More than three weeks after the court-mandated deadline for all migrant children to be reunited with their families, over 500 children are still separated and in federal custody. More than 360 of these children have parents who have already been removed (deported, as it’s commonly called) from the US. Trump administration officials initially argued that the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other groups should be responsible for locating these parents; however, US District Judge Dana Sabraw from California ordered the government to take responsibility. Since then, the administration has issued a detailed plan to reunite families, but that reunion cannot come quickly enough for many parents from countries including Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. “It’s destroying us psychologically,” Pablo, who was deported back to Guatemala three months ago without his son, tells NPR. “We’re getting sick, going crazy. We can’t work anymore; we can’t do anything. Because we’re thinking about our son, how he’s suffering.”
Pablo says he and his seven-year-old son entered the US without documentation when they crossed the Rio Grande river earlier this year. When they turned themselves in to US Border Patrol agents, they were forcibly separated. Pablo was deported back to Guatemala without his son, although immigration officials assured him that his son would be sent back in a week. Pablo and his wife Fabiana, who are afraid to disclose their real names in fear that immigration officials will postpone their family’s reunion, have yet to be reunited with their son. During one of the phone calls they have had with their son, Pablo recalls his son accusing him of leaving him in the shelter in Houston, where he spent his eighth birthday. “He said, ‘Dad you left me, you abandoned me, you left me here alone,” Pablo recounts to NPR. “I want to be with you. Come get me.’ That’s what he told me over the phone, yelling, crying.”
Some migrant parents are also claiming that being separated from their children caused them to be too distraught and upset to properly explain the dangers they were fleeing in their “credible fear interview,” according to a new lawsuit filed by more than two dozen migrants. Because of this, they lost the legal right to stay in the US.
Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen has claimed that the parents who have been deported without their children chose to do so. "If the parents contact us and they want to be reunited, of course we will work with them. But as you know, as part of the way the process works, the parents always have the choice to take the children with them," Nielsen tells Fox News. Many deported parents dispute this account. Marcelino, an immigrant father from Guatemala who is also afraid to disclose his full name, crossed the US border without documentation in May with his daughter. Several days later, immigration officials separated them. “I wanted to come back with my daughter, but they said no,” Marcelino says. “They said I had to come back here first, and that she would come back after.” One of Marcelino’s family members in the US located his daughter at a government-sponsored shelter in Arizona. Still, Marcelino has no idea when he will see her again. “She’s over there, and we don’t know how she is," he says. "If she’s doing well or if she’s sick. We don’t know, because she’s far from here.”
Clara Long, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, one of the nonprofit organizations which has been working to locate parents in countries such as Guatemala, tells NPR that finding some of these families has proven to be incredibly difficult due to limited information, dangerous travel conditions, and language barriers with those who speak indigenous languages. For families waiting to be reunited, it feels excruciatingly long. While Pablo recognizes that they should not have entered the US without proper documentation, he still does not understand why it is taking so long to be reunited. “Now they’re punishing us, they’re humiliating us, they’re treating us very cruelly,” Pablo says. “The pain is intense. There are no words to explain our suffering.”