One of the more disturbing sounds to hit the media airwaves last summer was a recording obtained by ProPublica of Central American children crying at an immigration detention center in Texas. They’d been separated from their parents, who had come to seek U.S. asylum.
At that same place the summer before, in 2017, a Guatemalan girl named Ana was taken from her father. She was three. Ana was sent to a relative in Immokalee, Florida, who took her to immigration lawyer Jennifer Anzardo Valdes in Miami.
“Ana actually is from an indigenous region of Guatemala, so she didn’t even speak Spanish,” says Anzardo Valdes, who heads the children’s legal program at the nonprofit Americans for Immigrant Justice (AI Justice).
“The only thing she was able to communicate to us was her age by using her fingers.”
Anzardo Valdes could get a Maya language translator for Ana. But she couldn’t change the fact that Ana was barely out of diapers – which made Ana’s first hearing in immigration court a challenge.
“She started playing peek-a-boo with us through the bench,” Anzardo Valdes recalls. “Then when she was called up for her hearing, one of our attorneys had to lift her up and sit her on the chair so that she was able to see the judge.”
But as time wore on, Anzardo Valdes could see the separation trauma showing on Ana’s face.
“Asking, ‘Where’s my mom? Where’s my dad?’ But we couldn’t answer anything. We had no idea where the parents were.”
For a long time Anzaro Valdes got no information from U.S. officials. She eventually found out Ana’s father had been deported back to Guatemala – and that Ana’s mother had died in Guatemala after Ana and her dad left for the U.S.
But meanwhile, more and more Central American toddlers started arriving at AI Justice’s doors.
“We were alarmed,” says Anzardo Valdes. “We started trying to find out why all these children were being separated this way.”
What the attorneys didn’t know then was that the Trump Administration’s campaign to separate immigrant families at the border was still a covert pilot program and not yet a formal policy. By the time it became official last year, children were pouring into migrant youth shelters, including three in South Florida – the largest in Homestead.
“We started seeing younger and younger children – and children who were clearly so traumatized by the family separation,” says Cheryl Little, AI Justice’s executive director.
Little says her lawyers now had to think like child psychologists.
“Staff had to create a coloring book, and the child would color in their answer,” says Little. “We had to create a different way to try to learn as best we could their stories.”
This week AI Justice is releasing one of the first comprehensive reports on the effects of the family separation policy: “Family Separation: Broken Systems, Broken Families.”
President Trump canceled the policy last summer amid public outcry. But his administration concedes it is still trying to locate many of the thousands of migrant children it separated from parents. And the AI Justice study examines the potentially lasting emotional scars the episode left on kids like Ana.
“We represented at least 120 children and we were able to help reunify a hundred of them,” says Little. “We still see a number of these children – and I can tell you, that trauma is ongoing.”
It is for Royer – a little boy from Honduras who was separated from his father, Eric Castro, after they arrived in California in the fall of 2017. They now live with Royer’s mother Vanessa in a small, one-bedroom apartment in Miami, where AI Justice’s family defense program is handling their asylum petition.
The family’s story echoes why so many Central Americans today come to the U.S. for asylum.
Eric had a construction business and Vanessa was a pharmacist in Olancho – a part of Honduras all but ruled by criminal gangs. Eric says a politically-connected gangster had brutally murdered Eric’s cousin and aunt because they refused to pay his extortion racket. Then one day he came for Eric.
“I was building a new house for my family,” Eric recalls, “when he walks up and says, ‘That’s a pretty place.’ Now you’re going to sign it over to me.’”
He gave Eric – and three-year-old Royer, who was also there – two hours to obey. Instinctively, Eric felt sure the gangster would end up killing him and Royer either way.
“In Honduras,” says Eric, “if a gangbanger says you’ve got two hours to live, it means you’ve got two minutes.”
Eric put Royer on his motorcycle and they sped to the capital, Tegucigalpa. Within days they were in Mexico on their way to the U.S. border. Vanessa would join them later.
“We spent almost a month begging for rides and food and places to sleep,” Eric says. “Most of the time we were pretty cold and hungry.”
So when they arrived at the San Diego crossing and presented themselves to U.S. border officials, Eric thought: “Here’s my salvation.
“But I didn’t know the worst was actually waiting for me there.”
Days later, agents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) came to their detention center to take Royer. Eric clung tightly to his son, but he says the agents threatened him with a taser gun and pepper spray.
As Royer sits beside him now, Eric recalls the boy’s cries as he was taken away that day:
“’Papi, papi! Don’t leave me, papi!’” Eric remembers, sniffling, tears welling up in his eyes as Royer, tilting his shock of black hair, rolls a toy truck across the table.
An ICE spokesman says the agency cannot comment on cases that involve pending asylum requests. The Trump Administration has argued such separations followed a 1997 court order to keep children out of detention centers with adults.
Either way, Royer was sent to a child migrant shelter in Texas. But no one told Eric that. Frantic, he called Vanessa in Honduras.
“I wanted to die,” she says. “I asked him, ‘How could you lose our boy?’ Then he told me what happened.”
Stunned, Vanessa immediately set out for the U.S. border herself. Early last year she located Royer, who was now with a foster family in Texas. But she and Eric still had to battle the bureaucracy to get Royer back. At that time, for example, children still had to be cleared by an immigration court before being reunited with parents – and it took time.
“This was crazy stuff,” says Little of AI Justice, which along with other organizations fought successfully to get that rule struck down last year. “The extent to which we subjected these children and their families to needless suffering.”
Eventually Eric, Vanessa and Royer were reunited in Miami, where Vanessa had relatives. But Vanessa says her son, now 4, is still haunted.
“The boy still doesn’t trust his dad,” she says. “He thinks he abandoned him so he won’t go anywhere alone with him. I have to come along.”
Teenagers were also affected by the family separation policy – like 16-year-old Fredy, an indigenous Guatemalan. (He asked that his last name not be used because his own asylum case is still pending.)
Fredy was 15 when thugs in Guatemala threatened to kill him and his father if they didn’t join their drug gang – who, like the gangsters who terrorized Eric’s family in Honduras, operate with virtual impunity, according to Fredy’s father, Juan.
So they crossed into Texas last summer – and Fredy ended up in the youth immigrant shelter here in Homestead for almost two months.
“For weeks I couldn’t sleep at night, feeling like a prisoner, not knowing anything about my father and my family,” says Fredy, who now lives in Lake Worth with Juan, who says the teen still exhibits depression from the ordeal.
“No one could tell me what was happening – when this would end.”
That is a big reason one of the recommendations in the AI Justice report is to provide free attorneys to minors in immigration cases – especially in cases involving asylum, says Little, “since seeking asylum is a right under our law.”
There are, in fact, bills in Congress now that would make sure those kids in the future have a lawyer – if only to prevent the sort of anguish minors like Fredy and Royer and Ana experienced should the U.S. ever separate immigrant families again.