This eight-year-old girl (on the right in the photo) traveled 4,000 miles and spent four months in detention to get a hug from her mother. They were reunited last week at Willard Airport in Champaign. The news reports about children being separated from their families at the border are not such far-off stories. Some have Champaign-Urbana as the destination of their long trek north.
This past June, the girl left her home in Guatemala, accompanied by her aunt and cousin. They were detained when they came across the US-Mexico border. The other two were released, but because she was not with a parent, the eight-year-old was held. She was first put into a detention center, where she stayed for three months. With the help of RAICES (Refugee And Immigrant Center For Education and Legal Services), a nonprofit in Texas that has freed thousands in similar situations, she was placed in foster care with a family that had opened up their home. When she moved on, the little girl carried a slip of paper with the names of other girls at the house she left behind.
Boarding a plane in Dallas, she landed at Willard airport. I was invited to document the reunion. While waiting for her, I talked to her mother and stepfather about the conditions where they are from in Guatemala. Most work in the coffee fields, where they are paid five or six dollars a day. They are so poor that they risk their own lives, and those of their children, to travel to the United States. The girl’s mother walked around with an 18-month-old daughter in a sling on her back, as is common in Guatemala among women that work in the coffee fields.
The girl had a hardened look on her face from her time in detention. She had talked to her family on the phone. Over time, their conversations had become shorter, as she started to only give one-word responses. It had been two years since she had seen her mother. She barely recognized her mom at the airport. They embraced one another in a long-awaited hug.
I was asked to go to the airport by Lucia Maldonado, the Latino liaison for the Urbana school district, and member of the Latino Partnership, a nonprofit organization that helps undocumented families in Champaign County. This summer more than $13,000 was raised for the group in response to the growing crisis at the border and in our own community. The money helped to purchase a $400 plane ticket for the little girl.
The family is pursuing an asylum case with the help of the local office of the Immigration Project. But they have upcoming court dates in Chicago. The little girl is still left in an indefinite legal limbo.
“How long before she feels safe again?,” wondered Lucia.
This article was originally published in Smile Politely on October 10, 2018. Reprinted with permission.