MATAMOROS, Mexico. - The last day Alexandra spent with her children, aged five and six, the Honduran mother spoiled them. She took them to buy and eat everything they asked for, bathed them, dressed them and prayed with them before leaving them at the southern end of the bridge that links Matamoros and Brownsville in Texas.
It was the first time she had ever been separated from them.
“My son asked me, 'Will you be okay?' And I told him yes, but I already had a knot in my stomach. And I told him, 'Don't forget to pray, to thank God for everything. Take care of your sister, and don't get separated," Alexandra said. "And don't come back, because this is the only opportunity you have,” she added.
“I said goodbye to them and I later watched my children go over there,” the 23-year-old mother said between tears while pointing to the border bridge. “I felt my heart was breaking.”
After waiting for three months in Matamoros for word of her U.S. asylum petition under the U.S. Migrant Protection Protocol (MPP), Alejandra decided in the first week of November to send her two children on their own to the United States.
She had already appeared for two hearings before a U.S. immigration judge – by videoconference from a tent on the border – but was given a new hearing date for April 29 and could not accept the idea of having her children spend another six months in an improvised campground near the bridge where hundreds of migrants are waiting for word on their cases.
“We talked a whole night, and the whole week before, and I told them, 'Look, we're going to split up because I want you to go to school. You're going to go with your uncles, and you'll be better there,” Alexandra recalled.
Desperate, Alexandra, whose husband died two years ago, decided to put her children in the hands of U.S. immigration authorities with the hope that they would later be turned over to in-laws living in Chicago.
Alexandra - and the other migrants mentioned in this story - asked that their full names not be published for fear of reprisals. Migrants crossing Mexico have been subjected to extorsion by organized crime in Mexico, as well as kidnapping and murder.
Other parents who have been waiting in Mexico for months for word on their asylum applications have sent their children alone to the United States through the border bridge, to be received as unaccompanied minors and avoid the need to spend months living in tents in a place where they fear for their security.
The MPP agreement, designed by the Trump administration to crack down on fraudulent and unfounded asylum applications and dissuade Central American families from trying to migrate to the United States, requires adults and families to await a decision in Mexico.
But U.S. child protection laws do not allow the same treatment for unaccompanied minors.
During a recent visit to Matamoros, Univision News interviewed the parents of eight children, most of them Hondurans, who had sent their children alone to the United States in recent weeks.
The U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency and the Honduran Foreign Ministry did not reply to requests for information on this issue, but some of the migrants themselves said the number of cases might be much higher.
In fact, the parents who told Univision they had sent their children alone to the United States explained that the main reason they did so is because they knew other migrants who had done it before them.
That was the experience of Carolina, 29, a Honduran who sent her 12-year-old son to turn himself in to U.S. immigration officials in Brownsville. She had waited in Matamoros for three months, with little hope that her asylum request would be approved, and then watched a Honduran man living in the same tent camp send his 17 year-old daughter across.
The camp neighbor “sent his daughter first, and I saw that the minors are being allowed in, [and are] allowed to pass as long as they have someone who can receive them on the other side,” Carolina said.
She contacted a sister who has lived in Las Vegas for 19 years, consulted with her son and decided that it would be best for him to go with the aunt so he would not have to stay in Matamoros, “suffering from hunger and cold.”
“ My son doesn't know her but she loves him to death because she always made videocalls. She is fascinated by children, and doesn't have any. She just told me, 'I will welcome him with open arms. You don't know how much I love him. And don't worry. Everything will be fixed soon and we'll be together,” she said. “But it does hurt, because I am the only thing he has, and he is the only thing I have.”
The latest official data available shows the Trump administration has sent back to Mexico at least 55,000 migrants under the MPP program, most of them Central Americans, Cubans and Venezuelans. They are supposed to wait in Mexican border cities like Tijuana, Ciudad Juarez, Nuevo Laredo and Matamoros. A recent analysis by the Reuters news agency found that about one-third were minors.
And although the MPP program is portrayed as a form of protection for migrants, some of the migrants and organizations and lawyers who work with them along the border say that many have been victims of kidnappings, rape and robberies while in Mexico.
Matamoros alone has seen the return of 14,000 migrants under the MPP program, according to Enrique Maciel Cervantes, head of the Tamaulipas Institute for the Migrant. Many decided to return to their home countries, moved to other Mexican cities or rented apartments in Matamoros. But about 1,400 are living in the tent city next to the international bridge.
The Mexican government has tried but failed to move the waiting migrants to a shelter because of the cold temperatures the region can suffer in winter. Most choose to remain near the bridge, however, because that's where they can receive humanitarian assistance from U.S. organizations and meet with U.S. lawyers who cross from Brownsville. The Mexican police and soldiers guarding the border also makes them feel safer.
“I don't know what to do, but at least he can be saved”
The lack of security was precisely what drove Damian, 36, to send his 10-year-old son across the bridge alone last week, hoping he will be reunited with his mother and younger sister, who live in Houston. They fled Honduras four years ago because of the violence there.
Damian said he left Honduras after drug dealers tried to recruit his son. They refused, and someone took a couple of shots at him. He was not hurt, but decided to flee the country.
Along the road in Mexico, Damian added, he and his son were robbed and kidnapped and he was tortured until the boy's mother paid a $5,000 ransom – a not unusual experience for many other migrants.
But when he crossed the bridge to apply for asylum, US officials returned him to Matamoros, where he said he was again robbed when he tried to withdraw money sent by friends. His son suffered another kidnapping attempt while living in the tent camp.
The fear for the boy's safety drove Damian to decide to send him alone to the United States, after a US immigration judge denied his own asylum application.
“I don't know what to do, because I have nothing in my country. My mother is dead, my father is dead and my two sons are in the United States,” he said. “I have no options other than to send my son accross the bridge. At least he can be saved.”
The last time he saw the 10-year-old boy was after leaving him at the foot of the bridge, he said. He ran along the shore of the Rio Grande to watch his son walk toward the U.S. immigration booths. He's not heard from the boy since, but is sure that he made the right decision.
His son “is in a safer and more comfortable place,” Damian said.
According to the Children and Family Administration, the U.S. government agency that cares for unaccompanied minors arriving, US officials first must carry out criminal background and other checks to identify possible risks and security concerns among the people who will be allowed to care for the children.
The waiting time for that process stood at 50 days at the end of August, according to a report by the Office of Refugee Resettlement to the U.S. Congress.
Among the eight cases confirmed by Univision Noticias of parents who sent their children alone across the bridge, none of the children had been allowed to join relatives or other sponsors in the United States, and only Alexandra had managed to communicate directly with her two children.
A US social worker told her they were in Chicago, living with her in-laws although the children remain under US government custody. She also spoke with the oldest child, who told her they had bought clothes for the winter and been vaccinated and that he was happy to be back in school.
The younger daughter, she added, “breaks my heart because she tells me she doesn't want to talk to me until we're together, but my son tells me, “Don't worry because she's good.” But it's very difficult.”
Alexandra and Carolina now spend a lot of time together in the tent camp, waiting for news of their childrens' release to relatives while trying to figure out how their families might reunite some day.
“I am going to try it again. I am going to fight to be with him,” said Carolina. “We tried to do it the right way … It's true we broke a law crossing the river y we apologized for that, but we want a better future for our children. We are single mothers, and that's why we came.”
Both mothers said they feel “incomplete” since their children left.
“Any parent you ask will tell you the same thing, that the heart is left empty, with nothing,” added Damian. “He was everything for me. I had to do it because I had no other option. I couldn't do anything, and maybe they (US officials) don't understand that, having to separate from what you most love in order to save him.”