It was midmorning and the young Salvadoran migrant was terrified at the sight of the Rio Grande before her. One of her male companions said to her, “I’ll help you.” Soon, the water was up to their necks. Midway across the river, he said to her, “This is where I leave you.” He turned and swam back to the Mexican side. She panicked but willed herself to keep going by herself. She didn’t know how to swim.
It was the most difficult part of her 21-day journey from her hometown of San Vicente, El Salvador, to the US-Mexico border, she said in an interview in Spanish. She is the 17-year-old daughter of María, a resident of Chelsea. The two reunited last weekend, four weeks after María’s daughter first disappeared into the bowels of the US immigration system. The young migrant is one of nearly 19,000 children whom border agents encountered in March — a record number for a single month. Most of them are fleeing violence and poverty in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.
The story of María and her daughter reflects the ongoing chaos at the southern border, where the asylum system has fallen apart. President Biden has refused to rescind Title 42, an obscure public health emergency measure invoked by Donald Trump at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic that allows the government to turn away people who have not entered the United States at the border, including asylum-seekers. The border remains closed to adult migrants and most family units; only unaccompanied minors are allowed in. Title 42 has resulted in an astonishing violation of due process, and Biden should end it.
After crossing the river, María’s daughter was taken into custody by Border Patrol officers in Texas. She was cold but was left in her soaking wet clothes for hours. Meanwhile, after an initial call from her daughter, María didn’t hear about her for at least a week. By then, her daughter had been moved to a US Department of Health and Human Services emergency shelter.
María was never told where her daughter was, only that her location was being kept secret from her for safety reasons. She was not alone, as other parents are also struggling to get information. María was growing desperate, calling the HHS caseworker every day to get an update, which she never got. The federal agency has been criticized for not releasing children to their families expeditiously.
María, 39, came to Chelsea 14 years ago fleeing extreme poverty, she said in an interview in Spanish. She had no way to provide for her then 3-year-old daughter and an older son. She currently works as a cleaner for a Woburn cleaning company. (María has an immigration process pending to adjust her status and didn’t want her last name used because she fears jeopardizing her immigration case.)
Since María left, her daughter had been living with her paternal grandmother in El Salvador. But her grandmother died last year. The teenager then lived temporarily with several relatives. While staying with an aunt, a family acquaintance attempted to rape her. “She called me crying, she was desperate,” María said. She said the aunt took her daughter to the police to report the crime, but the police never did anything. “That’s when I knew she had to leave,” María said.
El Salvador is one of the most dangerous countries for women; it has the second-highest rate of femicide in Latin America. More than two-thirds of women reported suffering some form of gender violence there, including domestic violence and sexual assault, according to a 2017 national survey. But the vast majority of those crimes go unreported, an outcome of both the generalized impunity that plagues the country and the normalization of violence against women. This vicious cycle is part of what motivates Salvadorans to leave and seek refuge.
María had to file extensive paperwork — including proof of residence and copies of birth certificates and her passport — to prove she was the girl’s mother. María turned to Centro Presente, an immigrant rights nonprofit based in East Boston, for help. Patricia Montes, executive director of Centro Presente, said they currently are helping three other local families apply to be reunited with their migrant children in federal custody.
On Saturday morning, María got a call from an unknown Houston-area number. She never expected to hear what the woman on the other line told her: Go to the airport at 2:30 p.m. today to pick up your daughter.
You could say María and her daughter beat the odds. Some don’t make it across the river, while others languish in shelters inadequate for minors. As many thousands of others with valid claims wait, the humanitarian cost of Biden’s inaction to restore the legal asylum system has become too high.