reunited with her son did not restore the bonds they once shared. Instead, she said, they are different people in a new place, building a relationship that is, in some ways, just beginning.