For three kids newly arrived from a remote corner of El Salvador, New York City is a bewildering place.
They used to walk 30 minutes to a small and humble school. Now they walk a few blocks to a big and imposing building, with computers and supplies, and kids from all over the world.
Underground, there is the subway, rumbling and twisting through mysterious dark tunnels. Aboveground, there are horns and sirens and brakes shrieking as drivers narrowly miss those pedestrians who dawdle crossing the street.
“Even the crosswalks confuse them,” says their stepfather Eddie with a chuckle. “’’What do the signals mean? When do we walk? When do we stop?’” He shrugs his shoulders. “They’ve never seen anything like them before.”
Being reunited with their mother after a ten-year separation is also bewildering. Did they ever really believe this happy day would come?
There was always a feeling of sorrow about Consuelo, says Eddie, even when she looked happy. “Her heart,” he says, shaking his head, “was always with her children.”
At a very young age, Consuelo became the family breadwinner for her three young children in El Salvador. There was no work in her rural village; she was forced to leave her children with her mother in order to provide for them. She went to New York, found a job, and immediately began sending money home. They communicated through letters, phone or Skype, although mail delivery was sometimes unreliable and cellular and broadband coverage spotty at best.
Months became years, years became a decade. Her children were fast growing up without her. The sense of loss, of missing, of longing, didn’t diminish with time; it increased, along with the constant worry. There was no opportunity and no future in El Salvador for the children.
Worse, the gang violence in El Salvador had spread out from the cities and into the rural areas. As the kids moved into their teen years, they became walking targets — the older boy for gang recruitment and the girl as a gang “girlfriend.” If the gangs found out they had a mother in the U.S., they could be kidnapped and held for ransom. Consuelo knew their grandmother could not adequately protect them.
When Eddie, a U.S. citizen, married Consuelo, he knew he was also taking on children he had never met. It was a great responsibility, but also a precious one. He accepted it without reservation. “I already love those kids just like they are my own,” he said happily. “Of course they have to come here and be with us.”
Consuelo’s beautiful eyes shone with tears. “If God wills it and the children come here,” she told him, “I will be like a new woman.”
At the U.S. Embassy
The couple scheduled an appointment with TJ Mills, legal director for NY JFON. They filed a family petition in August 2015 and it was approved that December. Now the children had to wait for their interview at the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador.
That interview, says TJ, should have been scheduled by April 2016 at the latest. Computer glitches, however, caused their first interview to be delayed until October 2016. Then there was the guardianship issue, as the embassy tried to ascertain whether the grandmother had power of attorney to accompany the children to their interviews.
One of their follow-up interviews was cancelled without reason. Consuelo called TJ in a panic. Did this mean the children wouldn’t be able to get out?
“That was after the Trump administration’s first executive order on border security,” explains TJ. “I think the embassy was in triage mode, trying to figure out what it all meant for them.”
Altogether, the children and their grandmother made three separate trips to San Salvador. It’s a long trek to the bus stop and then a tortuous ride through rough, mountainous roads.
TJ was especially worried about the children in the capital. The 17-year old daughter of one of his New York clients had gone to the U.S. Embassy in El Salvador to be fingerprinted. She had been brutally murdered on her way home to her rural village.
Haunted by the death of this teenaged girl, TJ reminded the embassy multiple times that the trip to the city was not only difficult for the kids and their grandmother, but also potentially very dangerous.
As worrisome as it was for TJ, it was so much worse for Eddie and Consuelo.
“She cried a lot,” remembers TJ. “Every set-back was devastating for her. A kind of hopelessness settled around her, especially after the kids’ initial interview was cancelled.”
Finally, each of the three children received their visas in March 2017. They flew into JFK airport on April 26. It was a bittersweet moment for them in some respects; they had to leave their grandmother who had raised them behind. But their grandmother knew she was sending them someplace where they would be safe, have opportunities, and be with two loving parents. Not for one moment had she faltered in her resolve to have them join their mother.
“For the family,” Eddie says, “the future is everything.”
Just in time for Mother’s Day
The scene at JFK when Consuelo was at last reunited with her children was a joyous and emotional one. It’s been two weeks since that day, and she still can’t quite believe the miracle of their presence. She often secretly checks up on them while they are sleeping; touching the downy skin of the youngest, stroking her daughter’s long hair, and marveling how the eldest grew so tall and strong.
They are truly here. And they are all together.
Once Consuelo cried in sorrow; now she cries with joy and relief.
She isn’t a person who expresses herself easily; mostly she depends on Eddie to talk for her. But she does try to put into words her gratitude to JFON NY and most particularly for TJ.
“I will die grateful for everything he did for us,” she vows ardently. “Now my heart can breathe again.”
The family will attend church on Mother’s Day, but neither Consuelo nor Eddie know what they will be doing afterwards. The kids are busy planning a surprise and they won’t tell anybody what it is.
“Whatever they do, it will be fantastic,” says Eddie, grinning. “These are great kids.”
Consuelo seems almost uninterested in the day set aside to honor mothers. “We have received so many blessings already,” she explains. “All I ask God now is that he allows the children to grow, and to be happy and safe.”