Lilian Cortez held a single red rose as she nervously waited at Los Angeles International airport waiting to see her son. She hadn't seen him since she left her poverty-stricken neighborhood in El Salvador seven years earlier. He was 8 then.
Her reunion with Ulises, now 15, was a triumph of determination - his in braving the so-called Train of Death in southern Mexico and walking the border desert alone; hers in fighting a month-long bureaucratic nightmare against ICE and the Department of Health and Human Services to reunite with her son after he was swallowed by the fog-ridden system that governs unaccompanied minors snared in the immigration system.
"God gave me strength to survive all the suffering I endured," she said. "I now feel peace, even though I'm worried about what will happen next."
Lillian and Ulises' story began in 2004, when she decided to leave her impoverished town in Central America because she had no viable job prospects and little to provide for her son.
"I didn't want him to know hunger; I wanted him to have an education. I wanted a better life for both of us," she said.
She decided to ride north, alone, through Mexico on "La Bestia," the gang-ridden freight train also known as the "Train of Death," and the walk across the desert, which that year claimed the lives of almost 500 hopeful immigrants.
She struggled to make a living, hoping to reunite with her son, who she spoke to every day. It was a cruel torment to be separated from him, she said, and she cried every day.
When gangs in El Salvador threatened to kill her son earlier this year, she made the drastic decision to bring him to the U.S.
Just like his mother years earlier, he jumped on "La Bestia," but Mexican authorities caught him four times and sent him back to Guatemala.
"I was determined to see my mother again," says Ulises. "So I kept going back. It took me three and a half months to get to the United States, but now I'm here."
Though he reached U.S. soil, what Ulises didn't know was that his challenges were not over. Ulises says he lost track of time while in the desert, but thinks he walked about nine days until the Border Patrol found him. "I thought I wouldn't see my mother after so much suffering. My dreams crumbled."
What happened next was a bureaucratic nightmare.
Customs and Border Protection (CPB), which found the child near Tucson, Ariz., handed the child over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). ICE, according to Cortez, would not give the family's attorney proper access or information on the child's case.
Even though his mother lived in Los Angeles, an hour's flight away, Ulises was then flown across the country to a shelter in Miami.
The reason this was done, according to Phoenix ICE spokesman Vincent Picard:
"ICE is legally prohibited from maintaining custody of unaccompanied minors," and must hand them over to the Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) within 72 hours of a child being in their custody.
He added, however, that ICE can "release unaccompanied minors to a parent or legal guardian with evidence supporting that relationship."
Though he wouldn't give a reason why Ulises was transferred when there was a parent available.
"I'm not saying a mistake wasn't made, but we deal with hundreds of juveniles each year," Picard said.
In 2010, Arizona ICE agents placed almost 2,200 undocumented children with ORR, he said. There are no figures on the number of undocumented children placed with their parents.
"It was a nightmare," Cortez recalled. "The people from the shelter in Miami wouldn't give me any information. They would barely let me talk to my son on the phone and, sometimes, they wouldn't let me talk to him at all."
Cortez said she was told she would never see her son again because he was undocumented. She was even threatened with deportation, she said.
ORR refused to comment on the case.
Meanwhile, Ulises was alone in Miami, wondering what would happen.
"I felt so alone. I was so close and yet so far away from my mom," he said. "It was in God's hands whether I'd ever see her again."
The family's attorney, Nelson A. Castillo, said what happened to Ulises should never have happened.
"ICE had the discretion to release the child to his mother and didn't. The different government entities dropped the ball - in terms of how they handled the case and the lengthy period of time it took to get the child released to the mother," Castillo said. "The child should never have been moved to Miami."
Ulises spent 48 days in a shelter before he was released to his mother. Cortez then had to shell out $1,700 to pay for her son's and a case manager's flight to Los Angeles, she said.
That emotional encounter, after a seven-year separation, ended with the two weeping at the airport.
Cortez is eligible for a U Visa, which is given to those who cooperate with authorities to solve a crime. Once the application is completed and approved, she and her son will be able to live legally in the U.S.
Ulises still has a slew of court appearances and legal proceedings awaiting him. But now he's just enjoying the time he gets to spend with his mother.
"I'm happy," he said. "I'm home with my mother."
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