Fleeing an abusive ex-husband in Brazil, Jocelyn and her fourteen-year-old son, James, made their way north last summer. On August 26, 2017, they reached the U.S.-Mexico border near Santa Teresa, New Mexico, just west of El Paso. They crossed the boundary, sought out the first U.S. Border Patrol agent they could find, and gave themselves up so they could seek asylum in the United States. They couldn’t know that they had stumbled into a Trump administration experiment that would later become national policy—the “zero tolerance” approach requiring that all undocumented immigrants face criminal charges and as result be separated from their children.

Jocelyn and James (their attorney asked that only their first names be used) would be separated for more than nine months, she in West Texas and he at a government facility for refugee children in Chicago. They finally reunited Tuesday at El Paso International Airport in an emotional moment that I was invited to witness. Both the Trump administration and its critics say this family’s story is what lies ahead for parents who bring their children illegally into the United States. James took a United Airlines flight from Chicago to El Paso, arriving just after noon on Tuesday. He was accompanied by an official with the Office of Refugee Resettlement, the federal agency that had custody of him for most of the past year. Jocelyn spotted James coming down the escalator and rushed to hug him as he balanced his worldly possessions in a bag on his shoulder. Jocelyn signed a receipt for James, and a mother finally had custody of her son once again.

“I thank God a lot for giving us this opportunity that he is free. It was a long wait, but now he is with us,” Jocelyn, who is about to celebrate her 32nd birthday, said in Spanish. A native Portuguese speaker, she began learning a new language while in immigration detention.

In May, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the “zero tolerance” approach to illegal immigration on the Southwest border. In the past, the vast majority of people caught entering the country illegally were immediately placed into a civil process to determine whether they would face deportation or be granted some relief, such as asylum, that would let them stay in the United States. Now, people apprehended by the Border Patrol first face criminal arrest, usually for the misdemeanor charge of entering without inspection. Most plead guilty and are sentenced to time served within two weeks or so, then turned over to the immigration court system for determination of whether they can stay in the country. If an undocumented person—including a parent—is traveling with a child when apprehended, the child is taken away while the adult is detained. In announcing the new policy, the departments of Justice and Homeland Security revealed that the Trump administration had pilot-tested the zero-tolerance approach the previous year in the El Paso Border Patrol Sector, which includes El Paso and Hudspeth counties in Texas, and all of New Mexico. Administration officials had previously denied that they had implemented a new approach in the El Paso sector that was separating large numbers of parents from their children. Federal court statistics show that criminal immigration prosecutions in New Mexico—where Jocelyn was arrested—have almost doubled in the past year, by far the largest increase in any federal court district. At the same time, overall Border Patrol apprehensions of people illegally entering the country were down almost 25 percent in that area compared to the previous twelve months, even with a surge of apprehensions in recent months.

The separation of children from their parents was immediately denounced by immigration advocates and even members of Congress. Democratic U.S. senator Jeff Merkley from Oregon tried to get inside a facility that holds children in McAllen only to be turned away. Lawsuits were filed and a coalition of legal groups filed a complaint with an international human rights group, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which is part of the Organization of American States.

El Paso Immigrant Reunification
When Jocelyn entered the country illegally to seek asylum, she didn’t know immigration authorities would separate parents from children.

Photograph by Christ Chavez

Jocelyn and James were part of that Trump experiment. She was arrested and jailed for 27 days, while James became a ward of the federal government. She pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor immigration charge on September 22, 2017, and was sentenced to time served. She then sat for more than six months in immigration detention centers in El Paso and Sierra Blanca, Texas, where she was allowed occasional calls with her son. On April 9, Jocelyn was granted bond, which allowed her to go free while her asylum claim was pending. She sought the return of her son, which—for reasons that aren’t clear—took almost two months to accomplish.

“We know ORR (Office of Refugee Resettlement) is going to, rightfully so, have their own standards,” said Linda Rivas, Jocelyn’s attorney and the executive director of Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center in El Paso. “But we know that she came to the United States with proof that she indeed is James’s mother. And that is the reason that we are just unsure of why it had to take so long when ICE themselves were the ones that separated her from him, knowing that she was the rightful and legal parent, biological parent, of James. We know sometimes with them, [before] reunifying you have to prove relationship, and that wasn’t the case here. So we just don’t understand why it had to take so long.” In March, Jocelyn joined a lawsuit filed in San Diego by the American Civil Liberties Union, in which undocumented immigrants sought to be reunified with their children. “Ms. C. (her identification in the lawsuit) is desperate to be reunited with her son, who has been having a difficult time emotionally since being separated from his mother. Ms. C. worries about him constantly and does not know when she will be able to see him. They have only spoken on the phone a handful of times since they were forcibly separated by defendants,” according to the lawsuit, which is pending. The lawsuit seeks to deem such separations unlawful.

When asked if the length of Jocelyn’s separation from her son was out of the ordinary, Rivas said: “Well, it’s hard to say what’s out of the ordinary when now it’s our own government that’s creating these unaccompanied minors. … It is incredibly punitive, especially at that time she’s already served the sentence for the entry.” The Trump administration has made it clear that it is using people like Jocelyn to send a message to others who are thinking of coming to the United States. “If you don’t want your child to be separated, then don’t bring them across the border illegally. It’s not our fault that somebody does that,” Sessions said.

The American Academy of Pediatricians is among the many groups denouncing the idea of separating children from their parents. “Pediatricians work to keep families together in times of strife because we know that in any time of anxiety and stress, children need to be with their parents, family members and caregivers. Children are not just little adults and they need loved ones to comfort and reassure them,” the group said in March 2017, five months before Jocelyn and James were separated. “Federal authorities must exercise caution to ensure that the emotional and physical stress children experience as they seek refuge in the United States is not exacerbated by the additional trauma of being separated from their siblings, parents or other relatives and caregivers. Proposals to separate children from their families as a tool of law enforcement to deter immigration are harsh and counterproductive. We urge policymakers to always be mindful that these are vulnerable, scared children.”

El Paso Immigrant Reunification
Jocelyn and James walk away moments after their reunion at the El Paso International Airport.

Photograph by Christ Chavez

Rivas said that while in federal custody, James was medicated—without his mother’s consent—for emotional issues. She said he had never been treated for such issues before he was separated from his mother. In the short term, James is joining Jocelyn at Annunciation House, an El Paso shelter for migrants and refugees. They likely will join family elsewhere in the United States while their asylum case is processed. Rivas thinks they have a good chance of being granted asylum and being allowed to stay in the United States. “She’s fleeing from an abusive ex-husband, which is just absolutely within the purview of our case law that is able to protect women who are unable to escape domestic violence of that severity.”

When asked what she wants to do now, Joceyln said: “To be safe with my son and make a new life in this country.” They then walked out of the airport, headed to their first meal together since last summer.