Jaime didn’t get a birthday cake on his fifth birthday. That day, he was 2,000 miles from his parents, Edwin and Maira, and only talked with them for about 10 minutes via a WhatsApp video call. Edwin, Jaime’s father, told me he mostly remembers that Jaime seemed sad and kept repeating he didn’t get a cake. “It was…too hard,” Edwin said to me, speaking slowly, struggling to find the right words.
This past May, Edwin and Jaime, who was then still 4, set out from the department of Yoro, in rural Honduras, in search of safety. Edwin had been hounded for years by a group of drug traffickers who operate in the region—the traffickers had been trying to recruit him and his family to work for them. One of the local capos told him and his brother: “The people who don’t work with me are my enemies, and I kill my enemies.”
The capo tried to make good on his word, too. Their cousin—who also refused to work for the narcos, as Edwin referred to them—was murdered in 2017. And then they tried to kill Edwin’s brother; he escaped with a bullet to the leg. Edwin had moved out of his family’s home at this point—so as not to put them in danger—and was living in a remote shack in the mountains. Nervous that they would come for his son, he decided, in late May, to take Jaime and flee.
They are among the more than 2,500 persons who have been separated from one another when crossing or presenting themselves at the US border. They are also among the over 700 families who remain separated, despite a June 26 court mandate for the Trump administration to reunify the families. For those 700-some families, the separation crisis continues in a very immediate, brutal way. “I became crazy,” said Edwin, describing the first days after the government took away his son. Over the last two-and-a-half months, though it hasn’t gotten easier, the emotions have worn themselves thin, and, as he explained it to me, he’s had to find the strength to work and carry on for the rest of his family.
(“Edwin” and “Jaime” are pseudonyms: Edwin feared reprisal both from the drug traffickers and the US government, and asked me not to include any specific identifying information.)
Father and son had good luck as they traveled the well-trodden migration route from Central America to the US border. They weren’t kidnapped or assaulted. They didn’t go hungry, cram themselves into the back of a tractor trailer, or get arrested by Mexican authorities. “No real problems,” Edwin said. But once they made it halfway across the bridge between Matamoros and Brownsville, Texas, on June 11, their luck changed. They told a Customs and Border Protection official that they wanted to ask for asylum, and were quickly sent to a short-term processing center, known as a hielera (“cooler”)—one of the freezing cold, overcrowded, unhygienic human warehouses the Border Patrol uses to process, and seemingly punish, migrants.
After two miserable days in the hielera, Border Patrol agents separated Edwin from his son. The moment is hazy in Edwin’s memory, and, like many of the parents separated from their children, he told me he didn’t realize, as it was happening, that it was the last time he was going to see his son. He didn’t even get a chance to say a proper goodbye. “They didn’t explain anything to me,” he said.
The Trump administration had been contemplating a family-separation policy since early 2017, but not until months into 2018 were children forcibly and systematically being separated from their parents after crossing or presenting at the border. After the practice became widely publicized, the Trump administration scrambled to excuse or justify the separations, first citing case law that supposedly forced them to separate families, then citing the Bible, and then implementing a new policy of its own—“zero tolerance”—that sought to justify the practice. But these arguments weren’t holding up, and it has become clear that the administration was specifically targeting families in order to separate them, coercing parents to sign deportation papers, gutting asylum protections, losing track of separated family members, failing to meet reunification deadlines, and breaking both international and US law in its treatment of asylum seekers.
On June 26 a judge ordered the government to reunify the families, setting a 30-day deadline, which the government missed. In August the same judge temporarily blocked the government from deporting any of the reunited families until the children had been given the option of seeking asylum. Previously, parents had faced a wrenching decision: decline to pursue their children’s asylum case so that they could be deported together, or pursue their children’s asylum case and face separation yet again as their children remained in the United States and they were deported.
On August 23, the American Immigration Council and the American Immigration Lawyers Association filed a complaint with the Department of Homeland Security alleging the “pervasive, and illegal, practice of coercing separated mothers and fathers into signing documents they may not have understood.”
The complaint makes the case that “the trauma of separation and detention creates an environment that is by its very nature coercive and makes it extremely difficult for parents to participate in legal proceedings affecting their rights.” The complaint also describes the use of physical and verbal threats, the denial of food and water, the use of solitary confinement, the use of starvation, restrictions on feminine-hygiene products, and the use of pre-filled forms. One such instance included ICE officials handing four parents pre-filled forms with the box for “I want to be deported with my children” already checked.
One Guatemalan mother separated from her 5-year-old son for over a month described her experience: “They said they would take us to El Pozo or ‘the well’ as punishment if we kept crying about our children.… They said I would be punished because I refused to eat in the mornings.… They would tell me that they were going to also put me in El Pozo. I did not know what that was. The women told me it was an ice cold room that was dark with no windows.”
Another mother in the complaint commented, “I bet ICE treats their dogs better than they treated me.”
I recently spoke with a Honduran mother, Alayda del Carmen Avila, who was separated from her daughter two days after showing up at the US border in May, and has since been deported. Del Carmen hasn’t seen her daughter since. Alayda wasn’t making an asylum claim (she was fleeing extreme poverty) but she was still coerced into signing her deportation order. She told an ICE officer she wasn’t going to leave the country without seeing her daughter again. The officer pressured her, eventually getting so angry he threw a pen in her face. Later, she told me, he tricked her, telling her the paper she was signing was not for her deportation, which was a lie.
Yusuf Saei, a public-interest fellow at Muslim Advocates, one of the organizations suing the government on multiple fronts for its separation practices, described to me the “disabling trauma” of family separation, and the parents’ subsequent “alterations in cognition” that turned asylum-screening interviews into what he called “junk proceedings.” Edwin himself stopped eating after he was separated from Jaime. He hardly slept for days, he told me, and ended up signing his deportation order without understanding what he was signing.
Ashley Huebner, associate director of legal services of the National Immigrant Justice Center, which is representing Edwin, described to me in an e-mail how parents were told by officials that their children would be adopted or were yelled at and threatened with solitary confinement because they were crying about their children.
Though Edwin had repeatedly tried to ask for asylum while in custody, he was told that, because he had a previous deportation order (he had tried applying for asylum in 2015, and was denied), he wasn’t eligible. He was eligible, however, for protection through “withholding of removal,” which would have allowed him to remain in the United States.
The deportation papers Edwin ended up signing were in English, which he didn’t speak or understand. Despite repeated and desperate attempts to ascertain the whereabouts of his son—for Edwin, the urgency of his own asylum claim had understandably been overshadowed—officials kept telling him they didn’t know or couldn’t help him. Once, when asking an ICE official if Jaime could use the bathroom, the official barked, “You’re not in your home.” “They deported me without explaining anything,” Edwin said. An ICE agent told him he could talk to Honduran officials for more information. A man gave him a number to call to ask about his son, and then he was shackled and boarded onto a plane bound for Honduras in June.
I asked him if any government officials ever asked him if he feared being returned to his country. “No, never,” he told me.
I met Edwin in the small rural city of Morazán, Honduras. He had traveled about three hours on a borrowed motorcycle from a small mountain town; I’d driven two and a half hours in a rented car from San Pedro Sula. We talked in the park for a while, ants crawling over our feet, and then moved to a fried-chicken joint on the crowded main strip in town. The whole street smelled like hot fruit and gasoline. Occasionally a dirt bike or an ATV would backfire, and a vegetable vendor selling his wares on one corner barked through a karaoke speaker system at such a piercing volume that we had to move again to be able to hear each other. Edwin was soft-spoken at first, as well as extremely distraught about a mechanical problem he was having with his borrowed motorcycle. As we got to know each other a little bit, however, he opened up, and described his experience in alternatingly scathing and desperate tones. “Can you help me?” he asked at one point. “Can you help get my son out?”
After finding coffee, we sheltered from a rainstorm in my car, and Edwin tried to call his son, who remains in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement at a facility in Chicago. Edwin put the call on speakerphone so I could hear. A social worker answered, and Edwin introduced himself as Jaime’s father. The social worker asked how he could help him. “I want to speak with my boy,” Edwin told him. The social worker said he would have to call him back. A half an hour later, without receiving a call, we tried calling again, but couldn’t get through. In the next two hours I was with Edwin he received no return call or information about his son. I asked him if that was typical. He usually gets through, he said, but not always. “He’s traumatized,” Edwin told me of Jaime. “He’s going to go crazy in there.”
After he was deported, and unsure if he was ever going to see his son again, Edwin scrambled to have Jaime released to his sister, who lives in New York State. After struggling through a morass of paperwork, he signed forms allowing his son to be released to his sister in late June. And yet, two months later, Jaime remains in ORR custody. Why Jaime hasn’t been released to his sister, Edwin doesn’t know. Nor do his attorneys, who told me that Jaime’s release from ORR is pending, and that they don’t know the reason for the delay. Besides the social worker and an attorney, Edwin has had no contact with anyone from the US government.
In Edwin’s first conversation with Jaime after being deported, Jaime blamed his father. “Why did you abandon me, papa?” he asked. Edwin couldn’t find the right words to explain it to him, and seemed to struggle to explain it to himself. Since, in their occasional phone calls, Jaime seems downcast, and hardly wants to talk. Edwin showed me a series of screen grabs on his cellphone with a very demure looking young boy—not images of a child happy to speak with his dad.
I spoke with Simon Sandoval-Moshenberg, legal director of the Legal Justice Aid Center, one of the parties filing the lawsuit Dora v. Sessions, claiming the US government is depriving people of their right to apply for asylum. The Legal Aid Justice Center also has a pending a class-action lawsuit against ORR, claiming Trump-appointed ORR chief, Scott Lloyd, is purposefully delaying the release of children and turning “ORR into a law enforcement agency rather than a child protective agency.” According to the pending lawsuit, the unaccountable delays in releasing children raise the “specter of indefinite detention.” Sandoval-Moshenberg also described to me ORR’s “general terribleness of making these release decisions.”
A Trump administration official recently told Jonathan Blitzer of The New Yorker, describing the family-separation policy: “The expectation was that the kids would go to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, that the parents would get deported, and that no one would care.” It was a shockingly bad misread of basic human nature: Not only do the parents care and suffer terribly, the children care and suffer terribly, much of the nation and the world continues to watch on in horror.
I asked Edwin what happens next. Recognizing he doesn’t have any good options in Honduras—“The police don’t exist,” he told me at one point, and later described them working with the narcos—and is hoping to find some way to get back to the United States. He remains in hiding, makes a pittance working in the remote mountains, and, so as not to put them at risk, only occasionally visits his partner and daughter. “This isn’t life,” he told me. “I was going to bring my son to safety, that’s all, I wasn’t trying to live large.” Later, he said, “I’ll go [to the US] as a slave. I don’t care. I just need to leave.”
When describing what it felt like to have been separate from his son, he said, “For me,” and then he paused. “It’s…,” he tried again, but couldn’t find the words.