Far From Home, a Young Migrant Helps His Little Brother Settle In to a New Life

[Lee esta historia en Español.]

Around 7:30 a.m. on a Tuesday morning, Yordy Michikoj coaxed his 6-year-old brother, Fernando, awake to get ready for school.

“Come on, Fernando,” he said in Spanish. “There’s only three more days left after today, and then we’re done for the week.”

In some ways, Yordy, 16, is like any teenager: He wants to hang out with friends and has a constant eye on his phone. But his life circumstances have thrust him into adulthood.

The brothers migrated to the United States from Guatemala last year with their mother via cargo trucks and buses. After immigration officials separated the family at the Arizona-Mexico border, the two boys were flown to New York City and then placed in foster care.

Fernando became Yordy’s responsibility. For three months, their mother was in a detention facility nearly 2,500 miles away, and Yordy was the one who tended to Fernando when he got sick and rallied his spirits when he yearned for home. Even now, after the family’s reunion, he still helps raise Fernando.

“I feel like I really know now what it’s like to have a child,” Yordy said, “or at the very least, I’m familiar with the heavy responsibility of having one.”

Yordy was forced to shoulder much of the responsibility of caring for his brother Fernando when their mother was detained. Many times he held him as they fell asleep. Lynda M. Gonzalez/NYT Institute

Yordy and his family are one of the thousands of Central American migrant families left in limbo as they wait for federal immigration authorities to process their asylum claims. Like many asylum seekers, the family fled to the United States to escape widespread street violence.

The separation added to the trauma Yordy had already endured: His father was murdered when he was 6, and when he was 11, he watched as someone tried to kill his mother.

“He’s suffered a lot as a young boy,” his mother, Rosayra Cruz, 36, said. “These changes have really affected the way his character has developed.”

In April, the Trump administration outlined plans for tighter regulations of the asylum process, which would make the migrants’ plight tougher. The proposed changes include charging application fees, restricting work permits to those waiting for approval and implementing a 180-day deadline to process all cases.

Hard-line immigration policies pursued by the Trump administration have become the standard as it tries to clamp down on a surge of migrants arriving at the southwest border. “They are coming like it’s a picnic,” Mr. Trump said last month.

For Yordy’s family, the hardships created by the separation have transformed their relationship.

“This last year has made us the closest we’ve been as a family, especially between me and my mother,” Yordy said. In the past, he added, “I would get in a lot of arguments with her because I was angry, but I’ve changed tremendously and it’s something that I’m very proud of.”

Yordy attributed his personal growth to counseling over the past year. Ms. Cruz said it has been helpful for him to talk to someone other than her about what he’s been through. Social workers help migrants not only with negotiating the tangle of bureaucracy surrounding the asylum process but also with the emotional turmoil affecting many of them after their journey.

As a freshman at a high school in Manhattan, Yordy likes hanging out with his friends, who are also immigrants from places like Bangladesh, Ecuador and El Salvador. Yordy even won a leadership award at school.

Yordy Michikoj, 16, is like many teenagers, 
but unlike most, being separated from his mother thrusted him into an early adulthood. Lynda M. Gonzalez/NYT Institute

“He always takes care of everybody,” Melissa Glick, Yordy’s global history teacher, said, noting, “he’s our in-class D.J., and he brings food for others.”

Yordy’s family was reunited in New York in July after his mother posted bond with the help of Immigrant Families Together, a New York-based group organized in response to the widely condemned family separation policy. Its founders, Julie Schwietert Collazo and her husband, Francisco, have become surrogate relatives for Yordy’s family. They helped them move to an Upper East Side apartment owned by a supporter.

Mr. Collazo has since become a mentor to Yordy, offering advice and friendship.

Francisco Collazo and his wife have become surrogate relatives to Yordy, providing him with mentorship and support. Lynda M. Gonzalez/NYT Institute

“Even though we aren’t actually son and father, we have that special kind of connection,” Mr. Collazo said. “He’s a curious young man,” he added. “I’m always aware that he models what he learns from me.”

Yordy knows he has someone following his behavior, too: His little brother, Fernando. Yordy makes sure Fernando doesn’t play violent video games or misbehave in public and holds his hand every time they walk down the street. Yordy frequently takes the extra step of putting Fernando’s socks on for him in the morning.

On a recent evening, after a long barbecue at the Collazos’ apartment in Queens, Fernando dozed off in the back seat of Mr. Collazo’s car. When they stopped in Manhattan, Yordy hoisted him out on his shoulder. Fernando clutched his brother’s neck.

“Yordy, can we go home?” he asked, half-asleep. “I want to go home.”

Yordy kissed his forehead and told him they were almost there.