HOUSTON — Editor’s note: KENS 5 changed some names in this story and is not using last names for peoples' protection.
Walking into Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport always feels like an ending and a beginning. Catalina’s family is here for both.
Catalina is anxious.
“A minute feels to me like two or three hours,” she told KENS 5, speaking in Spanish.
These final hours at IAH mark the end of Catalina’s wait. It started weeks ago, when her sister and her three kids – ages 14, 11 and 10 – were living in a migrant camp in Reynosa, Mexico, across the border from McAllen.
The family told KENS 5 they traveled from Honduras, crossed the border into the U.S., were expelled by Border Patrol and, like several thousand other migrants at the Reynosa camp, stayed. They say the camp was better than home.
But for Catalina, watching her nieces and nephew living in a tent city was too much.
“I would see in video calls how the kids would sleep, how they would put up with the cold, how they would put up with the rain, how they would sleep on the floor,” Catalina said. “That’s why I said that we needed to bring the children (here).”
Catalina told KENS 5 she pushed her sister to send the kids across the border alone.
The U.S. expels families under Title 42, a Centers for Disease Control rule put in place during the Trump administration at the start of the pandemic. It allows Border Patrol agents to remove migrants from the country due to the public health emergency.
The Biden administration keeps using Title 42, a move highly criticized by doctor’s groups and human rights advocates.
However, the administration doesn’t expel unaccompanied minors.
The use of Title 42 by the administration has been blamed for what advocates have called “forced family separations” at the border, where parents have to make the choice of sending children alone or risk being stuck in limbo at a migrant camp, or worse: being kidnapped, assaulted or murdered while living there.
“These mothers, who just want to keep their children safe, realize they can't keep their children safe in Mexico,” said Casey Revkin, the chief financial officer of Each Step Home, a nonprofit that advocates for detained migrant children. “But they know that if they send their children over the border alone that they will be accepted, but only if they cross the border alone. So, they make this heartbreaking decision to separate from their children and send their children over the border alone. And it's really sad.
“Then those children arrive in our country as unaccompanied minors, and they're detained as unaccompanied minors until they can be released to family members.”
Catalina’s sister and the kids’ mother told KENS 5 it took courage to send the kids alone with a human-smuggler, often referred to as “coyotes.”
“You can imagine how I felt, like when I saw them leave,” the kids’ mom told KENS 5 from Reynosa. “They left and I came to my tent to cry. To pray and ask God to give me strength.”
The children crossed the Rio Grande in a raft, hoping they would eventually get to Aunt Catalina in Houston.
“They say they didn’t walk a lot,” Catalina told KENS 5, “but they did walk all the way by themselves, the three of them holding hands. After that, immigration took them.”
The kids spent several weeks in federal custody and were released into Catalina’s care.
Which meant, on a Monday night at IAH, Catalina and the entire family scattered around the world were ready and anxious for a new beginning for Mariel, Angely and Dilan 10.
“We are going to take care of them, we’re going to give them what they need,” Catalina said. “We’re going to make sure they are OK. It’s our turn, we have to do it. We’re all family.”
The reunion was loud, full of tears, hugs and kisses.
“Now that they’re here, I’m full of happiness,” Catalina said. “Because the impossible was possible. With God, nothing is impossible. Happy because we were able to do what we wanted so much. Happy, so happy.”
“Happy. I feel happy,” Angely added.
The kids’ mom and dad are still in Mexico, their own future unclear. But these kids now get to build their own, hoping one day it will include their parents.
“We love them, and we want to see them one day and hug,” said Dilan and Mariel.
Revkin told KENS 5 Each Step Home is helping the kids, including assisting in enrolling them in school and connecting them with services in their area.
Revkin said the children have an open asylum claim. They can stay in the U.S. while it’s going through the court system, and potentially longer if asylum is granted.