By Samantha Lugo and Catherine E. Shoichet, CNN
A 10-year-old girl bolted down the escalator of a Texas airport and into the arms of a mother who hadn’t held her for six years.
Both of them sobbed.
“I just told her that she was OK, and that she was with me now. I didn’t have any more words,” says Sonia Almendarez, who feared the moment hugging her youngest daughter would never come.
The emotional scene played out last week in front of TV cameras, advocates and curious onlookers. But there was so much, Almendarez says, that she didn’t say that day — so much pain that goes unseen and unsaid.
Now, Almendarez says she has more words to share — about why her family fled Honduras, and about her frustration when she hears people who don’t understand the realities of immigration talking about what’s happening at the border.
“Don’t judge. No one should judge us,” she told CNN en Español this week. “If we were OK in our countries, we would not leave and risk our lives, or the lives of our children. We didn’t come here to get rich. We only came here to be safe, to stay alive — because now, in our country, we can’t.”
We all know the number of migrant children in US custody is growing. But beyond the daily statistics released by the government and a heated political battle that shows no sign of slowing, there are thousands of stories we’re only just beginning to hear.
This is the story behind one hug in a Texas airport — the story of a mother, a daughter and an uncertain future.
She says they left Honduras because they had no other choice
Almendarez says she never expected to immigrate to the United States. When she was younger, she says someone offered her the opportunity, and she swiftly dismissed it.
But around six years ago, she says, everything changed for her family. That’s when her 18-year-old son was kidnapped and killed. That’s when she knew she had no choice but to flee.
“I never felt peace again,” she says.
Almendarez says she was so scared when she left Honduras that even the harrowing journey to the United States didn’t faze her.
“I carried so much fear with me that I didn’t feel fear on the way,” she says.
Once she reached the United States, Almendarez says she was held in immigrant detention for about a month. That’s not uncommon for undocumented immigrants who come to the United States seeking safety. Some asylum-seekers have spent months or even years in US detention facilities even as advocates plead for their release. Still, Almendarez says it was something else she never expected.
“It’s a trauma,” she says, “to come fleeing something, and to run into something that’s worse. … It’s very difficult to be imprisoned, because there is no reason to imprison us — and even less so our children.”
Almendarez says she’s been checking in regularly with immigration authorities ever since she was released from custody. She built a life in the United States and hoped for the day when her daughter could join her.
Six years later, that finally seemed like a possibility. Then a call Almendarez received about her daughter sent her into a panic.
For weeks, she’s been worrying for her daughter’s safety
Ariadney, 10, had been making the trek north from Honduras with a family member last month when somehow, she got separated from the group.
Almendarez, who is living in Texas and working at a hotel, says she was terrified when she learned her youngest daughter was missing.
“Imagine the anguish I felt,” she says, “not knowing who had taken her — if it was immigration or the gangs or the cartels that got her.”
A phone call later that morning gave Almendarez some solace. An immigration official reported that her daughter was OK. Ariadney knew her mother’s phone number by heart and told them who to call.
“Thank God,” Almendarez thought. But then she started to worry.
She remembered what it was like to be detained. She worried about her daughter, suffering alone. The authorities told her they needed information from her before they could release Ariadney from custody.