David’s son was just 13-years-old when U.S. border officials took him from his father. David remembers that day, in 2018, like it was yesterday. He and his son had been traveling overland from Guatemala and had just crossed the U.S.-Mexico border when the two of them were rounded up, arrested—then separated from one another, without explanation. David was deported. His son was sent to live with David’s wife’s sister in Florida. They wouldn’t see each other again for another three years.
David and his son are among roughly 5,500 families that the Trump Administration separated at the U.S.-Mexico border under its short-lived, but devastating, Zero Tolerance policy. They are also among a smaller subset of roughly a thousand families in which a parent was deported while their underage kid was allowed to stay in the U.S., either at a shelter or detention center, or with a sponsor. (TIME is identifying David by his middle name to protect the privacy of his family.)
Now, under the Biden Administration, roughly 280 children are in the process of reuniting with their parents who, like David, were deported without them, according to the White House Family Reunification Task Force. The Task Force is streamlining a humanitarian parole program that offers deported parents a path to return to the U.S., granting temporary legal status and a three-year work permit. (Parents have the option to renew the parole at the end of the three year term, and some can apply for asylum.) The Task Force has so far completed 63 family reunifications, according to a spokesperson.
But facilitating the legal avenues to help these parents return to the U.S. to be with their kids again is just the beginning of a long, hard journey. Parents must first be identified in their home country, then complete the logistical steps of acquiring a passport and completing an application for humanitarian parole. Once they arrive in the U.S., they must rebuild their lives in often precarious housing situations with little or no income while they wait on work permits that often take weeks to arrive.
And they must do all this while often balancing a strained relationship with their children, many of whom have experienced feelings of betrayal and trauma, and in some cases didn’t recognize their parents. Many young children did not understand that a parent unwillingly left them, according to the nonprofit Seneca Family of Agencies and therapists who have spoken to TIME.
“Writ large, the story doesn’t end at the airport. What we’ve found is that once a parent reunites with a kid, both have a lot of work to do to reestablish trust,” says Ann Garcia, an attorney at the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc. (CLINIC), who represents David in a claim against the government seeking financial compensation for the separation. “But it’s hard to build that trust when parents can’t even buy groceries yet.”
Expectation versus reality
The Trump Administration’s Zero Tolerance policy was officially on the books from April 2018 to January 2021. While Trump ended the practice of separating families through executive order in June 2018 after public outcry, some families continued to be separated for months.
So far, parents without their children have been able to travel back to the U.S. thanks largely to financial and logistical assistance from nonprofit organizations, and the White House Task Force. Once the parents arrive back on U.S. soil, nonprofits, community groups and churches are helping to underwrite the costs of rent, food, transportation, and health care. (The U.S. government does not currently provide any direct financial support to either nonprofits or families to address immediate needs.) Many landlords are hesitant or unwilling to rent to a returning immigrant who has no source of income or a credit history. In some cases, parents have stayed at AirBnbs while awaiting the arrival of a work permit, according to migrant advocates.
The emotional damage to parents and children who were forced to be separated also presents a formidable problem, therapists who have worked with immigrant families tell TIME. Seneca Family of Agencies provides free mental health care to any parent who was separated from their children, paid for by the U.S. government as the result of a 2018 lawsuit brought by three mothers who were separated from their children requesting mental health services.
Cecilia, 36, recalls the day in 2018 when she was sitting on the airplane that would deport her back to Guatemala. She and the elder of her two daughters, who was 10 at the time, had crossed into the U.S. together, then were separated from one another by U.S. border officials. Cecilia remembers panicking and demanding that they return her daughter to her, but she couldn’t get anyone to listen. “It’s like they didn’t pay attention to me,” says Cecilia, in Spanish. (She is also identified only by her middle name.)
But it was worse than just being ignored, she says; some of the officers were cruel to her. They toyed with her and said that, sure, she would be reunited with her daughter in New York City. But they wouldn’t give her any information about where her daughter was. Even after she was led onto that deportation flight, she held out hope: maybe her little girl would be on the flight, too? She craned her neck over the seats, praying to see her daughter coming up the aisle. It didn’t happen. The doors closed, the plane took off, and Cecilia fell apart.
“I didn’t eat, I didn’t sleep. I had no will to do anything,” Cecilia says, recalling the months after she was deported without her daughter. “People would talk to me and it was like I was mute. I didn’t even want to leave my house.”
Cecilia was eventually able to petition the U.S. government to have her daughter returned to her in Guatemala. Cecilia’s daughter came back happy, she says, and Cecilia was relieved to know that the people who took care of her daughter in the U.S. had treated her well.
In September, she and her two daughters, who are now 14 and 9-years-old, were allowed to return to the U.S. under the same humanitarian parole program as other parents who are reuniting with their children in the U.S. Now, they live together in a mostly-unfurnished apartment that costs $1,900 a month, which has been paid for by Seneca Family of Agencies. Cecilia and her girls share a sofa bed.
She and her daughters are adjusting to their lives in Brooklyn and focusing on healing from the pain of separation. Cecilia keeps a close look out for signs that her girls are adjusting well, like how they are performing in school, how they behave with their peers and how much they talk to each other. “[We] get together and talk,” they entertain each other that way, Cecilia says, since they don’t have a television or much else by way of possessions. “They are happy. My oldest is studying, and that’s what she wanted. And my youngest is also doing well…they call me from her school and tell me she’s really good.”
Cecilia’s dream, she says, is to get her work permit and get a job in a grocery store, but she isn’t picky. As soon as her work permit arrives, she says she can’t wait to find work—any work. “You tell yourself, ‘I’m going to work!’ and you have all these ideas,” she says. “Reality is different.”
‘All a child wants from their parent’
Since returning to the U.S. in June, David, 45, describes the stress of living in financial and emotional limbo. On the one hand, he says, he feels pure joy to be reunited with his now-16-year-old son. But on the other hand, day-to-day life has been excruciating. The first few months after his return to the U.S., David and his son were staying with his sister-in-law, who struggled to support everyone. David was promised a work permit under the humanitarian parole program, but it took months to be processed. In the meantime, he had no choice but to borrow money from his sister-in-law and scramble for under-the-table work.
David often went days without making a cent, adding to the guilt he’s felt since he was first separated from his son. “Economically, we’re not doing well. He’ll tell me, ‘Look dad, this is what’s going on,’ or ‘Look dad, this is what I want to do.’ And I can’t afford it,” David says. “But really when he comes home from school and he greets me and hugs me, that’s all a parent wants from their child and all a child wants from their parent.” The nonprofit Al Otro Lado has assisted in helping him afford costs of living and filling out all the necessary paperwork to return to the U.S., while CLINIC has represented him in a case against the government for the separation.
Migrant advocates and therapists caution that it may take months or years for reunited families to feel whole again. But David may have already regained some footing. In early October, his work permit arrived. He found a landscaping job in San Diego and he and his son moved across the country. They’re now rebuilding their lives there, going to therapy together, and working on repairing their relationship.
“I’ve seen a lot of people, they are talking really bad about the reunifications,” David says. “They haven’t seen our lives. They talk bad about us. They think differently from us…But in my case I want to work here to contribute what I can to this country.”
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