In the spring of 2018, Morena Mendoza and her 11-year-old son, Antonio, fled El Salvador, fearing gang violence in their native country. They joined other families and many other migrants who were part of a caravan that walked hundreds of miles through Central America to seek asylum in the United States.
But when Morena and Antonio arrived in the U.S. on April 27, they were detained—and separated—as part of the Trump administration’s inhumane “zero tolerance” policy. Morena was locked up in an immigration detention center in San Diego. Antonio was sent more than 2,700 miles away to a shelter in New York. It would be three months before they were reunited.
As of this writing, Morena and Antonio are living in Miami as they await the outcomes of their immigration cases. Like many migrants, they want to stay in the U.S.—and find the safety and peace that we all deserve.
They are not alone in their struggle. They are being accompanied by AFSC, which provides them with legal support; Miami Friends Meeting, which hosts them in a house on their property; and other community members who believe that all migrants should be welcomed with compassion.
In this interview, Morena shares her story. She was joined by AFSC community organizer Lis-Marie Alvarado and Kathy Hersh, clerk of Miami Friends Meeting.
Morena, why did you leave El Salvador for the U.S.?
Morena: I come from a very rural poor area of El Salvador. It’s very difficult to live there with children because of gang violence. That’s what caused us to leave. We were directly impacted.
Why did you join the caravan to get to the U.S.?
Morena: We didn’t have funds to hire a coyote to guide us, and the caravan provided a safer environment than traveling alone. It was a community. People needed to abide by certain rules – to prevent violence against women, to respect the LGBTQ people in the caravan, particularly trans women.
What was the journey like?
Morena: It took us a month and five days. The walking was hard, particularly for Antonio. He was tired all the time and sad. We had to cross through difficult terrain, sometimes through water.
We relied on donations of food, water, and clothing when we passed through different cities. The children took priority when it came to food.
Although it was hard, there was a sense of solidarity among us. Sometimes we’d dance, sometimes we’d protest.
What happened when you reached the U.S.-Mexico border?
Morena: When we arrived, I turned myself in at the entry point at San Ysidro. Border Patrol agents put us in a facility we call "hieleras" because it’s cold like a freezer. Then an official came and took Antonio away, and they put me in detention.
They handcuffed me and told me they were going to charge me as a criminal because crossing into the U.S. was illegal. They told me my child was going to be sent somewhere else. I started crying. I couldn’t even say bye to him or giving him a kiss.
What was your experience in the detention center?
Morena: For two months, I had no idea where my child was. I kept asking the officials in the detention center. I thought they could have killed him. I was also scared because I heard rumors about children being given to other people for adoption.
I cried all the time. I was forcibly medicated with pills that made me fall asleep, and I didn’t eat.
They also made us work. We were supposed to get paid two quarters a day, but sometimes we didn’t get paid. They told me if I didn’t work, they were going to give me a bad mark and not allow me to get [my immigration] papers. I was hopeless. I only wanted to die at that point.
When did you find out where Antonio was?
Morena: I was lucky. Different organizations had access to the detention center. One of them gave me a lawyer who helped me through the hearings. The lawyer was able to locate my child. I was so relieved and happy to know where he was and that he was relatively OK.
I talked to him twice by phone during the three months I was in detention.
Lis-Marie, how did you help Morena get out of the detention center?
Lis-Marie: I had learned from [immigrant rights organization] Mijente that I could sponsor someone from the caravan. When she was allowed out on bond, I got the money to bail her out. Lucio Perez-Reynozo, program coordinator in our AFSC office in Miami, agreed to help with her legal case.
I paid for a plane ticket to get her from San Diego to Miami. When I was waiting for her at Miami Airport, I had a sign with her name on it, but I knew it was her as soon as I saw her. It was shocking to see how destroyed she looked. She was wearing an ankle monitor and carrying a little trash bag.
How were you able to reunite Morena with Antonio?
Lis-Marie: It was complicated. It took about a month after Morena arrived in Miami. Antonio had been put in a foster home, and the agency was impossible to get in touch with and hostile towards me and Morena. I kept calling, sending emails. As a last resort, I told them I was going to pick him up myself and bring the media with me. Someone from the center finally brought him here to Miami.
Kathy, why did Miami Friends Meeting decide to host Morena and Antonio?
Kathy: Our meeting has always had a consciousness about refugee and immigrant rights. When AFSC started the campaign Sanctuary Everywhere, we really felt we needed to give accompaniment to help.
We already had a room prepared in a house across the street from the meeting house. And we were all united behind the idea of having a room in case anyone needed it—no questions asked. Two churches nearby are also providing support.
What does that accompaniment look like?
Kathy: People at the meeting go above and beyond to help Morena and Antonio. In addition to accommodations, we arranged for them to get medical care, dental care, and therapy. Members drive them to those appointments and provide support for immigration appointments.
Antonio had only finished the fourth grade. We helped him enroll in a school equipped to work with students who come in older and don’t speak English, and he’s also in an afterschool program and being tutored. One member of our meeting has a son who is fluent in Spanish, and he and Antonio have become buddies.
Accompaniment is also being with them socially, so they have friends and support. When Morena celebrated her 31st birthday, we had a party at a Salvadoran restaurant, and dozens of people were there. I have no doubt that she feels loved.
Morena, what do you want people to know about the experiences you’ve had?
Morena: I am immensely grateful for the support I have received, particularly from people like Lis-Marie and Mariana Martinez from AFSC, Kathy, Jane Westberg from Friends Sanctuary Committee, and so many others. I thank God for putting these people in my way.
I want President Trump and other elected officials to open their hearts, welcome immigrants, and give people a chance to have a new life. Separating families is wrong, and migrants shouldn’t be attacked or discriminated against.
For the public, please continue supporting immigrants. That has made a huge difference for me.
What’s next for Morena and Antonio’s efforts to stay in the U.S.?
Lis-Marie: Morena’s next court hearing is yet to be determined. It’s been a collective effort to provide them with legal, emotional, and other forms of support so they can be independent and as happy as they deserve.
Trump talks about a crisis at our border, but people like Morena and Antonio are not the crisis. The crisis is our government failing to respond to people in need.
It’s been wonderful for AFSC to accompany them with Miami Friends Meeting—and it’s a representation of what’s happening around the country. People are opening the doors of their houses and hearts to welcome people like Morena and Antonio. Theirs is a powerful story that captures the difficulty of navigating our asylum system and the inhumanity of the current administration, while reminding us all what love and solidarity can do.