The Story Of How One Immigrant Family Was Torn Apart, Then Put Back Together Again

Irma, a migrant mother from Guatemala, holds hands with her young daughter and son at her sister's Reseda apartment in late July. The family is together again after they were separated by federal officials in May as part of President Trump's zero-tolerance border enforcement policies.
(Photo by Leslie Berestein Rojas/LAist)

On a recent warm afternoon, Irma sat barefoot on the floor of her sister's small, sunny apartment in Reseda, resting under an open window. Her two children were in the next room, just back from their first visit with an American dentist.

She'd crossed illegally into the country with her son, 10, and daughter, 12, in May. Border officials arrested her and sent her children to a federal shelter in Texas. She ended up in a detention center in Arizona.

"All I would say every day is, 'God, please let me see them,'" said Irma, 34, who asked her full name not be used because of her tenuous status in the U.S.

She was reunited with her children in late July after more than two months apart. Now, she doesn't know if they can remain in the United States for good. A judge will eventually decide on the family's request for asylum.

Her children were among the more than 2,600 kids separated from their parents and guardians earlier this year under President Trump's strict border enforcement policies.

It was Irma's sister who tracked down the children after they were detained and connected them to their mother by phone. About six weeks after they were picked up, Irma's children were released to her sister while Irma awaited her fate in Arizona.

More weeks in confinement passed, then Irma learned her bond would be posted by a group of American mothers. Living in states stretching from New York to California, the moms informally connected online and raised money through a GoFundMe page to help migrant mothers.

"It felt like I was dreaming, after being locked up for 2 1/2 months," said Irma, a petite woman whose dark eyes occasionally welled up with tears as she spoke.

Volunteers from the group met Irma upon her release in Arizona and drove her as far as Burbank airport. There, one of the American mothers, Evelyn Belasco of Thousand Oaks, picked up Irma and drove her the rest of the way to her sister's apartment. They called from the gate downstairs.

"When her sister answered the phone, you could hear her kids in the background. And then her knees buckled, and I held her, and we heard the kids running," said Belasco, her voice trembling as she recalled the emotional reunion.

Seeing her kids was "like my heart was restored," Irma said. "Because all I wanted, all I prayed for, was to see my children."

MORE CHALLENGES AWAIT

Roughly 2,000 families that were separated at the border have been reunited after a federal judge in San Diego ordered Trump officials to do so by a July 26 deadline. Many were released and others are detained together. Some families, like Irma's, were not reunited in ICE custody, but after the children were released to adult sponsors and the parents followed.

But as of last week, more than 560 children remained in federal custody without their parents. Hundreds were deported without their kids and U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw has pressed the government to find these parents and return their children to them.

The reunion doesn't end their problems.

Those families that were reunited, released and remain in the U.S. now face deportation as the government pushes to have them returned to their home countries.

Some women like Irma are seeking asylum based on what they describe as violent domestic abuse back in their home countries. She said she fled a dangerous situation after her ex-husband tried to strangle her and threatened to kill her and their children.

It won't be easy for Irma and others with similar claims to win asylum. Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently raised the bar for such asylum seekers, saying that domestic abuse and gang violence are no longer sufficient grounds for asylum.

An immigration judge will hear Irma's case at a date yet to be scheduled. In the meantime, families like hers will be living in limbo.

"It's very difficult, because you're trying to plan for the new normal, taking care of your child, doing what's best for your child — pursuing education, pursuing health care, pursuing mental health care," said Niels Frenzen, who directs the immigration clinic at University of Southern California's Gould School of Law.

"But you also have to be doing emergency contingency planning. 'What happens if I get taken into custody at my next check-in interview?'"

Immigration officials could detain the parents, or they could be ordered deported by an immigration judge. If they are, the parents must decide whether to take the children with them or leave them in the care of U.S. relatives while the children pursue their own asylum claims.

For now, however, deportations of the separated families are on hold: Judge Sabraw extended a temporary stay on their removal last week as their rights to seek asylum are argued in court.

GETTING TO WHAT'S ORDINARY

For now, in Irma's sister's apartment, there's a sense of normalcy. One recent weekend, Irma took a breather from packing boxes as the family prepared to move to a bigger apartment with her sister, her sister's husband and their young child.

Her two kids napped after returning with their aunt from their dentist visit. Irma did not want them to be interviewed just yet, but she says they're doing better following their detention.

"Now, thank God, they're eating," according to Irma. She said the children lost weight in the shelter; they told her they were too upset to eat much.

For now, Irma wants the children to just settle in and feel safe. She and her sister enrolled them in a local school, where classes started last week.

Irma is working through her own emotional issues. When she first moved into the Reseda apartment, she had trouble leaving it. Her sister tried to coax her out to the store or for walks with her. But Irma was haunted by the fear she'd be arrested and detained again without her kids.

"I was scared," Irma said when her sister invited her outside. "I told her, 'I'm afraid they will come get me.' "

She's able now to go shopping and visit a doctor for stomach pain.

Belasco and the volunteer moms paid for the doctor's visit and Irma's prescriptions. They also connected Irma to an attorney who will see her asylum case through. Thanks to the moms, the kids have received vaccines to start school.

"I am so grateful, I have no way to repay them," said Irma, who describes herself as a devout Christian. "But I know the one upstairs will repay them in a big way."

Irma hopes, if her asylum case moves forward, that she can eventually obtain a work permit. That will depend on what the immigration judge decides. For now, at least, the family is together and can make plans.

"Blessed be God, I'm here with my kids ... I got to see them, I have them with me once more," she said.