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A boy separated from his mom at the border faces his first Christmas without her

A boy separated from his mom at the border faces his first Christmas without her

The boy stood in the front of the church, flanked by his cousins yet utterly alone.
It was the Sunday after Thanksgiving and the four children had been called before their congregation to speak. One by one, they listed the things for which they were grateful: their friends, their siblings and, above all, their parents.
When it was his turn, the boy took the microphone reluctantly.
“I’m grateful for my life and —,” Isaac Flores Amador began.
Then the 11-year-old burst into tears.
“And for my mom,” he sobbed as his pastor, David Santana, hurried to give the child a hug.
“His mom is in another country,” Santana told the congregation. “But the boy is here, thank God.”
Eleven months earlier, Isaac and his mother had made the dangerous two-week journey from Honduras to the U.S.-Mexico border to ask for asylum. Instead, they were separated. His mother was deported. And Isaac was left behind.
More than 2,500 migrant children were taken from their parents at the border earlier this year under the Trump administration’s now abandoned “zero tolerance” immigration policy. After months of court orders and administrative chaos, the majority of these children have been reunited with their parents — some in Central America but most in the U.S.
In more than 200 cases, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, deported parents have made the painful decision to leave their separated sons or daughters behind in the hope that they will have a better life in America.
For these families, Trump’s short-lived separation policy threatens to become permanent.
Isaac had never slept apart from his mother until she was taken from him. Now he lives in central Illinois with an uncle he hardly knew while his mother tries to parent him via text message from 2,000 miles away.
As he struggled to adapt to a new life in a new country, Isaac often escaped his loneliness by playing the online video game Fortnite, which offered a sense of community and belonging.
But it was the game’s objective that resonated most with him: Survive, on your own and against long odds, as long as possible.
‘They lied to me’
His lifeline to his mother was a Samsung Galaxy with a shattered screen.
Sometimes they video chatted as he rode to school in the morning. But most days, Jeny Amador could only afford to text her son, each message accompanied by an emoji heart or kiss.
Sometimes her texts would suddenly stop. Usually it meant her phone needed to be charged. But once, when her phone was stolen in Honduras, Isaac didn’t hear from her for days. Each lull in communication was like holding his breath.
“Hello,” he texted her in Spanish one Saturday evening in December.
“Mom.”
“What are you doing.”
“Are you at church.”
“Mom.”
“Where are you.”
By the time they spoke, it was Sunday afternoon.
“Hola mi amor,” she said from Honduras, where it was the rainy season. “Cómo estás?”
“Bien,” he replied from his cousin’s house in a snow-dusted trailer park decorated with inflatable Santas and plastic nativity scenes.
Amador still harbored hopes that they would somehow reunite in America. But she had little chance of appealing her deportation, and she refused to let Isaac return to Honduras.
He was her baby: the youngest of five who always slept beside her until the day they were separated. His first memory was of her feeding him the mangoes that fell behind their pink cinder block house in Omoa, on the Caribbean Sea.
Since splitting from his father a few years ago, she had scraped together a living by baking. He used to wake to the smell of her homemade chocolate doughnuts.
But sometimes she didn’t have enough money to buy baking ingredients, or even food, and so they ate mangoes for days. She began talking about taking him to the U.S. to escape not only poverty, but also gangs. At 10, he was approaching the age where he could be recruited, she said.
Instead, she became the target.She’d campaigned for the incumbent in Honduras’s 2017 presidential election. When he was declared the winner amid weeks of turmoil, she said, gang members came to her home.
“They said, ‘Your party stole the election, and we are going to burn your house and kill you,’ ” she would later tell a U.S. asylum officer.
A few weeks later, she paid a smuggler to take her and Isaac through Guatemala to the southern border of Mexico, where they and four unaccompanied minors crossed a river in a small boat. On Jan. 13, 2018, they walked across a bridge in El Paso and asked for asylum.
But when Border Patrol agents questioned the unaccompanied minors, they said one was actually 21 years old. Amador, the agents would later testify, had been given money to help him reach the border.
Amador denies this, saying she was never paid and that she played no role in helping anyone other than her son.
Agents took Isaac aside and asked him whether Amador was really his mom.
“Sí,” he pleaded. “Es mi mamá.”
They spent the night on the cold floor of a holding cell. The next morning, Isaac recalled, “A man came in and grabbed my mom and said we were being separated.” He screamed and clutched at her, but agents pulled them apart.
One promised they would be reunited soon, Isaac recalled. Instead, he was taken to the airport and put on a plane to a children’s shelter in Arizona. The boy who once wanted to be a pilot spent his first flight in tears.
“They lied to me,” Isaac said.
Although the Trump administration wouldn’t announce zero tolerance until April, it had already begun splitting families in El Paso under a 2017 pilot program, charging parents with federal crimes and sending their children to shelters.
As Isaac was taken to Phoenix, his mother was taken to jail and then federal court, where she was charged with “bringing in and harboring aliens,” a felony.
For two weeks, Isaac didn’t hear from her. Instead, he tried to navigate a new world of roommates and chores and English classes and soccer games surrounded by chain-link fences.
“Where are you?” he asked her when they finally spoke by phone.
She said she was in a big house with a swimming pool. He knew she was lying but didn’t say so. He didn’t say much of anything.
“He was very quiet,” Amador recalled. “His social worker said it was normal, but I told her no, it wasn’t normal.”