An earlier version of this article wrongly quoted lawyer Carol Anne Donohoe as saying her law firm applied in February to deliver Sandra Ortíz across the U.S. boundary and was denied. Donohoe says the company didn’t use to deliver Ortíz across the boundary in February; she had been speaking to some other customer. The quote has been eliminated.
SAN DIEGO — Three decades, seven months and four days after U.S. immigration agents split her from her kid, Sandra Ortíz was walking through the San Ysidro border crossing Tuesday when she seen Bryan Chávez.
“My son!” She cried. “I missed you so much!”
They kept each other softly at the center of the pedestrian plaza, the frenzy of this border a blur around them.
Ortíz and Chávez were among the thousands of families separated by the Trump administration in 2017 and 2018 under a policy intended to deter migration. Now they had been among the very first reunited under the Biden administration — the beginning of a huge relocation of parents deported by one U.S. president and returned from another. In total, over 1,000 households are anticipated to be reunited.
Ortíz, 48, from central Mexico, had packed her bag days earlier: three outfits, some of shoes along with the birth certificate of her son, whom she hadn’t seen since they were split in the border 2017, if he was 15. He’s now virtually 19.
Chávez finally moved in with relatives in Southern California, where he enrolled in high school. Ortíz was deported exclusively to Mexico.
In the days leading up to the reunification, she could barely sleep.
“I keep thinking about what it’s going to be like. How will I react? How will he react?” She stated Monday. “He’s not the same boy I remember.”
They’re just one of four families to be reunited this week as part of the government officials and immigration attorneys describe as a trial balloon — a test to find the very best ways to reunite parents for their children without repainting the trauma they experienced when they were separated. And so it was with some reservation that the attorneys working on their situation told Ortíz the procedure would entail her returning to the identical border crossing where she had been separated from her son.
“Hopefully it’s not a triggering event,” said Carol Anne Donohoe, Ortíz’s attorney, of the law firm Al Otro Lado.
“I think it’s all going to come flooding back to me when I’m there,” Ortíz said. As she walked into the immigration office, she imagined agents handcuffing her and leading her off.
But this timethey processed her quickly, accepting her humanitarian parole paperwork, leading her into the pedestrian bridge. Chávez was waiting in a red shirt and jeans and carrying a bouquet of balloons that said,”Best Mom Ever.”
Ortíz and Chávez had fled their village in Mexico’s Michoacán state, where it appeared as though everything that could go wrong did. Her husband disappeared in 2010; his own body was found two weeks later with bullet wounds. Subsequently the local cartel delivered the entire body of their teenaged neighbor, Chávez’s friend, dismembered in a bag. And then they began attempting to recruit Chávez.
“That’s when we decided to go,” Ortíz explained.
It was October 2017. The Trump administration’s”zero tolerance” policy wouldn’t be officially implemented until April 2018, but authorities had already begun separating migrant families at the boundary.
Ortíz and Chávez turned themselves in at the San Ysidro port of entry and asked asylum. Two days later, she states, they were taken to some nondescript office.
“They told me to say goodbye to my son, that I wouldn’t see him again,” she explained. “And then they took him away.”
Ortíz was arrested for at least a month with different mothers who were separated from their children. Like Ortíz, many were unable to communicate with their kids during their time in detention. She said Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers told them their sons and daughters would be put up for adoption.
Eventually, Ortíz was advised that she had failed her”credible fear” interview, the first step in obtaining asylum, and could be deported. She asked for her son to be deported with her, she said, but officials told her it was not possible.
After Ortíz was shipped back to Tijuana, she called her older son. José Arturo had migrated into the United States years earlier. He advised her that Chávez had came in Southern California along with the two of them were living together.
Ortíz took a bus back to Michoacán. She moved in with her parents around the outskirts of the city. For weeks, she refused to go outdoors. She left video calls for Chávez, but they mostly just stared at each other and cried.
“I assumed, ‘This is it. I’ll never see him again,'” she said.
Ortíz discovered a project harvesting lemons, earning about $10 per day, three times each week. She and Chávez settled into a routine of about two video calls per week. She charted his progress in phone to call.
First he was learning English. Afterward he was registering in advanced-placement classes. He moved in with his sister, Yeritzel, who had migrated separately to the United States. He then was graduating high school early. He advised Ortíz about his prom and his first full-time occupation. He ended almost every telephone by stating,”We’ll be together soon.”
But when he hung up the telephone, he stated, he would tell his buddies:”I wish she was here for this.”
President Biden promised during his campaign last year to reunite families separated by the Trump administration. When he was chosen, Ortíz started to wonder if it’s the return into the United States could be possible.
Al Otro Lado, the law firm, had contacted her and told her to be patient. However, her attorneys grew disappointed with the pace of the reunification procedure.
“We had to keep telling our clients to wait and wait and wait,” Donohoe said.
Last week, the Department of Homeland Security agreed to process the first few returning parents at the boundary. Ortíz’s flight to Tijuana — her first time in an airplane — was reserved. So was a coronavirus test and a consultation with Customs and Border Protection in San Ysidro.
“We are reuniting the first group of families, many more will follow, and we recognize the importance of providing these families with the stability and resources they need to heal,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told reporters Sunday.
A small group of lawyers and advocates, such as Donohoe, made arrangements for approximately three dozen parents, one of the first group slated to return. The challenges were many. The passport process in Guatemala, by way of instance, proved painstaking. Some parents had restricted mobile access and could be reached only once a week. Others had developed a deep mistrust of the United States following their separations and feared that parts of this reunification program may be a scam.
Another group of advocates was charged with finding tens of thousands of separated parents who have not been found since their deportations. Four-hundred and invisibly stay”unreachable.” A percentage are likely living with the kids in the United States, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
In June 2018, a judge ordered the Trump administration to reunify separated families within 30 days, and hundreds were. However, after that, hundreds more had been deported with their kids.
Because the Trump administration kept little contact information for the parents they had deported, advocates were left to fund radio commercials that beamed across Central America.
“If you or someone you know was separated from a child at the border with the United States between 2017 and 2018,” the narrator of one advertisement stated,”this information will interest you.”
A couple of days back, earlier Ortíz left for the border, Chávez gave her a video tour of her future home, including 2 neatly made beds next to each other.
“How pretty,” she said, grinning at the screen, which then flashed again to her son’s face, more mature than she recalled, with a dark shadow of facial hair.
“He looks like a man,” she thought.
And then she thought:”He looks sad. He’s not the same son I had. This whole thing has changed him.”
Asked to envision the weeks after the reunification, she paused.
“Being together again will be beautiful,” she said. “But it might not be easy.”