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Fifty-Six Days of Separation

The Scars Left Behind by U.S. Migration Policy

A mother and her six-year-old son fled to Texas from the violence in their homeland of Honduras. When they arrived, young Samir was ripped out of his mother's arms. Two months later, they found each other again, but something had changed.

Meridith Kohut/ DER SPIEGEL
By , and
Tuesday, 9/11/2018   01:06 PM

It's 1 a.m. when Levis Osorio Andino bolts out of a dreamless sleep. A warden is standing next to her bunkbed inside the Port Isabel Detention Center in Texas and shaking her arm. "Wake up 494," she says. "It's time."

Levis sleepily packs her bag and stumbles through the neon-lit corridors. It has been 56 days since she last saw her six-year-old son Samir, who used to hang on her more than any of her other children. In early June, they crossed the Rio Grande after weeks spent fleeing their homeland of Honduras, and the Texan border guards immediately pulled her child out of her arms.

Levis' arrival corresponded with America's effort early this summer to pursue a zero-tolerance policy to illegal immigration, a policy which called for families to be separated at the border. Now, though, the government is trying to fix the chaos that ensued.

The last thing that Levis had heard about Samir was that he no longer wanted to leave the home in Phoenix, to which he had been taken.

"Surprise," the warden says and pushes Levis into a windowless room. "Samir just went to the restroom briefly." She slumps onto a chair, trembling. Then, there he is, standing in the doorway, hand-in-hand with a social worker, his hair close-cropped, the smile frozen on his face showing the gap between his front teeth.

"Samir, my darling," Levis stammers. "How are you?"

"I don't know who you are."

Levis takes a step toward Samir, but he recoils. She tries again and he starts trying to kick her.

"Samir," she says, "I love you."

"You aren't my mother."

Such is the scene related by Levis as she sits exhausted in front of a plate of rice a couple of hours after her reunion with her son. Born 26 years ago in the Honduran city of El Porvenir, Levis is a pretty woman with almond-shaped eyes. She struggles to find words to describe the nightmare she is living. She keeps having to fight back tears as Samir sits next to her, engrossed in the fantasy world of a smartphone game.

If you ask him how he's doing, he briefly looks up and says: "I'm made of steel."

No Moral Compass

The sun is shining onto the cafeteria tables of the Basilica Hotel, a hostel operated by the Catholic Church in Rio Grande Valley. A prison bus dropped Levis and Samir off here in the night, a place located at the very southern edge of the United States, not far from where they landed with their raft two months ago. They are now free, but they don't know where to go. In October, Levis says, her asylum case will be considered -- and at the very least, she won't be deported before then.

The hostel is normally used by pilgrims, but it has become a transfer station for many of the some 3,000 families that America gradually began reuniting at the end of July. It is a place of humanity in a country that has lost its moral compass.

Nuns hand out donated clothes in the lobby. They help people find their family members and organize bus tickets. They reconnect Levis with her lawyer for the first time in weeks and over the phone, he promises to find her a place to stay, a place to start healing the wounds that this country has inflicted.

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For years, the U.S. was a country whose borders were more open than elsewhere. "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free," reads the poem at the foot of the Statue of Liberty. It is a principle that has seemed immovable ever since the country declared independence in 1776 as a country of immigrants.

But the 45th president is currently in the process of unleashing a wrecking ball on this foundation. In the eyes of the former real estate magnate Donald Trump, people like Levis, who are fleeing from the violence and poverty endemic in Central America, are criminals first and foremost. He calls them drug dealers, rapists or "bad hombres." Trump believes there are too many of them, and to keep them away, he has promised his followers he will build a border wall.

The zero-tolerance policy announced by Attorney General Jeff Sessions in early April was basically a precursor to that physical barrier, something like an invisible wall. It was a way to scare people away, and much cheaper than a vast concrete barrier. Starting in mid-May, thousands of parents were locked up and their children scattered across the country. Some of them were put into homes while others ended up with foster parents or even in empty Walmart stores.

But it quickly became clear that Trump had broken a taboo. To many, it looked as though the president was taking the children hostage in order to blackmail Congress into funding his wall. The American public, it quickly became clear, wasn't particularly troubled by the introduction of tariffs on aluminum imports, but traumatized children were beyond the pale.

Just the Start

Even as Levis, despite being locked in a cell, was doing all she could to locate Samir, an increasing number of Republicans began joining the chorus of those who were loudly criticizing the family separation policy. And on June 20, Trump did something he doesn't do often -- he grudgingly corrected a grave error. "This is going to make a lot of people happy," Trump said as he joylessly signed a decree ending the policy of family separation.

When a judge ordered 10 days later that all families be reunited by July 26, it looked as though the chaos caused by the policy would soon be coming to an end. In reality, though, it was just the start.

Still today, more than a month after the expiration of that deadline, hundreds of children are still in government custody. There is no trace of dozens of fathers and mothers because they have already been deported. Officials are unable to match children with their parents because different agencies are responsible for them. Prior to her release, Levis had to undergo a DNA test to prove that she was Samir's mother. It is crazy, but sometimes it seems as though it is part of a larger strategy.

One morning in August, five days after their reunion, Levis and Samir are lying in a double bed in a church library listening to songs from Honduras. The library is located in the Brooklyn Heights neighborhood of New York, and Levis is singing along with the music. Eventually, Samir's quiet voice joins in. Tall shelves of books mute the sound. Their lawyer said they can stay here for a few days.

Some parishioners cook for them while others took them out to show them Times Square. Every few minutes, someone pokes their head in to ask if they need anything. Thank you, Levis says each time with a sheepish smile.

She has tied her hair into a knot on her head and is wearing a black sweatshirt printed with the word "Blessed" in gold lettering. Samir is wearing new Batman shoes. They are getting to know a different, friendlier America -- but their nightmare is only just getting started.

"Samir has changed," says Levis when he briefly leaves the room.

When she carefully tried to pull him toward her on that first night, he just turned away. It was only at dawn the next morning that Samir put his small hand on her cheek like he used to. When he began speaking to her for the first time the next morning, he told her all the English words he had learned in the home: orange, apple, cherry. A short time later, he had a tantrum and began throwing toy cars.

'Immigrants Are Ugly'

The next evening just before bedtime, he tried to bite her. "I hate you!" he screamed. "I want to kill you!"

He has frequent mood swings, says Levis. He is courser than he used to be, but she avoids getting angry with him. She doesn't ask about what he went through during their separation, in part because she's afraid of what he will say.

"Samir, where in your body is love?" she asks him while lying on the bed this August morning. When he hesitates, she takes his hand and taps on his heart for so long that he finally starts laughing.

It will take time for him to develop trust again, she is told by Catalina, an energetic midwife who is taking a walk with them that afternoon on the clean sidewalks in the neighborhood where they are staying -- a neighborhood full of apartments that cost a fortune because of their views of Manhattan. Sometimes, when Samir is off playing in a playground, they sit down on a bench. It's the kind of life that Levis always dreamed of. From the banks of the East River, Catalina points to the Statue of Liberty, holding up her torch out on the water.

"Look," she says. "She wants to say that immigrants like you are welcome."

"Immigrants are ugly," says Samir, squeezing his eyes shut. It sounds as though he might have heard that sentence quite often recently.

The contrast between Brooklyn Heights and her hometown could hardly be greater. Honduras is the second-poorest country in Central America, one of the places Trump described in January as "shithole countries." A large amount of the cocaine that ends up in the U.S. travels through Honduras. Violent youth gangs demand protection money and they recruit children into their ranks who are often not much older than Samir.

El Porvenir is a humid place at the foot of a rainforest-covered range of hills. The two-hour drive from the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa leads through a sparsely settled area where banana trees grow and a handful of cattle graze. Men holding Kalashnikovs can be seen standing in front of gas stations and restaurants along the route.

Lilian Maradiaga, Levis Andino's mother, is a warm-hearted woman in her 50s. She wears a bracelet on which the name of her only daughter is embroidered. She hasn't spoken with Levis for weeks, Lilian says as she prepares food for her two grandchildren. On this morning in July, Levis is still sitting in custody.

A Dead End

Luz, her three-year-old daughter, is chasing a couple of chickens in the yard while Jarends, who will soon be nine, naps in a hammock beneath a mango tree. They both now call their grandma "Mommy."

In the evenings, Lilian lies in bed with Luz and says prayers for "Mommy Levis." Then she helps Jarends with his homework. Lilian is a teacher in the only elementary school in El Porvenir. Levis also wanted to become a teacher, she says, preferably a music teacher. She even went to university in Tegucigalpa for a few semesters, but then she got pregnant after being raped by a drunk man at a party.

Levis began taking anti-depressants and went back to university. But then Samir was born after a one-night stand and a few years later, his sister Luz followed. Levis ceased her studies and stayed in El Porvenir. Her life, says Lilian, had reached a dead end. There are a few shops in the town center, but no jobs. Making matters worse was the gossip about her -- a woman with three children but no husband.

One evening, Levis took Lilian aside and told her that she wanted to give her small son something better -- and Lilian knew immediately what she was talking about. Two of her sons live in Nashville and Levis even visited them in 2015, shortly after the birth of Luz. She worked in a burger restaurant for 18 months and managed to send some money home, which Lilian used to buy a children's bed. Then, she was deported. Levis said that she wouldn't meet the same fate a second time.

On March 1, she packed a Bible, her best cloths and a few stuffed animals in an old suitcase. She hoped that her brothers would take her in again, even though they fought frequently the last time she was there. She took Samir along because he had suffered so much when she had been gone the last time. When her night bus disappeared into the darkness, Lilian remained behind.

"I would constantly look at my mobile phone," she says. "I knew the stories about women being forced into prostitution on the journey or of cartels kidnapping children for ransom money." Sitting in her living room, Lilian puts on her glasses and opens WhatsApp.

She ultimately received incomplete glimpses from a long journey. City names from Guatemala and Mexico, photos showing Levis and Samir puckering their lips for the camera. The last message came on June 1: Mamita, Levis wrote, I'm going to the river. I won't be answering anymore.

Levis and Samir were part of a vast influx of immigrants. Tens of thousands of Hondurans flee to the U.S. every year, with American officials estimating that some 400,000 of them are currently living illegally in the country. To avoid attracting attention to themselves, most strictly obey the law. They work in construction, like Levis' brothers, they care for the elderly or for children, or they work in landscaping. They ensure that the lifestyle of the largely white middle class remains affordable.

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