Phillipsburg, New Jersey — Brenda, 13, and Rosa, 15, have an unlikely new home in this sleepy town on the banks of the Delaware River.
Though they are more than 1,900 miles away from their hometown in central Honduras, the two inseparable sisters are relieved to be back together. They still vividly remember how difficult it was for them to be apart from one another after they crossed the U.S.-Mexico border separately earlier this spring.
“I needed to be with her,” Brenda recently told CBS News in Spanish, recounting their separation. “I needed her to be with me.”
The sisters left Honduras with their mother after their coffee farms — their family’s livelihood — were destroyed by two devastating back-to-back storms last fall. The girls said they also longed to be with their father, Manuel, who had been living and working in New Jersey after crossing the southern border with his eldest son in 2019.
When they reached the U.S. border earlier this spring, the family faced a set of difficult choices.
The Biden administration has declined to expel unaccompanied migrant children under a public health authority known as Title 42. However, it has continued to expel adults and families with children to Mexico. The family could wait in crime-ridden northern Mexico indefinitely, or try to cross the U.S. border together and risk being expelled. Brenda and Rosa could also try to enter the U.S. as unaccompanied children.
Brenda and Rosa said their mother, fearing for their safety, allowed them to cross the Rio Grande without her. Brenda, the youngest, was the first to cross unaccompanied. “It was really difficult because we had never separated from our mom,” she said.
Rosa followed suit a few days later. “My mom told us to trust in God, that everything was going to be fine. That we would soon be with our dad, and God willing, with her as well. But I didn’t want to leave her alone,” Rosa said.
The family’s decision to separate was not an anomaly. Between President Biden’s inauguration and early April, U.S. officials have recorded more than 2,100 cases of children crossing the southern border unaccompanied after being expelled with their family. The government tally, obtained by CBS News through a Freedom of Information Act request, likely undercounts the actual number.
Brenda and Rosa are two of more than 45,000 migrant children who have crossed the U.S.-Mexico border without their parents since February, part of a record influx of unaccompanied minors during Mr. Biden’s first three full months in office.
After being taken into U.S. custody in March, the girls were held at the Border Patrol holding facility in Donna, Texas, which at the time was acutely overcrowded with hundreds of unaccompanied minors and families with children. Brenda remembered feeling lonely.
“I felt really lonely,” Brenda said. “I felt the need to call someone, to ask for my mom, to see how she was doing. But they didn’t give any phone calls.”
Leecia Welch, an attorney who represents migrant children in a federal court case, interviewed Brenda in March while she was in Border Patrol custody. Welch said Brenda was visibly distraught during the interview and expressed concern about not being able to talk to her mother or other family members.
While her interview with Brenda stands out because of the Honduran girl’s distress, Welch said other migrant children in U.S. custody have described similar experiences during recent interviews.
“What has been most striking to me over the past few months is the number of children who have broken down in tears as they described the harrowing experience of separating from their mother in Mexico,” Welch, of the National Center for Youth Law, told CBS News. “Countless children have shared how fearful they were not only to cross the border alone, but also because they went days or weeks or longer not knowing if they would ever see their mom again.”
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas has, on multiple occasions, acknowledged that his department has been tracking cases of “self-separation” along the southern border.
“We are certainly hearing anecdotally that some families self-separate to allow their children to enter the United States unaccompanied,” Mayorkas told senators during a hearing earlier this month. “That speaks to the trauma that these families have endured in their desperation to give their children a better life.”
“It was a dream for them”
After their time in Border Patrol custody, Brenda and Rosa reunited at a shelter in south Texas overseen by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, the federal agency under the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) that’s responsible for housing unaccompanied children.
Brenda, who had been at the shelter days before Rosa’s arrival, remembered spotting her sister among the new arrivals. There was a rule barring hugs and physical contact between children at the shelter. But Brenda said couldn’t contain herself.
“I rushed to hug her out of happiness,” Brenda said.
The sisters were eventually released from HHS custody and allowed to fly to New Jersey to reunite with their father. Rosa said she could not sleep the night she was told she would be traveling to New Jersey.
“It was something very beautiful,” she said, describing the moment she hugged her father for the first time in two years. “I felt my heart was coming out of my chest because of the happiness.”
Manuel, who works six days a week at a fruit and vegetable farm in northern New Jersey, welcomed his daughters one by one into his modest home in Phillipsburg.
“It was a big emotion, knowing that I had left my girls when they were younger,” he said. “They are happy to be here with me. It was a dream for them.”
Manuel noted the reunifications were bittersweet, as his wife remained in northern Mexico, unable to enter the U.S. under the Title 42 policy being used to turn back most migrant adults. But he said the decision to have his daughters cross the border alone, while difficult, was worth it, now that he can give them a better future in the U.S.
Brenda and Rosa’s mother remained in Mexico for weeks until earlier this month, when she managed to enter the U.S.-Mexico border and reunite with the rest of the family in New Jersey.
The Honduran family is one of many Central American migrants who have made the decision to trek north in part because of the devastation that severe weather events exacerbated by climate change — like drought and the two back-to-back hurricanes last fall — have inflicted on their homes and livelihoods.
The family’s migratory paths were also fueled by a desire for family reunification, a potent push factor for many migrants trekking to the southern border. U.S. officials have said, for example, that between 80 and 90% of the migrant children who enter the country unaccompanied have family in the U.S., including parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins.
Migration experts have said Central Americans will continue to head to the U.S. border in large numbers as long as joblessness, poverty, hunger, violence and climate change-induced weather events continue to threaten their livelihoods and safety. The desire to be with family in the U.S. will also continue to be a major motivating factor, they said.
Meanwhile, Brenda and Rosa have wasted no time in settling into their new home, near New Jersey’s border with Pennsylvania. The sisters have already enrolled in local middle and high schools, respectively.
Both expressed gratitude at being in the U.S., saying they think they’ll be able to fulfil their dreams here. Rosa wants to become a pediatrician, while Brenda said she would like to be a makeup artist or clothing designer.
The two sisters think Americans would better understand why people like their family come to the U.S. if they would meet them.
“When we leave our country, it is because we have a need,” Rosa said. “Speaking on behalf of the children who are coming and who are thinking about coming, the journey is everything but easy.”
Brenda echoed her sister’s sentiment: “I think everyone who comes here deserves an opportunity because we come here in search of a better future.”