Seated at a picnic table in her backyard, in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood, Reyna Hernández giggles and stares longingly at the screen with a smile on her face as her eldest daughter, Sara Ramirez Hernández, 23, answers her video call on WhatsApp from Mataquescuintla, Guatemala. It’s not obvious that Reyna had just been crying about missing her six children, whom she hasn’t seen in person for five years.
Sara and her siblings are just getting back to their four bedroom home in Mataquescuintla, a small town surrounded by jungle and loud birds who squawk throughout their video call. The kids were visiting their grandmother in a neighboring town. Now they take turns to say hello.
“How was my mother?” Reyna, 41, asks.
“She was fine,” Sara says.
“And the little girl, what is she doing?” Reyna asks, referring to her youngest daughter, Dayana, who just celebrated her 10th birthday. “Tell her to come talk to me.”
The six Ramirez Hernández siblings live alone, caring for each other and communicating with their mother at least once a day. Reyna and her husband, along with another daughter, live thousands of miles away, in Oakland, as they seek asylum in the U.S. They’re now appealing a judge’s ruling in 2019 that denied their petition. Asylum could create a pathway for their remaining children to join them.
Nearly a dozen immigrant families told El Tímpano that they lead similar lives. Immigrant parents, mostly from Guatemala, shared that they haven’t seen their children in years after leaving them behind in their home country. They were among waves of Central Americans who have journeyed to the U.S. in the past decade, escaping poverty and violence.
Many have placed hope in federal programs that could lead to family reunification. In the meantime, immigrant parents who spoke to El Tímpano design their lives around the phone and video calls that are the links to their children back home. Parents have missed birthdays, sick days, and the births of grandchildren. They’ve lost sleep over the dangers that are still posed to loved ones back home. They also work long hours in order to send money back to families who depend on remittances to get by.
“It was so difficult to leave my children over there, and it has really cost me to be without them,” Reyna says. “But at the same time they give me so much strength to continue on so far away from them… I’m here, but my heart is in Guatemala.”
Reyna shows El Tímpano a photo Sara sent of Dayana holding a Mother’s Day poster she made in class this year. “Te amo mamá,” it reads, “I love you mom.” A few weeks ago, Dayana celebrated her 10th birthday party with her siblings and a cake. Soon, Reyna says, Dayana will be celebrating her first communion. “I’ll never get this time back,” Reyna says.
Reyna left Guatemala when Dayana was only five years old. At the time, Dayana only understood that her mother was leaving to buy things the family needed, and so Dayana asked for toys. “I told her, I’m going to buy you so many things,” Reyna says. She and her husband have been able to buy Dayana a bicycle and her favorite princess dresses since they arrived in the U.S.
It’s a consolation, Reyna says, that they are able to afford gifts for all of their children.
Some immigrant parents qualify for federal programs that would reunite them with their children, even if they haven’t already achieved permanent status. Reyna, for example, is considering the Central American Minors (CAM) Program, which was designed for families from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. Families who applied for asylum in the U.S. prior to April 11, 2023 can petition for their children to join them in the U.S. while they wait for their case to make its way through the court system. But because Reyna and her husband’s case is currently going through an appeal process, Reyna is apprehensive about attempting to apply for CAM.
“I’ve heard that [CAM] is for people who have an immigration status, like they’re citizens,” she says, unaware that it’s not necessarily the case. “So for that reason I’m going to wait a bit, give it some time and see what happens.”
Available government programs often take years to navigate and can be costly. Some families don’t meet all the specific requirements. Because lawyers are often unaffordable, using these federal programs, or even knowing that they exist, can make family reunification a challenge.
Federal Family Reunification Programs
The federal government offers several reunification programs, but families have to meet specific requirements in order to qualify. Here are some of family reunification options:
- The Central American Minors Program: Parents or legal guardians from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras who have received asylum in the U.S., have an open asylum case, or have another type of lawful status can apply. Children must be unmarried and under the age of 21 to qualify.
- Asylum or refugee status: Anyone who has won an asylum claim or who has arrived in the U.S. as a refugee can petition for their immediate family members—including unmarried children under the age of 21—to join them in the U.S.
- Family Reunification Parole: This program is specifically for people from Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras “whose family members are U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents,” and who have already received permission to emigrate to the U.S., according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). The government will send invitations to people who qualify for humanitarian parole under this reunification program.
- U Visa: This visa is specific to immigrants who have been the victims of certain crimes while in the U.S. If a person qualifies for a U Visa, they can also petition for a U status for their children and spouse.
There are dozens of other family reunification options available to immigrants who meet certain qualifications. If you think you might qualify for a family reunification program, or would like to know of options not listed here, you can request a consultation in the Bay Area with:
The programs vary. They can range from reunification through asylum proceedings, to specific family parole. Some are designed for immigrants of certain nationalities, and other programs have been built in response to changing patterns of migration to the U.S. CAM, for example, was established in 2014 as a response to an influx of unaccompanied children, mostly from Central America, who were presenting themselves at the border to try to reunite with family members in the U.S. It was the government’s attempt to lower the number of unaccompanied minors by offering families the option of petitioning for their children while they remained in their home countries.
Meanwhile, the Biden Administration has attempted to pay particular attention to the root causes of migration, and in response has expanded family reunification programs, including CAM. In April, the Administration announced that it would now open the door to CAM to people who started an asylum or a U visa application prior to April 11, 2023. (This visa is for victims and key witnesses of criminal activity.) In July, the Administration also announced a program to extend parole to people from Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras who have U.S. citizen family members. Similar programs were launched for Haitians and Cubans.
How El Tímpano’s listening powered this story
The Biden Administration announced in April that it would be expanding the Central American Minors program so more families could pursue reunification with their children. El Tímpano shared this news with our text message subscribers and asked if they left their children behind in their home countries and how they maintained their relationships from so far away. Reyna Hernández was one of nearly a dozen people who shared their sensitive stories with the El Tímpano team.
Such programs do work for people who meet the qualifications, says Grecia Tobar, Senior Legal Representative at the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in Oakland. “If they didn’t exist then there just would not be any possibility of reunification,” she says. “We can see the results, we can see that families are reunified after they go through the process.”
Even though the programs can successfully reunite families, those who do have pending reunification applications may find themselves waiting for years for the proper paperwork to be processed.
In the meantime, Reyna copes with the pain of separation by gardening with her sister in her backyard, or getting some fresh air in by going to nearby parks. “It helps me a lot so that I don’t miss them as much,” she says.
‘There isn’t anyone waiting for you at home’
For Nestor Ramirez Gonzalez, 46, the wait is a struggle. He and his son, who is now 17, arrived in the U.S. five years ago, leaving behind Nestor’s wife and four other children. Ramirez Gonzalez and his son started an asylum case when they presented themselves to U.S. officials at the border in 2018, and he was able to receive a work permit. After winning asylum, they settled in Oakland, and Ramirez Gonzalez found work in construction. In 2020, his wife and children attempted to claim asylum at the Texas border—as he did—but were returned back to Guatemala. In the span of just a few years, policy at the U.S.-Mexico border had shifted, including the implementation of Title 42, a Trump-era rule border officials used during the COVID-19 pandemic to immediately expel would-be asylum seekers.
Migration from Central America has risen at high rates in the past decade, a result of increasing poverty, gang violence, and natural disasters. In California, Central Americans made up 45.9% of the state’s foreign born population in 2021 according to the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), a nonpartisan research organization (Mexicans made up 36.9% the same year). Migration from Guatemala to the U.S. rose 44% between 2013 and 2020, according to MPI. Many journeyed to the U.S.-Mexico border to attempt to claim asylum, a phenomenon that the U.S. government found itself ill equipped to handle.
After his family was turned away at the border, Ramirez Gonzalez says he was mugged at gunpoint by two men. The painful experience opened up a new possibility of winning a U visa. If he’s successful, he can petition for his wife and kids to reunite with him in the U.S., though annual caps on U visas and a backlog in applications could mean he will have to wait for years before a decision is reached.
“That’s what I’m fighting for, to try to make a life here with them,” says Ramirez Gonzalez. The wait, he adds, is hard. In February, Ramirez Gonzalez provided a lawyer with documents to petition for a U visa, he says, but to his knowledge, that paperwork has not been filed.
“You get home and it’s such a loneliness within those four walls. There isn’t anyone waiting for you at home,” he adds “It’s a hard life, but if we didn’t do it this way, the gangs in Guatemala would have finished us.”
Ramirez Gonzalez talks to his wife daily by phone. “Life is really complicated over there in Guatemala with gangs and all of that,” he says. “It’s very critical. All of it is very difficult.”
“The process is so long, it really has cost me so much time,” Ramirez Gonzalez adds. “My son and I both miss our family so much.”
When legal pathways aren’t enough
Though family reunification programs can be solutions, barriers exist.
Tobar, of the IRC says that’s especially true for people who don’t speak English, or even Spanish, and for those with low literacy. Most reunification programs are designed for people of particular nationalities, so other nationalities—people from Mexico, for example—do not qualify for the government reunification programs. “For people who are undocumented, I don’t believe that there is a way that they could help their families come to the U.S. through a lawful status.”
Vielman Guatzin López, 51, has been undocumented and apart from his family for more than a decade. In the 12 years since he left Guatemala, he has missed seeing his six kids grow up, and the births of his five grandchildren. Because his children are now adults, only three live with his wife, whom he video calls every day. He communicates with those who live with his wife regularly, but the others are a little harder to call every day, he says.
“Sometimes my kids say they want me to leave, to go home, they want to see me,” Guatzin López says. But if he were to return home, he isn’t sure how he’d earn a living. “I tell them there’s a reason I’m here. I want to make sure what they have is sufficient.”
Guatzin López is now hoping his older sons could participate in a seasonal worker program in the U.S., an option that could reunite part of the family, even if just for a little while.
Miguel Mejia Velasquez, 44, tried an informal pathway to reunite with his eldest son. Mejia Velasquez has been undocumented in the U.S. for six years. He left his entire family in Guatemala. But in early June, his eldest son, Edgar, 27, joined him in Oakland. He, too, is undocumented. The two men are readjusting to life together, he says under the shade of a tree at Josie De La Cruz Park in Fruitvale one Saturday morning. Edgar is getting to know Miguel’s friends and the two plan to attend a Quinceañera together later in the evening. Together, they are also looking for steady jobs.
“I feel happy now, I have company,” Miguel says.
Without legal status, Miguel sought an alternative. He says it is too expensive to try to bring his remaining two sons to the U.S. right now.
“It’s much harder [to pursue a legal pathway],” Miguel says. “There’s so much you have to do if you want a visa. So many steps, and well, you just don’t have all the things they require.”
Join the conversation
Are you also an immigrant parent who left your kids in your home country to come to the United States? On October 5th, El Tímpano is hosting a Facebook Live conversation in Spanish about the mental health impacts of family separation. We’ll also share advice and resources for how to cope with the distance and maintain emotional connections. Click here for more information.