Originally published by The New Yorker
Last week, after spending a month in a federal prison, a Honduran woman named Rosalinda Hernández finally received some good news: the government was ready to release her. In May, she and her nine-year-old son had crossed the U.S. border, seeking asylum. Under the Trump Administration’s zero-tolerance policy, she had been arrested and charged with entering the country illegally, while her son was sent to a children’s shelter in the Midwest. Now, however, the government was no longer prosecuting families for illegal entry, and the charges against her were being dropped. Hernández was sent by bus to a migrant shelter in downtown El Paso. “I only spoke to my son twice while I was a prisoner,” Hernández told me. “Now we talk on the phone every afternoon.” At the end of each conversation, she said, he asks when they’ll see each other. She tells him, “This month, in July, for sure.”
A few days ago, Hernández learned that it will be several more weeks, at least, before the government can return her son. In order to regain custody of their children, immigrants like Hernández need to collect documents that prove their fitness as parents and submit their fingerprints—and the fingerprinting alone takes about twenty days to process. “Making the decision to seek asylum and leave everything behind often means that parents don’t have certain documents,” Linda Corchado, Hernández’s immigration lawyer, told me. “And those documents are required just to begin the conversation with the government.” Hernández’s family in Honduras has been frantically sending Corchado documents. “I’ve been getting photographs, transcripts from the boy’s third grade class, vaccination records, even a letter from his school teacher,” Corchado said.
But the government also needs information that Hernández doesn’t have: an address, a full criminal background check on every other adult who might live in the same household as her child, and proof of income. Having just left federal prison, Hernández is effectively homeless. She told me, “Once I realized what was happening, I said, ‘Oh my God, what am I going to do?’ ”
The Trump Administration ended the zero-tolerance policy without a plan for reuniting the children it has taken from their parents (more than twenty-five hundred in the past year) with their families. In late June, the Office of Refugee Resettlement, the division of the Department of Health and Human Services that is in charge of the separated children, had two thousand and fifty-three kids in its custody. The Department is no longer disclosing how many children it is holding, but immigration lawyers at the border say that many parents still don’t know where their children are. Last week, a federal judge in San Diego issued an injunction ordering the Trump Administration to reunite the separated families within the next month. Given the government’s disorganization, it’s impossible to see how the judge’s deadline can be met.
While Corchado gathered documents, Hernández called her sister, who lives in New York, to ask if she could use her home address. “My sister wanted to help, but she got scared that the government will come after her,” Hernández said. “She’s undocumented.” Under past Administrations, O.R.R. reassured parents and family sponsors that it would never scrutinize their immigration status. But, based on a new memorandum of agreement, signed in April, O.R.R. is now required to share the information it compiles on sponsors with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Now case managers tell parents and potential sponsors that, if they submit personal information for vetting purposes, it could lead to deportation. Hernández told me, “When I heard that, it changed everything. It’s not just me who’s at risk here.” (Some names in this article have been changed.)
Hernández and her sister decided to ask a friend who is a legal permanent resident if she could serve as a sponsor, but the woman’s husband got nervous when he heard that the government would have to fingerprint him. “He said to me, ‘What does this all have to do with your kid?’ ” Hernández told me. “I don’t have anyone now,” she said. “Everyone’s scared. They all have doubts. It’s just me, and I can’t get my son.”
When the Trump Administration started separating families at the border, it treated the children who had been taken from their parents as though they had come to the United States alone, and sent them to O.R.R. “The office was never set up for this,” Bob Carey, the head of O.R.R. under President Obama, told me. “It was set up to reunify children who arrived here on their own”—so-called unaccompanied minors—“who had parents living in the U.S.” In the past few years, O.R.R. created vetting standards to insure that children were released to reliable sponsors. Those standards have now become an impediment. “You’re talking about children who’ve been separated from their parents by the U.S. government,” Carey said. “The government has a new responsibility. How do you streamline these processes for them?” In 2016, during a period of increased child migration, O.R.R. frequently waived a requirement that sponsors pay the cost of transportation for children leaving government custody. The Trump Administration hasn’t done so. According to the Times, separated parents who have managed to locate their children and find sponsors have been spending thousands of dollars on airfare. “It’s this grotesque scenario where children have been removed from their parents, and they’re essentially being held hostage while their parents try to come up with the money,” Carey said.
Hernández hasn’t even considered the costs of reunification. On Tuesday, she left the shelter for her sister’s house, where she plans to start looking for someone else who can help her sponsor her son. She worried, though, that staying there for too long could put her sister at risk of deportation. “Maybe I can try to find an apartment or something,” she told me. Hernández is fortunate in one respect: she has a lawyer. Corchado told me, “Many parents are leaving town before they get connected with lawyers. I fear that they will have no one to help them navigate a system full of potential landmines.”
Last week, at the migrant shelter in El Paso where Hernández was staying, I spoke with Herman, an affable Guatemalan from a rural town in the northern part of the country. “My boy is in New York,” he said. “We’ve talked on the phone, but it’s been difficult. He’s having trouble communicating at the shelter.” His son, who is five, speaks Q’eqchi’, a Mayan dialect, and his Spanish is shaky. Herman asked me if New York was far away. When I told him it was, he said he’d have to stick to his plan to stay with his father-in-law, who lives in California. “He’s the only person I know in this country,” he said. “I’ll go to him and make arrangements for my boy from there.”
Last Wednesday, Herman boarded a bus to Los Angeles, carrying a shopping bag that contained a change of clothes, a packet of food, and a Bible. We spoke several times the next day, after he arrived, as he tried to figure out how the caseworker could send him the necessary sponsorship paperwork. On Friday, the papers were faxed to a copy store Herman had found near his father-in-law’s house. He called me the next day with a question. “What is a patrocinador?” he asked, using the Spanish word for “sponsor.” I tried to explain. “I see, I see,” he kept saying, but his voice was growing distant. He said he’d call me back. I haven’t heard from him since.