It had been nearly two months since Buena Ventura Martin Godinez has seen her 7-year-old daughter after the frightened young mother was separated from her family trying to cross from Mexico into the US. They’ve spoken tearfully by phone, but seeing her at a Miami airport Sunday for the first time, she grabbed the child in a tight embrace, tears running down her cheeks during a reunion she feared may never happen.
“I feel very happy, now and to complete my joy I would like to have my husband released,” Martin said in Spanish as her daughter Janne clutched a stuffed dog and blue balloons and played with her younger brother at baggage claim.
Martin carried her infant son from Mexico into the US in May, fleeing what she said were threats from violent local gangsters demanding money in their hometown in northwestern Guatemala. Her husband followed two weeks later with the young girl.
But the family was caught by the Border Patrol and scattered about under President Donald Trump’s zero-tolerance immigration policy forcing families to be separated when crossing the border. Her husband, Pedro Godinez Aguilar, was convicted of the misdemeanor offense of illegal entry into the US and awaits almost certain deportation at a jail in Atlanta. Martin was held for a week with her infant in Arizona and Texas, at times sleeping on the concrete floor of a detention facility before she was released. She now wears a heavy black monitoring device strapped to her ankle. She and her baby boy are with relatives in a gritty town south of Miami.
The little girl was in the custody of a child welfare agency in Michigan and made heartbreaking calls to her mother, asking when they’d be reunited.
The family is one of thousands who have tried to find refuge in the US in recent weeks only to be caught up in the harsh reality of an immigration system that has never been as welcoming as many desperate migrants hoped and has grown harsher under Trump, with the separation of parents from children being used as a means of discouraging illegal immigration.
More families are crossing the Southwest border from Guatemala than any other nation, with 29,278 families apprehended between October and the end of May.
Martin and her husband could easily have been apprehended under the previous administration, too, and would have faced a tough battle for asylum. But the father wouldn’t have been prosecuted for a first-time crossing; he would likely have been briefly detained with his daughter and then released with a monitoring device while they battled their future out in court. Their daughter also would not have been shipped alone across the country, leaving them desperately trying to get her back.
At Sunday’s emotional reunion, the child’s uncle Nicolas Godinez said his family had been sick with worry about her return. They’d heard unsubstantiated rumors the US government was putting children like Janne up for adoption.
“To receive her is the most marvelous thing I could receive,” he said through tears.
Martin, who worked as a nurse in Guatemala, said she and her husband decided to leave San Juan Atitan because masked men were demanding extortion payments from her husband’s small business selling internet access.
They traveled by bus to an area just south of the border in Arizona. She said they didn’t use smugglers, though many Central Americans do and find themselves paying off the fees for years. Martin said she waded through knee-deep water with several other migrants and was immediately apprehended. Court records show her husband was caught in the same area on May 16.
Martin has been getting some help from a local activist since she can’t afford a lawyer. She has been working at a nearby plant nursery, earning $9 an hour. She puts her baby in day care as she presses her case for asylum.
As the grateful mother clutched her daughter Sunday, she had a warning for other families.
“I would advise people to find another country to seek refuge ... because here the law is very tough. People don’t have a heart,” she said with tears streaming down her cheeks. “Your child is a treasure and to have them separated is very painful.”