(AP) — Glenda Valdez
had kissed her toddler goodbye and left for the United States
six years ago — six years since she had held Emely
in her arms.
But here she was, at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport in Texas, tearfully embracing the little girl she had left behind, and it was all because she saw a televised photo of Emely in an Associated Press
story about young people
crossing the Mexican border
“I love you so much,” she said softly in her 9-year-old daughter's ear in Spanish. “My God, thank you.”
According to Valdez, 26, it was a fairy tale ending to a complicated story that began in Honduras
and with an unhappy relationship.
Emely's father, she claimed, was absent and did not provide for them, and when Valdez emigrated in search of a better life, the girl was left in the care of Valdez's mother, but Emely's father took her back.
Valdez stated that she had only sporadic contact with her daughter because the father preferred that they not speak on a regular basis. Valdez would occasionally receive a video call from Emely, who eventually informed her that she had a new stepmother who was not kind to her.
Emely explained that her father had decided to send her away, without telling her where, after she expressed dissatisfaction with her life in that household, and had placed her in the care of an adult who assisted her journey to the US-Mexico border over several weeks.
Border Patrol agents encountered Emely in La Joya, Texas, around midnight on May 13, after she had been walking in the brush for six hours with a group of strangers and had lost a shoe in the mud, and she was sobbing uncontrollably.
“I was thirsty, and we didn’t have anything to drink, and I didn’t like it, and I had no idea where I was going,” Emely said in Spanish on Sunday.
When the agents found her, she stated that she had lost her mother's phone number and had no idea where her mother lived. Desperate, she told reporters that her mother's hair
was curly, but she sometimes straightened it, and she has a lip ring.
Her mother was expecting her, she claimed, but Valdez claimed on Sunday that she had no idea her child had been sent to cross the border.
Valdez was at home in Austin, watching a Univision newscast one afternoon in May, when she saw the picture of Emely in a red hoodie and immediately recognized it as her daughter. Desperate, she began calling US authorities, the network, and refugee agencies.
“I was like in shock, honestly, because imagine you're watching TV and suddenly see your daughter,” Valdez explained, “and then even more to see her crying and everything she was saying broke my heart, honestly, everything she said there, that she was upset and crying and all that, and to see her image, barefoot and all, was very difficult for me.”
Emely claimed she was taken to a group home, but Valdez was unaware, and she claimed she received only vague responses to her requests for information for weeks, telling her to "be patient."
“I was just traumatized, like I spent days crying, watching her video, looking through her photos
, crying, crying, crying,” Valdez said.
Last Wednesday, she received a phone call informing her that Emely was in a government shelter and that they would be reunited soon. The next day, she was told to meet her daughter at the airport, and she raced to the bottom of the crowded arrivals terminal to hug her daughter.
Emely is part of a significant increase in unaccompanied children
entering the United States from Mexico, with nearly 19,000 arriving in March (the highest number on record) and nearly 17,200 arriving in April
(the second highest). Almost one in every three unaccompanied children arriving at the border is from Honduras, second only to Guatemala
The U.S. Health
and Human Services Department seeks to place unaccompanied minors in the “least restrictive setting” possible, which in the vast majority of cases is a parent or close relative already living in the United States. At the end of May, it took an average of 35 days to place children in a home; Emely was reunited with her moth.
Children are typically released with instructions to appear in immigration
court, where a judge rules on their asylum
claims, which can take years to resolve due to the court system's 1.3 million case backlog.
While Emely awaits her court date, she has moved in with Valdez, her husband, and their two daughters, who are eager to meet this new sister they had only met virtually.
And, much to Valdez's delight, she is reuniting with the little girl she last saw six years ago.
“Well, the plan is to do everything God wants and to be here with her,” Valdez explained.
“To never be separated again. To pray to God that we may never be separated again. To give her all of the love that I haven't been able to give her. Everything that she is missing. To give her everything I can and to take her to school. That she has a better future, to atone for a little of what has happened.”
Acacia Coronado is a corps member with the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists
in local newsrooms to cover under-reported issues.