‘It’s Like Each Day Is a Year’: A Migrant Mother’s Wait for a Reunion

‘It’s Like Each Day Is a Year’: A Migrant Mother’s Wait for a Reunion

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Isabella, 40, waited for her daughter to be released from the Nueva Esperanza migrant youth shelter in Brownsville, Tex.CreditIlana Panich-Linsman for The New York Times

By Manny Fernandez and Mitchell Ferman

BROWNSVILLE, Tex. — The mother in Room 211 was separated from her 17-year-old daughter by Border Patrol agents after they had crossed the Rio Grande on a tire. Since then, it had been 40 days. The same number as her age.

“It’s like each day is a year,” said the mother, who asked to be identified by her middle name, Isabella.

She sat in an Americas Best Value Inn one evening this week, eating beef fajitas. Dinner on a bed in a motel: Hers was a life in transit.

Isabella left El Salvador with her daughter to join her boyfriend, who has been living in the United States for more than a decade. The two crossed the river near the South Texas city of McAllen and turned themselves in. Isabella was put in one line at the Border Patrol facility and her daughter was put in another, and that was how they separated — suddenly, without warning or time for a long farewell embrace. Isabella was sent to a detention center in Laredo, Tex., and then to another nearly an hour outside Austin, called Hutto. She was released, and got a ride to Brownsville, where her daughter, identified by her middle name, Dayana, was being held at a children’s shelter.

El Salvador to Guatemala, Mexico to McAllen, Laredo to Hutto, and now Brownsville.

In Room 211, her boyfriend, who drove to Texas from his home in Maryland, was with her. Now it was a matter of waiting to find out whether Dayana would be released the next day. The tattoo on her right forearm read “Blessed.” Maybe it would help. Maybe not.

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Isabella embraced her daughter, Dayana, 17, after her release.CreditIlana Panich-Linsman for The New York Times

For Isabella and thousands of other migrant parents hoping to be reunited with their unexpectedly separated children, part of the trauma has been in the waiting.

Waiting to get out of the detention center herself. Waiting for hours in the motel room — with no phone and with the television off, she had nothing to distract her.

Wondering what was happening to Dayana.

When Isabella began battling stomach cancer several years ago, Dayana became not just her mother’s best friend, but her caregiver. When they had crossed the river at the border and Isabella’s blood pressure spiked, it was her daughter who had guided them to the bridge to turn themselves in — her daughter who had effectively given up her chance at freedom to make sure her mother was cared for.

It was almost unbearable to think about.

And yet life went on, slowly and, like the message on her arm, blessedly. On the road to Texas from Maryland, Isabella’s boyfriend had stopped at a gas station in Tennessee, where a man gave him a puppy. The puppy — a fluffy black-and-tan dog of unknown lineage that weighed no more than 5 pounds — was now part of the family, and ran around their motel room in Brownsville. They named him Travel.

Hours flicked by. They slept and started over again.

Now, a reunion was at hand.

In the motel on Wednesday morning, Isabella leaned across an ironing board toward a mirror on the wall, applying makeup. Travel gnawed on her shoes. She hadn’t worn any makeup in weeks. But it felt like a special occasion.

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After waiting nearly eight hours outside, Isabella finally left the shelter with her daughter.CreditIlana Panich-Linsman for The New York Times

Isabella wore a new black tank top, black leggings and sneakers. She bought none of it herself. Last night’s fajita dinner, the motel room, her $ 1,500 bond to get released out of Hutto — all of it was supplied by Claudia Muñoz, an immigrant advocate who works for Grassroots Leadership, a nonprofit group in Austin that fights mass incarceration, detention and deportation.

“A godsend,” Isabella said.

Bethany Carson, who works with Ms. Muñoz at Grassroots Leadership, came by the room then with the good news: It was time to go to the shelter. They were ready. Isabella’s bed was made. Her boyfriend’s red duffel bag was packed.

Travel followed them out the door.

It was shortly before 11 a.m. when the group pulled up to the main entrance of the Nueva Esperanza shelter. Isabella was allowed inside to visit her daughter while her boyfriend and the others waited in Ms. Muñoz’s S.U.V. The vehicle idled with the air-conditioning blasting in the South Texas summer sun. After a brief visit, Isabella walked out, alone. The shelter workers told her to return in about an hour, and that her daughter would likely be released at that time.

They left, and then returned, parking in the same spot by the entrance. Isabella leaned her head back against the leather seats and waited.

About 90 minutes later, at 12:30 p.m., Ms. Muñoz took the puppy for a walk in the small yard in front of the shelter. Isabella cracked a smile. She knew Dayana would love the puppy. They had a dog in El Salvador named Teddy.

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Dayana held the family’s new puppy, Travel.CreditIlana Panich-Linsman for The New York Times

Isabella did not know when she would see Teddy back in El Salvador again. She hoped she would have a new life in America. She was in the process of applying for asylum, and was scheduled to appear in court on her immigration case on July 26. She wanted the four of them — herself, her daughter, her boyfriend and Travel — to settle in Maryland.

Her boyfriend, a construction worker, had done some renovation work on the Capitol building in Washington. Isabella was already making plans for what she would do.

“I like business,” Isabella said. “I like negotiating, I like selling clothes. I like cooking. I’ll do whatever. We have to start working so we can pay for a lawyer.”

Soon it was after 2 p.m., and Isabella continued to sit in the S.U.V., with no word. Her ponytail, fastened tightly at the motel, had come loose. They left to get gas, and then returned.

It was shortly before 6 p.m. when Isabella was called into the shelter once more. She lingered in the lobby.

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Inside their motel room, Isabella and Dayana held each other close.CreditIlana Panich-Linsman for The New York Times

On another side of the building, Dayana was being told to go to the front of the facility. She would later say she thought then that something bad had happened. When other girls were sent that way, they were in trouble, she said. But as Dayana approached the main entrance, she saw her mother.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Dayana said. “I just looked at her. I thought maybe it was like a dream.”

It had been about 24 hours since Isabella first arrived in Brownsville on Tuesday.

Now it was 7 p.m., and Isabella, her boyfriend and Travel walked back up the stairs of the motel, this time with Dayana. They carried their dinner in their hands — they had stopped at a Whataburger after leaving the shelter — and waited for a moment while a new room key was fetched. Dayana bent down and cradled Travel.

Once inside, mother and daughter quietly sat on the edge of the bed. They held each other close. Dayana played with her mom’s new leggings. They whispered and giggled at times, but mostly they just sat there, embracing.

Then it was time to break out the food. They talked about detention life as Isabella ate chicken strips and fries. Dayana wasn’t hungry. The sodas they were drinking reminded Dayana of one of the shelter rules: The children were allowed only one Coca-Cola per week. And she did not like the food.

“Nothing had salt,” Dayana told her mother.

Isabella laughed. Like mother, like daughter.

Dayana said the shelter celebrated the Fourth of July holiday, and the youths went outside to watch a nearby fireworks show. “They threw us a party,” Dayana said. “We played games. They gave us gifts. They taught us the national anthem.”

Isabella nodded.

Dayana talked about the classes she took at the shelter. She said her English had slightly improved.

“I want to learn English,” Isabella said.

There was no longer any need to wait.

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page A15 of the New York edition with the headline: Waiting in South Texas for a Reunion, ‘It’s Like Each Day Is a Year’. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

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