This story originally aired on August 31, 2016.
At the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, a family from Central America is reuniting, thanks to the CAM program that allows kids to apply for refugee or parolee status so they can enter the country legally. This family’s two teenage girls have finally arrived in Austin.
Reina is 18 and her sister Hazel is 16. Their dad, Danny Rodriguez, petitioned to bring them to the U.S. one year ago. Danny brought balloons to welcome the girls to Austin.
“Se siente feo un vacío enorme. Creeme ahora ya estoy completo – me siento mas feliz.”
“I always carried this void with me,” Rodriguez says in Spanish. “Believe me, today my heart is whole again. I feel happier now.”
Reina was 4 years old when Rodriguez left El Salvador. Hazel was only 2.
Everyone giggles and jokes. The girls desperately seek approval from their dad – a man they know well from photos and phone calls, but who is a total stranger in a practical sense.
“Te perdiste lo mejor de mi adolescencia. Me lo voy a cobrar.”
“Si mi amor.”
“Daddy, you are going to pay dearly for leaving us,” Reina says in Spanish. “You missed the best years of my life, you missed my adolescence.”
“Yes, my love,” Rodriguez says. He kisses her forehead.
Indeed, Rodriguez is happy but he is also worried about his daughters. He knows in the years since he left El Salvador his girls have witnessed unspeakable violence – so much so that they both entered the U.S. as refugees.
Claudia Carrete is with Refugee Services of Texas – one of the organizations administering the CAM program in Texas.
“Once a parent applies for a kid, the kid can receive one of two statuses – or denial,” Carrete says. “Most of the kids receive parolee status, which means it’s a conditional entrance. And every two years they have to reapply for that program.”
Very few receive refugee status. But as refugees the Rodriguez girls will be on track to becoming permanent residents and possibly even U.S. citizens.
But not a lot of people are taking advantage of the program. First of all, not all Central American kids are eligible. CAM was exclusively designed for kids in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.
When Hazel Rodriguez hears only a couple hundred people throughout Texas have applied for this program, she says that’s probably because it sounds too good to be true.
“Dudaba si sería realidad. Yo sentía como que si era un sueño. A mi Hermana se lo comentaba, pero resulta que es verdad.”
“Even this morning,” Hazel says, “I had my doubts. I even told my sister that I honestly believed we were dreaming. Turns out the dream was true.”
There’s still more dreams to come true for Hazel, Reina and their dad. First, they will reunite with the girls’ mother. She and their dad split up years ago and she doesn’t yet know they’re in Texas. But he says she, too, has dreamt of the moment when she could embrace her girls on U.S. soil.
Hazel sums up the rest of their dreams: She says after living in a world where even crossing the street was considered an act of defiance by local gangs in El Salvador, she’s given herself permission to believe she and her sister can do things.
“Que pueda tener una mejor vida, que pueda salir mas libre que como era antes en el Salvador tenía muchísimas restricciones, sacar una Carrera tener una familia y con la que estoy ahorita poder ser feliz.”
“We want it all,” she says. “A better life, the freedom of movement – because in El Salvador we lived under many restrictions. We want to have careers, go back to school and eventually we want to have families of our own. We want to be happy together.”
Holding balloons in their hands, the family leaves the airport as if walking on a cloud.
For more information call Refugee Services of Texas at (512) 472-9472.