After spending weeks in an immigration detention center, Kisna Fuentes Ávila, 15, was reunited with her father last month, closing a traumatic chapter in the separation from her Honduran family. But her life remains full of uncertainty, principally how she will cope with life in the Atlanta suburbs without her deported mother.
She is among the more than 2,500 children who were victims of President Donald Trump’s policy of separating migrant children from detained families. Trump dropped the policy in June after a barrage of public criticism.
Fuentes Ávila is one of the lucky ones. More than 500 children remain in federal custody, including more than 400 whose parents were deported without them. But in some ways, the problems have only just begun for freed children.
Kisna Fuentes says she is happy to be reunited with her father, Wilberto Fuentes, 47, whom she had not seen in almost six years. But it was a bitter-sweet reunion. Her mother, Alayda Ávila Velasquez, 38, was deported shortly after the pair crossed the border from Mexico in May.
“I miss my mother, but she tells me I have to be strong,” she told Univision News in a phone interview.
Repairing broken lives
Immigrant advocates say public pressure to resolve the family separation crisis has helped reunite families, but they worry now that the media attention will fade. “How do you repair a broken life and what does it look like? That is the story. It's not how many people have been reunited. Yes, that's important, but how much of a success is it?” said Wendi Adelson , an immigration lawyer and director of the Immigration Partnership and Coalition (IMPAC) Fund.
“Upon release into the United States, it will become extremely hard to navigate life, to find free or affordable legal representation, to learn English, to recover from trauma, to enroll in school, to find work, and the list goes on and on,” she added.
Wilberto Fuentes left Honduras for the United States the first time when Kisna was only three years old. He returned four years later. “Those first four years were tough. I couldn’t take it. There were too many sacrifices,” he said, referring to the separation from his family. He and his wife have been together for 21 years and have three other girls, aged 17, 18 and 21.
He returned home for two years, but left again in 2013. That time he was detained by the Border Patrol in Texas, but released after 11 days to await a deportation hearing. He paid a $500 fine and has been waiting for a court appearance ever since.
He stayed in touch with his wife and daughters thanks to video phone calls. “If it wasn’t for those calls that I don’t know how we would have managed,” he said.
“They tricked me into leaving"
In May, Ávila and her daughter were detained after crossing the border at an official port of entry in Arizona. They were separated a day later. Ávila was deported June 13 after signing a document that she thought would allow her to be reunited with her daughter first.
“They tricked me into leaving,” she said in a phone interview from her home in Guayape, a town in the central Honduran province of Olancho, one of the most lawless areas of the country and with one of the highest migration rates.
“I told them I wouldn’t leave without my daughter,” she said. She was given a document in English to sign which she couldn’t read. “They said if I signed I would be able to be with her,” she said. She was not given a copy of the document, which immigration lawyers say is not unusual.
A Department of Homeland Security (DHS) fact sheet released in June about the administration's "zero tolerance" policy indicated that parents who are to be deported can request their child accompany them. "A parent who is ordered removed from the U.S. may request that his or her minor child accompany them. It should be noted that in the past many parents have elected to be removed without their children," the fact sheet states.
Looking after Kisna
Wilberto Fuentes works in roofing. His job requires him to move from job to job, and he doesn’t know how long he will be in Georgia.
“My work is wherever it comes. If it’s in California, that’s where I have to go,” he said. “I always need someone I can trust to look after Kisna. It would be much better if her mother was here.”
The government does not appear to have in place any system to help the reunited families. “It’s really up to the family and what services they can get from local groups and churches,” said Ali Noorani, director of the National Immigration Forum, a pro-immigrant advocacy group. “It there’s one thing the Trump administration has done it is they have lowered the expectation of the public to treat people humanly,” he added.
The family also face legal insecurity. They do not have a lawyer and considering that both Wilberto Fuentes and his daughter both entered the country illegally, they could be deported at any time. "Once families are reunited, the outcomes of their legal cases are dependent upon the discretion of which judge they happen to be assigned to if they are still in detention,” said Adelson.
In the case of Kisna her father says he received a call to pick her up at the nearest airport – he was working in North Carolina at the time. They were reunited July 11 after his daughter was flown from Arizona accompanied by a U.S. government official. “I had to sign some papers and that was it,” he said.
Tuesday was Kisna's first day at a new school in Doraville, north of Atlanta, but her lack of English left her confused and concerned. “I have no idea what’s going on in the class,” she said. A classmate offered to help her sign up for special classes for non-English speakers.
“It’s like being back in first grade for her. She can’t understand a thing,” said her father. But, she remains determined. “She’s rather not eat than miss a day of school,” he said.
She talks to her mother regularly using whatsapp.com “Every day, sometimes six times a day,” she said laughing.
Ávila says she hopes to be reunited with her daughter at some point, and wonders if the government might let her return, even just for a short time, to take care of her daughter.
“The situation is very difficult in Honduras. There is no work. It’s poverty, poverty over here.”
Deported migrants face a ban of between three to ten years for illegally entering the country, said Ezequiel Hernandez, a Phoenix immigration attorney.
“From the government’s point of view they say ‘we already delivered her to her dad, now it’s his responsibility to be a dad,’” he said.