A Mother, Separated from Her Children at the Border, Comes Home

For the past two years, Keldy Mabel Gonzáles Brebe de Zúniga has held a daily ritual. She got up before dawn and walked to the border in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, where four bridges lead to El Paso, and introduced herself on the other side. She is a religious woman known to friends, family and acquaintances as la pastora or as a pastor. In Juárez, she devoted herself to the city’s migrant population. Recently deported families called them with the rough coordinates of their whereabouts – highway mile markings, intersection descriptions – and Gonzáles Brebe took a taxi and took them to a place where they could sleep. She was regularly present at migrant shelters and gave sermons and blessings. But every morning, when she was in sight of one of the bridges, she took time to say a prayer for herself. She prayed that the border would open for a moment, just long enough for her to finally see her children.

The last time was in the fall of 2017. Her family, who had fled Honduras, had dispersed across the continent. Gonzáles Brebe’s husband and eldest son, who was eighteen years old, had already entered the United States. Her mother and niece were in Tapachula, Mexico, near the Guatemalan border. Gonzáles Brebe and her two middle sons, who were thirteen and fifteen years old, tried the final leg of the trip together. It was around noon on a hot September day when they stopped a Border Patrol cruiser in the New Mexico desert. They planned to register and apply for asylum. A day and a half later, in a cell in Deming, thirty-five miles north of the border, agents handcuffed her to pursue her for the illegal entry violation. Her boys screamed and cried; She still remembers the feel of her hands reaching for her clothes. The government took custody of their children and moved them to an animal shelter for minors who had come to the United States alone.

Outside a small circle of government officials, virtually no one knew that an experiment was going on. Along a two hundred and sixty mile stretch of the El Paso border, the Trump card The administration tested what their zero tolerance would become politics. The idea was to send a message – by prosecuting immigrants for entering the country illegally, and by doing so split apart Parents and children traveling together. Gonzáles Brebe and her boys were among the first families to be separated. By June 2018, more than two thousand more cases had been documented by the time a federal judge in California ordered the Trump administration to reunite the families. Gonzáles Brebe’s boys had been released to live with their aunt in Philadelphia. She was detained in an immigration and customs control detention center in El Paso. Lawyers from a local nonprofit, the Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, filed petitions to delay their deportation, but it was too late. On January 24, 2019, the government flew them to San Pedro Sula, Honduras. Within a few days she made her way north again, through Guatemala and to Mexico. Her mother and niece now also lived in the United States. She was the only one still pending.

Three weeks ago, Gonzáles Brebe received a text message from Linda Corchado, her immigration attorney in El Paso. In February, Joe Biden had signed an executive order to create a federal task force charged with reuniting families separated from Trump as part of the zero-tolerance policy. The details of how the order might affect Gonzáles Brebe’s case were not yet clear. But government sources told Corchado the reunification process could begin before the fall. A week later Corchado sent another message: “Keldy, do you know where you can get passport photos in Juarez?” The next series of messages came more quickly; Corchado received additional information from the Department of Homeland Security. Gonzáles Brebe was sitting in her room one morning shortly after returning from the bridge when Corchado wrote a date and time: Gonzáles Brebe was due to drive into El Paso on Tuesday, May 4th at eight in the morning.

“Now something else is going on over me,” Gonzáles Brebe told me. We talked about audio memos on Facebook Messenger. I have known her for three years and visited her in US custody and also in Tapachula, where she lived for several months. But hearing her now felt like listening to someone else. Her voice was clearer and brighter. She’s only thirty-seven, and for the first time in dozens of hours of conversation, she sounded like that. “I’m brought back to life,” she said.

Even so, she was nervous that something might go wrong and decided not to share the news with her children. Instead, she posted a video for her niece from the Juarez side of the Paso del Norte Bridge. “Blessings for you,” she began, barely suppressing a smile. She wore tinted glasses and a gray, black and white checked flannel shirt. Her freshly cut hair whipped in the wind. “I’m going over there,” she said. “I go all the way up until I’m with my kids.” Then she swore secrecy to her niece. If the international bridges that connect Juárez to El Paso were a symbol of hope, they were also a reminder of the greatest trauma of their life. On the American side, agents from Customs and Border Protection were waiting. At one point she wrote to Corchado: “You’re not going to trap me, are you?”

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