A little boy named Jose who braved the dangerous trek through Mexico to the United States with his mother is confused and upset.
He has not seen his mom for months. She promised him a Spiderman pinata for his 4th birthday, but it came and went without her.
She is supposed to come and get him. She said she would. But she hasn't.
She's lying, says Jose.
Unbeknownst to him the mother is actually in US custody. She is the adoptive mother of Jose, and did not have the right papers when they crossed over.
Children who made the trip through Mexico, most of them Central Americans, do not suffer just the perils of people who are fleeing: crime, domestic violence, poverty, lack of education and health care.
Rather, once their trip ends, they become vulnerable for more intangible reasons: lack of documents, disinformation and scarce legal representation, which makes it hard for them to navigate a bureaucracy that can seem byzantine.
Such is the case of Jose, whose real name and those of his relatives have been withheld in this story at their request because they fear retaliation.
Jose is the adoptive son of a 51-year-old Honduran woman who was detained when she asked for asylum in McAllen, Texas on December 29.
"My mommy is lying. She is not coming. She is not coming," the boy says angrily into a phone, to a human rights lawyer helping them.
Does he want to see his mom?
"Yes. Very much," Jose says.
Jose was held in a shelter for nearly a month until he was handed over to his 30-year-old sister -- named E. for the purposes of this article -- in Texas.
"My mother came here because if she had remained in Honduras another month she would have been killed," E. said. "There was a man who beat her. If it were not for the neighbors he would have killed her with a machete."
A federal court ordered last month that thousands of children separated from their parents or guardians at the border be reunited with them by July 26.
The deadline for 103 of them aged five or under has already passed. But the government could only return 57. The rest were classified as ineligible -- either because their parents had been deported or had criminal records or other problems that the government cited as grounds to keep them from their parents.
- A piece of paper -
Jose turned four last month. No pinata.
His sister said her mother met a girl in Honduras who was pregnant and did not want the baby. The day it was born, she gave it to E.'s mother.
"All the neighbors signed as witnesses. They all know, because the girl always said she was going to give the baby away," said E.
But that was not enough for the US government.
The immigration lawyer who is handling Jose's case, Sara Ramey, has collected photos, witness accounts and medical records to show how the adoptive mother has taken care of the boy.
"Many Central American societies, including Honduras, have an informal, community-based approach to arranging matters, like child custody," Ramey, who is executive director of the Migrant Center for Human Rights in San Antonio, Texas, told AFP.
"We want our government to be verifying relationships," she said. "We want them to confirm what the relationship is, and that that is a healthy and safe relationship for the child."
The authorities did that in this case and no one questions whether the mother is a good caregiver.
"The only thing that's holding her case up is this piece of paper, this formal document," said Ramey, referring to an adoption certificate.
Immigrants can lack papers for reasons that are out of their control, said Maureen Meyer, director for Mexico and Migrant Rights at the Washington Office on Latin America, an advocacy group.
For instance, she said, "in mountainous areas of Guatemala, there are indigenous people who may never have registered the birth of their children."
- Goodbye, mom -
Another boy, Pedro, age 3, has not been reunited with his mother either. She is his biological mother but had already been deported once before when she asked for asylum in April.
Now his 25-year-old mother, call her V., is detained in Texas and Pedro was sent to the home of a great-aunt.
The boy spent a month in a shelter until the authorities turned him over to the older woman.
"He was so sad," she said.
Speaking to his mother on the phone, all he said was, "mommy" and then "bye."
Some immigrants such as V. are unaware of the consequences of trying to enter the United States when they have already been deported once.
In many other cases, kids cross the border on their own because of a bogus rumor in Central America that children who cross over without adults automatically get residency.
People traffickers known as "coyotes" encourage such rumors so as to persuade families to send their kids on the trip, which can cost from 5,000 to 15,000 dollars.
If they make it into the country, kids who speak no English can end up going before a judge all by themselves.
Still, no matter what they go through in America, it's better than staying home in destitute, gang-ridden and ultra violent countries like Honduras, Guatemala or El Salvador, says Eric Olson, with the Latin American Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center.
"Their margin for survival, for having a decent life, even a poor one, is almost zero," he said. Compared to what is going on back home, "the situation on the US border will never be worse."