TRENTON, N.J. — Franklin Carranza sat on a sofa surrounded by his family, flipping through a large photo album. The 32-year-old father grinned as he showed his daughter, Melissa, how tiny she was when she was born, pointing to a snapshot of a 4-pound infant in a U.S. neonatal care unit. His son Emanuel smiled at a photo of himself getting ready to slice into an enormous blue and white birthday cake in Guatemala with his grandparents looking on. In another picture, Franklin and his wife Sandra stand in as witnesses during a friend’s wedding in New Jersey.
But there was something different about the photo of the entire family — Franklin, Sandra, their two sons and daughter — in front of Mayan ruins. In this shot the Carranzas are all smiling, but Emanuel and Pablo wear summer clothes and are slightly out of focus. The photo, framed in the living room, is a montage that has been digitally assembled; before this year, Franklin and Sandra hadn’t seen their sons in a decade.
“Every Christmas, we would sit around at the table, and I would tell [Sandra], ‘I promise you, this is the year that they will come, that we will bring them, that we will all be together again,’” Franklin said, his voice cracking with emotion. “And finally she said to me, ‘Don’t promise me that anymore. I can’t take it if doesn’t happen.’”
This is the Carranzas’ first Christmas all together in 13 years.
But the family worries their reunification in the U.S. may be short lived.
Uprooting his sons from their home in Guatemala, where they lived with Franklin’s parents, to give them a future in the U.S. is something the couple said they prayed long and hard about.
“It’s a country full of crime, where my oldest son, who is 15 years old, already had people looking at him to be a good bodyguard or a gang member. There were also places that they could be kidnapped just for being there,” said Franklin. “So it was a decision whether to leave my sons to live there, to have them live in danger for their entire lives or have them risk their lives for two weeks and be able to be with us here.”
Pablo said a guide, or coyote, led the brothers, along with a group of other unaccompanied children, in the 10-day journey from Guatemala to the border crossing in Matamoros, Mexico. As the oldest children in the group, Pablo said they were in charge of taking care of the others. The group alternated rest and travel days.
Emanuel, normally a giggly 11-year-old boy who loves tossing a basketball around the living room and fighting with his sister over their favorite spot on the couch, grew serious when he talked about that journey.
“I was only 10 when I crossed. And I was scared, because in Guatemala on the news, they say many children die in the desert,” he said. “It was very difficult. We had to pass through the river, we had to sleep on the earth, and we had to hide because the immigration police were nearby. I was so scared. I wanted to turn myself in. I wanted to stand up when they started to shine the spotlight from their boat. I wanted to stand up, but the coyote wouldn’t let me.”
“The coyote told us we had to memorize a password because they work with the narcos. And if we didn’t tell them the number he gave us, they would kill us right there in that place. So we made ourselves memorize the numbers. We wrote them down on our hands, our arms, our shoes,” Emanuel remembered.
After being caught by Border Patrol agents, the brothers said they were released to a social worker and flown to New Jersey to be reunited with their parents as their case is processed.
“When I saw my parents at the airport, I didn’t cry, because I came with so much anger in my heart,” Emanuel said. “In Guatemala, when my parents called, I didn’t want to talk to them. I came with that anger, and when my sister, Melissa, hugged me, I hit her. Now I feel bad because I had this anger but they were the ones who sacrificed to bring us here.”
Melissa watched carefully as Emanuel spoke, her chubby cheeks turned down into a frown. On the wall of the living room hung an honor roll award from her elementary school. She is the only member of the household who speaks fluent English. Melissa said she has been teaching her brothers how to live in America since they arrived; Emanuel said he is most excited to see snow for the first time.
“The other kids at school, they tell me you can roll it up into a ball and throw it like a rock and you can ride a sled down it. I want to try that,” he said.
Franklin said having the whole family living under the same roof is something he only dreamed of.
“To see my son, who was 3 years old when I left, looking like a grown man, now 15 years old, was just something beautiful. And to see my son Emanuel, who I thought I would never see, there just are no words,” Franklin said. “It is just so emotional to be able to say ‘Pablo, I love you. Emanuel, I love you.’ It’s something I can’t put into words, but it’s in my heart.”
But he laughed because some things have been an adjustment for the family. “Emanuel was used to being the baby with my parents in Guatemala,” he said. “And Melissa was used to being the baby — and an only child — here in the U.S. So you had a clash of babies. We had to find a way to make them all feel special and loved and listened to. I think we are doing really well now.”
Pablo and Emanuel said they miss their extended family back in Guatemala. “Here we are safer. Things are more controlled. There is less violence. The schools are safer,” said Pablo. “But we miss our friends.”
And the threat of deportation is always on their minds.