Foster Mother Writes About Migrant Child's 3,000-Mile Journey
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Since July of 2017, more than 5,000 children have been separated from their families at the U.S.-Mexico border. That's according to the U.S. government's own numbers. Author Gena Thomas has written a book about one of those children. She calls her Julia. In 2017, Julia left Honduras with her stepfather and her mother. The little girl was between 4 and 5 years old at the time.
They had hired smugglers to get them safely from Honduras to the United States, but the smugglers kidnapped Julia's mother and forced her into prostitution. Julia and her stepfather made it to the border, but when they got there, they were separated from each other. Eventually, Julia was placed with extended family in North Carolina, but it was an abusive situation. So like many unaccompanied minors, she ended up in the U.S. foster care system, and that is where Gena Thomas came in.
GENA THOMAS: I got a call from social workers on a Friday afternoon telling me that there was a little girl who only spoke Spanish, and her name's Julia and that they really needed somewhere for her to stay for the weekend.
MARTIN: She and her husband Andrew had fostered kids before. They believe it's part of their mission as evangelical Christians. They welcomed Julia to their family in February 2018, and what was supposed to be just a weekend turned into four life-changing months.
THOMAS: We knew that we were kind of able to meet that need. And the thought was, OK, it's only for a weekend; we can do this. We had another foster daughter in our home at the time. We have two biological children as well. So really, it was the fact that this was just going to be a weekend that made us say yes.
MARTIN: In her book, "Separated By The Border," Gena Thomas brings us an intimate glimpse into the journey of one child caught up in America's debate over who gets to be American.
THOMAS: The first two months - it was very much her wanting to go home. She had video conversations with her mom and her family pretty regularly throughout the week, and those conversations would last sometimes for hours. And so it really did become, you know, a joining of both of our families.
MARTIN: And you, through this time, have gotten to know her mom through these video chats, Lupe. Can you describe what that moment was like when you and your husband and Julia landed in Honduras and you got to see her mom again?
THOMAS: Yeah, it was just a really beautiful moment. It was really hard to imagine, knowing that they had been apart for eight months. So to watch them be able to come together and finally see each other, run up to each other and literally not, like, let go of each other the whole ride home from there - so the airport was about 2 1/2, three hours away from their actual home. And Julia, who never wants to be touched, like, doesn't - you know, she's a very independent little girl. And for her to just, you know, sit in her mother's lap the entire time and not move was definitely not her personality.
MARTIN: Three months after the little girl was reunited with her mother in Honduras, Gena Thomas wanted to understand more about Julia's journey. So she paid a visit to the U.S. Border Patrol processing station in McAllen, Texas.
What did you see in McAllen? What did you learn there? Why did you want to go?
THOMAS: We had seen a couple of documents that Julia, at the time, had supposedly "signed," quote-unquote, "signed" her name. But, you know, she was 4. She didn't really know how to sign her name or even to write her name at the time. And so I was just curious about what that process was like for people, especially for unaccompanied minors. And then, you know, I'd seen some of the pictures of, you know, kids in cages, and I was just curious - is that real? Is that actually what's happening? And it was.
MARTIN: You write this book - this memoir, really - from your perspective as an evangelical Christian. And like any group, there's divergent opinion within the white evangelical community.
MARTIN: But when you look at the leadership in this faith tradition, do you think they have fallen short when it comes to the issue of - specifically, the issue of family separation at the border?
THOMAS: Absolutely. I think that falling short actually comes from this idea that pro-life is antiabortion. And I believe that if the evangelical leadership is going to get in the right place when it comes to immigration, it's got to start with really recognizing what pro-life means in a robust manner.
And I believe that it's really a fault of our theology that really stems back to this idea that we are pro-life if, you know, death is right in front of it. But if we're not pro-life when other people are pulling families apart - you know, we talk a lot about family values as evangelical Christians. And if we are going to be for family values, then we need to be for family reunification.
MARTIN: Lupe, Julia's mom, gave you permission to write this book and to share their story. What is the one message you want people to take away from it?
THOMAS: I think the biggest message for evangelical Christians is - especially for those of us who are white and middle-class - to recognize that the situations that people walk through, the oppression that even we ourselves are doing to other people, these are not isolated events. I mean, we're seeing it all throughout, not just immigration but racism. And I would say that it's important for us to listen to the stories of those who have experienced things very differently from us and to actually pay attention to them and believe them when they're told to us. So we really need to start working on some of those things and fixing that.
One of the other things that I talk about a lot in the book is this idea that salvation is individual. We don't really seek shalom, which is really more of a communal salvation, so a salvation of a whole community. And I think that we need to focus more on that.
MARTIN: Your families, these two families became so entwined - right? - yours and Julia's with Lupe. How often do you keep in touch now? What do you know of Julia's life? How is she doing?
THOMAS: Yeah, we keep in touch a lot. We talk a lot through voice message. Mostly, it's Lupe and I talking, but the kids will get on every once in a while and talk with each other. She's loving school and doing really well in school. And she's speaking some English, too, and teaching some of her friends around her how to say things in English, which she's really proud about. So yeah, it's just - it's a really beautiful thing to see them reunite but also to really gain family friends in this whole process.
MARTIN: Gena Thomas - her book is called "Separated By The Border: A Birth Mother, A Foster Mother, And A Migrant Child's 3,000-Mile Journey." Gena, thanks so much for sharing it with us.
THOMAS: Thank you so much.
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