Heydi Gámez Garcia, a 13-year-old from Honduras, waited for her father to join her in the United States. But he was repeatedly stopped at the border.
He came too late.
By Christina Goldbaum and Miriam Jordan
Photographs by Christopher Lee
BRENTWOOD, N.Y. — Heydi Gámez Garcia was discovered by her aunt just after midnight.
In recent weeks, Heydi, a 13-year-old immigrant from Honduras, had become increasingly depressed about her father, who had been held in detention since he was caught illegally crossing the southern border in early June. It had been his third attempt in four years to reach the United States to be with his only child, who was living with his sisters in New York. But as days turned into weeks and more than a month passed without his release, the young girl seemed to lose hope, her family said.
Around 10:30 p.m. one night last week, Heydi shut herself in a room, saying she wanted to be alone. About an hour and a half later, her aunt, Zoila, gently opened the door to offer her a snack. Maybe some cookies and milk would cheer her up, she thought.
But the bed with blue and violet flowered sheets was empty. Zoila peered out the window, and then caught a glimpse of the closet on the opposite end of the room: There was Heydi, hanging from a phone-charging cable that she had fashioned into a noose.
She was unconscious, on the edge of death. She had left no note — nothing to help explain what, of the many things that can lead young people to take their own lives, had prompted her to try to end hers.
“She was so smart, it doesn’t make sense why she made a decision like this, a decision so out of character,” said Jessica Gámez, 32, the aunt Heydi lived with in the Long Island hamlet of Brentwood. “I thought she would be safer here with me, safer than in Honduras.”
Heydi’s short life story was much like those of thousands of Central American families who have been making their way to the United States over the past five years, petitioning for asylum from the turmoil of their homelands and hoping that the challenges of building a new life in an unfamiliar country will not be greater than the ones they left behind.
Heydi’s mother abandoned the family when she was just 2 months old; her grandparents, who raised her in Honduras, both died — she was among those who found her grandfather dying in the street after he was attacked by gang members. She moved to New York and had the usual challenges of adolescence, going to a new school and learning English. But more than anything else, her family and friends said, she missed her father.
“Heydi was so excited when he told her he was coming, I think the idea of her dad being here with her felt like a refuge,” said Erika Estrada, 25, who knew Heydi from their church, the Gospel Tabernacle Church in Brentwood. “She lost her grandparents, her mother left, she had all this daughterly love that she couldn’t put towards her aunts or her uncles, only him,” Ms. Estrada said.
The story of American immigration has long been one of split families — a parent travels to the United States to work; children and sometimes spouses are left home. In earlier years, migrant workers would return home at the end of the work season and then cross back. But the fortification of the border that followed the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001 and stepped-up security in the years since have made such comings and goings far more difficult. In many families, parents and children remain separated for years, sometimes for a lifetime.
While the past year has seen repeated cases of migrant family separations and children detained on the border under President Trump’s strict new immigration policies, the Gámez family’s difficulties spanned three presidential administrations — all of which debated but did not deliver a wide-ranging legal solution for migrant labor in the United States.
“Going home to be with a sick parent, attend a funeral or to another emergency: It happens all the time,” said Marty Rosenbluth, a lawyer who represents immigrants at a detention center in Lumpkin, Ga. “Then people get caught when they try to return to the U.S.”
What happened to Heydi has been reconstructed through interviews with her father, aunts and uncles, cousins, a family friend and her father’s lawyer, as well as information from the family’s asylum cases, federal court records and immigration authorities.
Heydi grew up in a modest concrete home in El Progreso, a town in northwest Honduras flanked by a mountain range to the east and the Ulúa River to the west. For decades the city was a hub for commercial banana plantations.
But by the time Heydi was born in March 2006, El Progreso had also become host to some of the country’s many violent gangs, including MS-13. Gang members often demanded cash payments — “taxes” — from Heydi’s family and others in exchange for guaranteeing their safety.
The instability combined with lack of opportunity led her father, Manuel Gámez, now 34, to head for the United States. In 2007, leaving Heydi behind with his parents, he sneaked across the border and traveled to Long Island, where his sister, Jessica, had settled two years earlier.
Being apart from Heydi for most of her childhood was difficult, Mr. Gámez said, but he made enough as a landscaper to send money to support her.
When Heydi returned from her Catholic nursery school, she played with the family dogs or rode a pink bicycle her father had given her, recalled Zoila, another of Mr. Gámez’s sisters. Occasionally, she helped in the small store her grandparents ran from their house, raiding shelves and stealing caramels.
But one day in June 2014, the security in which Heydi’s grandparents had enveloped her was shattered.
After months of rebuffing gang members’ demands that he hand over his small S.U.V., her grandfather was gunned down two blocks from their home. Hearing the commotion, Zoila had rushed outside to find her father sprawled on the ground. Peeling back his cattleman hat, she saw blood seeping from his head, forming a pool on the pavement. Heydi stood at a distance, watching the scene unfold.
Within days of the killing, Mr. Gámez said, he was on a plane back to Honduras.
“There was no one there to take care of Heydi or Zoila; my mom was very sick then,” he said. “I thought it might be a risk to go back, but I couldn’t leave them there alone.”
About a year later, Mr. Gámez’s mother died of complications from diabetes and, according to her children, heartbreak over her husband’s death. With four of his siblings in Long Island and the fear of further retaliation from the gangs weighing on him, Mr. Gámez decided that Heydi and Zoila must go to the United States to be safe.
He sent Heydi first, in the summer of 2015, deciding to stay behind in Honduras in case she was turned back at the border.
On Sept. 25, 2015, after nearly two months in a migrant shelter for minors, the 9-year-old Heydi landed at La Guardia Airport, followed a few months later by Zoila.
Surrounded by seven cousins around her age, Heydi adjusted well to life in America, her aunts and cousins said. Within six months, she learned English, motivated as much by her ambition to succeed in her new school as by her desire to be included in the secret conversations her cousins had in English around their Spanish-speaking aunts and uncles.
On nearly daily video calls with her father in Honduras, she began teaching him the basics (“Hello. How are you?”) and chastising him for not learning the language better, since he had lived in the United States. Heydi even taught him some lines for talking to women when he arrived in America, perhaps her way of nudging him to find her a mother, he thought.
“She taught me ‘Are you married? Are you single?’” he recalled. “I would say it and she would laugh and smile, she said my accent was very bad.”
Heydi urged her father to practice. He had to prepare for living with her, she said. He assured his daughter that he would arrive soon.
In June 2016, based on the threat from gangs to her family, Heydi won asylum, entitling her to live permanently and legally in the United States. Around this time, Mr. Gámez made his first attempt to return to the United States. But the border was much harder to cross than when he had first journeyed to America nine years earlier.
“The first time I came I crossed with a big group: It took two days, it was easy,” he said. “But then it became more difficult, much more difficult. There were Border Patrol agents everywhere.”
When Mr. Gámez was apprehended in McAllen, Tex., he told agents that he feared for his life should he be returned to Honduras. But an asylum officer deemed that his fear was not credible, and he was deported that November.
“How is it that his daughter and sister are both eligible for asylum and he fails?” said Anibal Romero, Mr. Gámez’s lawyer. “He clearly is fleeing for his safety, for the same reasons. This just shows you how this is a flawed system.”
In September 2017, immigration officials detained Mr. Gámez near Santa Teresa, N.M., after he had made yet another attempt to enter the country. He was convicted of illegally re-entering, served 45 days in prison and was deported to Honduras a second time in November.
With each failed attempt, Heydi grew more dispirited.
“I told her, ‘I can’t be there right now because the law won’t allow me,’” he recalled. “But how do you explain that to a child? How do you explain what laws are to her?”
Mr. Gámez remained in Honduras, hawking shoes on the side of the road to support himself.
By the time Heydi reached the sixth grade this past year, she was developing some crushes. For months she clung to a love note from a classmate, Carlos. “I want you to be my girlfriend and for us to be together forever. Let me know what you think,” it said, its worn edges folded into a perfect rectangle and tucked between assignments in her homework binder.
But she also showed signs of emotional distress. In the same binder, Heydi scribbled a note in the margins of a poem she was studying in her English class. The stanza she marked said, “and the thought of my own / grandmother homeless / in the cold with no place / to pray and be warm / made me sad and depressed.” Heydi wrote: “It reminds me of my own depression.”
Jessica attributed her niece’s sadness to both the trauma of losing her grandparents and her growing exasperation over whether she would ever be reunited with her father. Heydi often complained to her aunts that everyone else had a mother and a father, but she felt like an orphan.
She started pleading to return to Honduras to be with her father. But Mr. Gámez maintained that Heydi needed to stay in America, where she had won asylum and had educational opportunities that he had never had.
On Heydi’s 13th birthday in March, Mr. Gámez promised her he would be with her by her 15th to celebrate her quinceañera, the traditional coming-of-age celebration. But sensing her increasing despondence, he told her he would try to cross the border in June.
The two started to make plans for their first summer together in the United States: They’d go to the mall, to the park, to the small beach by the Bay Shore Marina.
From Reynosa, Mexico, in early June, Mr. Gámez called Heydi and told her he was almost in the United States. They may not be able to talk for the next few days, he warned her, but he would see her soon.
Mr. Gámez never had the chance to call her from the other side of the border. After illegally entering the United States, he was apprehended by Border Patrol agents and sent again into detention. When Heydi learned he was in custody, she broke into tears. For days, her aunts said, she did not want to leave her room. She lost her appetite.
Jessica thought spending a few nights with Zoila, her younger aunt, might raise Heydi’s spirits. They planned an outing to Six Flags for July 5. But the trip never happened.
At 12:36 a.m. on the morning of July 3, the police responded to a 911 call from Zoila’s house, where medics tried to resuscitate Heydi. She was taken to Cohen Children’s Medical Center in New Hyde Park, where doctors determined she was “neurologically devastated.” A week later, they declared her brain-dead.
On July 13, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agreed to a request from Mr. Gámez’s lawyer, Mr. Romero, to release him from custody to be with his dying daughter. The authorities put him on a plane with a round-trip ticket from Texas, where he will return to detention — he had 14 days to bid Heydi goodbye.
As Mr. Gámez’s flight from Houston approached Newark, Jessica and her siblings waited in the arrivals terminal.
“He still doesn’t know what happened,” Jessica said, cradling her elbows in her hands. “I still don’t know how I’m going to tell him.”
When Mr. Gámez emerged, Jessica lunged toward him. “Brother, please forgive me,” she murmured.
As the siblings wove through traffic to the hospital, Jessica tried to explain what had happened. But her brother did not fully grasp that his daughter was brain-dead — until he saw her.
She lay in a hospital bed, eyes half-shut, buried beneath breathing tubes and IV drips, surrounded by monitors. His eyes welled.
“My dear, my dear, please,” he said softly, stroking the crown of her head. “Please, if you see a light, don’t go toward it, please.”
“I’m here, I love you,” he whispered.
Mr. Gámez spent the night beside her, the flicker of hope that she might awaken dimming with each monitor’s beep. By morning, the severity of Heydi’s condition had sunk in.
As he sat on the couch in Jessica’s apartment the next day, a look of disbelief and grief washed over his face.
“As a parent, you don’t have any hopes or dreams for yourself, all your dreams are for your kids,” he said. “All my dreams are in her heart. All of them are gone with her.”
On Thursday, Mr. Gámez plans to take Heydi off life support. They will have spent her last four days alive, together.