Honduran families traumatized by US-imposed separations

Noe LEIVA
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Rolando Bueso (R) and his wife Adalicia (L) say their son Johan (C) has suffered from health and sleep problems since he was returned from the US

Since being returned to his parents in Honduras, 16-month-old Johan has suffered from stomach problems and sleepwalking.

They say the symptoms come from the trauma of being separated from his father after they attempted to illegally cross United States's southern border with Mexico.

Rolando Bueso, 37, and Johan, then aged 10 months, were intercepted by US Customs and Border Protection officers on March 17 after crossing from Mexico into Texas with the help of a people-smuggler, who was paid $6,000.

They were soon split up and sent to detention centers in different states, with the infant becoming just one of thousands of Central American and Mexican children that US authorities have separated from their parents.

Bueso ended up being deported back to Honduras on April 5 -- before the US government's "zero tolerance" policy against migrants who illegally cross the country's southern border came into effect in May.

But his family was nevertheless separated -- his son remained in US custody until he was finally returned to his family on a flight that landed on July 20, a few weeks after President Donald Trump demanded an end to the family splits.

Johan's parents discovered that he had grown his first teeth, taken his first steps and spoken his first word -- "agua" (water) -- while away, had been badly affected by his months of detention.

"Everything we give him to eat he has problems with. And he gets up and sleepwalks at night," said his mother Adalicia, 21, who is eight months pregnant with another child.

She added bitterly that US authorities had sent him back without all his papers, with his birth certificate and vaccination record missing.

The Bueso family blamed the US government's "zero tolerance" policy for the separation -- but US Customs and Border Protection reiterated that the policy was announced after Bueso's deportation.

It also added that separation and deportation were justified in Bueso's case under a previous and long-standing US statute, because Bueso had a felony conviction for multiple previous attempts to illegally enter the US.

"There are instances where a child may be separated from an adult/parent solely for the child's welfare and not because of zero tolerance policy," a spokesman said.

According to the Honduran government, most Honduran children taken away from their parents inside the US earlier this year have still not been returned.

The foreign ministry said only 146 Honduran children taken between April 18 and May 31 had been reunited with their families as of August 10, and 313 were still being held by US authorities.

So far this year, again up to August 10, Honduras has accepted 17,573 Hondurans deported from the United States and 27,334 from Mexico.

- Giving up the dream -

Bueso said the experience had convinced him to give up on trying to illegally enter the United States. The Americans, he said, "are too rough."

Johan "might be traumatized for life," he said, watching over his son who was playing with a black and white cat.

He and his son were caught on his fourth attempt to reach what Central Americans call "the American dream": a land where work is relatively well paid and easy to come by and violent gangs don't rule neighborhoods. Each time, Bueso was deported, earning him a US criminal record.

Honduran officials admit that many of their citizens risk the voyage into the US with young kids because they believe it enhances their chances of being legally allowed to stay.

Bueso's two brothers, who live in the US state of Maryland, had shown that it was possible to make it.

But Trump, whose anti-immigration ambitions include building a wall along the border with Mexico, is changing some calculations.

In Bueso's case, it was a harsh readjustment. As an assistant on a bus servicing the La Libertad-San Pedro Sula route he can hope to earn $8 on a good day. In the US, as a laborer, he could expect to make $10 per hour.

The small, concrete-block and tin-roofed home he and his wife live in is owned by one of his brothers who lives in the US, Adrian, who also supplied the $6,000 to pay the smuggler.

Bueso said while he won't try again to reach the US, "no matter how many walls they put up there are always people who are going to try because they are looking to survive."

Bueso acknowledged that La Libertad was a relatively peaceful village that didn't suffer from the corrosive gang violence or drug trafficking that blighted so much of Honduras. But he pointed out that the country's economic situation was dire -- something he blamed on government corruption.

More than a million Hondurans live in the United States.

Most of them lack documents to legally stay, yet they represent a pillar holding up Honduras' economy. Each year $4 billion in remittances are sent to Honduras, accounting for 20 percent of gross domestic product.

This year, thanks to a strong dollar and taut US labor market, remittances have grown nine percent, according to the central bank.