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Wilder Maldonado, 6, is one of the nearly 3,000 immigrant children who were separated from their parents at the U.S. border as part of the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy. After six months in a foster home, he was reunited with his father and returned to his mother and siblings in El Salvador. (Hector Emanuel, special to ProPublica)

What’s It Like for an Immigrant Child to Have a Glimpse of the American Dream, Then Have It Taken Away?

The Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy separated kids and parents, putting the children in foster care, where many of them got a taste of a life much better than the one they left. What happens when they land back home?

Christmas wasn’t going to be much this year at the Maldonados’ tiny home in eastern El Salvador. Then 6-year-old Wilder arrived, lugging a duffel bag fat with the brightly colored remnants of his brief life in the United States — time he’d spent separated from his father by immigration authorities.

Suddenly, the two shabby rooms with dirt floors and drab adobe walls turned festive. As a pot of chicken stew simmered on a wood-burning stove, a group of barefoot children rummaged with glee through the big black bag, pulling out treasures.

Two-year-old Kevien claimed the Spider-Man pajamas and the talking Spider-Man mask that said things like, “Look out, it’s web-slinging time!” Darwin, a neighbor’s kid, posed in a pair of red Spider-Man glasses with silvery-white webs and blinking lights on the frames.

Yohana, 14 and wispy like a ballerina, picked up a glossy soccer ball that had “USA,” emblazoned on one side and called Darwin outside to play. Meanwhile, the baby, MiLeidi, 8 months old, squealed in delight at a stuffed Olaf, the snowman from “Frozen,” that was bigger than she was.

The only kid who didn’t seem to care much about the contents of the duffel bag was Wilder. He sat by himself on the only bed in the house, apart from the commotion, engrossed in games on his mother’s old cellphone. Kevien offered Wilder the talking mask, trying to entice him to come play. But, without looking up from the cellphone, Wilder shook his head and turned away.

Top: Wilder arrived at the Salvadoran government’s immigrant attention center with his father shortly before Christmas. Bottom: Wilder’s life in El Salvador looks starkly different than the one he had during his time in foster care in the U.S. (Hector Emanuel, special to ProPublica)

The toys in the duffel bag were all he had left from a seven-month journey to the U.S. with his father, Hilario Maldonado, that had taken him a world away from El Salvador and his family’s impoverished existence, to a place with television sets and hot showers, where he’d slept in a bunk bed and ate as much pizza as he wanted. They’d traveled there in a succession of trucks so crowded with other immigrants that he’d nearly suffocated, and they had reached their goal only to be separated for months in a uniquely American limbo. When he and his father were finally reunited, it was only to be put on a government airplane and flown back to El Salvador, undoing an effort that cost months of hardship and thousands of dollars.

Wilder is one of the nearly 3,000 migrant children who were affected this year by the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy. His separation from his father first became public when he appeared alone in court in late November wearing a hat with googly eyes and a red yarn mohawk. Under the unprecedented crackdown, immigration officials were required to prosecute everyone they caught illegally crossing the border and to seize any children they brought with them.

Wilder’s father, a struggling 38-year-old farmer, was not aware of the policy when he set out from El Salvador, seeking decent work for himself and a brighter future for his son. He surrendered himself and his son to U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers as soon as he crossed the Rio Grande into Texas. But after five days in CBP custody, agents took Wilder away from Maldonado, sending the boy to a temporary foster home in San Antonio and his father to a detention center about an hour’s drive away.

The zero-tolerance crackdown ended — at least officially — a short time later, when a storm of international outrage forced the administration to rescind it. A federal judge ordered authorities to reunite all the affected children with their families, an effort that took months and tens of millions of dollars because immigration officials hadn’t kept complete records of which children belonged to which adults. Wilder, pudgy, with a buzz cut and missing most of his front teeth, was one of the last cases to be resolved.

Dec. 21 was Wilder’s first morning back home. And his mind seemed somewhere else.

When asked how he was doing, Wilder answered in English, without taking his eyes off the phone. “I’m fine.”

He didn’t respond at all when asked whether he was happy to be back. His mother, Maria Elida Cabrera, nudged him. “Wilder, you’re happy to be home with me, right?” she said in Spanish.

Wilder looked up for a couple of seconds and forced a smile. “Yes, I’m happy,” he said, again in English, then returned to his game.

Cabrera, 35, her straight black hair in a messy ponytail, walked out the backdoor of the house and lowered her voice so that Wilder couldn’t hear her. “This has to be hard for him,” she said. “It’s been hard for all of us.”

Cabrera struggled on her own to provide for the rest of the family’s children while her husband and Wilder were away. When Wilder, lying next to her in the hammock, returned, he ran into her arms and told her he missed her. (Hector Emanuel, special to ProPublica)

Back with his family, Wilder didn’t want to talk much about his experiences, not that he’s old enough to make sense of them. Except for the immigration officials who separated him from his dad, he’d been a victim of a lot of people’s good intentions. There was his father’s desperate attempt to lift his family out of misery; a Texas foster family’s eagerness to provide him a comfortable, and comforting, life; and a federal court’s decision to end zero tolerance and send Wilder back to his family in El Salvador.

For now, the best insight into what might be going on in Wilder’s young mind comes from the adults who shared his ordeal. They sound sad and whiplashed.

“I don’t know what it was about him, but it was hard to let him go,” said Erica Gallegos, the San Antonio woman who took care of Wilder during his time in the U.S. She cried for most of a 45-minute phone call. “In a very short time, he became a part of the family.”

To Cabrera, Wilder’s mother, his time away seemed an eternity. He had changed in so many ways that she described feeling dizzy just looking at him. None of his old clothes fit because he’d been much thinner when he left. And his smile was filled with gaps from all the baby teeth he’d lost. He’d also ridden on an airplane and a ferry, swam in the Gulf of Mexico, let a barber cut his hair, gotten vaccinations, had his first crush on a girl, gone to a movie theater, and learned to tie his shoes, write his name and ride a bike. His vocabulary had grown. He can count to 20 in English. And he doesn’t bark commands at her anymore, she said. He now says “please” and “thank you.”

“There are things he tells me, and I don’t know what he’s talking about,” Cabrera said. “What’s a Grinch?”

Wilder, left, plays with his best friend, Darwin. (Hector Emanuel, special to ProPublica)

Migrating to the U.S. was not new to Wilder’s father. Maldonado had lived in the U.S. through the late 1990s and early 2000s, first immigrating illegally, then gaining temporary protected status in 2001. El Salvador had suffered a series of deadly earthquakes and the Bush administration agreed to let 150,000 Salvadoran immigrants stay and work in the U.S., hoping the money they’d send back to their families would help the Central American country recover.

Maldonado was a single man back then. He worked restaurant and construction jobs up and down the East Coast, from Tampa, Florida, to Long Island in New York, to help take care of his mother in El Salvador. But in 2003, Maldonado said, he returned home when his mother fell ill, using some of the money he’d made to get her medical attention. Shortly afterward, he met Cabrera — who is related to the wife of one of his brothers — started a family, bought a few head of cattle to breed and sell, and built their simple home with his own hands. It’s located on a patch of his wife’s family’s property outside a quaint Salvadoran town called Lislique.

“My intention was to stay in El Salvador,” Maldonado said. “I only left because I started to have problems.”

Cabrera and Maldonado said the cattle business began failing about four years ago. Maldonado had attempted an expansion, borrowing several thousand dollars to grow his herd. But the country’s violent street gangs began moving into Lislique and demanding a cut of Maldonado’s profits. Cabrera said her husband started looking for odd jobs to supplement his income to pay both his debts and the money the gangs demanded.

Each month, there was less money to cover the family’s needs, Cabrera said. And when Maldonado told the gangs he couldn’t afford to pay them anymore, she said, they beat him up and threatened to kill him.

In May, Cabrera said, her husband decided to gamble one more time. He borrowed $5,500 to pay smugglers, known as coyotes, to take him to the U.S. to seek asylum. The plan was to earn enough money to provide for her and the kids left behind, and then, once his status was secure, bring them to the U.S., too.

Hilario Maldonado said he left El Salvador to escape violence and poverty. He took Wilder with him but left three other children behind, including 8-month-old MiLeidi. She was a month old when he left. (Hector Emanuel, special to ProPublica)

The coyotes, she said, warned Maldonado that crossing the border wasn’t as easy as it was the last time he migrated. Rather than sneaking into the country, they told him he should turn himself in immediately to border authorities. And they suggested that he bring along one of his kids because he’d spend less time in detention if he had a child with him.

“I didn’t want to let Wilder go,” Cabrera said. “But Hilario said it was the only way. He promised he would take good care of Wilder. He said Wilder would have opportunities that don’t exist here in El Salvador.”

Maldonado said the trip across Central America and Mexico, mostly in the back of pickup trucks and packed tractor-trailers that were not equipped for human cargo, was grueling for him and nearly fatal for Wilder. “I was trying to give him a better life,” Maldonado said of his son, “and he almost died, twice.”

One of the trailers, Maldonado said, was so overcrowded and tightly sealed that Wilder passed out. He scrambled to find an opening in the trailer’s hull, he said, shoving aside the men standing next to it and pushing Wilder’s mouth and nose against the hole until he opened his eyes.

On another leg of the trip, Wilder fainted again as he and his father rode in the back of a pickup truck in a driving rainstorm. When asked why he would take such risks with his son, Maldonado said: “I was desperate. I thought if I didn’t get out of El Salvador, my children would starve or become orphans.”

Maldonado said he thought the hardest part of the journey was over when he and Wilder arrived at the U.S. border on May 31. Then they ran head-on into the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy.

“The agents came to me and grabbed Wilder out of my arms,” said Maldonado, a brawny man with a square jaw and metal caps on his front teeth. “He was screaming for me: ‘Papa, papa!’ But I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t run after him. I remember I just watched as they took him. I felt like my heart was going to stop.”

A few days later, the federal government placed Wilder in foster care with the Gallegos family in San Antonio. Erica Gallegos said there were four other foster children in her house during much of the time Wilder was there. One of them was a 5-year-old Central American boy who had also been separated from his parent.

Gallegos said the two separated boys slept in the same room, Wilder on the top bunk.

Wilder, confused and tired, didn’t speak much his first couple of days in her home, Gallegos said. She said she gave him his space, engaging when he wanted to do so and leaving him alone when he didn’t. By the end of the first week, however, she said she managed to win him over by making it clear that he hadn’t been taken away from his family for good. She was only taking care of him until his family was reunited.

“I told him he could call me tía,” Gallegos said, the Spanish word for aunt. She started to cry and sniffle, “I wanted him to feel at home, but I didn’t want him to think I was trying to be his mom.”

From then on, she said, Wilder settled happily into the Gallegos clan; mom, dad and four children, including three who are adults with families of their own. And the family warmed to him. Erica Gallegos enrolled him in first grade and took him to church on Sundays. They had regular pizza and movie nights. She took him home to visit her parents, in the border town of Del Rio. And Wilder joined the family on a beach vacation to Corpus Christi, where he ate s’mores, watched dolphins swim alongside a ferry and marveled at the size of the sea.

Unlike other children she’s cared for, Gallegos said Wilder seemed to crave rules and routine. She said she taught him once how to fold his clothes and put away his shoes and rarely had to remind him again. She said he made his own bed and asked her to inspect it to make sure he’d done it right. And at night, she said, Wilder wouldn’t fall asleep until she said prayers with him.

Gallegos said Wilder enjoyed going with her 13-year-old daughter to baseball and volleyball games. In fact, she said, he’d go with her just about anywhere. “He loved my daughter,” she said, laughing. “He would always stare at her. One time he asked my husband if she could be his girlfriend.”

Other than Spider-Man and pepperoni pizza, Gallegos said that Wilder’s favorite thing was a long, hot shower.

“Do you want me to tell you how long his showers were?” she said. “Thirty minutes. I’d go in to get him, and the room would be hot and steamy.”

Gallegos started to sniffle again. “I didn’t ever want him to go. I remember telling the social worker to let me call his mom and ask her to let me take care of him. My husband would tell me, ‘Remember, he’s not ours.’”

At the same time, Wilder’s family was in crisis. Maldonado was stuck in detention. He had failed to pass his credible fear interview, the first crucial step in the asylum process in which an officer affirms that an immigrant has a justifiable fear of harm in his home country. And it would be months before he’d get a hearing before a judge. Meanwhile, back in El Salvador, Cabrera struggled on her own to care for their other three children.

Kevien, the 2-year-old, developed parasites in October. He was vomiting, had diarrhea and, Cabrera said, his abdomen swelled like a basketball. She had no money for food and medicine, until an immigrant advocacy organization, established to help families affected by zero tolerance, learned about Cabrera’s troubles and sent money. “Without that help, who knows what would have happened,” Cabrera said. “I don’t even want to think about it.”

By December, Maldonado was tired of fighting. An immigration judge had ruled against his asylum petition, and while he could have appealed, that would have kept him in detention several more weeks. He felt the odds of winning asylum were against him, he said, and his family was falling apart. He agreed to plead guilty to illegally entering the country and be deported. He also asked to take Wilder home with him.

This time, the choice was Wilder’s. When authorities physically separated him from his father, they separated his asylum petition as well. Therefore it was up to him, not his father, to decide whether he would give up the claim and go home. Wilder initially appeared in an immigration court without a lawyer. Afterward, his father’s attorney, Thelma O. Garcia, stepped in to represent him. A transcript of the interview between Wilder and Garcia suggests that the gravity of the decision was lost on him.

Attorney: “Hello, Wilder, do you wish to return to your home?”

Wilder: “Yes.”

Attorney: “Do you understand what I’m asking you?”

Wilder: “Yes.”

Attorney: “Do you want to return to court?”

Wilder: “No.”

Attorney: “Do you want to return with your dad, and your mom and the rest of your family?”

Wilder: “Yes, I want to return to my family and see them.”

Attorney: “OK, we are going to help you return with them very soon.”

Wilder: “Spider-Man is my favorite superhero.”

Still, the statement was sufficient for an immigration judge to order that Wilder be reunited with his father and sent back to El Salvador.

Top: Wilder’s family comes from this remote, mountainous corner of El Salvador. His mother, Maria Elida Cabrera, said, “There are no jobs here.” Bottom: Gang violence has given El Salvador one of the highest homicide rates in the world. Police routinely stop and frisk men wandering the streets at night, searching them for gang tattoos and weapons. (Hector Emanuel, special to ProPublica)

Gallegos said that when Wilder realized he was going to be sent home, he began to withdraw again. She said there’s a Christian song they used to sing on their way to school every morning called “Tuyo Soy,” Spanish for “I Am Yours.” But when she put it on one morning, as his departure day approached, she said, Wilder began sobbing.

“I don’t want to go,” Gallegos said he told her. “I don’t want to leave you. I’m going to miss you so much.”

She said she tried to reassure Wilder that things would be OK, burying her own fears. “He had everything he wanted here,” she said, “and he knew that when he went home, he wasn’t going to have that.”

Before Wilder left, Gallegos and her husband rented “Rambo” and ordered pizza. They woke him before dawn and brought him downstairs to get dressed so that he didn’t disturb his bunkmate. Wilder noticed that Gallegos had packed all his things in a big black duffel bag and asked, “I’m not going to school today?”

“No, you’re going back to your family today,” she answered.

His face went blank, she said. And he stopped talking, barely saying a word throughout breakfast and the car ride to meet his social worker. “He was silent,” Gallegos said of Wilder. “I tried not to cry because I didn’t want him to feel bad.”

When he got out of the car, Wilder wrapped his arms around Gallegos’ waist. In the six months they had been together, she said she’d watched him grow from a size 4 to a size 8 and lose most of his baby teeth. She cried, too, as he walked away.

Wilder was reunited with his father at the airport in Laredo, Texas. They were loaded onto a government plane filled with about 100 other Salvadoran deportees. They landed in El Salvador before lunch. Wilder’s size was not the only thing that distinguished him from the rest of the bunch. The men, including Wilder’s dad, wore tattered T-shirts. But Wilder arrived dressed in black suede Timberlands, a red flannel shirt, a hat with Spider-Man eyes and a frown.

There was another 6-year-old boy on the flight with his mother. They had been separated from each other in September, months after a judge ordered the government to stop the practice, and were reunited that morning. The boy, named Esteven, was chattering away with his mom, as if filling her in on all she’d missed. But Maldonado said Wilder barely spoke to him as officials registered their return and advised them of the government programs available to provide assistance.

Another 6-year-old boy, named Esteven, was separated from his mother at the U.S. border in September, three months after a federal judge ordered the Trump administration to end the practice. His mother, Elguina, said she gave up her asylum petition three months later because she couldn’t stand being apart from her son. (Hector Emanuel, special to ProPublica)

His face finally lit up when he saw his mother. She cried as he rushed into her arms. Cabrera said that Wilder told her he was glad to see her, telling her: “Mama, when I was away, I didn’t know when I’d ever see you again. I missed you, Mama.’“

But by the time they had gotten home, Wilder had shut down again. And it was Cabrera trying to win him over. He told her he had changed his name to Peter Parker, but she didn’t know that was Spider-Man’s alter ego. He wanted to watch television, but theirs had died. The tortillas weren’t prepared to Wilder’s liking, so he was feeding his to the cat. He wanted to show her that he could ride a bicycle. Cabrera said with her husband out of work and $5,500 in debt, a new bike was far beyond their means.

Wilder, she said, has told her he has a plan.

“He told me that when he gets older, he wants to go to the United States to work,” she said. “He says he’ll get a good job and send money to take care of me.”

More than a third of Salvadorans live below the poverty line. Wilder’s mother said jobs in this remote part of the country pay about $5 a day. Wilder has told his mother he will try to go to the U.S. to work when he’s older. (Hector Emanuel, special to ProPublica)

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