For five long weeks Evelin* had no idea where her two children were. She was apprehended with them at the US border on 19 May – after fleeing violence in Guatemala – and her family was ripped apart under the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policy.
Evelin was prosecuted and sent to the Don Hutto immigration detention centre in central Texas. Her two children – Eddy, 17, and Lilian, nine – were left behind at a processing centre and then flown to foster care in Grand Rapids, Michigan. They were held in separate homes. Lilian cried for her mother all the time; she remembers and relives being in detention in Texas, where she said she was once woken up at 3am, pulled by her hair, and forced to shower.
Evelin, over a thousand miles away, suffered migraines and was sick with anxiety. “She went through hell,” said Elmer, recounting his family’s story publicly to the Guardian for the first time. “[My wife] has high blood pressure. She was so sick. She was devastated.”
Elmer, who is also seeking asylum in the US, had fled Guatemala two years ago, after he received death threats from a local gang, and said his wife and children fled after their lives were also put in danger.
“They wanted to kill me and the kids,” he said.
Two days ago the children were reunited with their father in Massachusetts, after their case was picked up by an advocacy group in the Texas capital, Austin. He broke down in tears when they were reunited at Logan airport in Boston. But Evelin remains detained.
“I hope that maybe she’ll come soon,” Elmer said, his voice cracking. “I’m hoping that the United States will help me, help my family because all we want is to live together.”
Their story is just one in an mass of suffering in Donald Trump’s policy of forced family separation, which was abruptly halted on Wednesday after international outcry and bipartisan criticism.
And in some ways this Guatemalan family are luckier than others. Thousands of children remain separated from their families, many already dispersed to locations across the country. Here in south Texas, where the winding Rio Grande separates the US from Mexico, advocates and lawyers warn that some parents could be deported before they are reunited with their families. There remains little, if any, coordination between government agencies to bring families back together. Officials are also struggling to determine which elements of Trump’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policy – that attempts to criminally prosecute as many migrants illegally crossing the border as possible – they can continue to implement without separating families. “There is no plan for reunification. They have no idea how they’re going to do this,” said Michael Bochenek, a senior counsel to the children’s rights division of Human Rights Watch.
Bochenek was among a delegation of legal observers at two customs detention facilities in McAllen last week. He witnessed a girl between the ages of two and four, separated from her aunt, being tended to by older, unaccompanied migrant children who were forced to change the toddler’s diapers themselves as no customs staff intervened.
Many of the pro-bono attorneys here are only just coming to terms with what they have witnessed over the past few months.
Efrén Olivares has led a team of lawyers from the South Texas Civil Rights Project to document every separated family member prosecuted through the federal magistrates court in McAllen. Out of about 150 defendants in court each day – all charged with the minor crime of illegally entering the US – about 30 were parents separated from their children. Among them Olivares documented a Salvadoran mother separated from her brain-damaged pre-teenage son; a Guatemalan mother so distraught to be taken away from her daughter, she threatened suicide multiple times; and another mother who was separated from her teenage child who had survived rape. “Many of them break down, crying halfway through the interview,” he said. “A father told me that if he’s deported without his son, his son is going to die of sadness. I was holding back tears when he told me that.”
On Thursday, there was mixed evidence that Trump’s executive order to end the separations had taken full effect. While federal prosecutors in McAllen dismissed charges against 17 parents who had been separated from their children, their counterparts, 59 miles away in Brownsville, exercised no such discretion. Jenifer Johana Fuentes-Maradiaga, 18, stood before Judge Ignacio Torteya III as the court heard how she had been separated from her 14-year-old brother. They travelled together from Guatemala, but had been apprehended by customs officials two days before and she had not seen him since. She was prosecuted and pleaded guilty.
These mass plea hearings, like in McAllen, occur on a rigid timetable. At 10am every morning in Brownsville about 50 migrants are led into court, shackled at the ankles, handcuffed and chained across their backs. Court sources told the Guardian that about five each day are separated parents.
En masse, the defendants are asked to raise their right hands – impossible given the restraints they are in– and promise to tell the truth. Almost all of them plead guilty.
On Tuesday, just hours before the Trump administration withdrew from the UN human rights council, Ramón Villata, a migrant from El Salvador begged Judge Torteya to reunite him with his two-year-old son Milton. “I want to be with my family again,” he told the judge as pounding rain outside led to flash flooding across the Rio Grande valley. “For the way they separated us, I want to be reunited again. That is all.”
Although the court had instructed lawyers for the government to locate the boy, Judge Torteya was not able to offer any guarantees. “Hopefully the authorities will reunite you with your family as soon as possible,” he told Villata, before the defendant, who had pled guilty and was sentenced to time served, was led out of court. Advocates now fear that the Trump administration’s alternative to family separation may be equally harsh. The justice department has launched a bidto alter a federal court settlement that limits the time migrant families can be detained together, in a bid to usher in an era of indefinite family detention. This harsh model of deterrence has been implemented by the Australian government during a crackdown on asylum seekers entering the country by boat. It has been described as institutional torture by the country’s former chief immigration psychologist.
But hardline punitive measures like these are unlikely to dissuade desperate asylum seekers, fleeing some of the world’s most violent communities in Central America, from making the journey. At the Catholic Charities respite center in McAllen, groups of families recently released from detention come together for a meal before they are dispatched to locations around the country to reunite with family living in the US. Juan Carlos, a 29-year-old Guatemalan who did not want to give his last name, said he knew about the zero-tolerance policy before he fled with his seven-year-old daughter, Karla, earlier in June. “It was a risk,” he admitted. “But life is hard anyway.”
Juan Carlos had begged customs officials to stay with Karla after they were apprehended, and the pair stayed in a windowless detention centre for a week before they were released together, without criminal charges being filed. “It was so difficult, but I had faith in God,” he said, pointing to the Bible he keeps in a small pouch.
Karla, clutching a Minnie Mouse doll dressed in a pink polka dot skirt, beamed.
“She wanted to study in an American school,” said Juan Carlos. “She watches Disney cartoons and dreams about being in America.”
He kissed her on the cheek. Their bus to New York was to depart in a few hours.