The anguished voice of a young daughter, calling from 1,400 miles away, breaks her mother’s heart on a daily basis.
“I have headaches and fever, and nobody can understand me when I ask for medicine,” 7-year-old Janet tells her mother in the Mayan dialect of Mam. “When will I see you, Mama?”
“You will soon be with us,” Buena Ventura Martin-Godinez tells her daughter, trying to comfort her. “You will see us soon.”
Martin-Godinez doesn’t know if that’s true. She hasn’t seen Janet, her older child, since May 1, when Martin-Godinez took her infant son from their home in the western highlands of Guatemala to make the trek north to the U.S. border. Janet and her father stayed behind so she could finish the school term, her mother said, then set out together a week later, following the same route. The family expected to reunite in the United States.
But in the week between their arrivals at the border, things changed. Martin-Godinez, 29, was stopped near the border by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents on May 9 and allowed to stay with her son, Pedro, 8 months old at the time, in a detention facility in Arizona. After a week, Martin-Godinez was released with an ankle monitor and dropped off with her baby at a Greyhound bus station in Phoenix. They took a bus to Miami, where they have relatives.
Pedro Godinez Aguilar, 34, and Janet also were stopped at the Arizona border by ICE agents, but their experience ended much differently. Father and daughter were quickly separated. Janet was put on a plane to Michigan. Aguilar was transferred to a federal detention center in Atlanta, where he remains six weeks later.
Now the family is scattered across three states, with no idea of when or if they’ll be reunited.
“I want us back together,” Martin-Godinez said in Spanish through a translator.
She treasures the brief daily phone calls from Janet, who was sent to a federal foster care subcontractor called Bethany Christian Services in Michigan, a place that Martin-Godinez said she probably couldn’t even find on a map.
“It’s near Canada, right?” she said. “It’s far.”
During the daily calls, Martin-Godinez tells Janet that things will get better, that they will be together as a family again, with her father and baby brother. The calls last for about 10 minutes, and no matter how much she steels herself to stay strong and optimistic, Martin-Godinez cries every day, each time she talks to Janet.
“It will be okay. We’ll be together again, don’t worry,” she tried to assure her daughter during their call on Sunday.
Tears rolled down her face. She held a napkin to dry them as she tried not to sob out loud.
“I will buy you new clothes,” she said. “You will be in school. It will be all right.”
Her husband is facing almost certain deportation, she said, and she’s been told that her daughter is in the care of a foster family. Bethany Christian Services contracts with the federal government to care for immigrant children who are unaccompanied or separated from their parents. Joseph DiBenedetto, a spokesman for Bethany, said 81 immigrant children are with the agency in Michigan, but he couldn’t confirm names.
“We will not rest until every separated child in Bethany’s care is safely reunified with family,” the agency said in a statement released Tuesday. “Our mission has always been and will always be to keep and bring families together.”
Martin-Godinez can hear the trauma in her daughter’s voice – a child who is usually happy and calm now sounds worried and scared.
She has many regrets about coming to the United States.
“Maybe we should have chosen a different country,” Martin-Godinez said. “I regret coming to this country now because my daughter is suffering.”
Martin-Godinez was a nurse at a clinic in Huehuetenango, a city of 81,000 people in western Guatemala. Her husband ran an Internet connection business from their home called a “lend house”: He bought three computers, got WiFi and rented them out to neighbors. They’ve been married for eight years.
Martin-Godinez made about $250 a month at her nursing job, she said. Her husband made less.
“We were threatened by bad people who were always asking for cash. Because we make a little money, and we have some money, they want it,” she said about the gangs that she described roaming the streets of her town. “These bad people are always asking for our cash. They said we have to give them our money, or they’ll kill us.”
She also said a supervisor at work threatened her. It all became too much. So several months ago, they made plans to leave for the United States.
“To save our lives and our children,” she said. “We wanted a better life.”
They started to save money, “little by little.” The trip to the border would cost them $1,500.
She said they didn’t know about the “zero tolerance” policy at the border.
For Martin-Godinez, the week in detention was hellish.
“We had no bath, no food, I was on the floor. My baby got sick. I suffered a lot; I cried a lot. They gave us a bowl of soup a day. My baby lost a lot of weight.”
But the experience for her daughter, she worries, has been even more traumatic.
“She told me she was very frightened,” Martin-Godinez said. “There were other children with her, but she had never been on a plane, and she was scared.”
Janet has told her that she is being fed and taken care of by the foster family, but because she only speaks Mam, it’s a struggle to get her needs met.
She’s gone to the zoo. The children play and watch TV. But the classes at school are in English, so she doesn’t learn anything. She has made friends with other girls, but they speak only Spanish.
Janet had the number of a Florida relative, and that’s how her mother found out where she was. Martin-Godinez said immigration officials told her she would be reunited with Janet within two weeks.
“It’s been over a month now, and I haven’t seen my daughter,” she said. “She doesn’t want to be there. She wants to be with her family. She misses her dad, her mom, her brother.”
Meanwhile, her husband “has been assured that he will be deported,” Martin-Godinez said. He can call her, but because the cost of the long-distance call is charged to her phone, they limit the calls to once a week.
Living with her cousin in Miami, Martin-Godinez goes about her daily tasks with purpose. In the morning, she feeds her baby, changes his diapers, then leaves him in her cousin’s care while she goes to work. She has a job planting seedlings at a flower nursery in Homestead, a vast farming area that the state of Florida once touted as “America’s Salad Bowl.”
The work isn’t easy – it involves a lot of stooping – and the conditions are harsh this time of year, with high heat and humidity. “Feels-like” temperatures in South Florida have topped 100 degrees on several days this month.
The ankle monitor on her right leg allows immigration authorities to keep track of her.
Her off-work hours are spent taking care of her son and trying to find information about how she can get her daughter back. A few days ago, her cousin gave her the number of a volunteer in Miami who for 30 years has been helping immigrant children. Nora Sandigo, founder of the Nora Sandigo Children Foundation, is a “second mom” to more than 1,000 children. Their parents have signed over guardianship rights to Sandigo so she can represent them if their parents get deported.
Sandigo listened in on one of Martin-Godinez’s calls from Janet.
“It crushed my heart into a thousand pieces,” Sandigo said. “It was so painful. I can’t believe something like this is happening in our country. It’s a crime.”
Sandigo took Martin-Godinez to U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo’s, R-Fla., office on Monday, to ask him for help.
In the meantime, Martin-Godinez said, immigration officials in Arizona told her to report to an ICE office in Miami when she arrived there, which she did. She said she was then told that she would be contacted by ICE once a week, but she has yet to hear from them.
Martin-Godinez said she doesn’t regret leaving Guatemala – “it was dangerous for us to stay there.” But while she wonders whether they should have tried going to a different country, instead of the United States, she plans to try to stay as pro bono lawyers help argue her case in immigration court.
“I want my kids to have a better life,” she said.
(This story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)