A Father and Daughter Reunite, But Trauma Follows Them Home
It was mid-afternoon in Corral de Mulas, a tiny coastal village three hours outside El Salvador’s capital, when six-year-old Meybelin and her father, Arnovis Guidos Portillo, 26, began playing on the beach.
Meybelin paddled through the water towards her father, both of them swimming fully clothed. She strung her arms around his neck and he gave her a piggy back ride. Her giggling and the strong buzzing of cicadas filled the air.
This was how the two often spent time together before they were separated after crossing the southwest border in late May to seek asylum. But since their month apart — he was deported while she remained in a children’s shelter — their relationship has taken on new meaning. Getting her back, Guidos Portillo said, felt like his soul had come alive.
“When I hear my daughter’s voice and see her smile, I say to myself, ‘Breathe. She’s with you and you have someone to fight for,’” he said. “It’s very special.”
The two are inseparable. She rarely leaves his side.
But that is also the problem.
Meybelin used to pepper strangers with questions. She enjoyed pretending to be a television reporter with her cousin, interviewing her father “live” on the air. Now, she refuses to walk to her aunt’s house alone, and sometimes asks Guidos Portillo to pick her up early from kindergarten. When she sees a stranger, she rushes to her father’s side.
“This is the struggle I’m facing now,” he said. “I want my daughter to be as she was before. We’re trying to see how she can return to normal… We’re always close to her so as not to give her the opportunity to think about what she experienced.”
Meybelin is one of almost 3,000 mostly Central American children separated from their families by the Trump administration as part of a new zero-tolerance immigration policy to enforce the border. FRONTLINE followed the daughter and father for the film Separated: Children at the Border. Their story reflects how trauma caused by weeks of separation follows families back home, leaving parents unsure if their children will fully recover.
Under Trump’s policy of separating families – which the president reversed in June – parents and children were held in government detentions and shelters thousands of miles apart, often not knowing the other’s location. The government has scrambled to comply with judicial orders enforcing family reunifications. On July 26, federal officials said they had reunited more than 1,800 children with their families. But hundreds more remain separated in government-funded shelters in cases where their parents waived their right to reunification, failed to pass a background check, or have been deported.
Experts say the separations can cause long-term health consequences for children, and reports have cited safety concerns regarding the facilities holding immigrant children. A federal lawsuit filed in April claims that a government-contracted shelter subdued immigrant children with psychiatric drugs, and an investigation by Reveal found that more than $1.5 billion in government funding has been allocated to private companies running shelters that were facing serious allegations of mistreatment.
Luis Zayas, dean of the Steve Hicks School of Social Work at The University of Texas at Austin, said that the trauma from being separated comes on top of the trauma families already experienced fleeing the violence in their home countries.
“We are creating a mental health crisis that’s going to affect these families for a lifetime, whether or not they remain in the U.S.,” he said. “The damage has been done, and it’s going to take an awful lot to turn those problems around so that these children don’t go through life worried about when the same thing will happen to them.”
In 2016, Guidos Portillo, a farm worker, said he began receiving threats after getting into an argument with the brother of a local gang leader over a soccer match. He said he attempted to flee to the U.S. twice but was deported from Mexico and Louisiana. In May 2018, he set off with Meybelin, hoping to join his brother in Kansas.
The pair traveled through Mexico in a tractor trailer, he said, with frigid temperatures that left both of them shaking and coated his hair with frost. For 52 hours, they subsisted on only a cracker and an apple.
At the border, the two were detained and taken to a processing center in McAllen, Texas. Twenty-four hours later, Guidos Portillo said an official told him they would take Meybelin somewhere to get proper nutrition, and that there wasn’t room on the bus for him. He said he was told he would see her right after his court date. Guidos Portillo woke his sleeping daughter, explaining that he would catch up with her soon.
Instead, Guidos Portillo received no news of Meybelin for weeks. He said when he asked the officer handling his case about her, the officer said he didn’t know he had a daughter. The officer suggested she could be in New York or Florida.
“Imagine that. I felt like a bomb had exploded inside of me, knowing that I was so far from my daughter,” he said.
Guidos Portillo said he refused to sign papers approving his deportation twice, wanting confirmation on what would happen to his daughter. The third time, he said he was warned that if he didn’t leave the country, his daughter would be detained for a long time. Reluctant and confused, Guidos Portillo signed.
In a statement, U.S. Customs and Border Protection said that it “strongly disagrees” with Guidos Portillo’s allegations.
“CBP treats those in our custody with dignity and respect and provides multiple avenues to report any misconduct,” the agency said. “We take all allegations seriously and investigate all formal complaints.”
The same day he returned to El Salvador in late June, Guidos Portillo’s father received a call on his cell phone and handed his son the phone. It was Meybelin.
“Daddy, why didn’t you take me with you?” she asked.
He fibbed: he couldn’t pick her up because the plane had been damaged. She told him she didn’t want to be there anymore.
“‘Why not, my love? Just be patient. They’re going to fix the plane soon and I’ll come for you,’” he said.
“Well, hurry up!” she responded.
About a week later, Meybelin arrived in El Salvador. About 17 family members traveled for the reunion, and they decorated the house with lights and balloons. But Guidos Portillo now feels a different kind of helplessness. He said Meybelin is often emotional, and when she starts crying, nothing can subdue her. She spends her time drawing, just like at the shelter.
Meybelin’s kindergarten teacher, Yesenia Gomez, has also noticed that Meybelin seems withdrawn at school and not as happy as she was before she left El Salvador.
“When she arrives, I try to hug her and ask her how she is,” said Gomez. “That’s how I try to help her. I pay attention to her.”
Back on the beach, Arnovis gently asked Meybelin about her time away from him. Distracted and quiet, she recalled sporadic details: When she asked the staff about her father, she was told that they didn’t know where he was. She was told that if she cried, they wouldn’t listen to her.
One memory stood out. She said when she flew from Texas to a children’s shelter in Arizona, she was told that her father would be joining her later.
“When I got there and I didn’t see him, I said, ‘and my dad?’ … It was a lie,” Meybelin said.
—With Marlen Vinayo and Rachel Beth Anderson in El Salvador, and Nicole Einbinder in Boston.