By NADIA TAMEZ-ROBLEDO
BROWNSVILLE — Leaning against a white pillar in the lobby of the Brownsville South Padre Island International Airport, 24-year-old Dunia gazed beyond the bustling line of people going through security as she waited for the 10:42 a.m. American Airlines flight to arrive Friday.
She appeared mostly calm, though her clasped, fidgeting hands perhaps betrayed her anticipation. It would be the first time Dunia laid eyes on her 5-year-old son, Wuilman, since early June, when they were separated after crossing into the Rio Grande Valley via the Rio Grande.
Dunia, who was a stay-at-home mom, said they left Honduras by bus in May to seek asylum and escape the violence caused by drug traffickers who killed her father and cousin.
“They threatened us,” she said. “We couldn’t go out because they were looking for us.”
She crossed with her son and 8-year-old niece, who were sent, respectively, to Los Angeles and New York while she was held at the McAllen detention center. They had hoped to join family in Philadelphia.
They were separated the same day they crossed, Dunia said, and she didn’t speak to Wuilman for 15 days or know where he was.
“It’s very difficult to be separated from my son. I had never been separated from him before, but thanks to god for giving us the strength,” she said.
Her sister-in-law, who lives in Philadelphia, began searching for him, and Dunia said they were able to speak regularly after that. They talked three times during the week leading up to their reunion, she said.
“He keeps telling me, ‘Mommy, when are you going to come get me?’” she said. “He’s been very desperate because we’ve never been separated before. In truth, I think it’s very cruel what the government is doing to separate parents from their children because they are the most sacred thing we have. It has been a horribly sad experience.”
Dunia said she hasn’t had any contact with her niece since they were separated but said the girl’s mother has spoken to her from Philadelphia.
The Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy, which leveraged criminal charges against migrants who illegally crossed into the U.S., led to family separations at the border. Though separations were halted by an executive order June 20, the federal government has apparently struggled to reunite families.
A federal judge ordered that all children 5 and older of families separated at the border be reunited with their parents by July 27. A U.S. Health and Human Services Department official said last week the agency still had 2,551 separated children 5 and older in its custody.
Dunia said attorneys who visited the detention center helped her and paid the fine for her release. What she wants now is to make sure her son gets an education, she said, and do whatever work she can.
Andi Atkinson, executive director of La Posada Providencia in San Benito, said Dunia and Wuilman will stay at the crisis shelter for a few days until they can travel to Philadelphia. People have donated airline miles, and organizations have paid travel expenses to help asylum-seekers reach their destinations.
“It’s great people are stepping up so they can finish their journey,” Atkinson said.
Shortly after the airplane landed, a little boy wearing a baseball cap and a backpack ran from the terminal and leapt into Dunia’s arms. She held Wuilman tightly, buried her face in his neck, and cried.