PHILADELPHIA | In a cramped house with mice in the kitchen and music booming from cars outside, Keldy Mabel Gonzales Brebe lays bare her three-year journey from Honduras to the United States and all that lies ahead to adapt to life as an immigrant.
She fled the Central American nation with her family and a price on her head to seek asylum at the U.S. border. Instead, U.S. officials separated her from her children, jailed and deported her under President Trump’s “zero-tolerance” policy to prosecute adults entering the country illegally. While the boys were allowed to live with relatives in Philadelphia, their mother struggled to join them from Mexico.
Keldy missed celebrating birthdays and holidays together. She watched from afar as her teenagers filled out and grew facial hair.
“There were times I thought I would never see them again,” she said.
Three years later, America has jettisoned many of Trump’s hardline immigration policies.
Keldy was one of four parents who returned to the United States during the first week of May with temporary legal status to join their children in what Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said was “just the beginning” of a broader effort to reunify families separated during Trump’s presidency — more than 5,500 children. Her family’s ups and downs illustrate what many parents and children encounter as they try to make up for lost time.
Keldy counts her blessings to be together as a family, free from death threats in Honduras and the pain of separation.
Yet now they face new difficulties. Keldy’s son, Mino, dropped out of school to help pay rent on the house that six of them share. Keldy sleeps on the living room sofa. She wants to get a job, but is caring for her 7-year-old autistic niece and an unsteady 75-year-old mother, along with cooking and cleaning for the family. She sees drug use on the streets of the Kensington section of Philadelphia where they live.
“I hear gunshots sometimes. With my sister, when we run a quick errand, I look around to see whether someone was killed,” Keldy said. “La Ceiba, where I grew up, was like that.”
Honduras, a mountainous nation located between Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua, is beautiful but broken, Keldy says.
She and her family lived on the north Caribbean shore, in a tourist area. Her husband was a guide, taking American tourists to a region of tropical rainforest, pine savannah and marsh called La Mosquitia, or whitewater rafting on the Cangrejal River.
Keldy described herself as middle-class housewife. She would cook for the tourists on the expeditions.
Drug trafficking gangs controlled some areas and required payments from businesses and people for protection. For those who didn’t pay, the penalty was death.
Hit men killed one of her brothers in 2006, she said. He was a bus driver.
“He had no money. The owner of the bus was the one who was supposed to pay, not him. He was just the bus driver. But they killed him,” she said.
In 2011, her family and other families decided to try to buy some parcels of land to live on and grow crops. Gangs, however, did not agree with the purchase and threatened one her brothers, then killed him after he reported the threats to authorities. He was one of four siblings killed by gangs.
Keldy testified in open court against the killers. She received numerous threats and was told there was a price on her head.
The whole family fled to Mexico in 2013 but were deported by the Mexican government right away.
Back in Honduras, they fled to a rural mountainous area called El Naranjo in attempt to hide from the gangs. But in 2017, neighbors told her there were people asking about her schedule: When did she usually leave the house and when did she usually get back? The fear returned, and the family left for the United States.
She crossed the border with her youngest son Erick, now 17, and her middle child Mino, now 19, in the fall of 2017.
The family planned to apply for asylum, so Keldy flagged down a Border Patrol cruiser in the New Mexico desert. She and her sons were taken together to a cell in a detention center in Deming, New Mexico, 35 miles north of the border. They thought they’d be released at some point, and would meet up with her oldest son, who crossed the same day in Arizona, and other family in Philadelphia.
But unknown to them, President Trump had imposed extraordinary measures to limit asylum, criminally prosecuting everyone who entered the United States illegally from Mexico and resulting in the separation of thousands of children from their parents. The government was unable to reunify them after criminal cases ended because its tracking systems failed to link parents to their children.
Less than two days after the family had arrived in the U.S., Keldy was handcuffed and separated from the boys.
“I felt helpless, like there was nothing I could do. And then I blamed myself because I brought my kids to uncertainty, into a situation in which they were taken from me, they were taken from my arms and I couldn’t do anything,” she said.
The kids were frightened to be separated from their mother.
“We started crying, my brother and I, because we were left alone in there. And it was very cold. They only gave us a small blanket,” recalled Erick, who was 13 then. His brother Mino was 15.
The boys were moved to a shelter for minors.
Mino, who wears glasses and smiles often, said he did not want to do anything at the time, just cry. He felt lost at the shelter, with the other unaccompanied minors.
“They did not feel what I was going through because they had come alone. They did not come with their mother. They did not feel the pain I felt when I was separated from her,” he said.
The children were both soon released, and family members paid for their flight to Philadelphia. Their older brother, Alex, now 21, eventually became the legal guardian of his brothers and cared for them while they went to school, working construction.
But Keldy was not released. She was kept in an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facility in El Paso, Texas, for a year and a half and then deported to San Pedro Sula, Honduras, in January 2019.
She immediately traveled back north and settled in Tapachula, Ascensión and then Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, waiting for a chance to enter the United States.
In Mexico, Keldy got by with money sent to her by her kids, her sisters and her husband, who crossed the border five years ago and lives in Texas. She video chatted with her boys, and remembers with pain of missing graduations and other big moments: This January, Erick did not want to come out of his room on his 17th birthday.
“He felt alone,” Keldy said. “I wasn’t there”.
Online learning during the pandemic was a problem for both boys, who say they no longer understand classes. Mino dropped out in December. They say they can read English but they don’t speak it.
In Ciudad Juarez, Keldy walked each morning toward the border, where she could see the bridges heading toward El Paso, Texas, and prayed.
Known to others as “la pastora”, she delivered sermons and benedictions to other migrants and at migrant shelters, listening to others who were in pain, like her.
“I would tell others in my prayers to believe, to never doubt, answers were going to come to our lives,” she said.
The answer she’d been waiting for arrived last month. Linda Corchado, director of legal services at the non-profit Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, contacted her: Biden’s task force was working to reunite families separated at the border. Keldy needed to get passport photos.
Corchado had been trying obtain a humanitarian parole for Keldy, and finally found success.
“I realized then these were the final steps the attorney was doing to get me in,” she said. “Later she told me I would probably enter on May 4 at 8 am. I kept asking God for it to be true.”
She entered on May 4, with Corchado, through the Bridge of The Americas.
The Honduran mother took a plane to Dallas and then another one to Philadelphia. While flying, all she thought about were the first words she would tell her kids.
“They ended up being ‘I love you’. Those are the words I wanted to tell my kids, that I loved them,” she said.
A video shows the family reunion on May 4 in the Philadelphia home of a niece, with Keldy crying while her kids hug her. “Hola mi amor, amor mío (“Hello my love, my love”),” the video shows her saying, her face buried in the arms of her sons.
They are together, yet life still isn’t easy.
Since her arrival, the Honduran mother has been inside the home, cleaning and cooking. When she speaks there is relief but also anxiety in her voice. She wonders about the sturdiness of the house, the stairs that feel unstable.
She doesn’t venture out much. Opioid use has taken root in Kensington, which has been singled out, nationwide, as an example of the effects of underinvestment, crime and drug use.
She misses small-town life south of the border; the close buildings of Kensington make her feel trapped.
Keldy is thinking about finding a job, but she worries about leaving her mother, who forgot she was cooking the other day until there was fire in the stove. Keldy burned her hand putting it out, leaving marks on her skin.
“I don’t know what I am going to do. I would like to work but who is going to take care of my mother and Dana?” she said of the niece she adopted as a baby.
Las Americas has connected them to mental health specialists who will speak online with Keldy and her sons to help them cope with the trauma of separation.
Corchado, the attorney, said Keldy has been granted humanitarian parole for three years but she hopes the Task Force puts her on a pathway for citizenship before that. She is also trying to make sure she is all right.
“We don’t just want the door open for Keldy. We want her to be successful in the United States,” Corchado said. “She shouldn’t be sleeping on a couch after all the horrible experiences she went through.”
But for Keldy, it’s enough, now, to be with her children. She knows that’s more than many of her fellow migrants have.
“Everyday I pray to God for other mothers to be able to come in. They cry for their kids,” she said. “They ask me ‘do you know anything new?’ and I tell them to have patience. And I tell them they will succeed.”