SAN MIGUEL LIMÓN, Guatemala — Before he was deported in May, David Xol, an indigenous farmworker from Guatemala, made an urgent plea to U.S. officials at the immigrant processing center in McAllen.
“There is no way I am going to leave my son here,” he told them.
Earlier that month, Xol and his 7-year-old son, Byron, had travelled through Mexico for three days in a wooden crate stowed in the back of a tractor trailer, surviving on just an apple apiece and swallowing pills that kept them from defecating. When they reached the U.S. border in mid-May, Xol and Byron crossed the Rio Grande on a raft and were apprehended by Border Patrol officers, at the height of the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance immigration policy.
A few days later, at the processing center, Xol was separated from Byron. “Don’t worry, son, it’s all part of the journey,” he said as he was led away in shackles. On May 21, Xol pled guilty to illegal entry in a mass trial at the federal courthouse in McAllen. When he returned to the processing center, immigration officials informed him that under “the new law signed by President Trump,” he wouldn’t see Byron again anytime soon.
“Your son is going to the U.S. and you to Guatemala,” he said the officials declared as they handed him an immigration document. “Sign, because if you don’t, you are going to be sent to Guatemala anyway.”
Xol, 27, begged the officials to let him stay in the country with Byron — or at least to deport them together. But when they wouldn’t budge, he finally relented, signing a form the Americans described to him as his own deportation order — all of it written in English, which he doesn’t understand. He was deported to Guatemala on May 28.
“To not cause any problems, I signed,” he said in Spanish in an interview earlier this month. “I am the type of person who, if you tell me to do something, I complete it.”
Nearly three months later, Byron remains in a shelter in Baytown, east of Houston, where about once a week he calls his mother, pleading with her in their native Q’eqchi’ — a Mayan language spoken in the Americas since long before the Spanish conquest — to send him back to his family in Guatemala.
Neither the U.S. nor the Guatemalan government offered an explanation for the family’s continued separation. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement declined to comment on the case. Brian Marriott, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees a network of shelters where thousands of immigrant children are held, said the agency’s “focus is always on the safety and best interest of each child” and that the government is “working rapidly to reunify children and their parents.” He declined to comment on Byron’s case, citing a department policy against identifying unaccompanied immigrant minors.
The Guatemalan consulate in Houston did not respond to requests for comment on Xol and Byron. And a high-ranking official in the Guatemalan government said he was not familiar with Xol’s case.
“As deportees, if they don’t look for us, they are off our radar,” said Pablo César García, the country’s vice minister of foreign relations. “We need them to reach out to us. If they do not, we can’t help them.”
The story of Byron’s separation from Xol — an illegal crossing, a mass trial, a hasty deportation — belies repeated claims by U.S. officials that the hundreds of parents removed from the country without their kids under the zero-tolerance policy chose to leave them behind.
“If any parent has been deported … without their child,” Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said last month, “that likely would be a scenario where the parent had actually asked that the child remain.”
The Trump administration rolled back the zero-tolerance policy in June, in response to public backlash against the more than 2,500 family separations that took place at the border during the crackdown. In recent weeks, the country’s attention has drifted away from the humanitarian crisis at the border, as hundreds of immigrant families have reunited in picture-perfect scenes at airports and government facilities across the country.
But with the summer drawing to a close, more than 500 migrant children remain apart from their parents, despite a court order requiring the U.S. government to reunite every separated family by July 26. Parents of 366 of the still-separated children have already been sent back to their home countries. Xol’s case highlights the legal and bureaucratic obstacles preventing the government from swiftly reuniting those families, as well as the emotional toll that the zero-tolerance policy continues to exact on separated parents and children.
“For every parent who is not located, there will be a permanently orphaned child,” U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw, who has overseen the reunification process, said in his San Diego courtroom earlier this month. “That is 100 percent the responsibility of the administration.”
After he was deported, Xol rejoined his wife, Florinda, and two younger sons in the remote highland state of Alta Verapaz, Guatemala, the poorest area in the country, where he works on a plantation cutting African palm from 5 a.m. to 4 p.m. six days a week. Byron is more than 1,000 miles away in Baytown, at a shelter for unaccompanied immigrant minors run by the nonprofit BCFS.
“When I came back, here in my house, it was not the same,” Xol said. “It felt very empty.”
In his first calls home, Byron cried and begged his father to come for him. He asked why he’d been abandoned in Texas.
But Byron doesn’t cry anymore. After a few weeks, his sadness turned to resentment. “If I am your son, find a way to come and get me out,” he told his father recently. Now, he only wants to speak with his mother during the weekly calls.
“My son has started to hate me,” Xol said. “He said, ‘Why did you leave me? Am I not your son?’ I told him not to say that.”
‘This kid needs a lawyer’
A farmworker with no formal education, Xol grew up in the village of San Miguel Limón, in a region that was ravaged by fighting during the decades-long Guatemalan Civil War, which officially ended in 1996 when Xol was 5 years old. Even after a peace agreement was signed in Guatemala City, Xol said, the violence continued to rage in the country’s rural villages. In the late 1990s, soldiers shot his grandfather, he said.
Two decades later, Xol lives in a small cottage in San Miguel, a 7-hour drive from Guatemala City; the nearest hospital is more than 100 kilometers away. He starts his days before dawn, when he gets water for his family from the nearby river before going to work at a palm-oil farm run by Palmas del Ixcan, a Guatemalan agriculture company. With no access to the Internet, he communicates with the outside world using an old-fashioned mobile phone, where he also keeps a grainy photograph of Byron.
When he left Guatemala in May, Xol planned to work in the United States for a few years, then return to San Miguel with enough money to pay off a loan. Two years ago, he said, he had a run-in with local gang members, who tied him up and threw him into a river. Despite that harrowing experience, he said he never intended to request asylum in the U.S. or put down permanent roots.
“In my family, we suffer with a lack of money,” Xol said. “I don’t have a good job, so that was the intention — going to the U.S. to work, to give a better life to my sons in the future.”
Xol said he brought Byron with him on the advice of a local smuggler, who told him that parents with children have an easier time getting into the country than adults traveling solo. He also hoped to enroll his son in school in the U.S.
In early May, the smuggler guided Xol and Byron to the Mexican state of Chiapas, on the border with Guatemala. From that point, the pair rode in a pickup truck to Villahermosa, a city in southern Mexico, where they spent a week in a safe house before smugglers loaded them into a tractor trailer, along with around five dozen other immigrants. Xol said he and Byron shared a wooden crate with two of the other migrants, speaking in whispers as the tractor trailer made its way north to the Mexican border city of Reynosa, just across the Rio Grande from McAllen.
Despite the cramped conditions, Xol felt lucky: the crate had three tiny air holes. “I was never afraid,” he said. But he said not everyone on board survived the grueling trip. At one point, Xol heard screams from the other crates; a woman had suffocated. To escape the stench of her corpse, the immigrant who was sitting next to the woman when she died joined Xol and Byron, who squeezed together to make room.
Xol and Byron reached American soil on May 18, about two weeks after they left home, according to court documents. “I felt hope,” Xol recalled. “But nothing went as it was planned.”
Xol’s journey back to Guatemala at the end of May was significantly faster. A plane took him from Texas to Guatemala City in a matter of hours. But how long it will take the authorities to get Byron back to Alta Verapaz remains anyone’s guess.
In a court filing earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Justice outlined a plan for reuniting the remaining families that calls for the American Civil Liberties Union — the group that successfully sued to end the family separations — to make many of the arrangements itself, using information provided by the government.
“There’s still no clear indication of the government’s willingness to do this,” said Efrén Olivares, an official with the Texas Civil Rights Project. “I don’t think there is a political will on their end. We need to keep the pressure on.”
At the moment, Byron, who turned 8 in June, has no hearing date in immigration court, according to two people familiar with the case. Nor does he have family members in the U.S. to monitor his situation or help get him back to Guatemala.
“This kid needs a lawyer,” said Jodi Goodwin, an immigration attorney in Harlingen. “Had this family had an advocate on their side, I think they could’ve gotten this worked out.”
The case was at a standstill until late last week, when the celebrity lawyer Michael Avenatti and his Laredo-based associate, civil rights attorney Ricardo De Anda, agreed to represent the family pro bono.
Avenatti and De Anda were alerted to Byron’s case by Sylvia Rodriguez, an immigrant advocate in New Jersey who has worked with the family this summer and raised money to support separated children. In recent weeks, Avenatti — an outspoken Trump critic better known as the attorney representing porn star Stormy Daniels in her legal battle with the president — has collaborated with De Anda on a number of family separation cases, including the reunion of an immigrant child named Antony with his deported mother in Guatemala City on Aug. 14.
The new legal team has two options for reuniting Xol and Byron: Ask an immigration judge to grant Byron a “voluntary departure” so that he can return to Guatemala; or seek to overturn Xol’s original deportation, paving the way for him to reunite with his son in the U.S. and seek asylum.
De Anda said that after preliminary conversations with Xol, he’s leaning toward the second option. When he spoke with his client last week, De Anda said, Xol described his past run-ins with gangs in Guatemala as a potential source of danger for his family.
“The maras have been pressing to recruit him into their criminal activities. He refused to be pressed into this sort of action,” the attorney said, using the Spanish word for gangs. “He’s been beat up before and he’s afraid he’ll be beat up again.”
Still, Alta Verapaz generally has a “very low gang presence,” according to Pablo Castillo, a spokesman for Guatemala’s national police. And Xol has made clear that he does not want the reunification to take place in the U.S.
“My wife has been giving me advice about taking it slow, and seeing what we can do for him to come,” he said. “We both have been praying to God for our kid to come back soon.”
Any effort to overturn Xol’s deportation order and bring him back to the U.S. could prolong Byron’s separation for weeks or months, immigration experts say.
“Overturning a deportation order … is extremely, extremely complicated and would probably take lots of fancy footwork,” said Goodwin, the Harlingen-based attorney. “And then bringing someone back is yet another nightmarish hurdle.”
De Anda acknowledged the possible downsides of attempting to overturn Xol’s deportation order. But, he added, “the safety of the child is paramount.”
“It needs to be clear to me that Byron will not be placed in danger if he’s returned to Guatemala,” he said.
‘Where is my son?’
Xol didn’t tell his wife he had been separated from Byron until he arrived back in Alta Verapaz at the end of May. “I didn’t want her to feel bad when I was coming,” he said. “She didn’t know anything.”
The day he returned, Florinda went outside to greet Xol as a bus dropped him off at their cottage in San Miguel. She hadn’t heard a word from her husband since he and Byron arrived in Reynosa earlier that month.
“Where is the child?” she said in Q’eqchi’ as Xol climbed out of the bus. “My son. Where is he?”
“He stayed there,” Xol told her.
Florinda let out a shriek. “I couldn’t say anything,” Xol recalled. “She started to scream and scream.”
He stood and watched her in silence. “Don’t cry,” he said after a moment. “He’s going to come back.”
Unlike some other facilities for immigrant children, the BCFS shelter in Baytown has no history of child abuse or serious safety violations, according to state records. During his time in the U.S., Byron, who spoke only Q’eqchi’ when he set out for the border in May, has begun to pick up some Spanish and English. But that’s little consolation to his parents in San Miguel, where neighbors have begun to gossip about the family’s missing child.
“In my class, I have 19 students,” said Carlos Pop, Byron’s first-grade teacher. “Today only 18 were present. There is one that is in the U.S., they say.”
Xol said he faces constant questions from nosy villagers about his trip to the border. “They say, ‘You went because you are dumb,’” he said. “That’s the first thing they say. ‘How did you not think? You left your son in the U.S.’”
As Byron’s separation from his parents stretches into its fourth month, small-town gossip and family tension are the least of Xol’s problems. To finance his unsuccessful journey north, he had to borrow money from a friend and take out a third mortgage on his house. Now, he’s scrambling to make payments on $8,000 in debt, handing all his monthly earnings to the bank.
A trip designed to build a better life for his children has turned into a financial nightmare. With the family struggling to pay bills and his son stranded in Texas, Xol said he has contemplated suicide.
“It’s not that I am not a man,” he said. “But I don’t know how to pull through anymore.”
Xol and Florinda got a boost on June 24, Byron’s eighth birthday, when three dozen congregants from the local evangelical church gathered at their cottage to eat tamales and pray. “I had never received so many people at my house,” Xol said.
But even in the company of dozens of friends and well-wishers, he said, the family felt more acutely than ever the absence of the one person who couldn’t be there. “We spent that day very sad without him,” Xol said. “We felt very alone.”
A thousand miles away, at the shelter in Baytown, Byron didn’t celebrate much, either.
“No, no,” he said on a recent call home. “Here I didn’t have a birthday.”
Editor’s note: The Texas Tribune and TIME have partnered to closely track the family separation crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border. This story was reported and written in collaboration with Nómada, a Guatemalan news organization founded in 2014 and based in Guatemala City.