BUDA, TEXAS – Fourteen months ago, Byron Xol was packed in a wooden crate by smugglers and shipped from Guatemala to the U.S., only to be grabbed immediately by border agents and ripped away from his father.
His dad was deported. Byron remained, locked away with the thousands of children separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border by the Trump administration. More than a year after the practice ended, a small number of children like Byron remain in limbo, far from their families.
Byron spent his ninth birthday in central Texas, with a host family devoted to giving him a loving home. His parents, meanwhile, passed the day a thousand miles away, in the gang-ridden forests Byron and his father, David, had tried to escape. They have not seen their child in more than a year.
But they have hope. A federal judge could soon decide whether to let the father return to the U.S. If he rejects the motion, Byron may be sent home to Guatemala.
Byron’s first language was Q’eqchi, one of several dialects that trace back to Mayan times. He was raised in San Miguel el Limon, a tiny and remote rural town. David, 27, worked a series of jobs as a laborer and construction worker. He and his 23-year-old wife, Florinda, slept in one bed in their two-room, cinderblock-and-wood house; Byron and his two younger brothers slept in another.
They went to church almost every day. David says he preached the word of God, as his father did. His preaching caught the notice of gangsters who tried to recruit him; when he refused, because his faith forbids violence, they threatened him and his eldest son, he says.
On May 4, 2018, David and Byron left San Miguel to seek asylum in the United States. David borrowed to hire a human smuggler, or “coyote,” for about $6,000.
They were smuggled through Mexico by truck. For part of the 14-day journey, they rode in a wooden crate. At the Rio Grande, the coyote sent them and about 20 other migrants across the river in the middle of the night.
The Border Patrol was waiting.
David was charged with illegal entry on May 19, the day after they were detained.
Two days later, an officer presented him with a document he couldn’t read. If he signed it, the officer said, he could be deported with Byron. David refused.
He says a second officer told him that if he tried to seek asylum, the two would be separated. David would be detained for at least two years, while Byron would be given up for adoption. Their only option was to sign the document and be deported together.
He signed, renouncing his asylum claim. He didn’t know the document would allow the agents to take his son away.
Seven days later, he was deported.
David, meanwhile, found work chopping trees at a palm oil plant an hour’s drive from San Miguel. The debt he had undertaken to pay the coyote has grown from $6,000 to $8,000. His monthly salary at the palm oil plant is about $400. His payments on the debt take up almost all of that. To pay for food, he worked extra hours.
Alerted to the Xols’ case by news coverage, Ricardo de Anda, a human rights lawyer working with the American Civil Liberties Union, went to Guatemala to discuss an idea: David should petition to return to the United States, while Byron remained there. David agreed.
Byron had been sent to an old elementary school just outside Houston that had been converted to house 160 children. Operated by the nonprofit Baptist Child and Family Services, the facility had beds, common areas, classes, phones to call family and lawyers, and three meals a day. It was the first of four facilities where he would live over the next year.
De Anda wanted to get Byron out of the system, and into a real home. Through other lawyers, he found a Matthew and Holly Sewell, who live in a spacious, five-bedroom house near Austin, Texas, with their two kids.
Watching the news last summer, the Sewells heard that children were being detained after their parents had been deported. And they thought: Why not provide a real home for at least one child?
Though David and Florinda approved, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services refused several requests from the Sewells to sponsor Byron because they weren’t related to him and had no prior relationship with his family.
De Anda sued HHS in February. In April, a federal judge ordered HHS to consider the Sewells as sponsors.
The Sewells got the call: Byron was being flown to Austin, and they needed to bring a wheelchair. A few weeks earlier, they had been told, Byron had broken his right leg playing soccer.
Holly Sewell requested medical records from the facility that she shared with The Associated Press. They show that Byron’s thigh fracture was misdiagnosed at one point as a broken ankle. Several days passed after the injury before Byron placed in a full cast. And the break was on Byron’s growth plate, the soft area in his leg that had not yet hardened to bone. If not treated properly, the break could stunt his growth.
The Sewells took him to a doctor specializing in pediatric foot injuries, and enrolled him in physical therapy.
As he recovered, the Sewells started to see more of his personality — his wide smile, his sense of humor — and his ability to adapt.
For 11 months in government facilities, the staff watching Byron wasn’t allowed to hug him. At his birthday party, he ran up to Holly several times for an embrace or to ride on her back.
“I say, ‘Do you need a hug,’ and the answer is always yes,” Holly said.
David is one of 21 parents included in the American Civil Liberties Union’s motion that they be allowed to re-enter the country and seek asylum.
The ACLU argues that David and the others were denied a fair chance to request asylum. The government says if David and other parents want to be with their children, the government says, they should agree to have those children returned to them. The case is scheduled to be heard Friday.
If the ACLU wins, David could be in the U.S. in a matter of weeks. He could eventually petition for the admission of Florinda and their other two children.
If it loses, Byron will most likely return to Guatemala.
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5