QUEENS, New York (CNN) – Yoselyn spent a month apart from her family in a shelter for child migrants — but it was the last three hours she spent waiting to be reunited with her mother that felt like an eternity, she says.
The 15-year-old and her mother left Guatemala in May, fearing for their safety, she says. They planned to join her father, an undocumented immigrant who had been living in Queens, New York since she was a baby.
But they were detained in Yuma, Arizona, and separated on June 3 with barely a chance to say goodbye, she says.
While her mother awaited news from Eloy Detention Center of her daughter’s whereabouts, Yoselyn took her first-ever airplane trip to “la alberga” in California, where she stayed with other girls from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, she says.
Each day began at 7 a.m. with her brushing her teeth and ended at 9 p.m. with lights out in a room she shared with five other girls, she says. In between, every meal, class and activity was scheduled to the hour, she says. The adults in charge cared for her and the others “as if we were their children,” she says. But she longed to be with her parents.
“It was OK. They treated us well,” the soft-spoken teen says. “But I never want to go back.”
Last weekend, she took her second plane ride from California to New York City, home of her father, an undocumented immigrant. This was more than the reunification of a family bearing the fallout of the Trump administration’s hastily executed immigration policies. This would be the first time Yoselyn could remember seeing her father in person, the first time she could remember the family being together.
When Yoselyn arrived in New York on Sunday, July 8, her mother, Juana, was on the third day of a cross-country road trip from Arizona to join them.
On Wednesday afternoon, Yoselyn and her father, Adolfo, counted down the minutes until her scheduled arrival in Queens, where Adolfo shares an apartment with four other families from Central America.
“I’m very happy that we’re going to be together. I prayed for this day and now it’s finally here,” Yoselyn says.
They didn’t know how long they’ll be able to stay together. Now Juana is in the system, and she faces an uncertain future. She declined to discuss the specifics of her release, citing fears that it could negatively impact her pending court case. But for the moment, she said, she was just looking forward to being with her husband and daughter again.
Yoselyn passed the time by playing games on the new phone her father purchased for her. An open door to the balcony circulated air through the stifled apartment and filled the quiet apartment with sounds of honking cars and airplanes flying overhead.
She sat on her father’s bed next to a window facing the street. The pink-framed bed her father got for her sat across the room, next to toys and a stroller belonging to the other residents. But she didn’t want to miss the moment of her mother’s arrival, she said.
She pulled out from underneath the bed a box of “recuerdos” from her time in the shelter. She used most of her blocks of free time to paint and draw, her favorite activities. The pile of papers included drawings and a certificate in cosmetology bearing the logo of Southwest Key, which operates the facility in conjunction with the United States Department of Health and Human Services.
For one of her art projects, she used blue glitter to spell out a message for her mother: “Dios te bendiga mami” — “God bless you, mommy.” She prayed that she would be reunited with her mother in time to give it to her for her birthday on July 11, she says.
Now, she was anxiously awaiting the moment she could give it to her.
Her father, Adolfo, had taken a rare day off from working in construction to meet his wife. He gazed out a window in the kitchen, watching for the car that would bring her back to him.
A bouquet of red roses and two balloons sat on a table nearby. “Welcome Home” read one adorned with red white and blue stars; “Welcome Back” said the other.
“All this excitement to see her and she hasn’t arrived yet,” he said. “It’s like time isn’t moving.”
Before he left Guatemala, Juana pleaded with him to stay, he says. “We will fight together here,” he recalls her saying. He left so he could work and send money home to provide his wife and daughter with a better life, he says. He thought he would stay no more than two years, but time went quickly. He and his wife discussed the possibility of her coming alone and leaving Yoselyn with relatives.
“But she said, if I go, I’m bringing her, because I can’t leave her,” he says.
Finally, his wife and daughter could no longer wait for him to return, he says. People knew Juana had a husband in the United States and extorted her for money with threats of violence, he says.
Then, there was his “princesa,” the teen he still calls “mi nena” — my baby — because that’s what she was when he last saw her. They kept in touch over the years though phone calls and video chats. He had heard stories about immigrant children who forgot about their parents, and he didn’t want to be one of those parents, he says.
As Yoselyn entered her teen years, he worried about the “bad men” lurking in the streets, harassing women as they walk by, he says.
“They had to leave for their safety.”
Initially, Juana was scheduled to arrive around 5 p.m. By 6:30 p.m., they were still waiting. Yoselyn walked outside to the balcony, where the air was cooler than inside the house. She marveled at a squirrel bounding across a power line a few feet from her — animals she rarely saw in her urban neighborhood in Guatemala, she says.
So far, she says she likes her new home, especially the parks and the mix of people of diverse backgrounds freely roaming the streets at all hours of the day. In Guatemala, she could never imagine leaving home without her mother or another adult. “It’s too dangerous,” she said.
By 7:30, they received word that she was 30 minutes away. When the car pulled up, Adolfo grabbed the flowers and balloons and followed his daughter downstairs.
Tears began streaming down Juana’s face as soon as she stepped out of the car. She ambled slowly toward the home, clutching the arm of her escort as if for support.
Yoselyn was the first to fall into her mother’s arms.
“I promised you I would get here,” Juana wailed as her daughter buried her face in her mother’s neck.
Moments later, Adolfo joined them. Neighbors stepped onto their porches to watch the moment neither Juana nor Adolfo was sure would ever come. They were a family again.
“Mi amor,” Juana murmured, “I brought you your baby just as I promised I would.”