US child migrant crisis: one family's story08 august 2014, 10:23
It took Dora and Elias six weeks of nail-biting anguish before finally reuniting with their 13-year-old daughter in Los Angeles after she fled El Salvador, AFP reports.
The girl, whose name is being withheld to protect her identity, is among more than 57,000 minors who have entered the United States illegally without adult companions since October. Most are fleeing violence and poverty in Central America.
"When a child arrives in the United States, it's difficult to know where they are," Elias told AFP as he described the long process "filled with misinformation" to reunite with his daughter.
Early this year, the teenager was forced by a gang to sell drugs at her village school. Terrified, she confided in her aunt but the criminal gang got wind that she had revealed the scheme, and beat her.
"That's when we started to think about when we could bring her here. She was in danger," said Elias.
The 50-year-old runs a small business with his wife Dora in Los Angeles. He was outspoken in his criticism of the crime and corruption rattling El Salvador.
"Even the police was scared of the case," he said.
So the family decided to sell its only property in El Salvador in order to gather the money needed to pay a "coyote" who would guide the girl to the US border.
Hunger, cold and lice
Around June 13, the girl was stopped by US border agents in McAllen, Texas, the epicenter of the migration crisis swamping American authorities and infrastructure.
"In this detention center, she spent eight days without being able to take a shower. She was cold. They gave her a plastic blanket to cover herself and sleep," Elias said with a lump in his throat.
Dora, who is in her 40s, could barely hold back tears as she recalled the time they finally saw their daughter again.
"She was covered in lice. She said she had been very hungry," Dora recalled.
US authorities transferred the girl to another center.
"We never knew where she was. In the end, they brought her to Arkansas, instead of bringing her to California," Elias sighed.
All that Dora and Elias needed to pick up their daughter was to present documents proving they were her parents.
But in the midst of all the required procedures, they faced a social worker who wanted them to pay for "medical services."
The parents felt suspicious and asked for help from the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles rights group.
"They started investigating and this woman was not registered anywhere as a social worker. I think she was trying to blackmail us," Elias said.
The couple is now awaiting a hearing with a migration judge but faces a new problem because they lack "proof" of what happened to their daughter in El Salvador.
But her chances of obtaining refugee status and staying in the United States hinges on that proof.
President Barack Obama has repeatedly warned that children who have entered the United States illegally will be deported.
The process to determine the status of Elias and Dora's daughter is expected to take several years.
In the meantime, the teen will go to school and start psychotherapy.
"She arrived a traumatized child. She is suddenly hung up and rebellious toward us," Elias said.
"In a way, she is happy to be here but she feels inadequate. We had been separated for eight years -- almost her entire childhood."
by SARA PUIG