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Escaped from his tyrant father and nearly drowned on the way: how a boy from Honduras was desperately trying to get to the USA

An unaccompanied underage guy nearly drowned while trying to move to the United States. Now he has a new life in Florida. Edition USA Today.

Photo: Shutterstock

The water was cool and dark. She circled around Francis Portillo as he wade through the Rio Grande. Portillo, then 14 years old, was all alone, felt the water rise to his chest, shoulders and chin. He began paddling to the other side and walked more than half the way — the United States and all its promises were just a few feet away.

Suddenly the current pulled him down the river. He rowed desperately, but could not overcome the current. He was dying.

Portillo raised his hand and said goodbye to a friend on the far bank, when suddenly someone grabbed his arm and yanked. A group of US Border Patrol agents who controlled the river by boat pulled him out of the river.

“At that moment I knew I was safe,” he recalls.

Portillo, now 25, fled his native Honduras in 2010 and arrived at the US-Mexico border as a frightened, unaccompanied minor, non-English speaker, with no family or acquaintances in the United States. He left behind a brutal father who regularly belted him and a crushing poverty that drowned out any glimmer of hope for his future.

Unaccompanied minors arrive at the border in thousands

Ten years later, unaccompanied minor immigrants arrive at the border in record numbers. The US Customs and Border Protection detected 18 unaccompanied children in March - double the number in February and double the number in March 990. The numbers plummeted last year because COVID-2019 effectively closed the border.

The vast majority of immigrant children are temporarily placed in federal shelters, and then reunited with parents or relatives living in the United States as their cases are tried in immigration court. People like Portillo are placed in foster families for long periods.

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A foster care program controlled by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, known as the Unaccompanied Minor Refugee Program, has stricter control and oversight than a state foster family, said Lisa Coop, deputy director of legal services at the National Center for Immigrant Justice.

The program includes counseling and other resources to help children cope with any trauma they may have suffered in their home country or during a long trip to the United States, she said.

“We've seen many of these kids do an incredible job of assimilating, learning English, going to school,” Coop said. "A lot of them are really doing well."

Portillo said he sympathizes with the groups of unaccompanied minors currently arriving at the US-Mexico border. He knows they are scared, alarmed, distrustful. Francis hopes they will connect with a good lawyer like him and find their way in the United States.

“They are fighters,” he concluded. “We're not all bad people. We just want to be safe. "

According to supporters, Portillo's epic is a brilliant success and a cautionary tale. He excelled in the federal foster care program, but only after a lawyer stumbled upon him in court, took his case and took him out of the orphanage.


From the age of 8, Portillo was forced to get up at 3 a.m. every day and milk cows on a ranch controlled by his father in Ocotepec (Honduras), near the border with Guatemala. Francis thrived in school, taking pleasure in the fact that grammar and reading were easy for him, but he was forced to drop out in third grade as his father Fausto Portillo increased the load on the ranch.

A chance encounter with an American who was driving through the city on a motorcycle gave him his first impression of English. Although the boy did not understand this language, he was surprised at how it sounded. His grandmother later told him that if he learned English, he could travel the world. Soon Francis tried to speak this language with the cows he milked.

Several times a week, his father beat him mercilessly, sometimes with a belt, sometimes with tree branches or the flat side of a machete. Sometimes from the beatings, his ears bleed.

His father would beat him if Francis came home late or took too long to do housework.

On the evening of April 7, 2010, while his mother, father, and four younger brothers were sleeping in another room, the boy packed up two sets of clean work trousers and shirts, hid the 1800 Honduran lempires (about $ 75) that he had saved, and left home. He knew that he could not stay in Honduras - he could not be found by his father. He thought of the man on the motorcycle and walked north towards the United States.

“I knew I would be safe in the United States,” the guy said. "Even animals have rights there."

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Francis walked all night and arrived at the Guatemalan border at dawn. There he met a guy he knew who took him to Esquipulas. He supported himself with odd jobs - helping to load trucks or clear fields. He worked a little, and then continued on his way north, across the northern border of Guatemala and into Mexico.

“I had no idea what I would be doing,” admits Portillo Jr. "I just decided to keep going north."

In Mexico, he boarded a freight train around the country (known as La Bestia, or "the death train"; immigrants use it to move north). The guy says that low-hanging tree branches or lampposts sometimes plucked people from the roofs of a traveling train, threw them to the ground. He witnessed the death of three people. Portillo got off the train in cities where he knew there were immigrant shelters to take a shower and get something to eat.

In Nuevo Laredo, on the US-Mexico border, he slept on park benches and under stairs. His only meal was one cup of ramen noodles a day.

Cartels roamed the city and often tried to recruit him, Francis says. He resisted. But the money was almost out, and the guy knew that the river was tightly controlled by cartels. The crossing would have cost hundreds of dollars, he had no money. He's stuck.

One night a man slightly older than Portillo approached him while he was sleeping in the park. They started talking, and the man asked if he wanted to move to the United States with him that night. He knew the parts of the river that the cartels did not patrol. Portillo agreed and met him by the river. He almost drowned, but he was rescued.

After a short stay at the border patrol station in Laredo, Portillo was transferred with other unaccompanied minors to a federal shelter in San Antonio. The food was hot and the children were allowed to walk around the yard. But high fences and guards reminded Portillo every day that he was not free. Several times the guy thought about giving up and asked to be deported back to Honduras.

He was transferred to another shelter in San Antonio. He went to court hearings, and the lawyers assured him that they were close to finding him a permanent home. But each time Francis returned to the orphanage again.

Willy Wonka's Golden Ticket

In December 2012, more than a year after he moved to the United States, Portillo stood before the Immigration Court in San Antonio when approached by Linda Brandmiller, a San Antonio immigration attorney specializing in unaccompanied minors. After listening to a few minutes of his story, she said that she could help him leave the shelter and get into a foster family. Linda offered to take up his case free of charge.

When she asked him which state he would like to see his foster family in, Portillo replied, “Texas or California” are the only two states the guy could name. He had only one request: that his foster family did not speak Spanish. He wanted to learn English as quickly as possible. A few weeks later, Brandmiller stopped the deportation process, and his application for admission to a foster family was submitted.

By August of that year, Francis was allowed to move with Brenda and Philip McGee into their ranch-style home surrounded by pine groves, about 30 miles north of downtown Houston. On the last day of his stay at the orphanage, the guard asked to see the spiral notebook that Portillo used as a diary. He wrote inside: "No matter how dark the tunnel may seem, if you go through it, you will definitely see a light at the end."

Portillo did not understand a word, but vowed that someday he would be able to read what he had written.

In addition to homestay and regular school attendance, Brandmiller said the foster parenting program provides life skills training and other resources.

“This is Willy Wonka's golden ticket for unaccompanied minors,” she said. "You get help every step of the way in your life."

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Brandmiller was glad to be placed in a foster home. But that happened almost two years after he first came to the United States. This suggests that unaccompanied minors without legal assistance can often be neglected.

“If he hadn’t talked to me that day, he would most likely have been deported,” she said.

At his new home, Portillo hesitated at first, expecting to be transferred again at any moment. Nightmares haunted him in his dreams.

After settling in his new bedroom, on the first night Portillo lay between the springs and the mattress to hide from intruders. Dreams of falling from La Bestia or drowning while trying to reach the United States grew more vivid. In another nightmare, the cartel members hunted him down and were angry that he crossed the river without paying. According to him, he slept like this for weeks.

Portillo woke up one morning terrified after a particularly vivid nightmare. Brenda McGee hugged him and said, “Baby, you're safe. Nothing will happen to you here. "

The nightmares gradually subsided.

Initially, communication with his new family consisted mainly of pointing out things - "hammer", "broom" - and repeating the words over and over until the English got hold of. He did what he knew most: helping out around the house, mowing the lawn, mending fences.

At that time, McGee was already raising two teenagers from the Republic of the Congo, who also did not speak English. To try and communicate, Brenda McGee stuck name stickers on things in and around the house - "sofa", "table", "toilet". I made the inscriptions in three languages: English, Spanish and Swahili.

She was surprised at how quickly Portillo learned the language and his desire to learn.

“A very smart young man, he learned quickly and worked hard,” Brenda said.

At New Caney High School, Francis enrolled in an English as a Second Language course and worked with tutors to learn the language. He joined the ROTC and got into the high school ski and soccer teams. He avoided Hispanic students in order to learn English faster.

“It didn't take long for me to start talking like a normal American,” Portillo said.

New start in the USA

The McGee took him to rodeos and carnivals, and to his family for Thanksgiving. They taught him to pay bills and love country music. Brenda taught him how to drive a Kia Sorrento. In 2013, the fugitive received his permanent resident card, allowing him to permanently live and work in the United States.

“I am alive,” Portillo said. - I was no longer in a cage and felt free. I felt that someone was taking care of me. "

But the path was not always easy. In 2015, while still living with the McGee family, Portillo was arrested for drunk driving after a night of fun with friends. He said it was the result of being with the “wrong people,” and he let his newfound status in the United States turn his head. Francis served probation and the case was dropped - a mistake he said he learned from.

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Today, Portillo speaks fluent English, works as a foreman at a repair company in Jacksonville, Florida, and makes about $ 4000 a month - a fortune for the small rural Honduras town he left behind. He drives a 2020 Dodge Ram pickup.

Francis travels from construction site to construction site translating orders for Hispanic workers and reporting to his superiors. On weekends, he cooks steaks or sunbathes on the beach with friends.

The immigrant keeps in touch with McGee, whom he calls Mom and Dad, and sends home about $ 100 a month to his mother and brothers in Honduras. According to him, his dream is to someday become a US citizen and drive heavy equipment on the roads.

Several years ago, Portillo sent a spiral notebook containing his diary entries home to Honduras. One day, he says, he will return home and re-read his memories of the days at the orphanage - an era that seems to have ended a lifetime ago.

But before mailing the notebook, Portillo, now fluent in English, read what the guard had written in it.

“He was right,” Francis said. "America has become a light for me at the end of my tunnel."

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