"I was very, very scared. I came with people I didn't know."
National Journal recently visited St. Louis and Ferguson to see how Rust Belt cities are changing after losing more than half their populations. In the coming weeks, Next America will publish a series of stories about the people shaping the St. Louis region's future.
ST. LOUIS—Nearly 40,000 children from Central America have moved in with relatives in the United States in recent months after crossing the border. Darwin, 12, and his sister Luz, 13, are two of them. Each traveled for days to reach the Texas border from Honduras so they could reunite with their mother here in St. Louis after nine years apart.
Mirian, their mother, left Darwin and Luz with their grandmother as toddlers while she went to find work in the U.S. She was a single mother at the time and couldn't support the family with the money she made selling vegetables on the street. So Mirian crossed the Rio Grande in an inflatable raft and worked for years cooking and cleaning in New Orleans and St. Louis, sending money home each week. Last year, she decided to bring Luz and Darwin to the U.S. after her mother fell ill and gang violence spread through their hometown on Lake Yojoa.
As they await their October immigration hearings, Darwin, Luz and Mirian met with National Journal reporters in their St. Louis apartment to talk about what it's like to live together after spending most of their lives apart.
National Journal is withholding the family's last name to protect their identities. These interviews have been translated from Spanish and edited for length and clarity.
Darwin, 12, arrived in St. Louis from Honduras in May 2014:
Do you remember the day your mother left to the United States?
Yes. I was lying in a hammock and she came over. I said, "Mom, where are you going?" My mom said, "I'm going to San Pedro," but she was lying. I asked my grandmother about it when she didn't return the next day. My grandmother said, "No, Darwin, your mother went to the United States." Then I started to cry.
Did you understand why she had gone to the United States?
How old were you?
When you talked on the phone with your mother, what did you talk about?
I didn't talk, I just cried. Only now that I am older was I able to talk to her. When they passed her to me [on the phone], I would start to cry. I couldn't talk to her. She would just say, "Son, don't cry, because one day we will see each other again," and that's all she would say.
When were you finally able to speak to her?
When I was eight years old.
Did you ever think you would come to the United States?
I didn't think I was going to come. Ever since my mom lied to me about going to San Pedro, I stopped believing her.
What did you think when you found out you would finally be joining her?
I almost didn't want to come. She left me behind, so I was raised by my grandmother.
How was the trip to get here?
Good. I crossed [the Rio Grande] with three boys.
Were you nervous or afraid?
Yes, because we got off the boat and we had no shoes, and then we climbed up and I didn't know where to go. There were two paths. So we took off on one path and followed some coyotes, and then a helicopter arrived and then a car picked us up. A man asked us if we had permission to enter here and we said no. And then they asked us if we were minors and we said yes. So they just took us and we got in the car.
How did the immigration agents treat you?
They treated us well. They took us to the station where they were going to drop someone off. And then only at night did they move us to another place, and then another place. Four places. They looked like jails.
Were there many other children there?
Yes, there were many children. They told us to sit down because later it would get so packed that some people had to sleep standing up.
Did you talk to your mom at some point?
They called her and passed her to me, because my mom asked the official to put me on the phone. So they passed her to me.
How long were you there at the detention center?
I was at the center for about 19 days.
What was it like to be on a plane for the first time?
I got a little scared when it lifted off. It gave me goose bumps because it felt horrible to ascend so fast like that.
Tell me about seeing your mother for the first time—was it at the airport?
Yes. I was so happy and she started to cry because I looked so skinny. I thought I looked fat, but she thought I looked so skinny.
Did you cry?
No, I just felt happy, but I didn't cry.
What do you think of St. Louis? Do you prefer living here or in Honduras?
Honduras. Because over there it was just me with my grandmother, so we went everywhere together. But not so much here.
Wouldn't you miss your mother if you returned? Or are you used to living without her?
I've gotten used to it.
Luz, 13, arrived in St. Louis from Honduras in May 2013:
So you said that you don't remember the day that your mother left. Did you ever wonder where your mother was?
When I was growing up, my grandmother told me where she was, and since I talked to her, I never wondered, "Where is my mother?"
Did you understand that she had come to the United States illegally?
Did you want to move to St. Louis?
I wanted to come here because I wanted to meet my mother.
When she told you that she was bringing you over, what was your reaction?
I said yes, and then I became emotional on the way here. I was also sad, because I had never lived with her, only with my grandmother.
How did you cross the river?
I crossed in a boat like she did.
Were you nervous or afraid?
Yes, I was afraid. I was scared, very scared. I came with people I didn't know. Then a woman sent me alone with a man, so I didn't eat for three days, I just cried for three days. I didn't know the man and I felt as though he was going to try and touch me or something.
Tell me how you got to Texas.
I crossed the river, and immigration was there and they detained me. That's when they took me to a place just like a house, and then they asked me my mom's name and where I was coming from. I told them I was going to see my mom. They gave me a phone and I dialed my mom's number and a man from immigration spoke to her. The people from immigration took me to a family's house. I went to school. I was there for about 15 or 16 days. Then the lady told me I was coming here with my mother and I came by plane.
Was it the first time you had been on a plane?
How was it?
It was incredible, very scary too. I was overwhelmed because I knew the next day I was going to see my mom. And that's when I met her.
Can you describe what it was like to see your mom for the first time?
When I got of the plane, I thought my mom would be right there. I didn't realize she would be on the other side. Then I saw her. I had a suitcase, and I just wanted to throw aside the suitcase and run to hug her. And that's when I walked toward her and hugged her and we started to cry.
What was the cultural change between living in Honduras and then here?
I like it here more than Honduras because in Honduras it's extremely dangerous. Many people kill other people over there, groups of men—what you call gangs.
What do you like most about living here, aside from being with your mom?
I like hanging out with my friends, going to school. My friends are from Honduras. Most are from Cuba, from Mexico. We talk, we go to lunch. But my best friend moved to another school. They transferred her because she already knew too much English. She had already been here two years.
Is there anything that has been hard to adjust to?
I've adjusted. I really love St. Louis.
Are you worried that you might have to leave?
Yes. Because over there, I can't get what my mom can offer me here. And I would have to leave her and spend more years without seeing her.
Mirian, mother, 30:
What does it feel like to have both of your kids here with you?
I'm very happy.
What was it like when you saw Luz at the airport for the first time?
It was very emotional. The night before I couldn't sleep, thinking that I was going to see her again after so long.
Did she look the way you imagined her?
No. She was so little when I left—about four years old—and seeing her as a young woman all grown up was very different.
You had trouble locating Darwin after he crossed the border a few months ago. What happened?
An immigration official called me and said, "I have a boy here." And I said, "A boy?" I didn't recognize the number he was calling from. Then he told me the name and asked if I knew him. I said yes, so he passed him to me on the phone. That day I was with Luz and we started to cry. I told her, "Darwin is here."
What was it like to be separated from your son for so many years? I know it was hard for him.
It was also hard for me. I was very sad here too, but sometimes you have to do what is necessary. I would always tell him, "Son, I came here because I want to build you a little house where we can all live." And he would say no, that he could build me one.
Now he really misses his grandmother?
How does that make you feel?
Very sad. They developed so much affection for her. But unfortunately, my mother can't take care of them anymore. She's sick with diabetes.
Do you think Darwin will ever adjust to living here?
Yes, he likes it very much. He's already getting used to me. Because when I was here and he was there, he would call me "Mom" and called my mother "Mommy." Now that has changed. Now he calls me "Mommy" and calls her "Mom."
What do you all do together here in St. Louis?
Sometimes we go out to eat. We go to the zoo, or I'll take them to some of the parks. Sometimes I take them to the mall.
Do you worry a lot about the possibility that they will be deported?
We have to stay positive, right? Whatever God wishes.
Pro-bono lawyers from the Catholic Immigrant Law Project in St. Louis are representing dozens of Central American children in immigration court, including Luz and Darwin. Staff attorney Kristine Walentik is trying to get the siblings Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, which gives permanent residency to certain children who have been abandoned, abused, or neglected.