This past April, Nicole, now 12, made it safely across the Texas border and on to Miami. That inspired 16-year-old Anita to attempt the trip with her own child, 3-year-old Emily.
At the airport late last month, Zelaya worried she might not recognize her daughter. Then her eyes locked on a figure hauling a toddler on her hip. As the girl approached, Zelaya saw her mirror image: large hazel eyes, corkscrew curls and a tentative smile. Zelaya pulled daughter and granddaughter into her small frame. Anita buried her face into her mother's hair. A lone cry burst from her throat.
They are just one family in some ways, one of the luckiest. As thousands of Central American children have come across the Southwest border these past months fleeing violence, searching for loved ones and looking to start anew in the U.S. this family found each other again. But now there's a complex legal system to navigate, new economic burdens and an unfamiliar home.
Then there's the delicate task of learning to become a family again, with the knowledge looming that their reunion in the U.S. could be temporary more likely to end with deportation orders than asylum.
Zelaya herself lives here illegally. She spent the last decade working in restaurants and, more recently, bussing tables at an airport hotel.
When she fled La Ceiba, Honduras, after witnessing the gang-killing of a nephew, Zelaya left Anita and Nicole first with her sister and then their great-grandmother. But without their mother, the children struggled. They were shuttled between relatives, often unable to go to school. The money Zelaya sent never lasted long.
"There were so many Christmases I couldn't celebrate, because when I saw so many people hug each other I would just go cry and go to bed," Anita recalls.
In Miami, Zelaya decorated her bedroom walls with pictures of her children, even as she started a new life here. She had two American-born children: Elise, now 5, and David, 4. She spoke frequently by phone with Nicole and Anita, but often the calls left Zelaya in tears.
"I just focused on working so one day I could bring them here," she says.
Then gang violence struck again. According to Anita and Zelaya, Anita was 13 when she was raped by gang members. They continued to harass her after Emily was born 9 months later. Anita says she went to the police but doesn't believe they filed any official report.
Zelaya was devastated and offered to help. Still, Anita refused to make the journey to the U.S. until her younger sister did it.
Initially, Anita and Emily were detained in McAllen, Texas, and placed in a Department of Homeland Security facility with other apprehended minors. Soon they were flown to a nonprofit shelter in New York before finally reaching Zelaya.
The first few nights after Anita arrived, the girls and their mother cooked together with a quiet precision as if they'd been doing it all their lives. They convinced Zelaya to sleep with them in the small bedroom all five children shared. Two weeks later, Zelaya had returned to her room, and the three took turns cooking. Meanwhile, old resentments remained.
Ever since Elise and David were born, Anita had accused Zelaya of replacing her and Nicole with the new American children.
"I try to explain to the older ones that the younger ones need protection because they are still little," Zelaya said one day.
"We do too," Anita cut in, only half in jest.
Anita looks forward to starting school but worries about catching up with her peers. Zelaya tries not to burden her children with her own fears. Unemployed since getting laid off in December, she relies on help from her boyfriend while she looks for new work. Now she owes thousands of dollars to smugglers. She also knows that the legal path for her children will be far from easy.
Local attorneys are helping the girls pro bono but warn obtaining asylum based on gang threats is no easy task, especially without concrete evidence. Zelaya also faces the threat of being found and deported.
On a recent rainy Monday afternoon, the family headed to the grocery store. Men stared as they walked by, their gaze lingering on Anita and Nicole.
Zelaya worries about Anita, who has shared her story with reporters and social workers each time, withdrawing into herself.
But as the group crossed a puddle, little David offered a welcome distraction.
"Swing me, Mami," he clamored. "Us too," chimed in Elise and Emily.
Zelaya, Anita and Nicole clasped their hands and began to swing the little ones. The children squealed, and soon Zelaya and the older girls laughed too, attached in one familial chain oblivious for a moment to the rain.
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