David’s son was just 13-years-old when U.S. border officials took him from his father. David recalls the day like it was yesterday, even though it is 2018. He and his son had been traveling overland from Guatemala and had just crossed the U.S.-Mexico border when the the two of them were rounded up, arrested—then separated from one another, without explanation. David was sent home. 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 child were two of the roughly 5,500 families Trump separated at the U.S./Mexico Border under its devastating Zero Tolerance policy. The couple is also part of a small subset of approximately a thousand families where a parent was removed while the child was still underage. This allowed them to be in the U.S. either in a shelter, detention center or with a sponsor. TIME will identify David using his middle initial to preserve his privacy.
The White House Family Reunification Task Force reports that approximately 280 children, including David, are now reunited with their parents. A humanitarian parole program is being streamlined by the Task Force, which offers parents who have been deported a route to U.S. citizenship. It grants temporary legal status as well as a work permit for three years. The parole can be renewed by parents at the expiration of the term. Some may also apply for asylum. A spokesperson for the Task Force said that the Task Force has completed 63 family reconciliations.
Continue reading:Trump Makes It Expensive to Reunite Families. The U.S. government should pay?
Facilitating legal pathways to allow these parents to return to the U.S. with their children is only the start of a difficult, long journey. The first step is to identify the parents in your home country. After that, you will have to go through all of the steps necessary for getting a passport. They must rebuild their lives once they have arrived in America.
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. According to Seneca Family of Agencies, many young children didn’t understand why a parent would leave them.
“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 tThe Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc. David is represented by “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. Trump’s executive order ended the practice in which families were separated, but some families were left apart for many months.
Thanks to logistical and financial assistance provided by nonprofit organizations and the White House Task Force, both parents and their children have been allowed to fly back to the U.S. so far. Nonprofits, churches, community groups, and churches help to cover the cost of food, rent, transport, and healthcare once the parents return home. The U.S. government currently does not provide financial support for families and nonprofits in order to help them meet their immediate needs. Most landlords will not rent to returning immigrants without a steady source of income. According to advocates for migrants, some parents have used AirBnbs as a temporary accommodation while they wait for their work permits.
TIME is also aware of the enormous emotional trauma that separation can cause to children and parents. Therapists have had to deal with immigrants families. Seneca Family of AgenciesAny parent separated from their child receives free mental health services Three mothers separated from their children filed a lawsuit in 2018 to have the U.S. Government pay for the costs of providing mental health services.
Learn More ‘We Can Begin To Heal the Wounds.’ Inside the Efforts to Provide Mental Health Care to Families Separated at the U.S. Border
Cecilia, 36 years old, recollects the 2018 day she was on an airplane to transport her back home from Guatemala. The older of her daughters (10 and 10 respectively) had also crossed into the U.S. at that point, but were later separated by U.S. 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 identified by only her middle name.
It was much worse than that, she said. She also claimed some officers had been cruel to her. They played with her, saying that they would reunite her with her daughter in New York City. But they wouldn’t give her any information about where her daughter was. Even though she was taken onto the plane, her hope was still alive that she would see her child. She craned. She crossed her arms over the chairs, praying that her little girl would come up the aisle. It didn’t happen. Cecilia was thrown out of the plane as it took off.
“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 eventually was able to petition U.S. to allow her daughter to return to 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.
She and her daughters (now aged 14 and 9, respectively) were granted permission to travel to the U.S. in September under the humanitarian parole program. This is similar to other families who are returning to their children in America.The couple now lives together in an unfurnished apartment, costing $1,900 per monthly. Seneca Family of Agencies paid the rent. Cecilia shares a couch bed with her daughters.
Her daughters and Cecilia are adapting to Brooklyn life and trying to heal from their separation. Cecilia monitors for any signs her girls are making progress, such as their school performance, behavior with other students, and the amount of time they spend talking to one another.. “[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’
David (45) describes stress and living in financial and emotionally limbo since he returned to the U.S. June. He says that he is filled with joy at being reunited to his 16-year-old son. On the other, daily life was difficult. David and his son stayed with his sister in law for the first month after his return from America. She struggled to provide support. David had been promised a work visa under humanitarian parole, but the process took many months. He was forced to borrow money from his sister and try to find work below the table.
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.” Al Otro Lado is a non-profit that helped the man to pay for his living expenses. CLINICHe helped him to fill out the paperwork necessary to go back to the U.S.
According to migrant advocates, therapists warn that families reunited may not feel complete for months or even years. David might have regained his footing. His work permit was issued in October. After finding a landscaping job, he and his son moved all 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 are negative about us. They think differently from us…But in my case I want to work here to contribute what I can to this country.”