Six years had passed since Glenda Valdez kissed her toddler and left for the United States – six years since she had held Emely in her arms.
But here she is, at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport in Texas, tearfully kissing the little girl she left behind. And that only happened because she had seen a TV photo of Emely, part of an Associated Press article about young people crossing the Mexican border alone.
“I love you so much,” she whispered in Spanish into her nine year old daughter’s ear. “My God, thank you. “
It was a fairy tale ending – for now – in a complicated story, which began in Honduras and with an unhappy relationship, according to Valdez, 26.
Emely’s father, she said, was away and didn’t take care of them. When Valdez emigrated in search of a better life, the girl was placed in the care of Valdez’s mother. But Emely’s father took it over.
Valdez said she only had sporadic contact with her daughter – the father preferred that they did not speak regularly. Every now and then, Valdez would get a video call; eventually, Emely told her that she had a new stepmom who was not kind to her.
Emely told her that her father – seeing that she was unhappy with her life in this house – had decided to send her away, without telling her where. He placed her in the care of an adult who, for several weeks, helped her get to the US-Mexico border.
Around midnight, as the day turned to May 13, border patrol officers met Emely in La Joya, on the Texas side of the Rio Grande Valley. She had been walking in the brush for six hours with a group of strangers and had lost a shoe in the mud. She was sobbing uncontrollably.
“I was thirsty and we had nothing to drink and I didn’t like it and didn’t know where I was going,” Emely said in Spanish on Sunday.
When officers found her, she said she lost her mother’s number and did not know where her mother was living. Desperate, she gave reporters details she said could identify her mother: “Her hair is curly, but sometimes she straightens it. And she has a lip ring.
His mother was waiting for him, she said. But Valdez said on Sunday she was unaware her child had been sent across the border.
Valdez was at her home in Austin watching a Univision newscast one May afternoon when she saw the picture of Emely in a red hoodie. She knew immediately that it was her daughter. Desperate, she immediately began calling US authorities, the network and refugee agencies.
“Honestly, I was like in shock because imagine you are watching TV and suddenly seeing your daughter,” Valdez said. “And then even more to see her cry and everything she said broke my heart, honestly, everything she said there, that she was upset and she was crying and all that, and seeing her image, barefoot and everything was very difficult for me. “
Emely said she was taken to a group home. But Valdez didn’t know, and for weeks she said she got only vague responses to his requests for information. Be patient, he was told.
“I was just traumatized, like I spent several days crying, watching his video, looking at his photos and crying and crying and crying,” Valdez said.
Last Wednesday she got a call: Emely was in a government shelter. They would soon be reunited. And then, on Saturday, he was told to meet his daughter at the airport the next day. At the appointed time, she rushed down the stairs in the crowded arrivals terminal to hug her daughter.
Emely is part of a sharp increase in the number of unaccompanied children entering the United States from Mexico – nearly 19,000 in March (the highest number on record) and nearly 17,200 in April (the second highest). Almost one in three unaccompanied children appearing at the border comes from Honduras, just behind Guatemala.
Guided by federal law and decades-old judicial regulations, the US Department of Health and Human Services seeks to place unaccompanied children in the “least restrictive framework” possible, which in the vast majority of cases, is a parent or close relative already living in the United States. It took an average of 35 days to place the children in a home at the end of May; Emely was reunited with her mother 10 days less than that.
Children are usually released with instructions to appear in immigration court, where a judge rules on their asylum claims. Decisions can take years – the justice system has a backlog of 1.3 million cases.
As Emely awaits her court date, the young girl has moved in with Valdez, her husband and their two daughters, who are delighted to meet this new sister whom they had only met virtually.