Reunited but traumatised: Salvadoran family split up at border seeks recovery
Arnovis Guidos Portillo was reunited with his daughter a month after being detained, but the experience has left her in distress
“Papa, where did you go?” Meybelín Portillo, six, asks her father as she clambers on to his lap, tears still in her eyes. She buries her face in his chest and hugs him tightly.
Arnovis Guidos Portillo had only stepped out for 15 minutes to pick up an evening order of pupusas (fat tortillas stuffed with cheese, beans or meat) to eat at their home in the tiny Salvadoran village of Corral de Mulas.
But since her experience of the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance policy” – which mandated that children of undocumented migrants be removed from their parents – Meybelin has found it hard to spend any time at all away from her father.
Even the briefest separation seems to reawaken panic that her father won’t return.
“I just went to get pupusas,” Arnovis reassures her. “Don’t worry mi amor.”
And then, trying to change the subject, he says: “Hey Meybelin, should we have a swimming lesson tomorrow?” She looks up at him and gives an emphatic nod.
Portillo, 26, is a single father, and the two had never spent more than a few hours apart before Meybelin was taken from him on 27 May, after the two were detained at the Texas border. He was deported on 21 June, with no idea where his daughter was – and only made contact with her once he reached a center for returned migrants in San Salvador.
After a month apart, the pair was finally reunited last week, when Meybelin was returned to El Salvador.
With a wide smile, Arnovis says he has never felt more relieved than when he saw Meybelin in the airport: “I was so happy. We ran towards each other. We’ve never been apart.”
But his joy is tempered with concerns about the long-term impact of the experience.
“She’s tramautized and extremely anxious – she cried for an hour straight this morning and then again this afternoon. It scares me,” he says.
For now, he is trying to distract her, taking her to visit friends or going swimming in the nearby bay.
Meybelin is not ready to talk about her time in the US and Arnovis does not want to press her.
“She doesn’t like to remember it – she won’t answer questions, she’s quieter than usual,” he says. “This is all so ugly – the situation here, what happened at the border, this process making sure Meybelín’s OK, thinking about what we have to do next … but we’ll be together and whatever happens, happens.”
The US president, Donald Trump, reversed the policy of family separations late last month, replacing it with indefinite family detention, but it is unknown how many of the nearly 3,000 children who were separated from their parents have been reunited with their parents or deported alone.
A federal judge has since ended deportations of those separated from their children and ordered the administration reunite children under the age of five with their parents within 14 days, and all other children within 30 days.
As of 26 June, the US Departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services said they had reunified 538 children with parents.
But the nightmare is not over for the Guidos Portillo family.
Arnovis’s seven-year-old niece, Darlene Roxana Muñoz, is still in a shelter somewhere in Florida. She and her father, José Dolores Muñoz Salinas, 36, had traveled to the border with Arnovis and Meybelin before all four turned themselves into US officials at Hidalgo, with plans to apply for asylum.
Agents then separated Darlene and Meybelin from their fathers: Meybelin was sent to Phoenix and Darlene is thought to have been sent to Florida. Arnovis and José were then transferred to Laredo before José was moved by himself to Port Isabel, Texas, where he remains detained.
“When’s Darlene coming back?” Meybelin asks later as she picks at her meal. Yancy, Darlene’s mother, forces a smile and with lowered eyes says: “Soon, my dear.”
According to Salvadoran officials, about 180 Salvadoran children in total were separated from their parents at the border, but the Salvadoran government cannot locate 35 of them.
Meybelin’s case was the first known reunification with a deported parent in the country.
When he first arrived back to El Salvador, Arnovis had no idea where Meybelín was before Jonathan Ryan, an American lawyer who is executive director of Texas-based legal aid organization Raices, called to tell him she had been in a shelter in Phoenix.
The night she finally landed in San Salvador, two vans full of family members had made the three-hour trek to the airport with colorful balloons and welcome signs. Arnovis had spent the morning preparing for her arrival: cleaning her favorite white dress, stringing lights, cooking beans and stuffing a piñata he commissioned to resemble her.
Since her return Meybelin has refused to sleep in her own bed, instead spending the night sandwiched between Arnovis and his partner Joanna.
And while Arnovis is glad to have her back, he still fears what the future may hold for the family.
The pair fled home after Arnovis received death threats from the local street gang which still dominates the town.
Since returning, Arnovis says two other friends have left after gang members threatened their lives.
For now, he plans to stay in El Salvador, but he is looking into requesting asylum elsewhere – in Canada, Costa Rica, Belize, Panama or any other country where he can work and he and his daughter can be safe.
“This is all happiness right now. It’s been a celebration because I’ve got another chance with her, but I need to make sure we are going to be OK,” he says. “And I just don’t know. I just wish the United States would leave a little compassion for us.”
Reporting for this article was funded by an Adelante fellowship from the International Women’s Media Foundation