Gabriela Hernandez is being held in government detention. Yet, this is the happiest she has been in weeks.
Compared to what she and the boys have gone through in the last two months, her current living status — even if under guard — is a relief.
Hernandez says she fled her home in Honduras when gangs threatened to kill Omar, her 6-year-old.
She sought some safety traveling north through Mexico in the migrant caravan but it wasn’t easy.
The whole family was hungry.
Each of them, including a pregnant Hernandez, became sick.
They struggled to ride on top of freight trains carrying scrap metal in the blazing sun and frigid nights. They waited days for buses, living off donations from strangers. And when the United States was in sight, they camped in a chilly Tijuana, waiting for the US border post to open.
So now, being detained by immigration authorities, offers some kind of solace.
“I don’t feel like this is a jail, they are very friendly,” she told CNN on Tuesday. “It’s like we’re in a hotel.”
She and her children are being held at the Karnes Family Residential Center in Karnes City, Texas, about an hour and a half from San Antonio. CNN was allowed to visit her for an hour, but without cameras, phones or any recording equipment.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials stress there are different rules and procedures here for the detainees, many of whom turned themselves in at the border and requested asylum.
There is medical help on site and a commissary for those with cash to buy toiletries or snacks.
Inside the sprawling 500-bed center, surrounded on three sides by oil fields and with a correctional facility on the other side, Omar is in school seven hours a day. And mothers get to stay with their children.
It’s a far cry from a new administration policy to refer everyone caught crossing the border illegally for federal prosecution, even parents with young children, even those requesting asylum as soon as they are caught.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions was blunt in his explanation of the Justice Department’s zero-tolerance policy for those crossing the border illegally: “If you don’t want your child to be separated, then don’t bring them across the border illegally.”
Hernandez and other mothers and their children who traveled in the caravan do not fall under this policy as they did not try to cross the border, but handed themselves in and claimed asylum immediately at the border post.
Hernandez was one of the first people from the caravan allowed in to be processed in San Ysidro, south of San Diego.
She was held at the border post facilities for nearly four days. She says she was allowed to explain why she was afraid for her life and the boys’ lives in Honduras, and was also asked many questions about the migrant caravan, and if anyone had coached her on what to say.
During that time she was also seen by doctors helping her, her unborn child and her sons and says she was surprised — first that the holding area the migrants nicknamed “the cooler” was actually hot, and also by the kindness of the officials and guards she met, some of whom had already learned about her through CNN.
Still, almost everything was outside of her control.
When she heard her small family was being moved, she cried, she says. An officer told her, “Don’t be scared. You’re going to a family place.” Encouraged by the officials, she got on the bus at San Ysidro in the same clothes she had arrived in four days earlier.
Hernandez, Omar and Jonathan were taken from the border post directly to San Diego airport. They were given wipes, and hairbrushes along with new socks and shoes and told to clean themselves up.
Then they were put on a plane and then another to get to San Antonio — riding in coach like any other passenger, Hernandez recalls.
The unexpected flight was fun for the little boys, scary for their first-time flier mom especially when they hit turbulence. “They were like ‘woo hoo.’ They liked it,” Hernandez says of her sons’ reaction.
“I was very scared.”
There was a more pleasant surprise on the drive southeast from San Antonio to Karnes County — a car seat for Jonathan. And then a room with a bed for each of them, though they all still cling to each other in just one bed each night.
The relief that the hell of the escape from Honduras and rough journey through Mexico is obvious in Hernandez’s face. She looks more relaxed and rested. She says the urinary tract infection she picked up on the way that began to threaten her pregnancy is almost gone. She marvels at the free food, the free education for Omar, and the coloring paper given Jonathan.
Speaking of everyone she has met along her journey she says, “God puts angels in our path.”
But this is no guaranteed first step to a happy ending and an American Dream.
On Wednesday, she expects to be interviewed by immigration officials to see if she has a “credible fear” of persecution in her home country. It’s a key step for those claiming asylum in the United States, but even if successful, she will just be moved on in the system, still with no knowledge where she may end up.
She may win asylum, she may be allowed to stay with her aunt in Los Angeles while she awaits a decision. Or she may lose her case and face deportation. More than 75% of asylum requests from people fleeing violence in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala were rejected between 2011 and 2016, according to immigration court statistics published by Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.
But she is undeniably upbeat and feeling positive that she does meet the criteria for asylum, that the US will not turn its back on her and her children.
“I’m nervous, I don’t know how this will go,” she says.
Her plan, the one thing she can control, is simple: tell her story.
“We can’t lie. We have to tell the truth.”