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Mom, infant separated from family at Mexico border find help in Iowa City

Catholic Worker House hopes to reunite the El Salvador migrant

Glenda Juliza Aguilar de Cortez calls her husband in Mexico while holding her 24-day-old son, Anderson Alejandro Cortez Aguilar, in her room Tuesday at the Iowa City Catholic Worker House. Juliza and her husband, Alejandro Edenilson Cortez Amaya, left El Salvador and crossed the U.S. border at El Paso, Texas, on May 19. They were separated two hours after arriving and held at separate detention facilities. She was released to the Catholic Worker House and he was returned to Mexico to await his asylum hearing. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Glenda Juliza Aguilar de Cortez calls her husband in Mexico while holding her 24-day-old son, Anderson Alejandro Cortez Aguilar, in her room Tuesday at the Iowa City Catholic Worker House. Juliza and her husband, Alejandro Edenilson Cortez Amaya, left El Salvador and crossed the U.S. border at El Paso, Texas, on May 19. They were separated two hours after arriving and held at separate detention facilities. She was released to the Catholic Worker House and he was returned to Mexico to await his asylum hearing. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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IOWA CITY — Unsure what the future will bring, Alejandro Edenilson Cortez Amaya lives in a small room in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, carrying people’s groceries to earn tips.

With luck, he will be reunited to see his wife again, and their 3-week-old son for the first time.

Like so many other migrants caught in what some describe as deplorable conditions on the southern border, the Cortez family set out to flee gangs in their home country of El Salvador and seek asylum in the United States.

But also like so many other migrants, the family was torn apart along the way — a young son still in El Salvador, the father unable to get a steady job in Mexico, and the wife and new baby being looked after at the Iowa City Catholic Worker House.

The Catholic Worker House is trying to help the Cortez family reunite after they were separated partly as a result of President Donald Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” policy. The policy requires that asylum-seekers wait in Mexico for their day in U.S. immigration court.

Alejandro was sent to Mexico to wait. A pregnant Glenda Juliza Aguilar de Cortez was allowed to continue on to Iowa City.

But she was not allowed to say goodbye to her husband before they were separated. And while they talk often on the phone, she has not seen him since.

“I wanted to say (goodbye), but the officer did not allow me to do it,” Juliza said Tuesday through an interpreter. “Our plan was to be together all the time, so I felt anger, despair and nostalgic that we’re not together. I didn’t know what to do.”

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The couple talks almost every day over the phone. But only for a few moments at a time because Alejandro needs to make money.

Each time he carries somebody’s groceries, it brings him 50 cents or a dollar. Other times he’ll comb through the streets of Ciudad Juárez to see if a car wash needs help.

“I am worried because at least I have a room and food here,” Juliza said. “But he doesn’t have a job, so he needs to figure out every day how to make some money to pay the room and get some food.”

Alejandro said through an interpreter that on a scale of 1 to 100, his chance of getting a steady job is just a 2 because he doesn’t have legal immigration status in Mexico.

“Every time I go to a job, they ask me for my papers,” he said. “It’s really stressful because I don’t have a regular income to help my wife.”

Juliza has been raising their new son, Anderson Alejandro Cortez Aguilar, by herself in a room at the Catholic Worker House. Anderson’s crib sits a few feet away from Juliza’s bed, with crosses on a nightstand nearby.

The path to life in the United States was already adverse before the family made it May 19 to El Paso, Texas.

The family felt the need to leave El Salvador because of threats from gangs. But a lack of finances caused them to leave their 12-year-old son, Christofer Nahum Cortez Aguilar, for now with Juliza’s mother in El Salvador. Any contact with Christofer is limited to when Juliza’s mother can buy an internet card.

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“If I could bring him with me, I would do it,” Juliza said. “But I didn’t have the money.”

Alejandro said he’s considered going back to El Salvador to be with Christofer, but he doesn’t want to risk worse, life-endangering conditions that could prevent an eventual chance to reunite with the rest of his family in Iowa City.

The 2,000-mile trek from El Salvador took seven months by bus and foot. By the time Juliza got to the U.S.-Mexico border, she was eight months pregnant.

Long term, Juliza hopes Alejandro and Christofer can join her and “make it work” in the United States, but that’s a long process.

Alejandro, 28, has a court hearing Sept, 16 in El Paso. The Iowa City Catholic Worker House has struggled to find a lawyer in the United States available to go across the border to visit him before then. He is not allowed to enter the country until then.

The short time Alejandro spent on American soil was brutal. While he and Juliza were in Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody, they experienced what migrants call “las hieleras,” or the iceboxes.

Alejandro gave Juliza his jacket to stay warm. But then he had convulsions because of the cold.

Juliza did not get any medical attention for her pregnancy until she got to Iowa City. Alejandro became ill while in detention with a fever, body aches and a cold, but the doctor told him to just drink more water.

“The doctor told me I can’t really have medicine,” Alejandro said. “He recommended me to drink so much water.”

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Water was available, but he had to share the same cup with other detainees, spreading the illness further.

Juliza said the Catholic Worker House was instrumental in getting her released after her sister-in-law contacted the organization.

The Catholic Worker House has raised more than $20,000 to help refugees like the Cortez family. Community member Mark Petterson told The Gazette earlier this month it’s part of the need to go beyond just being “Iowa nice” and end the humanitarian crisis at the border.

That kind of help keeps Alejandro hopeful, despite the challenging conditions he faces.

“The only thing I know I’d like is to have a court (appearance) and see the judge give me the opportunity to come to America,” he said.

l Comments: john.steppe@thegazette.com

— Oct. 20, 2018: Alejandro and Juliza leave El Salvador.

— May 19: They arrive in El Paso, Texas, and are separated two hours after being detained.

— May 27: Alejandro is ordered to Mexico to away an asylum hearing.

— May 30: Juliza is released and arrives at the Iowa City Catholic Worker House.

— June 30: Anderson is born at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics.

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We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.