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One Guatemalan Family's Journey To Be Reunited After Being Separated At U.S. Border

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The U.S. government has been gradually returning hundreds of separated migrant kids to their parents under orders from a federal judge. Member station KQED has been following a 5-year-old girl named Filomena. She spent months, thousands of miles away from her parents. Last week, she finally came home. Farida Jhabvala Romero reports.

FARIDA JHABVALA ROMERO, BYLINE: Filomena's parents, Nazario and Marcela, are campesinos - subsistence farmers. They traveled two days on foot and by bus from their village to Guatemala City. We're not using their last name because they're worried about their safety.

(SOUNDBITE OF CREAKING DOOR)

ROMERO: It's Marcela's first time in the city. She carries their son Marvin, who's 2, wrapped on her back. She's tired, but eager to see her daughter again.

MARCELA: (Speaking Spanish).

ROMERO: This morning, Filomena will step off an airplane in Guatemala. Filomena has been living in a children's shelter in New York ever since Border Patrol agents took her from her father's arms in California three months ago.

NAZARIO: (Speaking Spanish).

ROMERO: "We've been so worried, we hardly eat any more," he says.

To understand that anguish, we need to step back to April, when Nazario took Filomena's hand and headed north. He had struggled to support his family growing potatoes on a tiny plot of land, and then a gang pressured him to sell drugs for them.

NAZARIO: (Speaking Spanish).

ROMERO: He refused, so he left. On May 16, Border Patrol apprehended them near San Diego. Nazario initially sought asylum, but he gave up his claim. He said he was told that accepting deportation was the fastest way to get his daughter back. Filomena was one of more than 400 separated migrant kids left behind after their parents were deported. Attorneys helping the family said Filomena cried every day, sometimes so hard, she'd vomit. Immigration officials did not return requests for comment on her case.

(SOUNDBITE OF BUSTLING CROWD)

ROMERO: Finally, as Guatemalan officials pushed through a crowd of reporters, a white van carrying Filomena and other returning children pulls up to a government building. It was the afternoon of August 7. Nazario and Marcela are waiting.

UNIDENTIFIED OFFICIALS: (Speaking Spanish).

ROMERO: "Keep your heads down," the officials tell the children as they herd the kids inside to meet their parents in private.

FILOMENA: Papi. Papi. Papi (laughter).

ROMERO: I catch up with the family at dinner in a migrant shelter where they'll spend the night. It's their first meal together since April.

NAZARIO: (Speaking Spanish).

FILOMENA: (Laughter) Mickey Mouse.

ROMERO: Filomena giggles with her dad. She reaches for a pink teddy bear and Mickey Mouse doll she brought from the U.S. She says the doll is for her brother.

FILOMENA: Para hermanito.

ROMERO: Nazario beams.

NAZARIO: (Speaking Spanish).

ROMERO: He feels happy to have her back. After dinner, Marcela helps Filomena out of the leggings and pink T-shirt she wore on the plane and into a traditional Mayan handwoven blouse and skirt, just like her own. Then she hugs her daughter close. But as the family prepares to return to their village, another burden weighs on Nazario - a big debt he took out to pay smugglers for his failed trip north - $2,000.

NAZARIO: (Speaking Spanish).

ROMERO: He says it will be tough to pay back, and he could lose his land. He put it up as collateral. So he's thinking he'll have to move in search of work. But after the pain of the separation Marcela has one condition...

MARCELA: (Speaking Spanish).

ROMERO: ...The family needs to stay together. That's the most important thing, she says. For NPR News, I'm Farida Jhabvala Romero in Guatemala. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.