Somewhere between the gang-riddled streets of Honduras and the Rio Grande River, Jessica*, a 13-year-old with long, curly hair, a pretty face and dreams of being a model, seemed to fall into a black hole.
The men who'd promised to deliver her to the U.S. border had abandoned her in a warehouse populated by drunks, drug addicts and other desperate children fleeing violence in Central America. Jessica hoped to make it to the border, where she figured American officials would reunite her in Durham with her mother, who'd fled Honduras a decade ago to escape an abusive partner.
Her mother, Claudia, an undocumented immigrant, lost all contact with her daughter after Jessica was dumped at the bodega in the fall of 2012. She didn't hear from her for days. Then Jessica phoned her sometime after midnight, crying. A man from the bodega had taken her to an abandoned home, where he planned to have sex with her. When he went to the bathroom, Jessica stole his phone and called her mom.
"She was screaming, crying, she wanted to go home," Claudia would later recall. "It was just horrible. I felt like I was dying here."
When the man returned, Claudia, still on the phone, pleaded with him: "Don't touch my daughter." Furious, he threatened to imprison Jessica for the next two weeks, then hung up. He didn't make good on his threat.
A few hours later, a woman called Claudia to tell her that Jessica was with her at the bodega. The woman promised to look after her.
Claudia heard nothing for days, until the woman dropped off Jessica at a bridge over the Rio Grande. Jessica was quickly apprehended by border guards and eventually flown to reunite with her mother.
Those empty stretches, where there was no contact or explanation for Jessica's disappearance, still haunt Claudia. And Jessica isn't talking about it, has never talked about it, not even to her own mother.
"I always live with this doubt," says Claudia. "Did they abuse her? I ask her and I ask her and she doesn't say anything. She cries and says, 'Mom, don't ask me that.'"