Reunited, an Immigrant Family Tries to Put Their Life Back Together
Last Friday morning, I had breakfast with a Honduran woman named Wendy Santos and her two daughters, Valeria and Aleisha, in the kitchen of their new home in suburban Maryland. Aleisha, who is three, was playing a game she recently invented for herself. “Copy, copy,” she said, looking at us, expectantly. She slid off her chair and walked up to each person, waiting for an answer. “Copy, copy,” Santos, Valeria, and I replied in turn. Aleisha chuckled and moved on, satisfied. In June, Santos and her two daughters had crossed the border near El Paso, Texas, where they were arrested and separated under the Trump Administration’s zero-tolerance policy. Santos spent the next forty-five days being moved from one detention center to another in Texas, while Valeria and Aleisha were held together in a facility for children in Arizona. “In the shelter,” Valeria, who is sixteen, told me, “we had roll call every thirty minutes, and the staff had walkie-talkies.” Aleisha had learned to imitate their sign-offs.
Santos and her daughters were released from government custody and reunited two weeks ago, thanks to a federal judge’s order and the persistence of the family’s immigration attorney. They then resumed the journey that they had begun this spring, when they left Honduras hoping to reach the Washington, D.C., area, where Miguel Calix, Santos’s longtime boyfriend and Aleisha’s father, lives. On July 17th, when Santos and the girls landed at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, Calix was there waiting for them with a bouquet of roses. A small crowd of reporters and well-wishers had accompanied him, in anticipation of the family’s reunion, and cameras flashed as the couple and the children all hugged.
For the next few days, the family ran errands in a state of half-stunned relief. Aleisha had left the children’s shelter with diarrhea and a dry cough, and she was sleeping fitfully. They drove her to a local medical clinic for a checkup, where she and Valeria also received vaccinations. Afterward, Calix took everyone to buy clothes. “We were starting from scratch,” Santos told me. “We needed everything.” The family’s lawyer, an attorney from El Paso named Linda Corchado, had contacted local volunteers and put out a call for donations. On their first Saturday at home, a mail truck arrived with boxes of gifts. “There were school supplies, utensils, kitchenware, games, and clothes,” Santos told me. She had taken photos of the boxes piled high in the driveway. Amazon gift cards were still arriving in the mail every day, with notes written by strangers, welcoming them to the U.S. “When we first got here, it was great,” Santos said. “I cooked for everyone, including the landlady and her family. And we were all together.”
Immigration laws are dense and inflexible, but the lives they’re meant to regulate are inescapably varied and complex. Santos, who is thirty-six years old, lived in Minnesota in the early two-thousands. That’s where she met Calix, who is a decade older than she is; he had come to the U.S. from Honduras in 1990 and had since attained U.S. citizenship. The couple planned to get married. But, before they did, Santos was arrested for shoplifting, and then deported to Honduras, in 2009. Since she had overstayed the visa she first used to come to the U.S., the government barred her from returning for ten years. Calix, who is a carpenter, sent money to support her and the children and flew to visit them every few months. After Aleisha was born, Calix and Santos began working with a lawyer to get Aleisha legal status in the U.S., as the daughter of a citizen. But, again, their plans were interrupted. Last fall, Santos took a job as a poll worker in her small town in northern Honduras and reported a case of voter fraud. Men associated with the country’s main political party chased her out of town, then tracked her down in the city of San Pedro Sula, where she had fled. She decided to seek asylum in the U.S. “Before I left, we came to an agreement,” Santos told me. “I told Miguel that if I got deported back to Honduras, or got turned back along the way, then he’d have to move to Honduras. He agreed, even though he’d be giving up his work in the U.S.” Santos has a middle daughter, Rachell, who was born in Minnesota eleven years ago, and is thus a U.S. citizen. There was no reason for her to make the perilous overland journey, and she stayed behind with her grandmother. The plan was for her to come later, by plane, once Santos safely crossed the border. Rachell pleaded with her mother to take her along. “I want to be illegal like you,” she’d told Santos, before she left.
Santos and Calix told me their story as we sat together, along with Valeria and Aleisha, on two faux-leather couches in their house’s cramped living room. Valeria quietly scrolled through her phone, while Aleisha played with a green stuffed turtle. “We never really talked about what happened,” Calix told me, referring to Santos and the girls’ time in detention. Calix is trim and quiet, with a short beard and graying hair. He teared up as he spoke, and Santos looked away to try to keep from crying herself. She is tall, with dark, alert eyes. Each family member had suffered, but in a different way; now that their time apart was over, they were reluctant to revisit the pain of what had happened.
“When I saw Miguel at the airport, I didn’t feel anything,” Santos confessed. “I’d waited so long for that moment. But when it happened, nothing came out. We just looked at each other. It was an ugly feeling.” She and Calix told me they’d been fighting a lot since they’d been reunited. “Anything sets it off,” Santos said. Calix added, “I’ll say to them that I couldn’t sleep while they were in detention, that I was so stressed. Wendy will say, ‘You were having trouble sleeping? But at least you were in bed at home!’ And I understand that.” I later learned, from Santos, that Calix had needed emergency abdominal surgery while they were in detention. He went back to work the next day, not wanting to miss a paycheck. “Still, there are times when I hold him responsible for what we went through,” Santos told me. The government agreed to let her pursue her asylum claim, and released her pending the outcome of her case. She was fitted with an ankle monitor and received strict instructions to stay at home every Friday so that officers from Immigration and Customs Enforcement could confirm that she was living at the address the government had on file.
While the four of us talked, Aleisha bounded around the room, clamoring for attention, and the family laughed. Aleisha prodded Valeria, nestled in her lap, and kept grasping at her hands. She was completely fixated on her older sister. “It’s been like this ever since they got out,” Santos told me. Aleisha and Valeria slept in the same room while they were in detention, in Arizona. Now that they were home, anytime her sister left the room, Aleisha scurried after her. She would only eat when Valeria did. When she needed to go to the bathroom, she yelled “Tachis”—her version of Francis, Valeria’s first name, which she can’t yet pronounce—and held out her hand.
Valeria tended to her patiently, but looked exasperated. At one point, she had told Santos that she never wanted to have kids of her own. She has a teen-ager’s reserve, and when she speaks there are traces of deeper, more hidden thoughts. “Valeria gave me strength when we were separated,” Santos told me. “She never cried on the phone with me, even though I was crying. She said to me, ‘Mom, I’ll stay strong for you.’ When Aleisha was sick, she didn’t tell me, because she didn’t want me to get upset.”
Calix had originally planned for Santos and the girls to stay with his brother, outside Baltimore. But his brother got nervous before they arrived—even though he is in the country legally. (“Since immigration authorities were involved, he didn’t want any trouble,” Calix told me.) Calix had been renting a room in a small white house, with a modest living room that opens onto the kitchen on the first floor and a cluster of tiny bedrooms upstairs. His landlord, a Dominican nurse, lived there with her husband, and the couple had been looking to rent out one of the other extra bedrooms. After his brother backed out, Calix asked his landlord if he could rent one of the other rooms for the girls.
The house felt claustrophobic. On my first night in town, Aleisha had a fever and cried for hours. The landlord, her husband, and their nephew, who was visiting, were annoyed. “It’s gotten complicated here,” Santos told me the next morning. The landlord’s nephew rarely cleaned up after himself, but the landlord was blaming Santos. She also gave the girls a hard time if they went outside to play, according to Santos. Santos and the girls were spending most of their days in their rooms, with the doors closed. “We watch the news a lot,” Valeria told me. Santos said, “The landlady comes home from work around five, and her nephew’s been getting home at about one. I get up at four in the morning, with Miguel, and make food for the day. Then I get out of the way. At night, the families eat separately.”
On Friday night, I made plans to accompany the family out to dinner at a Mexican restaurant. When I arrived at the house, Santos and her daughters were sitting on the front stoop, eating popsicles. “Miguel’s inside fighting with the landlady,” Santos told me. He emerged a few minutes later. “I’m paying for my room and for the kids’ room, but they keep taking out their frustration on Wendy. She has to clean up. She has to do this and that,” he told me. “Once, when Wendy and I were arguing, she told us we were setting a bad example for the children.”
We drove to the restaurant, where the mood lightened. Aleisha called out the names of objects on the wall (a horse, a guitar, a sombrero). I sat between Valeria and Calix, who ordered a beer and wanted to talk about American politics. He had theories about Michael Cohen. At work that day, there’d been a discussion of Trump’s family-separation policy. A white guy on his construction crew, whom Calix had always liked, asked, “Why are these people coming here? Don’t they know there’s nothing for them?” Calix couldn’t believe his co-worker was so incurious about what Santos and others were fleeing. “People don’t even want to bother to educate themselves. They don’t care,” he said.
A few times during dinner, Aleisha needed to go the bathroom and nudged Valeria to take her, but she stayed closer to her mother, which tended to happen when they went out, Santos told me. “When we’re home, she’s back to Valeria,” she said. Valeria was taking advantage of the momentary reprieve to send text messages on WhatsApp. When I asked her if she missed her friends in Honduras, she nodded. “I never wanted to come here,” she said. She made up excuses to tell her friends at home, first to explain the circumstances of the family’s trip to the U.S. and then to account for why she’d been unreachable for the forty-five days she spent in detention. She told me, “I said I got into a fight with my mother, because I was so depressed about having to come here, and that she took my phone away so I couldn’t text or send messages.”
When we said goodbye in the parking lot later that night, Calix proposed that I swing by the house the next morning to take Santos and the girls out while he was at work. Because it was a Saturday, the landlord and her family would be home, and Santos dreaded the awkwardness. Early the next morning, however, I received a text message from Calix, calling me off. “Wendy and the girls are not at home. Last night, when we got back, the landlord was waiting for us. She told us we had to leave.” They relocated to a hotel, while Calix figured out what to do next. “It’s one thing after another these days,” he said. “We’ll be fine. I just have to think.”