After enduring a journey of more than one thousand miles with his four-year-old son, the Honduran man arrived at the port of entry in Brownsville and asked immigration officials for asylum, he said. But instead of processing him as a potential refugee who had followed the law regarding his asylum application, immigration agents took the man’s son away from him a day later and placed them in separate detention facilities. The man, whose name is Roger and asked that his last name not be used, grew despondent when separated from his son, also named Roger. Desperate to do something to get his captors’ attention at the Pearsall detention facility in south Texas, he said he slashed his left wrist. “The only way I found I could communicate with my son was telling them I was going to commit suicide with (razor blades). I cut myself here in the veins. They saw I was not joking and they saw I was being very serious.”
One day after a deadline set by a federal judge in California to reunite children younger than five with relatives, stories are beginning to emerge about the short-lived policy of family separation implemented by the Trump administration. And many of the tales being told are inconsistent with what the government has been saying regarding the thousands of children who were taken from parents or guardians before President Trump signed an executive order stopping the practice. Roger was one of two Central American men who told their stories of separation and detention on Wednesday at a press conference at the Casa Vides migrant shelter in downtown El Paso. The other man was a Guatemalan who gave his name as Pablo Ortiz, and who has a three-year-old son named Andre. The two boys bounced on their fathers’ laps during a forty-minute news conference, coloring and molding Play-Doh as their fathers described what had happened in the months after the government took away their children after they’d crossed the border.
Roger and Ortiz were among the first parents of so-called “tender-age children”—those younger than five—to tell their stories. In all, three fathers were reunited with their young children Tuesday night at an ICE detention center in El Paso. They were then taken to the shelter run by Annunciation House, which has been caring for migrants and refugees for more than forty years. The third father and his four-year-old daughter, also from Honduras, left El Paso before Wednesday’s press conference. Roger and Ortiz left El Paso later on Wednesday, following their news conference, to join extended family elsewhere in the United States.
A spokesperson for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, speaking on background, issued the following response: “The Border Patrol apprehended one of these individuals, who voluntarily agreed to return to Mexico based on a previous apprehension. The other two did present themselves at ports of entry and had prior charges and removals on their record. While separations at ports of entry are exceedingly rare, a parent’s criminal history is grounds for referring that individual for prosecution.” Immigration law does not allow voluntary return of a person from Honduras or Guatemala to a third country like Mexico, but the Department of Homeland Security didn’t immediately explain the discrepancy. None of the three men show up in federal criminal court records, but a prior deportation—a civil action—wouldn’t show up in such records. Taylor Levy, the legal coordinator for Annunciation House, declined to comment on the DHS statement.
At the suggestion of lawyers, the men did not answer questions about why they sought asylum. The men said the children’s mothers stayed in their home countries. What the men described seemed to contradict story lines of the Trump administration: that children are well cared-for while separated from their parents, for instance—Roger said his son told him he was struck by a caregiver, and that a friend was bathed in cold water because he hadn’t behaved. The administration has also claimed that parents would not be separated from their children if they followed the law and presented themselves for asylum at a U.S. port of entry, but Annunciation House officials said both Honduran men had their children taken away from them after they asked for asylum at a port of entry. Further, Annunciation House officials provided Texas Monthly with the full names and other identifying information for the three men to allow for an independent check of their status in the federal court database. None of them was found, suggesting that none of them was ever charged with criminal wrongdoing—which the administration has said was the step that led to family separations. Trump officials have said that DNA tests and ankle monitors were required for reunification, but Annunciation House officials said the Department of Homeland Security waived DNA testing of the parents and children, and released the fathers without ankle monitors.
Roger said that in mid-February—three months before the “zero tolerance” policy leading to family separation was announced—he and his son sought asylum by going to a port of entry on the bridge linking Matamoros, Mexico, to Brownsville. People with prior deportations or removals from the United States can legally seek asylum, but face very long odds in winning their case. They were held together for a day, and then, he said, his son was taken from him. “So when they opened the door again I jumped on them and I asked why had they taken my son if they told me the papers I signed were for the asylum,” Roger said. “They hit me in the ribs. I have marks on my legs, like blood clots, from the blows they struck at me. I hit back, but nothing like they did. They took my breath away. I hit them in the face. I thought I was going to get federal charges because one of them was hit badly. I didn’t hit them in the body, I hit them in their faces. They were able to control me.”
He said he was taken to Immigrations and Customs Enforcement South Texas Detention Complex in Pearsall, where he grew despondent. “[My son] is my adoration. He is the only [child] I have with my wife and when they took me to the prison I was meeting with a psychologist because of that. I had a panic attack that almost killed me. Since I arrived February 19 at Pearsall I was under observation by the psychologist because of how traumatized I was because of the child [separation].” He was treated quickly after slashing his wrist and recovered, he said.
Administration officials have said repeatedly that they were only separating parents and children who entered the country illegally, which is a misdemeanor violation of federal law. Such people can still seek asylum, but the administration repeatedly encouraged migrants to appear at ports of entry, which is the official means of seeking asylum in the United States. “You do not need to break the law of this country by entering illegally to claim asylum. If you are seeking asylum, go to a port of entry,” Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said on June 18. But Roger and the other unnamed Honduran father who was reunited in El Paso both said their children were taken from them after they applied for asylum at a port of entry. (The second father said he and his daughter presented themselves for an asylum claim at the bridge connecting Piedras Negras, Mexico, and Eagle Pass, Texas, according to Annunciation House officials.)
Pablo Ortiz, the Guatemalan father, said he and his son were taken into custody by immigration agents on April 30 and separated two days later. That was a week before Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the beginning of a “zero tolerance” policy that called for criminal prosecution of anyone who entered the country illegally. Annunciation House officials said they have had difficulty fully piecing Ortiz’s story together. “I was crying, I was alone. I hadn’t talked to my wife, I hadn’t told her anything,” he said of his initial feelings after separation. “Once they gave a minute to call her, I told her that they took our son and then she also cried.” Father and son were separated for three months. Now that they are reunited, Ortiz says, “I feel very happy. I thank God. And I want to thank the people who gave me my son back.”
The three families taken to Casa Vides were among a select few nationwide who were reunited Tuesday as a federal judge’s midnight deadline requiring these reunions loomed. During a status hearing in that California case earlier in the day Tuesday, Trump administration officials told the judge that they anticipated 34 children under age five would be reunited with family members before day’s end; the government has until July 26 to reunite all other children, according the judge’s orders. The judge was unswayed by government attempts to extend the deadline, so the government began releasing some parents from detention with a promise they’d return to immigration court at a later date.
The three fathers and their children arrived at Casa Vides, the Annunciation House shelter, at about 8:15 p.m. Tuesday in a white private security van. Their belongings—each family had a government-issued car seat, a small black bag for clothes, and a bag of groceries from Walmart—were placed on the curb.
Their transition appeared smoother than reports of reunions from other parts of the country. A 27-year-old Honduran man who asked to be identified by only his first name, José, told the Washington Post that his three-year-old son didn’t recognize him at first when they were united in Phoenix on Tuesday. José said he tried to kiss and hug the boy, but he was stiff and cried inconsolably. “I asked him if he was upset with me,” José said. “And he just looked at me. He didn’t say anything and then I prodded him and he said, ‘yes.’ It broke my heart.”
Annunciation House is caring for three other people—a mother, father, and older sibling—who are awaiting reunification with their children older than five. In late June, 32 parents were taken to the Casa Vides shelter after immigration-related misdemeanor criminal charges against them were dropped. All have since left El Paso to be with families elsewhere in the United States as they await reunification with their children. The uncertainty around when the three fathers would be reunited with their children was part of the broader confusion surrounding reunification efforts. Annunciation House founder and director Ruben Garcia told Texas Monthly that some parents who previously stayed with Annunciation House said they’ve been told they will have to pay the costs for DNA tests required by the government for family reunification, and for the airfare to bring their children to them. Other parents have been told those fees will be waived, he said, “so there’s an inconsistency there.” Garcia said those inconsistencies on who pays for airfare and DNA tests could be the result of different private contractors executing a rushed government process.
Translation assistance for this article was provided by Lourdes Cueva Chacón, a doctoral student in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin.