They’d had a plan: Elsa Johana Ortiz Enriquez packed up what little she had in Guatemala and traveled across Mexico with her 8-year-old son, Anthony. In a group, they rafted across the Rio Grande into Texas. From there, they intended to join her boyfriend, Edgar, who’d found a construction job in the United States.
Except it all went wrong. The Border Patrol was waiting as they made their way from the border May 26, and soon mother and son were in a teeming detention center in southern Texas. The next part unfolded so swiftly that, even now, Ortiz cannot grasp it: Anthony was sent to a shelter for migrant children. And she was put on a plane back to Guatemala.
“I am completely devastated,” Ortiz, 25, said in one of a series of video interviews last week from her family home in Guatemala. Her eyes swollen from weeping and her voice subdued, she said she had no idea when or how she would see her son again.
As the U.S. government continues to separate families as part of a stepped-up enforcement program against those who cross the border illegally, authorities say parents are not supposed to be deported without their children. But immigration lawyers say that has happened in several cases. And the separations can be traumatic for parents who now have no clear path to recovering their children.
“From our work on the border, we have seen a significant increase in the number of moms separated from their children, and many of them have reported they didn’t even have a chance to say goodbye before the separation,” said Laura Tuell, the global pro bono counsel at Jones Day, an international law firm providing assistance to refugees in Texas, whose lawyers spoke with Ortiz.
Critics say Ortiz’s saga is the latest indication the administration’s new enforcement strategy was rolled out without adequate planning.
The processing and detention of migrant families can involve three Homeland Security agencies — Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Citizenship and Immigration Services — as well as the departments of Justice and Health and Human Services. Poor coordination among them has made it hard to track children and parents once their paths diverge in the labyrinthine system.
In some cases, parents and children have gone weeks without being able to communicate with one another and without knowing one another’s whereabouts. From April 19 to May 31, a total of 1,995 children who arrived with 1,940 adults were separated from their parents, according to administration officials.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the “zero tolerance” policy officially in early May to stanch the flow of migrants, mainly from Central American countries like Guatemala. It calls for prosecuting nearly all of those who are found to have entered the United States illegally.
“Once the parent and child are apart, they are on separate legal tracks,” said John Sandweg, who was acting director of ICE during the Obama administration.
Reunification becomes particularly difficult when a parent is deported without the child and is no longer on U.S. soil, Sandweg said; in those cases, “there is a very high risk that parents and children will be permanently separated.”
Immigration officials say parents are not supposed to be deported without their children, and if this occurs, parents have two options: They can have a family member who is living in the U.S. take sponsorship and custody of the child, or the child can be flown home and delivered into the custody of authorities in the parent’s home country, and from there to the parent.
Normally, an ICE spokeswoman said, the agency works with the Health and Human Services department “to reunite the parent and child at the time of removal, and with the consulate to assist the parent with obtaining a travel document for the child.” In any case, she said, the agency has procedures in place to make sure detained parents have either telephone or in-person contact with proceedings related to their child. A government hotline has been set up to help parents locate their children.
Ortiz’s greatest fear is that she won’t be able to return to the U.S. to claim custody of her son, and that without her intervention, he won’t be returned to her.
Ortiz provided detailed accounts and documents that attest to her detention, criminal prosecution and separation from her son. The story of how the two of them came to be in the U.S. involves years of difficult single parenthood in Guatemala, with both economic setbacks and threats of violence within her community.
She gave birth to Anthony David Tobar Ortiz on Aug. 8, 2009, in a village in the northeastern part of the country, she said, and his father abandoned them eight months later.
“I did whatever job I could to raise him,” said Ortiz, who worked at a bakery and lived with her mother.
A few years ago, Ortiz fell in love with a “good man,” she said, who treated her son as his own child. The man, named Edgar, moved to the United States to work in construction and had been sending money to help support them. He asked that his last name not be disclosed.
This year, Ortiz, fearful of thugs who were increasingly preying on her neighborhood, decided it would be best to take her son and join Edgar.
They made it to Texas safely, but shortly afterward they were intercepted by border agents, arrested and taken to a station. Ortiz said she was interviewed the next day by border officials, and that is when she was told her son would be separated from her. “I begged, please don’t do this, don’t take him,” she said.
About an hour later, her son’s name was called. Over Ortiz’s loud protests, Anthony was led away.
A few days later, Ortiz said, she boarded a bus filled with migrants and was taken to a federal court in South Texas, where she pleaded guilty to illegal entry Ortiz was later transferred toanother facility, in Laredo, Texas, where she was able to make telephone calls.
Ortiz recalled sobbing heavily as she reluctantly climbed the steps to the plane that would take her and dozens of other deported migrants back to Guatemala early in June. She said she was the last to board.
“Please don’t put me on the plane,” she remembered pleading over and over in Spanish. “I can’t go without my son.”
“I was shaking — I could barely walk,” Ortiz recalled.
“I cried the entire flight,” she said. “When I arrived at the airport in Guatemala, I was almost fainting. They gave me a tranquilizer.”
She phoned Edgar from Guatemala the next day. He reached out to a Jones Day attorney, who provided him with the government hotline number. After several attempts, Edgar got a woman on the line who asked for the boy’s name and date of birth. “She told me he is fine,” Edgar recalled.
Later that day, a caseworker from the shelter called the cellphone number of the boy’s grandfather in Guatemala — the only number the boy had memorized. She put Anthony on the phone, and his grandfather said he seemed cheerful.
Finally, Thursday, she got to speak to Anthony herself. But she said Anthony seemed worried — about her.
“Mammy, are they treating you well in the house where you are at?” Anthony asked.
“Yes,” she said, knowing that he would not know — not until the shelter workers told him — that the house was in Guatemala.