When Leticia Peren said goodnight to her 15-year-old son Yovany at a Texas border patrol station three years ago, he was still short enough that her, standing less than 5 feet tall, leaned down a bit when she put her hand down. on his shoulder and urged him to rest.
Earlier that night, they had concluded their long journey from Guatemala walking for hours in the whistling desert wind, losing sight of their feet in the mud that looked like quicksand. Border patrol officers who apprehended them outside of Presidio, Texas, placed them in separate cells. Exhausted, Ms. Peren fell into a deep sleep, but woke up to a new nightmare.
Yovany was gone, sent to a shelter in Arizona. Ms. Peren had neither money nor a lawyer. When she saw him next, more than two years had passed.
At the time of their reunification, Yovany was the last child detained that the federal government considered eligible for release. The bonds severed during their 26-month interval – when Ms Peren was a voice on the phone over 1,500 miles away, as Yovany made new friends, went to a new school, learned to live without her – were slow to push back.
By the time they were reunited, her son had grown into a young man, taller than her and with a deeper and deeper voice, a voice he could use to conduct a conversation in English. Ms Peren, frantic for the time it took to recover it, had lost part of her hair and developed an illness that, triggered by stress, caused her face to sag to one side.
Years after the mass separations of migrant families sparked a nationwide outcry over the trauma they caused, much of the public outrage over the policy subsided as thousands of parents and children were finally reunited.
But for families like Ms. Peren’s, swept away by the Trump administration’s most debated attempt to deter immigration, the story didn’t end when politics ended.
To some extent, Mrs. Peren and her son are lucky. They are sponsored by a wealthy family who took them to their spacious home in a well-to-do neighborhood in Brooklyn. Groups of volunteers acted as informal social workers, seeking out doctors to provide free medical care and responding to crisis phone calls around the clock.
But these groups are currently under-resourced.
“Everyone is exploited emotionally, financially, in terms of workload,” said Julie Schwietert Collazo, director of one of these groups, Immigrant Families Together. “The need is sort of endless. There are cases where I have called so many people and no one will help me.
And it is sometimes baffling to Ms Peren that she can feel so confused in the house where she and Yovany live, with its fancy appliances and artwork from all over the world. His childhood home in Guatemala had a dirt floor partly surrounded by wire fencing rather than exterior walls.
When she was 8 years old, her mother sent her away to do domestic work in the homes of more affluent Guatemalan families who could afford to feed her.
At 16, Ms Peren fell in love with a boy her age with whom she worked. But the boy’s family rejected her because she was poor, uneducated and indigenous. After Yovany was born, she continued to work with her baby strapped to her back as she dusted, swept and wiped until she was on the verge of collapse.
“I would tell her, I am your father, I am your mother, I am your brother, I am your sister, I am your friend,” she said. “We’ve always been together, the two of us.
But by the end of 2015, anarchy in his city was starting to escalate. Gang members urged Yovany, then in college, to join their ranks. At one point, she said, a man held a gun to his head and threatened to kill Yovany if she didn’t offer several thousand quetzales a month, which she didn’t have.
She decided to move north rather than risk what might happen next. News of family separations at the US border, which had just begun, had not caught on through much of Central America.
After Yovany was taken from a border patrol cell overnight, Ms Peren spent seven months trying to figure out how to get him back. Finally, seeing no other option, she accepted her own deportation, believing that she could fight more effectively if she was free.
After her release, she and Yovany kept in touch regularly via WhatsApp messages. Ms. Peren didn’t want her son to know how much she was in pain. Yovany didn’t want to tell him that his life was improving.
After spending about nine months in an Arizona children’s shelter that he called the saddest place it has ever been, Yovany was released to foster care in Texas who warmly welcomed him. The parents gave him a tablet, which he used to film video clips with the other Central American boys living at home. Yovany bonded with the couple’s 3-year-old son and helped take care of him. A few times the family pitched the idea of adopting her, but Ms. Peren immediately closed it.
In March 2019, lawyers seeking support for separated families gave a presentation at a Hindu ashram in Queens, which Indian-born human rights activist Sunita Viswanath attended on occasion. She and her husband, Stephan Shaw, figured their big house, where they often housed multicultural artists and other activists visiting New York City, could easily accommodate a mother and child.
They agreed to take full financial responsibility for Ms Peren if she was allowed to return to the United States to find Yovany.
The night before Ms Peren arrived in New York City, more than two years after his first trip to the United States, Mr Shaw spent hours on Duolingo practicing his hesitant Spanish. He was the only one in his family who knew the language.
Sitting in their living room with a reporter, Mr. Shaw and Ms. Viswanath, along with her parents and two of the couple’s sons, greeted Ms. Peren with big smiles. She eyed them nervously as her lawyers translated the family’s questions:
How was your flight? Are you tired? Hungry?
They sat down for a meal of Indian food, which Ms Peren had never seen before. She pushed the food onto her plate. Ms Viswanath asked if she would take a citizenship test soon. Ms Peren’s attorneys explained that such a possibility was years away. His asylum case, a first step, had not even started.
Ms Peren said goodnight and moved into her bedroom: the first in her life that she had not had to share. But she felt so alone and unable to communicate that she cried to fall asleep.
Without a job, Ms Peren fell into a familiar role as a housekeeper while waiting for the government to approve her son’s release. The family discouraged her, but she insisted that the rubbing and dusting was calming and that she had nothing else to do.
After nearly a month of waiting for Yovany, she met her flight at La Guardia airport, but their relationship did not immediately recover. Standing at the door to greet him, Ms. Peren broke down in tears and hugged him violently. But then they both pull back a bit. As they made their way to the baggage claim to collect Yovany’s belongings, they did not make eye contact. In the car on the way home, he video chatted with the friends he had left in Texas.
Yovany’s presence eased any tension in the house as he licked the affection of the foster family. Ms. Viswanath began teaching him to read. His parents fell in love with him because he did chores without asking. Yovany beamed on the verge of tears one afternoon when, after announcing he wanted to be a filmmaker, Mr. Shaw handed him a Canon camera in his hand. Their 12-year-old son, Satya, began teaching him to play the piano.
Building relationships outside the home has proven to be more difficult. Yovany attempted to reconnect with some of the children he met in custody, who had since moved to New York, but they lived in immigrant enclaves in Queens and the Bronx, and worked when they weren’t. in high school.
When the coronavirus pandemic struck, the household quarantined together for a few months, after which Mr. Shaw, Ms. Viswanath, and their son scrambled to their second home in New Mexico. Ms Viswanath’s parents eventually joined them, but Ms Peren and Yovany had to stay in New York as a condition of their pending immigration cases.
But there was poor communication with advocacy organizations as to who would take care of Ms. Peren’s basic needs. Mr. Shaw believed that Immigrant Families Together would deliver groceries every week, and he left only enough money for anything Ms. Peren might need. But food was only delivered a few times. When the money ran out, Ms. Peren didn’t want to ask for more. She was ashamed to have relied on family for so long.
She stormed out of the house one afternoon and walked down the street at a breakneck pace, asking anyone who seemed to speak Spanish if they knew where she could find a job. Most, she said, looked at her like she was crazy.
A Peruvian told her about a Hasidic neighborhood where she could line up for house cleaning work, but warned that she would have to compete with others who spoke English. The first few times, Mrs. Peren came home empty-handed. Eventually she started to work at least one day a week.
“It’s something,” she said one night recently, “but I don’t feel any closer to being able to be independent.”
In some ways, Ms. Peren said, her life is much better than before. She and Yovany warmed up again. They laugh and stay up late at night talking.
But even now they keep the conversation light, not yet ready to share it all, or listen to an honest account of the more than two years they have been apart.
Ms Peren says she came to understand that being reunited with her son did not restore the bonds they once shared. Instead, she says, it’s different people in a new place, building a relationship that in some ways is just beginning.