The last time Pablo saw his son was in Texas.
Pablo and his 7-year-old son crossed the Rio Grande illegally and turned themselves in to Border Patrol agents. They were separated by force, and Pablo was deported back to Guatemala — without his son. Immigration officials tried to assure him that his son would follow in a week.
That was three months ago.
“You can’t live without a child,” Pablo said through an interpreter.
“It’s destroying us psychologically. We’re getting sick, going crazy. We can’t work anymore; we can’t do anything. Because we’re thinking about our son, how he’s suffering,” he said.
Pablo and his wife, Fabiana, don’t want to give their full names because they’re afraid immigration authorities could postpone their reunion with their son.
“I want them to do the just thing and return him quickly,” Fabiana said.
Pablo and Fabiana’s son is one of more than 360 children who are still in U.S. custody because their parents were deported without them, mostly to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. The Trump administration has been under increasing pressure to reunite these families.
Initially, the administration said the ACLU and immigrant rights groups should be the ones to find the parents. But U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw has ordered the government to take responsibility, saying, “The reality is that for every parent not located, there will be a permanently orphaned child and that is 100 percent the responsibility of the administration.” Now the administration has produced a detailed plan to reunite these families.
That can’t come quickly enough for scores of parents back in Central America, who are anxiously wondering whether they will ever see their children again.
“The families have told us again and again that they just don’t understand why the U.S. won’t send their children back,” said Clara Long, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch, one of several U.S. nonprofits that have been working to track these parents down. Long put NPR in touch with two families near Huehuetenango, Guatemala.
These families aren’t easy to find, Long says. Often she has nothing more to go on than a name and a town, because that’s all that U.S. officials have provided.
“What that means is driving 300 miles from the capital of Guatemala up into the Guatemalan highlands to areas where people mostly speak indigenous languages,” Long said.
The language barrier isn’t the only obstacle. The roads are bad. These areas are sometimes controlled by gangs, and people distrust outsiders. So Long is working with another U.S. nonprofit, Justice in Motion, to find local lawyers and activists who can help build trust with local communities.
When she does find the parents, Long says, most are baffled by what happened to them.
“The parents with whom I’ve spoken have told me almost universally that they believed when they were being separated from their children that the children would go with them,” Long said.
“Now months have gone by, and they still don’t understand why they don’t have their children.”
The Trump administration has insisted many parents agreed to leave their children behind in the U.S. Some may have thought their children could have a better life here.
But that’s not what another Guatemalan father said.
Marcelino crossed the border illegally with his 8-year-old daughter in May. They were separated several days later by immigration officials, and he hasn’t seen her since.
“I wanted to come back with my daughter, but they said no,” Marcelino said. “They said I had to come back here first, and that she would come back after.”
Marcelino and his wife also didn’t want to give their full names because they want to get their daughter back as quickly as possible.
They spent weeks trying to get information about her. Finally, a relative in the U.S. was able to find her, at a government-sponsored shelter in Arizona.
But Marcelino says he and his wife are concerned because their daughter speaks very little Spanish.
“She’s over there, and we don’t know how she is,” Marcelino said. “If she’s doing well or if she’s sick. We don’t know, because she’s far from here.”
In the few phone conversations they’ve had with their daughter, Marcelino’s wife has carefully avoided telling her that her father was deported back to Guatemala, because they don’t want her to feel abandoned in the U.S.
Pablo and Fabiana say that’s exactly how their son feels in a shelter in Houston, where he spent his eighth birthday.
“He said, ‘Dad, you left me, you abandoned me, you left me here alone. I want to be with you. Come get me.’ That’s what he told me over the phone, yelling, crying,” Pablo said.
Pablo admits it was a mistake to enter the U.S., though he says he was only coming to work and make a better life for his children. He doesn’t understand why immigration authorities still haven’t returned his son to Guatemala.
“Now they’re punishing us, they’re humiliating us, they’re treating us very cruelly,” he said. “The pain is intense. There are no words to explain our suffering.”