Massiel Vargas took a single breath, then gulped for air. She angled her brown eyes upward to try to dam up her tears. Then, they spilled.
Reunited in a WhatsApp call with her oldest child, she looks back with relief and remorse at his journey. Relief that he made it safely from Central America to the U.S. Remorse because she knew she had to let him go, but she misses him. Oscar doesn't face gang recruitment any longer, but she lost her rock.
Now, sitting in her turquoise living room in Honduras and peering through the video screen, she sees that her son looks sad, like he wants to hug her through his screen in Indianapolis, an impossible distance of some 3,000 miles.
She remembers the Wednesday morning in February her Oscar left for Texas. It still fills her with pain.
"You don't know how it will go on the journey," the single mother says of her first-born son's passage. "I see little hope in this country," she said. "He would not succeed as he wants and I want."
In late March, Oscar joined an exodus of mostly Central American youth traveling without a parent to seek asylum and a new life in the U.S. It's unprecedented in scope. More than 55,000 unaccompanied minors have arrived since President Biden took office.
The heartache and hurdles for Oscar and his mother illustrate why so many are leaving and the persistent challenges this mass migration presents for the children, ther families and those who receive them in the U.S. Federal authorities have been overwhelmed by the number of children, opening more than a dozen unlicensed temporary shelters for them, including one in Dallas since closed and a massive detention facility at Fort Bliss in El Paso.
Their arrivals are now complicated by an order by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott to yank state licenses for the more permanent shelters that have been holding many of the children before they are typically released to family in the U.S. while awaiting the outcome of their cases.
Nearly one out of three of the minor children, like Oscar, now comes from Honduras.
Flight From Honduras
Oscar says he left Honduras when he ran out of good choices there. The coronavirus pandemic and a pair of devastating hurricanes wrecked the already faltering economy. His mother had little work. He never had a relationship with his father. Gangs tried to recruit him.
He knew some of the gang members from his childhood. "They say join them, work with them," Oscar says, his voice getting lower. "I didn't listen."
With his high school shuttered because of the pandemic, Oscar decided to head north. He hopes to finish in the U.S., where he is safe.
It took Oscar four weeks to travel from Honduras to the Rio Grande Valley. A stressful trip by bus and trailer was lessened by the fact that he'd made the same trip with family nearly two years earlier, he said.
After being taken into federal custody, he was moved in March to a cramped Border Patrol facility near McAllen, Oscar said. There, he says, an immigration official even swabbed his mouth with a wooden stick. "I don't know if it was a type of DNA test. They don't tell you what it is," he said.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection last year began collecting DNA samples for submission to an FBI data bank from "all persons" in CBP custody, a Department of Homeland Security spokesperson said in a statement.
"CBP does not use the DNA samples collected" for any purpose beyond FBI submission to a database known as CODIS, which stands for the combined DNA information system, the statement said. CODIS is used to solve crimes.
In the last four years, more than 250,000 unaccompanied minors have arrived in the U.S. — with peak annual arrivals in 2019, according to federal data. But this time is different — more difficult in some ways — because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The federal government lowered the usual number of beds in licensed shelters for safety reasons, complicating the care and custody of the children. That led to the opening of the unlicensed emergency sites.
After more than ten days, Oscar was sent to the one in Dallas, a sterile gray exhibit hall lined with cots downtown at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center.
Oscar says he was told right away, "Don’t get in any problems. If someone incites you to fight, don't fight,'" he said. "I am not a problematic person. There were no problems."
But Oscar took a dim view of the care there, saying the young people were treated like "animals" at times. There were strict rules, such as when children were allowed to use the restroom and whether or not indoor soccer games would be allowed. Sometimes the rules eased up, sometimes they were seemingly made more harsh.
Almost all of their time was spent indoors among the row after row of cots. He says it was hard on him and other boys. Many grew depressed as they spent days wondering when they would be freed, fretting over whether anyone knew about their cases, and perplexed about why they usually couldn’t even go outside for fresh air and sunshine.
Michelle Saenz-Rodriguez, a Dallas immigration lawyer, and her lawyer- husband George Rodriguez both worked at the emergency facility in Dallas. They were deeply moved by what they saw. The site was supposed to house teen boys between the ages of 13-17. But one small child seemed to be only 8 and was pulled aside early for special help. Within a short period, the boy was no longer at the site, she said.
Some boys didn’t even speak Spanish, but an indigenous language. One boy from Nicaragua said it took him a year to make it to Texas. Another said he was kidnapped on the journey but his parents were too poor to pay and his kidnappers released him.
It was called a "decompression center," but Oscar said emotions flared there among the teen boys who didn't understand why they were in jail-like conditions. Many cried themselves to sleep at night. At its peak, more than 2,000 were kept there until it closed last May.
The saving grace, said Oscar, were volunteer teachers and others who came from Catholic Charities of Dallas. They listened to their fears, their dreams, and brought in U.S. games like Monopoly and Uno and drawing paper so that the teens could express themselves.
The slim, wavy haired Oscar used to entertain other teens at the convention center with songs on a borrowed guitar. It was a good way to get their minds off their troubles, and a facility that felt like jail, he said.
Conditions at some of the temporary facilities, like the sprawling Fort Bliss emergency site, which has the capacity to expand to 10,000, could be strained further by Abbott's recent decision. In late May he ordered state regulators to yank state licenses for the permanent shelters that house migrant children through federal contracts by Aug. 30. That could potentially force the closure of some or all of 52 Texas-based shelters with established programs for the care and custody of unaccompanied migrant minors.
It could also mean more children and teens must be placed at emergency sites like the pop-up detention center at the Dallas convention center. The Biden administration has threatened to sue the State of Texas if the state moves forward with the plan.
A New Life
Saenz-Rodriguez grew up at the Texas-Mexico border in Weslaco and has watched unaccompanied children arrive in the U.S. for three decades. Why would parents allow their children to go north?
"There’s a lot of criticism on parents that send their kids here by themselves," the lawyer said. "But when you are a parent, you look at it from a perspective… ‘My kid lives, or dies here because of the circumstances, either out of hunger or violence.' "
"…It’s an impossible choice."
Added George Rodriguez, "You have to be extremely desperate to send your child on that type of journey."
Looking into the video screen with his mother, Oscar says, "I always thought of the most important person, my mama and my little brother. I am here not for me so much but for my mother and my brother."
"Here" is Indianapolis, where he now lives with his aunt, grandmother and cousins. He was released from the Dallas convention center on April 20, a day before his 18th birthday when he would no longer qualify as a minor needing federal care and custody. His immigration case will continue to wind its way through the clogged immigration courts in a process that can take years.
He was relieved to join his family in Indianapolis after 31 days in federal custody. His Honduran family celebrated his birthday with two parties, including a tres leches cake with frosting that featured a guitar.
After finishing high school, his big dream is to become a pediatrician. "If I could go to the university, it would be fabulous. I always dreamed of studying medicine," he said.
His mother wastes no time in affirming his plan. "I want him to keep studying, keep preparing himself, to fight for his dreams," the mother said. And, "he has to be grateful to the United States."
She, too, had a dream once. She went to college, studying industrial engineering. But pay is low for an engineer in Honduras, a country of 10 million. She, too, tried to enter the U.S. in 2019 with her sons. All were sent back to Honduras, unable to make an asylum plea. Then the pandemic hit, paralyzing an already fragile economy, she said.
The outcome of Oscar's case is by no means certain. The federal system is clogged with more than 1.3 million immigration cases. When he called to check, his case wasn't even listed yet.
Michelle Saenz-Rodriguez said that unaccompanied minors show up for court at an extremely high rate. But that doesn't mean they'll get to stay. Immigration law is complicated.
"If you don’t have counsel, it literally makes it just about impossible to move forward," Saenz-Rodriguez said.
For now, Oscar lives life dream by dream.
He has a secure home in Indianapolis, yet wishes his mother and 14-year-old brother were with him. Now he has his abuela in his daily life.
He fantasized about owning a red car. He now has a used red Honda.
And he plays music on his own blue guitar, the hits of Latin America's rock en español movement, danceable but full of melancholy.
KERA’s Immigration and Demographics Reporter Stella M. Chávez and The Dallas Morning News Immigration Reporter Dianne Solis collaborated on this story.