José Luis Martínez still remembers the screams of his three daughters after US Border Patrol agents took them away. They sent him to a detention center.

«They wouldn’t stop crying,» he recalls. «Their mother was already dead. All they wanted was their dad. I was all they had.»

It was just after midnight on November 2, 2018. Martinez and her daughters had traveled more than 2,000 miles by bus from their home country of Honduras on a 15-day journey to the US-Mexico-Texas border. . ., country in which they intended to seek asylum.

The girls were then 10, 12 and 14 years old.

For a month, Martínez repeatedly asked US agents when she could see her daughters again. I never got answers.

The government eventually deported Martínez to Honduras, alleging that he crossed into the US illegally.

It took almost four years for her to finally be reunited with her daughters in the US, where they lived with their paternal grandmother and aunt.

«They would call me and say ‘Daddy, daddy, why hasn’t he come back?’ And I had to tell them that they deported me«Martinez told the BBC. «It was very hard.»

zero tolerance

Between 2017 and 2021, the administration of former President Donald Trump separated at least 3,900 children, some as young as months old, from their parents along the US-Mexico border.

At that time, it applied the so-called «zero tolerance» policy.

The objective was to discourage immigrants from entering the US and empowered the US Department of Justice to deport adults who crossed the border without documents through an express trial. The children will then remain in the custody of the US government.

The children were mostly from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, and they spent days in detention centers, where some were crammed into metal cages without access to a shower or adequate food.

Hundreds of children had to wait years, some more than half their lives, in the US in foster care and with relatives and friends before seeing their parents again.

US President Joe Biden scrapped the «zero tolerance» policy within days of taking office.

A month later, he established the Family Reunification Task Force to undo what he called the «moral and national shame» of the separations.

Previously, most parents were forced to choose between having their children return to live with them in the country of origin from which they had fled or leaving them in the US in government custody.

But with Biden’s new policy, parents who had been deported, like Martinez, were reunited with their children in the US and allowed to stay in the country for three years.

By March of this year, the government said that 2,969 children who were separated have already been cured with relatives.

But on the fifth anniversary of the day the new policy was announced, nearly 1,000 children are still waiting, according to official figures.

Activists say the Trump administration did not have comprehensive databases or records linking information from parents to their children, something reported by outlets including The Atlantic, NBC and others.

As a result, Biden officials inherited a «disaster,» said Lisa Frydman, vice president of international programs for Kids In Need of Defense (KIND), another organization involved in reaching out to immigrant families.

an arduous task

Nonprofit groups in the US and other countries have stepped in to help in the international search for hard-to-find people.

Sometimes they just have phone numbers that no longer work. Organizations go so far as to send human rights workers to search for parents in remote villages in Central American countries.

«It has been dangerous, time and resource consuming, and much more difficult during the pandemic.«said Lee Gelernt of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Immigrant Rights Project, one of the organizations leading efforts to help contact families.

When groups need support on the ground, they turn to people like Rebeca Sánchez Ralda, a lawyer in Guatemala City and a contributor to the Justice in Motion group.

She and her coworkers have spent hours combing through vital records and Facebook profiles for clues about the parents’ parade. Sometimes they just have a common last name to start the search.

Many of the people they are trying to locate live in remote villages and speak indigenous languages ​​that American workers do not speak.

When human rights activists receive a tip, the journey can be long and complex. Sánchez Ralda said that he had spent whole days walking dangerous roads to reach isolated communities.

When they finally locate parents who have been separated from their children, they often don’t believe at first that they can get them back.

Many, Sánchez Ralda explains, have developed a deep distrust of the United States government and also of those who offer them help.

But, for the families that achieved reunification, it is a great joy. «Many of them never thought they would see each other again,» says the lawyer.

End of Title 42

Nonprofit organizations have located about 1,500 families since 2018, says the ACLU’s Gelernt.

But some of the activists told the BBC that they are concerned that US immigration policy decisions could lead to more family separations.

Biden has taken a number of steps to try to deter the influx of undocumented immigrants at the border, especially with the upcoming end of the Trump administration’s Title 42 policy.

This rule gave the government the power to automatically expel undocumented immigrants to their country of origin or the last country they went to, often Mexico.

In February, for example, government officials said that would consider migrants who did not seek asylum in the first country they passed through on their way to the US «ineligible.» They would only make very few exceptions.

And migrants caught crossing illegally will not be allowed to re-enter the US for at least five years, under the new rule.

The New York Times reported in March that the administration was considering restoring a Trump administration practice to detain migrant families with their children if they enter the US without documents, a move Biden halted upon taking office.

Although the practice is different from the zero-tolerance policy, activists worry that it could lead to de facto family separations.

This has motivated parents to send their children to the border alone, as unaccompanied minors can be released from government custody to live with relatives or other sponsors in the US.

«The implementation of this policy would be disastrous.said Jennifer Podkul, KIND’s vice president of policy and advocacy.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment on whether it was considering the move.

«Like a Kidnapping»

Immigrant advocates argue that much more needs to be done to help families heal from the trauma of separation.

Some parents who have had to leave their children in the United States have attempted suicide out of guilt and confusion about why their child was taken from them, said Cathleen Caron, founder of Justice in Motion, an immigrant rights organization that works in Mexico and northern Central America.

Children, he said, get to wet the bed, have nightmares and «deep trauma.»

Some, who are as young as 1 year old when they separate, don’t even remember their parents when they see them again, Gelernt explains.

He remembers a 4-year-old, one of the first families the ACLU helped reunite, who was afraid someone was going to take him in the middle of the night.

Others now refuse to speak their indigenous languages ​​or eat the food their families prepare for them, according to Sánchez Ralda.

«People have no idea of ​​the damage this has caused,» he said. «It was like a kidnapping.»

Activists say families need more financial and legal support from the US government to help them recover once reunification occurs, as many lack access to stable housing.

In 2021, the Biden administration was negotiating with the families to distribute $1 billion in compensation for the separations, in response to a lawsuit filed by the ACLU.

But those discussions reportedly broke down after a strident pushback from Republicans.

And while Biden’s task force has reunited families, their three-year probation status in the US leaves them in a precarious situation, Caron warns.

Some families could face deportation after that time or the possibility of another separation if the children have obtained benefits to remain in the country while their parents are deported.

«When you don’t feel like you’re safe, it’s very hard to heal,» Caron says.

A bittersweet return

For Martínez, the journey to reunite with her daughters, who are now 14, 16 and 18 years old, has been bittersweet.

«I was happy to know that I could be there and that I could at least start helping them from the moment I arrived, but it was also very painful for all that we suffered,» he says.

For his daughters, the news that they would see their father again gave them pure and irrepressible joy, according to their former lawyer, Anilu Chadwick.

«They started crying and screaming. I wanted to scream too,» she recounted.

Martínez and her daughters now live with their mother and sister in New York. She said that she dreams of one day building a house for everyone in Honduras and that they can have a place to be together in her home country.

At 54 years old, and after four years away from his daughters, his kind and loving character has not changed. But the pain of time separated from her has left an indelible mark, she says.

«It is incurable. It will never go away. It will remain in the hearts of each one of them.»

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BBC-NEWS-SRC: IMPORT DATE: 2023-05-08 21:30:08