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Fifty-Six Days of Separation

The Scars Left Behind by U.S. Migration Policy

A mother and her six-year-old son fled to Texas from the violence in their homeland of Honduras. When they arrived, young Samir was ripped out of his mother's arms. Two months later, they found each other again, but something had changed.

By , and

Tuesday, 9/11/2018   01:06 PM

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It's 1 a.m. when Levis Osorio Andino bolts out of a dreamless sleep. A warden is standing next to her bunkbed inside the Port Isabel Detention Center in Texas and shaking her arm. "Wake up 494," she says. "It's time."

Levis sleepily packs her bag and stumbles through the neon-lit corridors. It has been 56 days since she last saw her six-year-old son Samir, who used to hang on her more than any of her other children. In early June, they crossed the Rio Grande after weeks spent fleeing their homeland of Honduras, and the Texan border guards immediately pulled her child out of her arms.

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Levis' arrival corresponded with America's effort early this summer to pursue a zero-tolerance policy to illegal immigration, a policy which called for families to be separated at the border. Now, though, the government is trying to fix the chaos that ensued.

The last thing that Levis had heard about Samir was that he no longer wanted to leave the home in Phoenix, to which he had been taken.

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"Surprise," the warden says and pushes Levis into a windowless room. "Samir just went to the restroom briefly." She slumps onto a chair, trembling. Then, there he is, standing in the doorway, hand-in-hand with a social worker, his hair close-cropped, the smile frozen on his face showing the gap between his front teeth.

"Samir, my darling," Levis stammers. "How are you?"

"I don't know who you are."

Levis takes a step toward Samir, but he recoils. She tries again and he starts trying to kick her.

"Samir," she says, "I love you."

"You aren't my mother."

Such is the scene related by Levis as she sits exhausted in front of a plate of rice a couple of hours after her reunion with her son. Born 26 years ago in the Honduran city of El Porvenir, Levis is a pretty woman with almond-shaped eyes. She struggles to find words to describe the nightmare she is living. She keeps having to fight back tears as Samir sits next to her, engrossed in the fantasy world of a smartphone game.

If you ask him how he's doing, he briefly looks up and says: "I'm made of steel."

No Moral Compass

The sun is shining onto the cafeteria tables of the Basilica Hotel, a hostel operated by the Catholic Church in Rio Grande Valley. A prison bus dropped Levis and Samir off here in the night, a place located at the very southern edge of the United States, not far from where they landed with their raft two months ago. They are now free, but they don't know where to go. In October, Levis says, her asylum case will be considered -- and at the very least, she won't be deported before then.

The hostel is normally used by pilgrims, but it has become a transfer station for many of the some 3,000 families that America gradually began reuniting at the end of July. It is a place of humanity in a country that has lost its moral compass.

Nuns hand out donated clothes in the lobby. They help people find their family members and organize bus tickets. They reconnect Levis with her lawyer for the first time in weeks and over the phone, he promises to find her a place to stay, a place to start healing the wounds that this country has inflicted.

For years, the U.S. was a country whose borders were more open than elsewhere. "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free," reads the poem at the foot of the Statue of Liberty. It is a principle that has seemed immovable ever since the country declared independence in 1776 as a country of immigrants.

But the 45th president is currently in the process of unleashing a wrecking ball on this foundation. In the eyes of the former real estate magnate Donald Trump, people like Levis, who are fleeing from the violence and poverty endemic in Central America, are criminals first and foremost. He calls them drug dealers, rapists or "bad hombres." Trump believes there are too many of them, and to keep them away, he has promised his followers he will build a border wall.

The zero-tolerance policy announced by Attorney General Jeff Sessions in early April was basically a precursor to that physical barrier, something like an invisible wall. It was a way to scare people away, and much cheaper than a vast concrete barrier. Starting in mid-May, thousands of parents were locked up and their children scattered across the country. Some of them were put into homes while others ended up with foster parents or even in empty Walmart stores.

But it quickly became clear that Trump had broken a taboo. To many, it looked as though the president was taking the children hostage in order to blackmail Congress into funding his wall. The American public, it quickly became clear, wasn't particularly troubled by the introduction of tariffs on aluminum imports, but traumatized children were beyond the pale.

Just the Start

Even as Levis, despite being locked in a cell, was doing all she could to locate Samir, an increasing number of Republicans began joining the chorus of those who were loudly criticizing the family separation policy. And on June 20, Trump did something he doesn't do often -- he grudgingly corrected a grave error. "This is going to make a lot of people happy," Trump said as he joylessly signed a decree ending the policy of family separation.

When a judge ordered 10 days later that all families be reunited by July 26, it looked as though the chaos caused by the policy would soon be coming to an end. In reality, though, it was just the start.

Still today, more than a month after the expiration of that deadline, hundreds of children are still in government custody. There is no trace of dozens of fathers and mothers because they have already been deported. Officials are unable to match children with their parents because different agencies are responsible for them. Prior to her release, Levis had to undergo a DNA test to prove that she was Samir's mother. It is crazy, but sometimes it seems as though it is part of a larger strategy.

One morning in August, five days after their reunion, Levis and Samir are lying in a double bed in a church library listening to songs from Honduras. The library is located in the Brooklyn Heights neighborhood of New York, and Levis is singing along with the music. Eventually, Samir's quiet voice joins in. Tall shelves of books mute the sound. Their lawyer said they can stay here for a few days.

Some parishioners cook for them while others took them out to show them Times Square. Every few minutes, someone pokes their head in to ask if they need anything. Thank you, Levis says each time with a sheepish smile.

She has tied her hair into a knot on her head and is wearing a black sweatshirt printed with the word "Blessed" in gold lettering. Samir is wearing new Batman shoes. They are getting to know a different, friendlier America -- but their nightmare is only just getting started.

"Samir has changed," says Levis when he briefly leaves the room.

When she carefully tried to pull him toward her on that first night, he just turned away. It was only at dawn the next morning that Samir put his small hand on her cheek like he used to. When he began speaking to her for the first time the next morning, he told her all the English words he had learned in the home: orange, apple, cherry. A short time later, he had a tantrum and began throwing toy cars.

'Immigrants Are Ugly'

The next evening just before bedtime, he tried to bite her. "I hate you!" he screamed. "I want to kill you!"

He has frequent mood swings, says Levis. He is courser than he used to be, but she avoids getting angry with him. She doesn't ask about what he went through during their separation, in part because she's afraid of what he will say.

"Samir, where in your body is love?" she asks him while lying on the bed this August morning. When he hesitates, she takes his hand and taps on his heart for so long that he finally starts laughing.

It will take time for him to develop trust again, she is told by Catalina, an energetic midwife who is taking a walk with them that afternoon on the clean sidewalks in the neighborhood where they are staying -- a neighborhood full of apartments that cost a fortune because of their views of Manhattan. Sometimes, when Samir is off playing in a playground, they sit down on a bench. It's the kind of life that Levis always dreamed of. From the banks of the East River, Catalina points to the Statue of Liberty, holding up her torch out on the water.

"Look," she says. "She wants to say that immigrants like you are welcome."

"Immigrants are ugly," says Samir, squeezing his eyes shut. It sounds as though he might have heard that sentence quite often recently.

The contrast between Brooklyn Heights and her hometown could hardly be greater. Honduras is the second-poorest country in Central America, one of the places Trump described in January as "shithole countries." A large amount of the cocaine that ends up in the U.S. travels through Honduras. Violent youth gangs demand protection money and they recruit children into their ranks who are often not much older than Samir.

El Porvenir is a humid place at the foot of a rainforest-covered range of hills. The two-hour drive from the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa leads through a sparsely settled area where banana trees grow and a handful of cattle graze. Men holding Kalashnikovs can be seen standing in front of gas stations and restaurants along the route.

Lilian Maradiaga, Levis Andino's mother, is a warm-hearted woman in her 50s. She wears a bracelet on which the name of her only daughter is embroidered. She hasn't spoken with Levis for weeks, Lilian says as she prepares food for her two grandchildren. On this morning in July, Levis is still sitting in custody.

A Dead End

Luz, her three-year-old daughter, is chasing a couple of chickens in the yard while Jarends, who will soon be nine, naps in a hammock beneath a mango tree. They both now call their grandma "Mommy."

In the evenings, Lilian lies in bed with Luz and says prayers for "Mommy Levis." Then she helps Jarends with his homework. Lilian is a teacher in the only elementary school in El Porvenir. Levis also wanted to become a teacher, she says, preferably a music teacher. She even went to university in Tegucigalpa for a few semesters, but then she got pregnant after being raped by a drunk man at a party.

Levis began taking anti-depressants and went back to university. But then Samir was born after a one-night stand and a few years later, his sister Luz followed. Levis ceased her studies and stayed in El Porvenir. Her life, says Lilian, had reached a dead end. There are a few shops in the town center, but no jobs. Making matters worse was the gossip about her -- a woman with three children but no husband.

One evening, Levis took Lilian aside and told her that she wanted to give her small son something better -- and Lilian knew immediately what she was talking about. Two of her sons live in Nashville and Levis even visited them in 2015, shortly after the birth of Luz. She worked in a burger restaurant for 18 months and managed to send some money home, which Lilian used to buy a children's bed. Then, she was deported. Levis said that she wouldn't meet the same fate a second time.

On March 1, she packed a Bible, her best cloths and a few stuffed animals in an old suitcase. She hoped that her brothers would take her in again, even though they fought frequently the last time she was there. She took Samir along because he had suffered so much when she had been gone the last time. When her night bus disappeared into the darkness, Lilian remained behind.

"I would constantly look at my mobile phone," she says. "I knew the stories about women being forced into prostitution on the journey or of cartels kidnapping children for ransom money." Sitting in her living room, Lilian puts on her glasses and opens WhatsApp.

She ultimately received incomplete glimpses from a long journey. City names from Guatemala and Mexico, photos showing Levis and Samir puckering their lips for the camera. The last message came on June 1: Mamita, Levis wrote, I'm going to the river. I won't be answering anymore.

Levis and Samir were part of a vast influx of immigrants. Tens of thousands of Hondurans flee to the U.S. every year, with American officials estimating that some 400,000 of them are currently living illegally in the country. To avoid attracting attention to themselves, most strictly obey the law. They work in construction, like Levis' brothers, they care for the elderly or for children, or they work in landscaping. They ensure that the lifestyle of the largely white middle class remains affordable.

There was a time when Donald Trump also saw the benefit of such people. During the construction of the Trump Tower in Manhattan, he employed 200 Polish workers who were in the country illegally. For the construction of his luxury hotel in Washington, D.C., he used cheap labor from Central America. It isn't totally clear when Trump began seeing these people as a danger, but during his campaign, he must have realized that his hateful tirades against immigrants had struck a nerve.

In addition to the construction of a wall along the Mexican border, he also demanded that the estimated 11 million people who live illegally in the country be quickly removed by way of mass deportations. Then he became president and his rhetoric became policy. In early 2017, Trump blocked the issuing of travel visas to citizens from seven Muslim majority countries. He then implemented stricter border policies and ditched an Obama-era program protecting 700,000 immigrant youth, most of them from Latin America, from deportation.

It isn't always easy to differentiate between what Trump has only said he was going to do and what he has actually done. The idea of blocking the influx of immigrants by separating families first made its way into the media in March 2017. John Kelly, who was secretary of homeland security at the time, mentioned it on CNN. Then the issue disappeared again. But in the Texan city of El Paso, a secret program began -- one which looks a lot like a kind of blueprint for what the zero-tolerance policy would later become.

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All migrants who illegally crossed the border near El Paso between July and November found themselves the subject of criminal charges. Prior to that, illegal border crossings were often treated as a minor infraction and ignored. Under Obama, it was standard that families, after a brief period of imprisonment together, would be freed to await their asylum proceedings or they would be immediately deported. But the Trump administration realized that filing criminal charges opened up an opportunity. The law allows the state to separate parents from their children for the duration of the proceedings.

The El Paso experiment proved successful. An internal government report noted that illegal border crossings had dropped by 64 percent as a result of the family separation policy.

'We Have to Give Your Son a Bath'

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Lying on her bed in the shelter in New York and recalling the moment when Border Patrol agents led her into an interrogation room on the morning of June 2, Levis says she knew nothing of these things. The initial reception facilities in Texas are known among migrants as "hieleras," or iceboxes, because of the low temperatures at which they are kept. She didn't understand that the guards took her shoelaces because a father had hanged himself a short time before after his children were taken away from him. She was surprised, though, by a cell door on which was written "6-12 years."

Samir sat on her lap crying.

"We've made it," she told him, her voice calm. "Soon we'll be free."

Border guards had intercepted them not far from where her traffickers had dropped them off. They had spent the night in a metal cage wrapped in aluminum foil blankets. Levis was exhausted and could hardly pay attention to the questions.

How old are you? Where are you from?

Suddenly, a guard came in and grabbed Samir's arm. The boy clutched Levis' T-shirt.

"Ma'am," the man said. "We have to give your son a bath."

Levis tried to stall him. "I'll do it myself later," she said.

"Ma'am," he insisted. "You can't go into a washroom where other boys are showering."

Then, Levis says, he tore Samir out of her lap. And Samir screamed louder than he ever had before.

"The kid is spoiled," the guard hissed. "He has mommyitis."

Levis stares emptily at the bookshelves. "It all went so fast," she says. "I couldn't even say goodbye."

Levis only began to realize that it was intentional three days later as she was sitting in leg shackles in one of those mass court proceedings that had become a daily occurrence on the border. Dozens of migrants, brought before a judge in a darkened courtroom in the city of McAllen, stood up to tell their stories. One of the mothers in the group said that her child had been ripped straight from her breast during feeding. A father said that his handicapped son was no longer there when he returned from the restroom.

"They were afraid that we would try to defend ourselves," Levis says.

She was then taken to a different detention center, located some 170 miles (270 kilometers) to the north on the arid outskirts of Laredo. All her hopes were now invested in a flyer that a court-appointed defense attorney had given her as she was being led away. "Dial 699 if you want to find out more about your child," it read.

Levis' attempts to call the number proved fruitless. The line was constantly busy, and when she did manage to get through, a slightly annoyed voice told her that it could take some time until the system was able to locate her son. When she heard several days later that Samir was in a home, the voice said: "I am not authorized to tell you in what city he is."

Howling Like a Coyote

There was no internet in the prison where she was held and when the news came on the TV, an invisible hand would quickly change the channel to a soap opera. Levis was completely cut off from the world outside. It was so cold in her cell that she stuffed scraps of paper into the slats of the air conditioning unit. When she would break into tears at night, the guards would laugh at her, saying she howled like a coyote.

She began wondering if she had done the right thing by promising Samir more and more great adventures as they traveled from city to city on their way north. Or by pretending that the migration prison they landed in for awhile in Mexico was actually a hotel. Had she expected too much from him?

"When I first sat across from Levis, separated by a pane of glass and speaking over the phone," says lawyer Ricardo de Anda, "it broke my heart. There was nothing else I could do but promise to find Samir."

One morning in June, de Anda is sitting in his legal practice in the center of Laredo wearing a cowboy hat and a pin-striped suit. Below the window is a cowhide sofa while the walls are adorned with pictures of Che Guevara and Abraham Lincoln. In his Twitter bio, de Anda describes himself as an "enemy of the white-right."

Shocked by reports of the mass criminal proceedings like the one in McAllen, de Anda had left a business card at the prison gates. Levis was one of the first to call him. Dozens of women followed, and the only clue they could provide him with to help him find their children was a so-called "Alien Number" each migrant is assigned upon entry to the U.S.

De Anda found children in Texas. He found them in New Jersey and New York. He tracked down Samir in Phoenix. When the whole thing started becoming too much for him, he issued an appeal on Twitter -- one that would catapult him to a whole new level.

De Anda is 62 years old. For the vast majority of his career, he was a small-time, border town lawyer who spent most of his time taking care of his ranch. But now, he suddenly had Michael Avenatti on the phone asking him if he needed a partner.

"Wooowwww," says de Anda.

My Prince, My Fighter

Avenatti has become one of America's best-known lawyers, propelled into the limelight by representing the porn star Stormy Daniels in a legal complaint filed against Trump. He has more than a half-million followers on Twitter, where he wages his own private war against the president. It is possible that Avenatti saw the family separation issue primarily as a source of fresh ammunition, but de Anda needed the help.

When they visited Levis the next day, they pushed a sheet of paper through the slot beneath the pane of glass and asked her to write a letter to Samir. Levis sat down on the floor and wrote.

Samir, love of my life,

I hope you are doing well. I am so sorry about what happened. My soul hurts, but I want you to know that I didn't leave you. I know you are suffering, but soon we will once again sing and pray together. When we get out of here, we'll go to the zoo like I promised. You always wanted to see the animals, the dolphins and fish, the penguins, even if you always said that you were afraid they would eat you. Oh, and the Spiderman toys that I promised, you'll have those soon too. You are my prince, my fighter.

I love you.

Two days later, de Anda and Avenatti flew to Phoenix.

"When we told Samir that we had a letter from his mother," says de Anda, "he didn't believe us. I assured him that Levis loved him, but he insisted it wasn't true. Only when he saw the bus that she had drawn on the border of the letter did he begin to thaw. At the end, we asked Samir to draw something. He sketched a woman with muscles and a wand who was the protector of three figures depicting him, his brother and his sister. When I later showed the drawing to Levis, she broke down in such a way that I simply didn't know what to do."

The home in Phoenix is a low, brick building with a welcome sign hanging next to the entrance. Surveillance cameras and high fences ensure that the 128 children who live here are unable to leave the premises.

Phoenix is one of 27 sites in the country where the organization Southwest Key Programs operates such homes. De Anda says the company is sitting on a goldmine. For the fiscal year 2018, the Trump administration signed a contract with Southwest Key Programs worth $458 million. To make room for the influx of children, they began buying cheap properties across the country.

The children are tended to by case managers, social workers and psychologists and go to school for six hours each day. In their free time, they can watch TV or play basketball. Former Southwest Key employees, who were no longer able to work there with a clear conscience, say they were not allowed to hug crying children to comfort them. In June, it was revealed that children with behavioral issues in Texas were medicated to calm them down. One 10-year-old boy from Brazil told the Washington Post that a five-year-old from Guatemala who was in the same home had been "vaccinated" several times a day.

Whether Samir was also given medications is unclear. But it is known that during his first week at the home, he cried nonstop. He would repeatedly cry out that he didn't want to stay there, and when he lashed out, his hands were bound to his chest. De Anda learned about these details from Samir's case manager, who insisted on using Samir's second name, Lloyd, when speaking of him -- almost as though he were trying to erase his identity.

'Not My Fault'

After 22 days, de Anda was able to arrange a telephone call between Levis and Samir for the first time. Levis shudders when recalling the conversation.

"Samir, are you okay?" "Yes." "What are you doing?" "Nothing." "Listen my angel, this isn't my fault."

Then Samir lapsed into a long period of silence. The next time Levis called, he held his hands over his ears before running out of the room. One time, when Levis' mother called him, he disavowed her.

"You know," a friendly woman's voice told Lilian, "when the children arrive here, they change."

Members of the Brooklyn Heights parish where Levis and Samir are now staying have promised to find a psychologist for Samir. Because as long as he doesn't open up, his experiences will remain a black hole that is only rarely penetrated by light.

One time when he comes into the library, he is wearing a hat and a large overcoat that he found in a closet. His upper body is bent over a cane. Later, while playing with Legos, he says the costume isn't just a game.

"We started a family in the home," Samir says. "There were mothers, fathers, aunts and uncles. The other children called me 'abuelito,' grandfather, because I took care of the smaller ones. I even grew a gray beard, but I shaved it off."

When Samir now does something wrong or forgets something, he says: "After all, I'm old." The role of grandfather is his survival strategy, not unlike the fantasy world he invented and in which he spends hours at a time.

In that world, Samir is a spy, walking through the neighborhood with a magnifying glass scanning his surroundings for suspicious looking people. His enemies, he says, are all-powerful "sea agents" who wear green or blue clothes, just like the people who had control over his life over the past several weeks. These agents from Samir's fantasy world have set up surveillance cameras everywhere -- in the trees outside or in the library lamps. They kidnap mothers and their children and pull them down to the sea floor.

Chain-Link Cages

"Once," says Samir, "when they chained me up down there, Spiderman luckily came by and got me out."

In mid-June, the lawyer Michael Avenatti posted Levis' letter to Samir on Twitter and the tweet received 35,000 likes. Levis knew nothing about it, but she became something of a symbol of a deeply divided country.

"We need to make America America again," Avenatti said on CNN.

Newspapers began writing stories about an unprecedented humanitarian crisis, illustrated by photos showing children sitting inside chain-link cages. Human rights activists told stories of teenagers changing the diapers of small children. A recording was released on which young boys and girls could be heard crying for their parents.

Americans were disgusted. They began wondering what kind of country they wanted to be. And how much compassion they could afford to show at a time when millions were displaced around the world and the calls for a sealed border were growing louder.

When furious Americans began protesting in front of the homes, Trump said they had fallen victim to a media fairy tale. Just days later, though, he signed a decree putting an end to the family separation policy. "We don't like seeing families separated," Trump said with a forced smile.

But he didn't say anything about what should happen with people like Levis and Samir who had already been separated.

Trump's attention immediately turned to his upcoming meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, but a judge in San Diego ordered that parents must be allowed to speak with their children on the phone within 10 days. She then ordered that all families be reunited by July 26. It was an order that triggered a kind of disarray that many didn't think was possible in a country like the United States. There had been a plan in place for separating families. But there was never a strategy for reuniting them.

DNA and Birth Certificates

Whereas the parents were under the auspices of the Department of Homeland Security, a section of the Department of Health had been charged with taking care of the children. But the databases of the two ministries are not linked. It was left to people working long hours at non-governmental organizations to assemble lists and match up names that they had dug up themselves.

Biographies were analyzed, birth certificates verified, and DNA samples compared. At the end of July, the authorities said that around 1,000 parents were "not eligible" for reunification with their children. In one case, it was said that the mother suffered from a contagious disease. Many parents were the subject of criminal proceedings. Dozens could no longer be found because officials had forgotten to take down their contact details when they were released.

As if they were incorrectly addressed FedEx packages, children were repeatedly sent to the wrong prisons, even though their parents had long since been sent out of the country. Many of them had been forced to consent to their deportation, having been told that it was the quickest way to see their children again.

Levis said she refused to do so.

On July 3, she was transferred from Laredo to the Port Isabel Detention Center. When in the prison yard, she could smell the salty sea air. After she told a psychologist that she wanted to kick down a door, he threatened her with solitary confinement.

Even though Samir hadn't yet been cleared for air travel for the flight to his mother in Texas, Levis was officially released on the morning of July 17. She handed in her prison uniform and was transferred from Alpha tract to Bravo tract. Because her prisoner ID was no longer valid, her phone privileges had been revoked -- and because the computer system listed her as discharged, de Anda was no longer allowed to come in to see her. Levis remained in this limbo for 10 days; it seemed to her almost as though she no longer existed. Then, just hours after the official deadline for family reunifications had expired, the guard shook her awake in the middle of the night.

A 'Bad Hombre'

From March to May, Border Patrol agents arrested around 40,000 people per month along the Rio Grande. Then the numbers dropped slightly. It's difficult to say why -- whether it was the policy of family separation, the extreme summer heat in Texas or the deteriorating social climate in the U.S.

Even without Trump's zero-tolerance policy, illegal entries to the U.S. were at their lowest in over 40 years. The question then becomes: How high is the price for Trump's family separation stunt? What does it do to a country's self-image when its leaders inflict lifelong emotional scars on thousands of children? How damaging is it to a democracy when the governing elite treats a large minority in their own country as criminals? What does it mean for the rest of the West when such a thing happens in the U.S., of all countries?

The trauma of family separation didn't end with the expiration of the July 26 deadline. Children as young as four are still facing asylum judges on their own in court proceedings called to rule over their deportation. In August, de Anda and Avenatti flew to Guatemala to personally return a child to his mother, who had previously been deported. Trump is a "bad hombre," says Levis' mother Lilian. She hopes that her daughter returns home soon. Jarends, Levis' oldest son, asks frequently about Samir, with whom he used to imagine they were mighty pirates.

Levis and Samir now live around the corner in a new house belonging to the church, a home with a real bathroom. Levis has begun learning English and Samir is set to start school in September. They are the first steps into a new life, but nobody knows how long it will last.

In early June, Attorney General Sessions said that organized crime and domestic violence in countries like Honduras are not grounds for asylum. In all likelihood, the country that Levis has always dreamed of will soon deport her and Samir.

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