When Jonathan Murillo Zapata stepped off the plane at Dulles Airport, he was 10 years old and didn’t know what was at stake.
He didn’t know that the Maryland couple who stood with three of their four blond daughters at the airport, holding a sign that read “Bienvenidos,” Welcome, would take him to a house larger than any he had seen in his native Colombia.
He didn’t know that once there, he would feel safe walking outside for the first time in his life and that in those five weeks, he would see more cars on the road than he knew existed and fall in love with chicken nuggets.
He didn’t know that when those weeks were up, that family faced a decision that would determine the course of his life: Did they want to adopt him?
Jonathan and the other orphans from Colombia who arrived for a summer in Washington seven years ago were purposely not told the real reason for their visit, to potentially find families. They believed instead that the organization Kidsave had picked them from institutions and foster homes to participate in a cultural exchange.
“I just thought it was a one-time thing, a thank you for coming, and now back to reality,” Jonathan recalled recently. “I thought it was a tease of what life should be.”
Immigrant children have commanded our attention lately – and for good reason. It is hard to hear that recording of their cries and not want to do something to help them.
But let’s not pretend those sympathies are spread evenly for all minors crossing our borders. Older children face more skepticism now than ever in our past.
The Trump administration has repeatedly pointed to the horrendous crimes of MS-13 as a justification for the current crackdown. The president has called these gang members “animals.” The problem with that insult is not that it is too harsh. MS-13 members deserve to be called worse for the harm they have caused directly and indirectly to Latino children. The danger of that word is that it invites people to view immigrant children who fit a certain profile as less than human.
In Virginia, Gov. Ralph Northam ordered a probe last month of Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center, where immigrant youths described being beaten while handcuffed and strapped naked to chairs. The young people ended up at the facility after federal immigration officials arrested them and accused them of being gang members, according to the Associated Press report that revealed the alleged abuses. A manager at the center, the AP reported, said at a congressional hearing that “the children did not appear to be gang members and were suffering from mental health issues resulting from trauma that happened in their home countries – problems the detention facility is ill-equipped to treat.”
It is easy to care about a 5-year-old girl clutching a stuffed animal – and we should. But at this critical moment, in which people are mobilizing to help children who were born beyond our borders, it’s important that we recognize what the organization that brought Jonathan to Dulles figured out long ago: Older immigrant children need our attention, too, and maybe more so than the babies and toddlers.
On Thursday, that same group brought 12 more children from Colombia to the Washington area. At Dulles, their host parents, many carrying stuffed animals, craned their necks to catch sight of them the moment they cleared customs. When the children’s bright yellow shirts emerged, there were applause and then hugs and some tears.
Almost all the families waved signs bearing the children’s names, Diego, Esteban, Juan Carlos. But one stood out as especially significant.
“Happy Birthday, Luisa,” it read in Spanish.
Kristina Campbell held it, along with a fuzzy lamb that she had brought for Luisa, who had turned 13 that day. At her Maryland home, Campbell had a birthday banner and cake waiting.
Campbell works at the University of the District of Columbia and runs its immigration legal clinic. This was her first year hosting a child. She said she randomly saw an ad for the Summer Miracles program and tried to talk herself out of it, but she couldn’t find a reason not to participate. She is single, speaks Spanish, has the summers off and has extra room in her home for a child.
Campbell said she doesn’t know whether she will ultimately decide to adopt Luisa, but she feels confident the girl will find a family while here. The program, which hosts events for people to meet the children, boasts an 80 percent success rate.
When Jonathan first saw the Mason family waiting for him, he said, he felt an instant connection. A picture from that day shows him with an arm around one of the girls.
“When I saw them, I just felt I knew them for a long time,” he recalled.
His host mom, Amanda Mason, said she knew “right away” that she wanted to adopt him, but the family followed the program’s recommendation and waited until after he left to have that discussion. They all decided they wanted him to be a part of their family. Ten months later, the adoption was completed, and his last name was changed.
“I was really happy I was going to have a family, people I could fall back on no matter what happened,” Jonathan said. “I was going to call someone ‘Mom’ and ‘Dad,’ forever, not just for a limited time until you move on to another house.”
In Colombia, he lived with a foster family in a struggling neighborhood in Medellin, where he knew to be inside by 7 p.m., when the streets grew darker and more dangerous. He had never met his mother or father and had last seen his older brother three years earlier when the boy ran away from an abusive foster home. He came back for Jonathan, but when the two were caught, they were separated.
“We only had each other,” Jonathan recalled. “When he was gone, I had no one. I felt I was alone.”
Jonathan said he thinks about his brother and wonders what became of his life. He knows that his own would have probably involved graduating school early because of his good grades. But then, unable to afford to go to a university, he believes, he would have probably been working in a low-paying job right now.
In the United States, the 18-year-old is a state championship track runner and honor roll student at his high school. And on Saturday, he planned to travel once again.
This time, he was heading to a six-week math and science academy at Carnegie Mellon University.
Theresa Vargas/The Washington Post