Four-year-old Franco came slowly around a corner, holding the hand of a social worker as they traversed through an unfamiliar airport. Then he saw his mother for the first time in six weeks, seated about twenty feet away. He seemed unsure of what he was seeing at first, but continued walking, his pace quickening, then the first hint of a smile crossed his face. When he finally reached her, he leaped into her arms. “Ay, papito lindo,” his mother, Maria, cried softly as she cradled him. My handsome little man.
Just after 10 p.m. Thursday at El Paso International Airport, Maria and Franco, indigenous Quiche from Guatemala, joined a group of about 1,500 other families who have been reunited in recent weeks after being separated at the border by the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy. They asked that the media use only their first names. This reunification was a bit unusual because Franco is younger than most of the children returned to their parents over the past two weeks. The Office of Refugee Resettlement social worker who brought Franco on a flight from Chicago held the hands of both this four-year-old and an older boy. The older child was headed to a reunion with another parent, most likely at an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facility. Franco, who had been staying at an ORR facility in New York while separated from his mother, was wearing a New York Giants hooded windbreaker.
As Maria held Franco tightly for several minutes, he seemed disoriented by his surroundings, which included a scrum of a dozen or so journalists. His eyes had a vacant look, and he rarely smiled as his mother soothed him. As his mother talked to the media about their separation, Franco’s eyes fixed on the man sitting to his left, Ruben Garcia, the genial 72-year-old director of Annunciation House, the nonprofit that will provide them food and shelter for a day or two. Suddenly, Franco smiled broadly for ten seconds or so.
Franco reuniting with his mother, Maria.
These reunion scenes have played out hundreds of times in recent weeks, mostly in sterile rooms at ICE detention facilities. This was the fifth reunion I witnessed, and the children’s reactions have run the gamut. Some quickly embrace their parents and cling tightly; others are more wary after weeks or months of separation. Like the other families I’ve seen reunited, Maria and Franco face an uncertain future. They are free while an immigration judge determines whether they should be deported. They’ll spend a night or two at Annunciation House in El Paso, then travel to another destination in the United States to stay with family or friends. The most likely outcome, based on immigration court history, is that they’ll be returned to Guatemala.
According to federal court records, Maria was arrested by a U.S. Border Patrol agent on June 15 in Doña Ana County, New Mexico. Though an exact location isn’t specified, an area in Doña Ana County just west of El Paso is a popular crossing spot for migrants to enter this country illegally. Maria was charged with illegal re-entry into the United States by someone previously deported, a felony. The charging document said she previously had been deported on January 18 in Louisiana. Five days after her arrest, on June 20, President Trump issued an executive order ending his family separation practice. Some U.S. attorneys then ordered that pending immigration charges against separated parents be dropped. If Maria had been arrested a few miles to the east, in West Texas, she might have been freed in late June and reunited with her child a couple weeks earlier. But the U.S. attorney in New Mexico, John Anderson, allowed immigration prosecutions of parents like Maria to continue. She pleaded guilty on June 28, then was sentenced on July 18 to time served and turned over to ICE. The reunion with her son occurred eight days later.
Children four and under—so-called “tender-age children”—were supposed to have been reunited with their parents by July 10 under a court order from U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw of San Diego. The government previously has said that it reunited just over half off the 103 tender-age children in its custody by the deadline, but said the other parents and children weren’t eligible for reunification for a variety of reasons. That included eight parents who were in the custody of the U.S. Marshals Service, which is responsible for people who are being held on federal charges. Their eligibility for reunification would be determined after release from Marshals Service custody, government attorneys said. Maria appears to have been one of those eight parents.
The reunion of Maria and Franco is a reminder that the family separation crisis is far from over, even though the two major reunification deadlines have now passed. In addition to the July 10 deadline for children four years and younger, Sabraw set a deadline of Thursday to reunite children ages five to seventeen with their parents. Government officials said on Thursday that they had met the deadlines by reuniting 1,442 older children with their parents, while another 378 children had been placed with sponsors, were reunited with their parents in other ways, or have turned 18. Still, more than seven hundred parents were labeled ineligible for reunification by the government, mostly because they had already been deported or had waived reunification with their children. Immigration lawyers and other advocates have questioned whether the deported parents or those who waived reunification were handled properly by the government. Sabraw will have a status conference on Friday to discuss a number of issues, including how to handle the cases that the government has deemed ineligible for reunification. “We are ecstatic that we were able to help mom get her little boy back. We’d love to believe that it’s going to be possible to get all of the parents and all of the separated children back together again,” said Garcia of El Paso’s Annunciation House.