PHILADELPHIA -- A viral video of a mother reuniting with her sons in May 2021 touched the hearts of millions.
But it was just a glimpse into their story and what so many migrant families experience: the heartache of being apart and the hope of one day being reunited.
"When I reunited with my kids, I felt like a full person," said Mabel Gonzalez, a native of Honduras who now lives in Philadelphia.
In the video, Mabel hugs her two youngest sons, Erick and Mino, all three crying. Her oldest son, Alex stands off to the side, too overwhelmed to move or even speak.
"I was in shock," said the 21-year-old through a translator. "I couldn't move. I saw everybody was running up to hug her, but I was numb."
That's because Alex had all but lost hope that he would ever see his mother again. His family made the decision to come to America when he was 17. They wanted to escape the violence in Honduras.
"There are people killing others and, in areas, a lot of robberies," he said. "It made me feel very fearful of coming out of my house ... Once you're targeted, they don't stop until they find you, and they'll look for you until they find you. Then they'll kill you."
It's a story that Karenina Wolff has heard before as an immigration and family law attorney practicing out of South Philadelphia.
"They were being hunted by these men who'd already killed his uncles. They killed four of his mom's brothers," she said.
Leaving Honduras for America, Alex and his family first rode a bus. They made it to Mexico and eventually the U.S. border. That's where they were separated.
"She was detained in Texas, and then she was deported," said Wolff of Alex's mom. "She was deported back to Honduras."
Then a teenager who was too afraid of being sent back to Honduras, Alex trekked through the desert with another group of people rather than turn himself over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
"I had to walk 15 days, 16 nights," he said of his journey, adding that he had a blanket to put over him as he slept.
When Alex finally did make it to the U.S., he lived in several different states until his younger brothers were moved to Philadelphia, where relatives lived. That's when Alex had to navigate through an entirely different set of problems: how to take care of himself and his two younger brothers.
"Alex was the one who really stepped in to take guardianship of his brothers," said Wolff, who helped Alex through the custody issue. "Alex was only 19 at the time. He had also just gotten here."
He spent his days cooking, working and making sure his brothers went to school -- all the while wondering if he'd ever see his mom again. It was something even his lawyer doubted.
"I just thought there was no way," said Wolff, explaining that U.S. asylum laws haven't changed in decades and don't include people who are fleeing gang violence.
A local nonprofit, Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, stepped in to help.
"They basically agreed to reopen [Alex's mom's] deportation case and let her in on humanitarian parole," Wolff said.
That was the setup for the surprise that Mabel Gonzalez had been dreaming of. The video went viral doing just what she hoped: showing their story to the world.
"The love of a mother, the love for her children, this impacts the whole world," she said. "This is something that we all share, the love that a mother has for her child."
Both Alex and his mother are now working on becoming U.S. citizens.
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