“How Good Is Your Spanish? And would you be able to take in a four-year-old girl? She’s from Honduras and speaks minimal English.”
The social worker had just texted on a Friday afternoon. I was sitting at my desk, bent over my cell phone reading and rereading the text. My thoughts traveled to Honduras, bachata, balleadas, clothes hanging on the line. So many things in our lives seemed to prepare us for this moment: our son was attending a bilingual school, I am a former ESL teacher, my husband and I speak Spanish, and Honduras is a country that already had a piece of my heart. As soon as those thoughts came, I tried to push them away.
The voice of logic came in loud and strong: we had just felt like we were finally in the swing of routine with Emma, our foster daughter. Two foster children and two biological children were too much for us to handle. We knew that from our first month as foster parents.
The social worker called, “It looks like the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) will get her on Monday at court. It’ll only be the weekend. Call me back after you talk to Andrew.”
“We can manage four kids for one weekend, right Andrew?” I asked. Andrew had his doubts that this would only last a weekend. I convinced him that if ORR and ICE were involved, they would get her on Monday. A few minutes later, I called our social worker back and said we’d do it.
Julia was in a brand new bright pink Barbie T-shirt when I walked into the social worker’s office. The social worker said they had found the T-shirt in their clothing closet and Julia wanted it. Beautiful soft onyx curls framed her umber face. Her dark complexion made me speculate a coastal region of her Honduran roots. She stood in dirty flip-flops next to the social worker’s chair chitchatting away in Spanish without a care in the world. “Julia’s been talking my ear off, but I have no idea what she’s saying. She’s so sweet,” the social worker said. Another worker brought in a black tote bag with a few other items from the clothing closet, including a pair of blue sequin high-top sneakers that Julia had picked out.
I began to speak to Julia—pronounced ˈhü lēə—in Spanish. She seemed happy to recognize her mother tongue, but her body didn’t budge. I read that signal loud and clear. I kept my distance, sat down on the floor, and asked her name and age.
I signed some papers. “We’ll see you all on Monday,” I said. I asked Julia if she would come stay with me and my family for the weekend. She smiled. I told her I had three other kids. Her eyes expanded with excitement. On the drive home, she jolted my Spanish mind from its sleeping slumber. The social worker wasn’t kidding about how much this little one talked.
On April 6, 2018, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a new zero-tolerance policy where the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice would partner for the sake of prosecuting illegal entry into the United States.
“If you cross this border unlawfully, then we will prosecute you. It’s that simple,” said Sessions. “If you smuggle illegal aliens across our border, then we will prosecute you. If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you and that child will be separated from you as required by law. If you don’t like that, then don’t smuggle children over our border.”
Six weeks later, almost two thousand children had been separated from their parents at the border after the new zero-tolerance policy took effect. When Sessions announced the administration’s new policy, I could not comprehend the cruelty but also wondered if it gave insight into the history of the preschooler living under my roof.
Julia came to live with me and my family in February 2018. It felt surreal to be a part of her story. Julia was first separated from her mother, Guadalupe, by the smugglers that were paid to bring them across the border. Julia was then separated from her stepfather, Carlos, by US Customs and Border Patrol, likely because what was recognized by the Honduran government as a stepfather was not recognized by the US government as the same—a detail I did not understand until an immigration expert read the first draft of this manuscript.
Reality became surreal, and Andrew and I learned to live in it, separating the trauma from our emotions so that we could survive. When I heard that my own country was going to begin separating children regularly from their parents as a policy, it broke me. Julia had suffered so much trauma and separating her from her stepfather only inflicted more. The weight of the trauma we as a nation began inflicting on vulnerable children and their parents was cruel and unusual punishment.
As the veil of Oz is ever lifting from my white evangelical American eyes, what I am now seeing is simply heartbreaking: government-secured human rights are mostly for privileged white people.
Julia is not white. Julia is undocumented. Julia’s first language is Spanish. Julia is a girl. These are all labels that set her back in a society made by and for white passport-holding English-speaking males.
This is the reality of immigration. No, it isn’t everyone’s reality, but it is reality. For many women and children immigrating to the United States from the Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala), this story is not new or unique. It is common. Too common. For those of us who call ourselves Christians, this normality should shake our faith. I am no theologian; neither am I an immigration expert; nor am I trying to speak on behalf of Central American immigrants. I’m simply telling the story I found myself caught up in from the whole of who I am.
My reality crossed paths with Lupe’s reality, and in it I found an amazing bond between a mother and her daughter. As detail after detail came to light, I continued to go back to my first encounter with Lupe, when she said she’d go to the border again if she could get her daughter back sooner. I had come face-to-face with relentless love in human form. That love shook me. Lupe had risked going through hell a second time to be reunited with her daughter. This is the mother love of God.
God—who is neither white nor male despite my use of the pronoun he—shines his good news and love on every human being alive. The good news of redemption is for everyone. Every Afro-Latina. Every undocumented person. Every Spanish speaker, every girl, and every label.
God does not show favoritism (see Acts 10 and Romans 2), and his arms are open to all. What I knew in my head, this adventure had taught me to comprehend in my heart: God sees beauty in the places we have trained ourselves not to go. God sees beauty in the places we are scared of, in the people we’d rather not talk to, and in the middle of messes we’d rather shy away from.
Adapted from Separated by the Border: A Birth Mother, a Foster Mother, and a Migrant Child’s 3,000-Mile Journey by Gena Thomas. Copyright (c) 2019 by Gena Thomas. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com