FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — On a warm day last spring, 16-year-old Hugo Pascual Tomas and his older brother Francisco left their home in Guatemala and set off on a 2,700-mile quest to find their mother.
The boys had been left in the care of their elderly grandparents in 2001, after their father and pregnant mother came to Florida and became undocumented workers.
In their Mayan village in Huehuetenango, near the Guatemala-Mexico border, Hugo and Francisco lived a hardscrabble life. They dropped out of elementary school and began working in the fields harvesting corn by the time they were teenagers.
In occasional telephone calls from their parents, who settled in Palm Beach County and sent them money to help with expenses, the boys began to learn about another life a world away. They also learned they had a brother and a sister born in the U.S.
This year, Hugo and his older brother decided to make their way to the Sunshine State. So did more than 5,500 youngsters from Central America who illegally crossed the U.S. border and ended up with relatives or other adult sponsors in Florida in the past 15 months.
The unprecedented exodus of children fleeing violence, poverty and abandonment in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador has had a major impact on some local schools and on South Florida’s immigration court, now flooded with cases. And it’s often up to volunteers and nonprofit groups to help these boys and girls find lawyers and adapt to their new lives.
To get here many of these children walked for miles, forded rivers, even clung to the roofs of freight trains. Some have been raped, others abducted or robbed at gunpoint.
For Hugo and Francisco, life in Guatemala had become dangerous after their grandfather died in 2013. Gang members from local maras began circling closer, pressuring the two boys to join them in a life of crime.
One day, three armed gang members arrived at their grandmother’s home asking for impuestos, or taxes. The gangsters roughed up the brothers and demanded the little money they had. That’s when Hugo and Francisco decided to leave.
In May they pooled their savings, borrowed money from friends and threw some clothes into a backpack. They headed north.
The brothers crossed into Mexico and rode for eight days on overcrowded buses, saving their money by eating one meal a day and staying in cheap Mexican motels. Eventually they reached the northern, violence-wracked border town of Reynosa.
There, Hugo and Francisco lay low until a man offered to help them cross the Rio Grande into Texas on a raft. The ride would cost them $500. The brothers agreed, handing over the last of their money.
Once in Texas, Hugo and Francisco wandered on foot along the scorching desert where hundreds of migrants die each year. After a few hours they were picked up by U.S. Border Patrol agents and sent to separate detention centers. It was the last time Hugo would see his 18-year-old brother, who was locked up with adults, for the remainder of the journey.
Hugo was detained with other minors for eight nights and then flown in shackles to a children’s shelter in Maryland, where he spent nearly three weeks as the federal government processed paperwork.
His odyssey ended on a Tuesday night in June, a month after he left Guatemala, as he got off a plane at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. Crying, he fell into the arms of his mother for the first time since he was a toddler.
Even in South Florida his journey is far from over. To stay here legally, he must navigate a complex and intimidating judicial system. And there’s no promise of a happy ending, no guarantee he will not be sent home.
On a similar quest, 11-year-old Maryori Aguilera left her grandmother’s home in Honduras in the spring.
Maryori Aguilera with her younger brother and sister.
Maryori had one desire — to be reunited with the mother in Florida she barely knew and to see her younger brother and sister, both U.S. citizens born after their mother crossed the border in 2007. In May, the little girl’s dream came true. Her mother, now living in Greenacres in Palm Beach County, got in touch with a man she knew in Honduras, arranging to pay him $2,500 to smuggle Maryori into the United States.
Another child who made the trip this year is Daniel, whose name has been changed in this story because of his parents’ concerns about his safety. As he neared his 13th birthday, the leaders of Honduran gangs took notice of the quick-witted boy who lived with his grandmother in San Pedro Sula. They pressured him to pledge allegiance to them and make money selling cocaine.
Daniel decided to flee. He told no one, not even his parents who had been living in Fort Lauderdale for several years. He left town with people who promised to smuggle him across the U.S. border, not knowing they would also deliver him into the hands of kidnappers.
More than half of the unaccompanied children who have arrived in Florida in the past months are in Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties, according to the Office of Refugee Resettlement. They are now living with adults — usually parents or family members, many of them also undocumented — who have agreed to care for them.
The children flee their homes for many reasons, said Shane O’Meara, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County. “Gang recruitment, grinding poverty, family violence,” he said. “It’s not always the same reason. But it’s always something bad.”
On their way here they have passed the bodies of many who did not make it.
“The kids who make it to us have a very significant history of trauma,” said Rosario Noa, a counselor at Hollywood’s Youth Co-op, Inc.
The Florida arrivals are among more than 53,000 unaccompanied children from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador who illegally crossed into the United States between October 2013 and this past October, according to the Department of Homeland Security. It’s more than twice the number from the previous year, when about 20,000 children arrived. The year before that, the number totaled about 10,000.
The exodus is partly driven by the violence caused by drug cartels and gangs in these three Central American countries: Honduras has the highest homicide rate in the world, and El Salvador and Guatemala have the fourth and fifth highest, according to a report released by the United Nations in April. These countries are significantly more violent than neighboring Nicaragua, for example, which has not seen such a massive increase in the number of children making the journey north.
Also pushing up the number up is the desire of families to reunite. “That is one of the major driving factors behind this,” said Heide Castaneda, an anthropologist at the University of South Florida who has been studying the northbound flow at the Texas border.
U.S. officials declared the mass migration an “urgent humanitarian crisis” in June, when President Barack Obama went on television to plead with Central American parents: “Do not send your children to the borders.”
Since then, the number has dwindled.
But little has been done to address the plight of thousands who are already here, living with family and praying they can stay permanently.
One big hurdle is making sure they get an education, a right of every child in the United States regardless of immigration status. For the teachers, that means dealing with students who speak no English and have had little or no schooling in their native countries.
In many ways, Hugo is typical. He dropped out of school in the first grade to help feed the family. Now he’s a ninth-grader at Lake Worth High School, struggling to adapt to standardized tests, mandatory attendance and new rules.
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As Hugo played with dozens of classmates on a huge high school basketball court recently, a counselor asked why he’s not wearing a required gym uniform.
“No tengo uniforme,” he tells her. He doesn’t own one. The counselor tells Hugo the school can give him a uniform at no cost. She then sends him back to the game.
Most youngsters arriving from Central America don’t know they can get help, and some are too timid to ask, said Hansje Laguerre, the school’s director of the English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program.
“Getting a backpack full of school supplies is like Christmas for them,” Laguerre said. “You see their faces light up.”
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For Hugo, everything is new. On a sprawling campus, his school has air-conditioned hallways, classrooms with screen projectors, modern sports facilities and other amenities unknown in his rural school in Guatemala.
“To them, this is Harvard,” said Lake Worth High School principal George Lockhart, referring to the large number of Central American students enrolled this year. “My clinic is their hospital. My cafeteria is their restaurant.”
But the obstacles are many.
“If they come in with even a sixth-grade education, I’m happy,” said Betsy Smith, an ESOL guidance counselor at Hugo’s high school. “For those who come in with a lower level of education, it’s like starting from scratch.”
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Communication is another challenge for Hugo. His first language is an indigenous Mayan dialect called Q’anjob’al. He started picking up Spanish in May at a detention center in southern Texas, and practiced the new language for two months before school started in August.
The summer crash course proved useful for Hugo as he tried to adjust to life as one of 450 students in his new school’s ESOL program.
After gym class and lunch, Hugo heads to fifth-period algebra, an ESOL class conducted in Spanish. He’s among dozens of kids who have arrived in recent months: Ten are from Honduras, six from Guatemala and two from El Salvador.
Near the end of class, the teacher asks Hugo to explain one of the math problems displayed in front of the classroom.
He answers in a low voice, and initially fumbles his x’s and y’s before arriving at the correct answer.
“Bien,” the teacher says, moving to call on a different student.
Hugo lowers his head to jot down his answer. He has cleared another hurdle.
For Maryori, now a sixth-grader at L.C. Swain Middle School in Greenacres, language has also been a problem.
She struggles to understand her English-language science homework about roller coasters and kinetics. Although she earned A’s in most of her classes, she got a D in science on a recent report card.
“Nearly everyone has a D in that class,” Maryori said in Spanish, “but now there’s a new (language facilitator) who speaks Spanish and helps me understand.”
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While school officials deal with education, immigration courts are rushing to decide whether the children should be sent back to Central America.
Under law, unaccompanied children who come from countries that do not border the U.S. cannot immediately be deported. They have the right to appear before an immigration judge and make a case on why they should stay. Legitimate reasons include human trafficking, abuse or abandonment by a parent, or social persecution.
The process can take more than a year.
In Florida’s immigration courts, the cases of these children more than doubled since last year. As a result, the courts created “rocket dockets” to give the cases priority, and assigned judges to handle them full time.
The rush created anxiety among the minors, and a sense of urgency for advocates scrambling to find lawyers in time for their hearings.
Without attorneys, the odds are stacked against children, advocates say. Many may have a legitimate case for relief, but are not capable of making courtroom arguments themselves.
In South Florida’s immigration court, 1 out of 4 of the children was represented by an attorney between October 2013 and the end of September, according to official data.
A lawyer can be crucial: Out of the 400 children with attorneys, none was ordered to leave the country. By contrast, at least 114 of the 1,218 children without an attorney received deportation orders in the same period, according to analysis by a group at Syracuse University.
“It is a humanitarian crisis that we have not been responding to,” said Sui Chung, chair of the South Florida pro bono committee of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA). “It’s as if there were a lot of people bleeding, and we don’t have enough doctors.”
The crisis also has touched off a debate on whether these children should be allowed to stay.
Some of their parents expect to qualify for temporary permission to legally remain in the country as part of President Obama’s executive order on immigration, announced on Nov. 20.
The new policy protects undocumented parents of children who are citizens or legal residents from being sent back to their homelands. It would give Hugo’s mother, for example, a chance to stay here with her Florida-born children. It would do the same for Maryori’s mother and Daniel’s parents, whose applications are likely to be approved because they’ve been in the U.S. for more than five years, another condition of Obama’s immigration policy.
“That announcement has made us very happy,” said Cristina Fuentes, Maryori’s mother.
In Florida, about 210,000 undocumented residents are expected to benefit from Obama’s executive order, according to Pew Research Center estimates released last month.
But Obama’s policy says nothing about kids like Hugo, Maryori, Daniel and the rest of the Central American minors, many of whom are settled with families here.
“Unfortunately, it doesn’t have much of an impact on the kids,” said attorney Jacob Ratzan, president of the South Florida chapter of AILA. “Obama is still considering recent arrivals as (deportation) enforcement priorities.”
Maryori’s mother was hopeful but cautious when asked whether her temporary reprieve might move the immigration court to drop her recently arrived daughter’s deportation case.
“That might be a possibility,” she said. “We’ll trust God that it will be so.”
If deported, thousands of Central American children would have no one to return to, experts say.
“We’re troubled by calls from the administration to send these children back,” said Cheryl Little, executive director of Americans for Immigrant Justice, a legal advocacy group based in Miami.
Little agrees with critics who say the children should not be making the dangerous trips. They should not have to “risk their lives to save their lives,” Little said. But she also said they flee their countries because they have nowhere to turn for protection.
“It’s literally life and death for some of these children,” Little said.
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With their fates uncertain, Hugo and Maryori join dozens of Central American children at the Guatemalan-Maya Center in Lake Worth, a nonprofit group that runs an after-school program for the unaccompanied minors.
At the center the children study English, get help with homework and find time to socialize. The staff even helped Hugo find Natalie Navarro, a 27-year-old lawyer who volunteered to take his case even though she has no background in immigration law.
Navarro met Hugo the night before the teenager’s second deportation hearing. She has gone through several training sessions with immigration specialists to explore ways she could help Hugo stay.
But as his third hearing approaches, she worries the youngster could be sent back to Guatemala even as his mother is allowed to remain in the United States. Hugo does not fall easily into one of the categories for deportation relief.
“It’s going to be tough,” Navarro said. “It’s so sad, because he has his whole family here.”
On a Wednesday afternoon in September, the children’s “rocket docket” is in session at the U.S. immigration court in downtown Miami.
Dozens of boys and girls from Central America wait on the wooden benches in Judge Charles Sanders’ courtroom. Some are patient, others fidget. All wonder if they’ll get to stay in the U.S. or be sent back to their turbulent homelands.
While the rocket docket has succeeded in expediting the cases of children crossing the border, it also has meant many of the migrant children were summoned to court far earlier than advocates expected. Hugo, for example, had his first deportation hearing in July, a month after he arrived in Florida. He had another hearing in September, with a third scheduled for this month.
On the day of Hugo’s second hearing, about 20 Central American youngsters join him in the courtroom, missing school for what seems an intimidating field trip into the judicial system.
For some, the journey to the Miami courthouse is almost as complicated and fretful as the trip across the border. Many had to hitch rides from neighbors and volunteers.
Many of the parents here illegally won’t go to court with their children because they fear getting stopped by the police or questioned by officials. They have heard stories of others who’ve accompanied their children to hearings and gone home with orders to report to immigration officials themselves.
“We heard these reports very early on and it sparked fear,” said Jill Skok, executive assistant at the Lake Worth Guatemalan-Maya Center, the group helping many of the recent arrivals. “Now we’re more involved with the lawyers and the process ourselves.”
Children arriving from Central America are protected by a 2008 law, signed by President George W. Bush, meant to prevent child victims of human trafficking from being deported without the chance to apply for asylum. The law provides a hearing for all children under 18 who illegally enter the country, with the exception of those from Mexico or Canada.
Like thousands of other Central American youngsters relocated to South Florida, Hugo must report to the Miami Immigration Court, which covers Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties. A similar court in Orlando handles North and Central Florida.
Although backlogged with more than 18,000 immigration cases, the Miami court assigned four of its 14 judges to handle the minors’ cases full time this year. A fifth judge was assigned part-time, according to the U.S. Justice Department.
For his second court appearance, Hugo is 30 minutes early.
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The aroma of cafe con leche wafts in from a little shop in the lobby as Hugo walks through the metal detectors of the imposing judicial building. He takes the elevator to an upper floor and finds the courtroom to which he’s been summoned. Wearing a blue T-shirt and jeans, the boy sits beside Navarro, the lawyer he met the night before at the Maya Center, as he waits for a court official to call his name.
Navarro learned of Hugo’s case in an email sent by Skok to the Palm Beach Hispanic Bar Association, asking for legal assistance for the children.
Navarro volunteered to represent him. Until recently she had handled mostly worker’s compensation cases, often for undocumented immigrants. Wanting to do more for her clients, she left her job and took a crash course on immigration law through the Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach.
“People are afraid to take these cases because immigration law is constantly changing,” Navarro said. “And extremely complex.”
On this day in court, Hugo is the only Central American youngster with his own attorney.
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Hugo watches as the judge calls other names and sees each child walk over to the defendants’ seat.
They are greeted by Cassandra Suprin, a lawyer for Catholic Charities Legal Aid. Suprin is acting as amicus curiae, or “friend of the court,” but does not represent each child individually. She’s been in court all morning and will not go home until the last name is called.
Lawyers from at least two other organizations — Americans for Immigrant Justice and the Cuban American Bar Association — are volunteering in other courtrooms where migrant children’s cases are also being heard.
From the defendants’ table, each child is asked to lean into the microphone to confirm their date of birth and address. Are they in school, the judge asks through a translator. Is anyone making them work?
The answers to the judge’s questions often come in low trembling voices that betray the children’s nervousness.
When the child’s representative asks for more time, the judge usually agrees. And then the next case is called.
Advocates initially worried that the rocket docket would deprive the youngsters of due process because most do not have lawyers. Many judges recognize that danger and postpone hearings time and again until the children can find counsel.
“You can’t expect a child to represent themselves in immigration court,” said Denise Slavin, a South Florida judge speaking in her role as executive vice president of the National Association of Immigration Judges. “It’s totally unfair.”
Judge Denise Slavin is the executive vice president of the National Association of Immigration Judges.
Slavin said it would make more sense to first hear other immigration cases — many of which have been on the docket for a long time — rather than rushing to summon the Central American children for their deportation hearings.
“We’ve cleared our dockets to hear cases that are not ready to move forward,” she said.
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Even Central American children with lawyers can get continuances if the judge determines they need more time to prepare their defense and gather evidence. “These lawyers are dealing with complicated cases,” Slavin said.
Though many cases involving recently arrived Central American children are being postponed, the fates of some in South Florida already have been decided. In the three weeks after Hugo’s deportation hearing, at least 41 unaccompanied minors had their cases closed by a Miami judge. That action does not provide them legal status but it does mean the children won’t face deportation unless their case is reopened.
Immigration judges can choose whether to enforce laws against some undocumented defendants and not others. They might be tougher on immigrants with a criminal record, for example, and more lenient on children or other immigrants who are not deportation priorities for the government.
Not all Central American children in South Florida have been spared. In those same three weeks after Hugo’s hearing, 33 unaccompanied minors were handed deportation orders. And in the past 15 months, at least 306 children have been told by the Miami court to leave the country, according to the Justice Department.
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It’s a few minutes past 2 p.m. when Judge Sanders calls Hugo’s name.
He walks coolly toward the defendants’ section, as Navarro remains seated in the pews reserved for the public.
Suprin informs the judge that Hugo has a lawyer, and indicates Navarro. But they have not had time to plan his defense, Suprin says. She asks the judge how he would like to proceed.
Sanders is silent. He has confirmed that Hugo is still living at the same home in Lake Worth and that he’s enrolled in school.
Finally, he announces that Hugo’s case will be postponed until a Thursday afternoon in late December. In order not to further interrupt Hugo’s schooling, the judge tells Navarro the teen need not be present during his third hearing.
As the judge calls out another name, Hugo is free to go.
The relief is palpable as Navarro and Hugo walk out of the courtroom. At least he will be allowed to remain in the country, with his mother and siblings, for another few months.
Smiling, the teen says goodbye to his attorney, and then walks down the street with the neighbor who will give him a ride back to Lake Worth.
At her new home in a Greenacres trailer park, Maryori is just getting to know the mother who left her behind in Honduras seven years ago. And now, a month before her 12th birthday, she is just beginning to understand that separation.
Cristina Fuentes was 16 when she gave birth to Maryori in Tegucigalpa, a congested, crime-plagued city of a million residents. Relatives helped care for Maryori while the young mother worked part time at a clothing store. But earnings of $200 a month covered only the basics for her newborn daughter, Fuentes said.
She was also the victim of frequent assaults, often by groups of women.
“When I got paid at the end of the month, I’d hide a bit of money inside my sock, another under my shirt,” she said. “That way I would have something left if I got mugged on the way home.”
For years, Fuentes heard her brother talk about his life in Palm Beach County, where he made a decent living and never worried about being attacked after dark.
One day Fuentes called her brother, crying. She’d been robbed three times in two weeks. The last time, a man held her at gunpoint and warned, “I know you know who I am. If you tell anyone about this, you know exactly where you’ll end up.”
Her brother urged Fuentes to flee, offering money and a contact for a driver who would take her from the border to Florida. She thought hard about it. She had a child. But desperation won out.
Fuentes left in the middle of the night. Maryori never got to say goodbye.
“I regretted it so much. For the first six months I kept wanting to go back,” Fuentes said.
In Florida Fuentes settled near her brother and found a job cleaning houses, making twice what she earned in Honduras. She regularly sent money back to her mother and family.
Here, Fuentes eventually met the Mexican man who would become the father of her two U.S.-born children: Emily, now 6, and Justin, 4. She also kept in touch with Maryori, who lived with her father in Honduras.
Maryori’s life was thrown into turmoil when her father left to find work in Costa Rica earlier this year. For months, the 11-year-old bounced from one relative’s home to another.
Finally, in May, the young girl decided to retrace her mother’s path and head north. With a smuggler as her guide, she rode buses through Guatemala and Mexico. The coyote dropped her off in the Rio Grande Valley, where she joined other migrants and climbed into a raft to cross the river into the U.S. And there, in the middle of the Rio Grande, she feared for her life for the first time in her journey. “I was scared because someone said there might be crocodiles,” Maryori said.
Her mother was asleep when U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents called at 2 in the morning to say Maryori had been detained in Texas. She was elated to learn her daughter was safe.
Maryori spent 14 days in a freezing detention center immigrants call la hielera, the ice room, where the children sleep on cement floors and huddle together to stay warm.
From there she went to a government shelter, run by the Office for Refugee Resettlement.
She was taken to the zoo and the movies, picked up her first words in English and earned good behavior certificates.
In June a government worker accompanied Maryori on a flight from Houston to West Palm Beach. In the airport terminal Maryori spotted a woman who looked like the one in the picture she carried.
“I stared at her for a while” Maryori said. “Then I told (the official), ‘I think that’s my mom.’”
Fuentes was facing the other way, focused on the escalators where she expected to see her daughter. Turning, she spotted Maryori as she exited an elevator. She rushed toward the daughter she had not seen in almost a decade.
Bystanders pulled out their cellphones to record the emotional reunion as mother and daughter embraced. Maryori’s siblings wrapped their arms around them both.
Maryori seems to have adapted easily into a new family. She and her mother have a bond that extends beyond biology to include the similar journeys and sacrifices each made.
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Her stepfather, who once studied to become a teacher in Mexico, helps with homework. Her younger sister Emily has especially taken to Maryori, who pokes fun at Emily’s missing front tooth and likes to braid the little girl’s hair at night.
Maryori’s arrival has stretched the family budget. But Fuentes said she knows how to make ends meet.
“I want my kids to have everything they need, but I also want them to know the life that I had,” she said, watching her children from the front porch of her trailer home. “They have so many things that I had never seen.”
Maryori is quickly becoming like any other American girl. She loves cartoons like “Garfield” and “SpongeBob SquarePants,” the movie “Frozen” and her new friends. She thinks she might like a career as a hair stylist.
On her new smartphone, Maryori texts her father nightly, telling him about her new life in South Florida. If deported, she tells her father, she would rather join him in Costa Rica than return to Honduras.
Maryori is due in Miami Immigration Court on Jan. 29. “I picture myself in front of the judge and I get so nervous,” she said.
Fuentes prays she and her first-born daughter won’t be separated again.
“When I came to Florida, I was thinking mostly of Maryori, of getting her out of there and bringing her somewhere safe,” she said. “That was my goal.”
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Daniel was born in San Pedro Sula, a town in Honduras described as one of the most violent places on Earth. Thanks chiefly to local gangs involved in the thriving drug trade, the city’s murder rate is the highest in the Western Hemisphere.
When Daniel was 2 years old, his father left for the U.S., eventually settling in Fort Lauderdale and finding work as a painting contractor. Daniel’s mother followed in 2007, leaving her only child with grandparents.
Over the years the couple sent money home and spoke to Daniel frequently by phone. They told him about his U.S.-born brother, and their hopes that he would join them one day. But that day never seemed to come.
In mid-summer, Daniel’s father said he received a phone call from a man with a Mexican accent. The caller said his son was in the custody of people who would help him get to the border. But they needed money.
That began a series of phone calls and ransom demands. Over a period of two weeks, Daniel’s parents sent more than $5,000 to people in Mexico who said they were holding their son. “It was our life savings,” said Daniel’s father.
In those phone calls, they sometimes spoke to Daniel on the phone. To make sure it was their son, the father said he asked the boy questions about relatives only he would know.
They also received “proof of life” photos of him. One shows him standing in front of a brick wall, wearing a red T-shirt.
Eventually, when the demands for ransom kept coming and the money was gone, Daniel’s mother took the advice of a friend, and on Aug. 29 dialed 911 to report her son had been kidnapped.
Local law enforcement officers contacted immigration authorities. Ten hours later, Arizona officials, tracking the cellphone from which the kidnappers called Daniel’s parents, showed up at a north Phoenix apartment.
The boy was found unharmed, said Nestor Yglesias, spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. His two captors were arrested.
As terrifying as his journey and abduction were, Daniel said he was even more frightened after his rescue.
“I thought the police would send me back to Honduras,” he said.
Accompanied by a chaperone, Daniel arrived in South Florida in mid-September on a commercial flight from Arizona. Two days later he was enrolled as a sixth-grader in a Fort Lauderdale middle school.
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“We fit them in where we can,” said Yvette Fernandez, an outreach specialist with the Broward schools.
Once here, the biggest issue many of the children face, according to Fernandez, is lack of education. Many didn’t go to school in Central America or they had begun working at a young age.
They must push themselves to catch up. “Some have tremendous drive to succeed. They are so happy to be here. Mostly I hear no complaints,” she said.
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Although he arrived without knowing a word of English, Daniel takes ESOL classes and is learning quickly. And he is also being schooled on the dusty streets of the trailer park where he lives with his parents and a 5-year-old brother he is just getting to know.
“I know the colors in English,” Daniel’s little brother announced one day recently when the two boys were riding their bicycles up and down in front of their trailer as their mother stood by watching. “Red, green, blue ...”
Daniel looked at his smiling mother. He nodded in appreciation, and then rode off down the street.
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For Hugo’s mother, the decision to leave her sons in Guatemala in 2001 was wrenching. She was already pregnant with Miguel. And she had no papers.
Yet, she said, speaking in Q’anjob’al, the dialect of her native village, “There’s so much poverty over there. I saw the need to support my children, so (Hugo’s father and I) decided to pack up and go.”
Working in the Guatemalan cornfields, the brothers’ lives were vastly different from that of their younger siblings in Florida.
While the brothers fended for themselves and cared for their grandparents, Miguel and Elena were getting good grades and enjoying their childhood in Lake Worth. At their elementary school, both were named students of the month, earning stickers their mother proudly placed on the family refrigerator. While Hugo and Francisco worked and ate mostly the food they grew on their family plot, Miguel watched Miami Heat games and favored pineapple-and-pepperoni pizza from Little Caesars.
On June 3, Miguel carried an old photo of Hugo while he waited at Fort Lauderdale Hollywood airport. He was the first to spot his older brother when he arrived.
As Hugo walked out of the terminal, his mother wept with joy. She had missed the chance to watch him grow up. For 13 years, she had seen him only in photos. Now he was here.
“It was like a dream,” said Hugo’s mother. “As I walked toward him, I didn’t feel like it was real.”
Hugo’s brother, Francisco, had been sent to an adult facility and then transferred to a prison in Nebraska. He later made it to South Florida after his mother collected nearly $10,000 from neighbors and friends to hire a lawyer and post his bail.
Both Hugo and Francisco now face deportation to Guatemala. After all the money spent and risks taken, the brothers worry they will land back where they started.
“It’s dangerous there,” Hugo said. “We don’t want to go back and be bad people. We don’t want to rob and kill and kidnap. That’s why we came.
“I want to stay here and study to be a doctor or a policeman or a nurse. Anything.”
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Despite their unsettled future, the brothers are happy to be with the family they longed for. On a recent morning, Hugo, Francisco, Miguel and Elena gather at the kitchen table to eat breakfast.
It’s 6 a.m. Their mom has made tortillas for the groggy older boys. Miguel and Elena eat pieces of bread that they dip in their mugs of coffee.
As Mom washes the dishes, Hugo gets up and hands her his plate.
In the bathroom he splashes his face with water, then finds the shirt he’ll wear that day.
At 6:25, Mom is off to her job at a local plant nursery. Francisco grabs a ride with her. Miguel and Elena, whose schools have later schedules, go back to bed.
The sun still sleeps as Hugo makes his way out the door. He hops on his bicycle, given to him by a local businessman, and heads off to school.
At this hour the streets of Lake Worth are quiet. They make Hugo feel safe.
He is beginning to feel at home.
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