Nearly an hour into Judge Anibal Martinez’s afternoon immigration docket, the bailiff called out Wilder Maldonado’s name. The 6-year-old hadn’t made a fuss about the wait, quietly coloring pictures of animals. Now, he set aside his blue crayon, tiptoed up to the defendant’s table and took a long, deep breath.
Wilder Hilario Maldonado Cabrera, chubby-cheeked with a toothless grin, has done a lot of waiting. He and his father left grinding poverty El Salvador for the United States in June, but they were caught by Border Patrol agents after they illegally entered the country. The agents then separated the pair — along with nearly 3,000 others — as part of the administration’s zero-tolerance policy. Faced with sweeping condemnations, the administration retreated from the policy and, led by immigrant advocates and lawyers, began putting the families back together. Wilder’s case is one of the last that remains unresolved.
Since their separation, Wilder has been living in a temporary foster home in San Antonio while his father is held in an immigration detention facility less than an hour’s drive away. Wilder has spent the last six months — one-twelfth of his life — in limbo, waiting for his father’s plea for asylum to work its way through the system and determine whether the two of them could start a new life in the United States, or be sent back to the one they left.
Part of Wilder’s waiting involved coming to Martinez’s court. Wilder was last here a few weeks ago, right before Thanksgiving. That day, he was striking, wearing a hat stitched with two googly eyes and a red yarn mohawk. This time, he dressed without flourish, in a dark denim jacket with gray sleeves. Last time, he appeared alone, without a lawyer. This time, his father’s lawyer, Thelma O. Garcia, appeared on both the father and son’s behalf.
Garcia said that Wilder’s father had been denied asylum and had decided not to appeal any further. He’d grown desperate sitting in detention, while his wife and three other children remained back in El Salvador struggling to cobble together enough money to eat. He was his family’s sole breadwinner, Garcia said, and if he wasn’t going to be able to stay here, he needed urgently to go home. And he wanted take Wilder with him.
But one of the quirks of the zero-tolerance reunification system required Wilder to affirmatively tell a judge that he wanted to go. That’s why Garcia had joined him in court.
“We are requesting a voluntary departure for this young man,” Garcia said.
“He wishes to return to El Salvador?” the judge asked.
“Yes,” Garcia said.
“Would his return place him in any danger or harm?” the judge asked.
“The parents are there for him, and he should not be in any danger,” she said.
Then the judge peered down from the bench at Wilder. “You want to go home to your mother?”
Wilder nodded eagerly, smiling at the judge, who he referred to as “El Señor.”
Then the judge ordered it so, and he set a six-week deadline for Wilder to leave the country, as if his departure was up to him.
At that moment, the only departure that really seemed to matter to Wilder was getting out of the courtroom. He yawned and looked around for his caseworker. He asked Garcia, whose hands he’d adorned with stickers, whether she’d call him to play again sometime. Then, as he got up to leave, he was asked how he felt. His answer suggested that the moment was bittersweet. He wants to go home to his mother and sisters, but he’s also become attached to his foster parent, a woman he calls “tía,” or aunt.
“I’m tired,” he said. “And I’m sad because I have to leave my tía.”