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Suceli's story glimpse into life of unaccompanied teen's journey to US

17-year-old reunites with father at PBIA after 5 years apart
Suceli and Domingo, father and daughter embrace after 5 years apart
Posted at 12:41 PM, May 14, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-14 17:55:00-04

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — "Her name is Suceli, she was born in Guatemala, and she's 17 years old. ... She was in danger in Guatemala. She was raped and her mother wasn't with her."

It was a perilous trek, but one father feels the risks of making the trip outweigh staying in Central America.

"A coyote was paid for my daughter to come to America. She took three buses from Guatemala to Mexico and then one direct bus from Mexico to the United States border."

Five years in the making, on a recent Saturday at Palm Beach International Airport, dad finally reunited with his daughter.

DomingoSuceli_CourtesyDomingo.jpg
Domingo and his daughter, Suceli, pose for a photograph years before their reunion in 2021.

"I'm very happy because I have my daughter here with me," said Domingo, who asked Contact 5 not to reveal his last name.

Domingo fled Guatemala in 2016. For five years, he's been apart from his 17-year-old daughter Suceli -- until now.

"It was a difficult and dangerous trip," Domingo told Contact 5. "Thank God she's here with me now."

Suceli felt the same.

"I feel very happy because I've wanted to come here and be with him for a long time, and at last, I've completed that dream," Suceli said.

Suceli and Domingo embrace at PBIA after 5 years apart
Domingo and his daughter, Suceli, recently reunited at Palm Beach International Airport after five years apart.

Suceli shared details of her trip with Contact 5, including bus rides, trucks and time spent in a warehouse while waiting to continue to the border.

"In some moments, yes, I was scared," Suceli said. "I was scared about what could happen."

After arriving in the U.S., Suceli spent 10 days in Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody.

"Immigration treated me well," Suceli said. "Let's say it was not bad for me."

"We were in a cell, all together. We couldn't leave for any reason," Suceli told Contact 5, noting ICE agents fed them three or four times a day.

She then spent time at an Arizona detention facility before reuniting with her father after five years.

Now, Suceli plans to apply for asylum.

SuceliBaby_CourtesyDomingo
This is Suceli when she was a baby.

Her story is just one of the thousands happening every day at the border.

U.S Customs and Border Patrol officials said they encountered 18,890 unaccompanied minors in March 2021 at the southern border. That's more than a 300% increase since January, according to customs officials.

"For them, it's a life or death kind of situation," said Mariana Blanco, assistant executive director at the Guatemalan Maya Center in Lake Worth Beach.

Blanco is a former case manager at a detention center in the Midwest and helped to reunify Domingo with his daughter.

Mariano Blanco speaks about Suceli's story
Mariana Blanco, assistant executive director at the Guatemalan Maya Center, speaks with Contact 5's Michael Buczyner about Suceli's story.

"When you're in that situation of your child being raped and her living in this awful environment with no protection, I think any parent would do whatever they could to bring their child home," Blanco told Contact 5.

Blanco said there's an uptick in families and children migrating north from Central America.

"We are seeing that there's a lot more families who plan to bring their children or are in process of traveling," Blanco said.

Blanco expressed concern over ICE's handling of Suceli and other minors detained at the border.

Suceli16_CourtesyDomingo
Suceli celebrates her 16th birthday.

"When you're a minor, you have 72 hours to release the child into a shelter, detention center, where it's more suitable for children. ... [Suceli] was held for 10 days," Blanco shared.

"The reason people come here is not because they're fleeing all of these dangerous in-country situations," Mike Howell said. "It's because they want jobs."

Howell is a senior adviser at the conservative think tank, the Heritage Foundation. He previously worked for the Department of Homeland Security.

Contact 5 shared Suceli's story with Howell, who said, "She's never going home."

"That'll happen to virtually every single one in that category," Howell added. "So, the reality is, if you get into the country and you do not commit an aggravated offense, you are staying here for as long as you would like."

Howell blames the influx of migrants at the border on the recent undoing of policies put in place by former President Donald Trump.

He said the current situation at the southern border is "the worst crisis [we've] seen in this country's history" and is worried about the costs associated with it.

Michael Buczyner speaks to Mike Howell on computer
Mike Howell of the Heritage Foundation speaks with Contact 5 investigator Michael Buczyner.

"We at Heritage Foundation tried to look at an assortment of benefits ... it's [cost is] well into the tens of billions," Howell said.

He said the impact is more than monetary.

"What we have to talk to people about is how this affects their daily lives, what it means when your child's school is overcrowded, what it means for your health-care costs when you're picking up the tab" for a migrant with no health insurance.

"For all the people that don't agree, let's be conscious about people, because we're all humans. We have the right to live a better life," Domingo said about migrants leaving Central America for the U.S.

Blanco doesn't believe asylum is a sure bet for Suceli.

"I'm not confident. I'm not confident that they'll be granted asylum," Blanco told Contact 5, explaining that "there are a lot of policies that are put in place, and they just don't change overnight."

For now, what was once a dream has become a reality for Domingo, finally reunited with his teenage daughter.

Suceli and Domingo leave PBIA
Domingo and his daughter, Suceli, leave Palm Beach International Airport.

"Now that I'm here with you, I want to spend all of our time together," Suceli told her father when they reunited at PBIA. "We can enjoy the time together, spend years together and not get separated."

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