A few weeks ago, Hilda received some letters in the mail from her 8-year-old grandson. One is a drawing of a red heart framed by two pink roses with bright green stems, surrounded by the words, “La adoro mucho, Mama Hilda.”
Another shows a house at the end of a long walkway, next to a small car and behind a line of seven stick figures – each one progressively smaller than the next. Another says, in Spanish: “Grandma Hilda, we will see each other soon. I will give you lots of hugs. I love you with all my heart, we will be together soon.”
The boy and his three siblings were separated from their mother, Sandy – Hilda’s daughter – earlier this summer while crossing the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas. The boy’s name is not being published, and his family members’ full names are being withheld for their protection.
And the clock is now ticking on a deadline set by a federal judge in San Diego to reunite all parents with children under the age of 5 by tomorrow. Her 8-year-old son and two of his siblings are not subject to that deadline because they’re older than 5. But one of Sandy’s sons is 6 months old – one of about 100 toddlers that Judge Dana M. Sabraw has said must be given back to their parents today.
“I don’t understand why they don’t reunite me with my kids,” Sandy said by phone from an immigration detention center in Port Isabel last week. “Why can’t they stop to think about the psychological damage that they are causing these children? The older one outright told me: ‘I don’t want to be here.’ And that broke my heart when he told me that. He said, ‘I don’t know what is happening to me. What is wrong with me?’ ”
Last night, federal records show, Sandy was transferred to an immigration detention center in Eloy, Arizona. That’s apparently in an effort to more easily reunite her with her kids, who are in a shelter about an hour away in Phoenix. But there’s still a long way to go before the mother and her 6-month-old boy can physically be in the same place. And it’s unclear whether she will have to wait longer to meet her older kids, who Sabraw has said must be reunited with their parents by July 26.
“It’s hard to be optimistic at this point,” said Jennifer Falcon, communications director for the Refugee and Immigration Center for Education and Legal Services, a San Antonio-based nonprofit that is representing many parents who’ve been separated from their kids. The administration “continuously keeps changing their story and telling us lies … we don’t have anybody that we expect to be reunited with their children tomorrow.”
The Texas Tribune’s reporting on the Families Divided project is supported by the Pulitzer Center, which also will help bring discussions on this important topic to schools and universities in Texas and across the United States through its K-12 and Campus Consortium networks.
Sandy and Hilda’s nightmare began in May, after Sandy and her four kids fled persecution in Guatemala and showed up at the Gateway International Bridge in Matamoros, Mexico. Hilda had fled persecution herself years earlier and has lived in California for years.
After initially being rebuffed by armed Customs and Border Protection agents stationed at the bridge’s halfway point, they eventually were let through. But soon afterward, Sandy was transferred to immigration detention, and her kids were taken away. The family was separated even though Sandy was not prosecuted for illegally entering the U.S.; in fact, she had taken pains to ask for asylum legally at an official port of entry, which President Donald Trump’s administration has claimed is the “correct way” to seek asylum and wouldn’t result in ripping families apart.
Sandy is still not sure exactly where her kids are. In Port Isabel, she sometimes got calls from them and could speak to them for a few minutes at a time. The kids also could call Hilda and speak to her for a maximum of 10 minutes at a time; the phone number they called from indicates that they’re at a shelter owned by the Texas-based company Southwest Key in Phoenix.
“(My 8-year-old son) asks me, ‘wWhat is it like where you are, Mamita?’ ” Sandy recalled. “I told him there are a lot of us here. He asked me, ‘It isn’t a big place?’ I said, ‘No, son … where I sleep, it’s not a big place.’ But as a mother, I know him. He is asking me what it’s like over here, but what he’s really asking is if it’s possible to be with him.” She said she’s already been given a DNA test and been asked to provide a number of documents proving that she is the kids’ mom.
At a court hearing in San Diego on Monday morning, U.S. Department of Justice lawyer Sarah Fabian said the agency will be able to reunite only about half of the 100 toddlers with their parents by tomorrow’s deadline. Sandy’s 6-month-old son appears to be part of the lucky half: His mother does not have a serious criminal history, she hasn’t been deported and she’s not in a federal or local jail – all reasons that Fabian said would make it difficult to comply with the deadline. Sandy is in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and Fabian said Monday that all such parents will be reunited with their kids and then released from ICE custody by tomorrow night.
If that’s really going to happen, said Ruben Reyes, an immigration attorney based in Phoenix, then ICE should have started the process of releasing Sandy on Monday afternoon. In order to be released, she’ll probably have to be sent from Arizona’s Eloy detention center to a separate processing facility. Most likely, she would spend the night there, Reyes said, and then get moved to what he called a “non-detained” ICE facility where she actually can be released – and where, possibly, she might be reunited with her child (or children).
“This would have to start now, because it’ll take about 24 hours for them to make it happen,” Reyes said. As of Monday evening, Hilda wasn’t sure whether Sandy’s transfer had begun.
Even then, things will be tough, Reyes said, because “the agency is completely overwhelmed. They don’t have the personnel. They don’t have the numbers. They don’t have the information. They don’t have the pieces of the puzzle that they need.” On the other hand, he said: “They’ve got a federal judge putting a fire up their ass. … ICE can make whatever they want to happen, happen when they have the right motivation to do so.”
Fabian insisted during Monday morning’s court hearing that the government would get the reunifications done, and Sabraw said he was encouraged by the progress. But it was unclear whether Southwest Key, the company that owns a number of children’s shelters across the country, including the one where Sandy’s kids are detained, had any indication of what role it should play in the reunification process.
“We’re watching the court the same way you are and waiting to hear on the next steps from the Office of Refugee Resettlement,” said the company’s spokesman, Jeff Eller, referring to the agency that oversees shelters for migrant children. He wouldn’t elaborate on whether the agency has given his company any directions.
Asked whether he expects to find out about the next steps in time for tomorrow’s deadline, Eller said, “that will be up to the Office of Refugee Resettlement. We take our direction from them.”
Anayansi Diaz-Cortes of Reveal contributed reporting to this story.
Disclosure: Jeff Eller, a communications adviser to Southwest Key, is a donor and former board member of The Texas Tribune. The Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. View a complete list.