LA LIBERTAD, Guatemala (Reuters) - Lolinda Amaya cried last week when she saw a viral photograph of a Guatemalan mother imploring Mexico’s National Guard to let her enter the United States.
It was her niece, Ledy Perez, who had borrowed money weeks earlier and fled her village under cover of night, seeking a better life for her only child. The widely shared photo here showed her crouched meters away from Mexico's border with the United States, clinging to her young son Anthony Diaz as she looked up at an armed member of the newly formed Mexican military police force.
“We were all crying because we hadn’t heard anything about her, nor about the boy,” Amaya said, perched in front of the modest family home in Guatemala’s El Peten district.
At an interview in their home, Amaya said she and Perez’s grandmother had seen images and video of the pair published last week by Reuters as they spread across the internet.
Amaya shed tears every time she replayed the video of the border encounter. Seeing Perez’s standoff with the National Guard on social media had reassured her that her niece was alright.
The small wooden house Amaya shares with her mother and other family members nestles among dense jungle-like vegetation in the northernmost district of Guatemala, a sparsely populated area known for its Mayan ruins and drug cartel violence.
Some residents work in the cornfields or cattle farms, but jobs are scarce. Amaya said that running a small shop or selling food like tamales and empanadas are the only options for locals like her niece who had received little formal schooling.
Perez had dreamed of saving for a home in the United States, but had to borrow money for her trip, Amaya said. Unable to find regular work, she had been staying with her family before she took off with her son one night. The departure was so sudden the older woman did not have time to “even say goodbye,” she said.
As Perez pleaded with the National Guardsman, she told him she had struggled to raise her son in Guatemala after the father had abandoned them when the boy was nine months old.
When the officer glanced away, the mother and son dashed across the U.S. border, caught on camera by Reuters photographer Jose Luis Gonzalez. There, the two were taken into official custody in the United States.
Amaya said she once attempted a similar trip, as had her sister. Amaya never made it to the United States, but Perez’s mother did. On Monday, Perez was released by U.S. authorities, and her mother picked her up from a North Carolina airport.
Perez may have the option of seeking asylum in the United States. But the process no longer guarantees migrants the right to stay in the country while their legal cases are processed.
Under the policy known as the “Migrant Protection Protocols”, many people are returned to northern Mexican cities while their claims are processed.
And Guatemala last week signed a deal with the United States to make it a buffer zone to absorb asylum seekers from countries further south, such as Honduras and El Salvador.
Dolores Morales, Amaya’s mother and Perez’s grandmother, explained that living conditions in their municipality, La Libertad, were tough. Despite the perils of the journey north, she said her granddaughter knew that it was a risk worth taking.
“I thank God that she arrived,” said the grey-haired woman, her palms pressed together as if in prayer. “She left to ensure a better life for her son.”
Reporting by Milton Castillo; additional reporting by Jose Luis Gonzales in Ciudad Juarez and Tomas Bravo in Mexico City; additional reporting and writing by Rebekah F Ward in Mexico City; Editing by David Gregorio