Lesly, 7, is a wheelchair. She can’t speak, can’t walk, can’t eat on her own. She began having seizures when she was 7 months old. Doctors believe she had a stroke at some point, and her condition has never improved.
But Juan Alberto Matheu, her father, isn’t about to give up on her. Months ago he embarked on a journey north with his daughter, traveling thousands of miles, from Honduras to Tijuana.
It wasn’t that Juan Alberto Matheu, 27, wanted to leave Honduras; violence and poverty had made it impossible to stay. “I had to leave my country for my daughter’s sake,” he told me in a recent interview. “In Honduras, a girl like her, in need of special care, suffers a lot of discrimination.”
When Juan Alberto learned that a caravan of migrants was traveling from his country to the U.S. border, he and his daughter joined up. He didn’t have a choice. “I had a job, but I was paid very little,” he said. He never could have saved enough money to pay the thousands of dollars a smuggler would demand to bring them to the United States, he said. Besides, no smuggler would’ve agreed to try and get a disabled girl across the border.
The journey has been very difficult. Juan Alberto said that over the last two months he has always either pushed Lesly in her chair or found a place for her and her wheelchair riding in freight trucks. “I was afraid of losing her in the trailers,” he told me, “or that she would fall.” But Juan Alberto didn’t lose her. He never left Lesly’s side, not for a single moment.
Juan Alberto’s compassion and devotion as a single father has moved many along their journey. He feeds Lesly from a bottle, because she cannot swallow solid food, and cleans her with dry towels, because the two of them together can’t fit into the makeshift bathrooms of the migrant shelters.
I asked Juan Alberto about Lesly’s mother. “We separated three years ago,” he said. “She left her with me. … She says it’s a huge responsibility. So, since I am her father, I lovingly fight for her every single day.”
His plan was to apply for a humanitarian visa or seek political asylum in the United States, but he had to be on American soil in order to do so, which was almost impossible. President Donald Trump has all but sealed the Mexican border in Tijuana, and border agents process only about a dozen applications per day. When Juan Alberto and his daughter arrived, hundreds of people were already waiting in line.
But then something unbelievable happened.
Activists and lawyers persuaded American immigration agents to expedite Lesly’s case. So Lesly and her father, still pushing her wheelchair, made it through the last few meters of their journey and crossed over the border.
“It’s a love story you never get to see in the movies,” said Mark Lane, who runs the Minority Humanitarian Foundation, a San Diego-based nonprofit group that assisted Juan Alberto and his daughter. A family in San Diego has given them a place to live, and a law firm in Los Angeles is representing Juan Alberto and Lesly, pro bono.
Meanwhile, Trump is demanding $5 billion from Congress to build a wall, and threatening to shut down the government if he doesn’t get what he wants. This is after making up a so-called invasion at the border and declaring a national emergency. What Trump fails to understand is that walls can’t stop people like Juan Alberto and Lesly. I would proudly welcome to my country a father who fought like this for his daughter.
This is indeed a great love story unfolding along the border. But it’s also a great example of how ordinary people can change lives. Many Mexicans offered Juan Alberto and Lesly a helping hand along the way, and a financial and legal assistance network quickly formed in the United States to help them when they arrived.
Juan Alberto must wear an ankle monitor that won’t be removed until he appears in court, but he and Lesly have reached their destination and are doing well. “My girl is beautiful,” he told me. “She is like a little angel, so full of love.”
P.S. You can watch my interview with Lesly and Juan Alberto here: