Sitting on a couch flanked by his daughters, Reina and Hazel, Danny Rodríguez says the best part of this past year has been finally having peace of mind. He was reunited with his daughters in August 2016 after 14 years apart, when they received asylum in the U.S. through the Central American Minors (CAM) Refugee/Parole Program.
Danny used to worry constantly about his daughters because he lived in Texas while the girls were in El Salvador. On top of the typical worries a father of teenage girls has, he feared what gang members in his country could do to them.
“I now have a peace of mind I didn’t have before, now that they are with me, which is priceless,” Danny says in Spanish.
Sixteen-year-old Hazel is about to finish her freshman year of high school. Adjusting to the workload and a new language has been tough, but one thing that’s been wonderfully easy is making friends.
“Maybe it’s because I’m very social and friendly,” Hazel says in Spanish. “I’m always happy, so it’s been easy.”
Nineteen-year-old Reina’s year has been different.
She already has a high school diploma, so she had to find a job. She works at a McDonald’s not far from the family’s home in the Austin suburb of Round Rock. She’s taking English classes and dreams of eventually starting college.
Beyond adjusting to new schedules, a new language and a new culture, the girls have also been getting used to having a relationship with their dad.
“Before, our relationship was only over the phone,” Reina says in Spanish. “Now that I’m here I can bother him all the time. ‘I’m like daddy, look, let’s do this, or let’s do that.’”
The CAM program was once restricted to children in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala who had a parent living in the U.S. It was expanded in July 2016 to include other family members, a change refugee resettlement agencies welcomed.
But they did not welcome another change that came in January.
“With the Obama administration they had approved 110,000 refugees to arrive this fiscal year, but since the executive orders from the Trump administration that number has been drastically reduced, to 50,000 refugees,” says Susan Stasney, a resettlement program supervisor at Refugee Services of Texas.
The federal appeals court that blocked the president’s travel bans did not address the orders’ cuts in the numbers of refugees allowed to come to the U.S.
“Considering this humanitarian crisis in these three countries with gang violence and for children unable to go to school or leave the house or have threats to their lives with gangs, once the U.S. reaches the 50,000 number, which will likely be this June, any refugees that would have been in a position to be reunited with their families will be on hold until the next fiscal year,” Stasney says.
El Salvador is the country with the most pending applicants, so those stuck waiting would likely be people like Reina and Hazel’s friends from back home.
Friends who – though they are immersed in tremendous violence – still act in many ways like typical teenagers. When the girls talk to their friends over Facebook or WhatsApp, they always ask if they’ve met anyone famous here in Texas. They also ask whether there’s violence here, if people get kidnapped and if school is tough.
Reina and Hazel miss the food in El Salvador, the convenience store at the corner of their street and living close to the ocean. But they don’t miss the constant fear that comes with the gangs, or having a long-distance relationship with their dad.
Reina and Hazel are safe on this couch in Texas, and that, the family says, is priceless.