Ana Mendoza, a 29-year-old Honduran immigrant, can’t erase the image from her mind: With her 10-year-old son and 12-year-old cousin in tow, she had arrived at the International Bridge in Hidalgo on Jan. 19, the day before President Donald Trump was to be inaugurated.
Mendoza, fleeing gang violence in her homeland, believed the family would be released by immigration authorities with a notice to appear for a hearing on her asylum claim or be sent as a group to a family detention center, as had thousands of Central American mothers and children before her.
Instead, Mendoza, who had been deported once before, said immigration agents marched away her son and cousin and told her she would be sent to a detention center — alone. “I begged (the agent). I was crying and crying,” Mendoza said. “I said, ‘Please, don’t take them away. We are a family.’ It felt like God himself had abandoned me.”
For two weeks, Mendoza said she had no news of her son as she was shuffled through detention centers in South Texas. It wasn’t until early February, when she got to the T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Taylor, which houses immigrant women, that she was able to talk to her son, who had been sent to a federally-run youth shelter in San Antonio.
“It’s so hard when they take your son away from you,” Mendoza said. “Something happened in this country that I never thought would happen.”
About the time she arrived at the Hutto detention center, the Trump administration caused an uproar from Texas to Tegucigalpa when officials floated the idea of systematically separating immigrant mothers and children at the border as a way to deter Central American asylum seekers from coming across the border. The idea was met with repudiation from human rights groups, immigration advocates and a pediatric medical association, and earlier this month the Department of Homeland Security backed off the threat.
But as the cases of Mendoza and other Central American mothers demonstrate, an informal practice of separating mothers and children has quietly gone on since at least 2014, when the Obama administration sought to stem the tide of Central American asylum seekers. Despite the Trump administration’s assurances that mothers would be separated from children only in exceptional circumstances approved by Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, such actions are a reality of modern American border control.
Clarissa Bejarano, a staff attorney at the Austin-based immigration nonprofit American Gateways, said attorneys have come across more than a dozen women at the Hutto center who have been separated from their children over the past year after seeking asylum.
“This has resulted in irreparable trauma and prolonged separation of very young children and victims of torture and persecution,” Bejarano said.
Immigration attorneys also say that separating families complicates the legal situation of immigrants since individual family members might end up with separate cases and is costly because sending children to foster care is so expensive.
A January report by three refugee and immigrant advocacy groups, who interviewed dozens of immigration attorneys, asylum seekers and shelter operators across the country, detailed the ways decisions by immigration agents are both “intentionally and unintentionally” separating families.
“Over the last year, a disturbing new trend has emerged at the U.S. border: families torn apart,” the report concluded weeks before Trump took office.
In some cases, families have been separated after officials lost track of family members or failed to record family status after an arrest, according to the report. In some cases, mixed immigration statuses resulted in family members being sent to different places. But in other cases, advocates argue, a Department of Homeland Security tool called the Consequence Delivery System — a matrix meant to aid agents in deciding whether to detain or release an immigrant — has resulted in separations. The report also found instances in which border agents believed it was “in the best interest of the child” to separate them from parents suspected of human trafficking.
Officials with Immigration Customs and Enforcement said family separations are “rare and determined on a case-by-case basis” but referred questions to the Department of Homeland Security. A DHS spokeswoman did not respond to requests for comment.
And while the U.S. government does not track such family separations, a survey of immigrants in Arizona between 2014 and 2016 by the Kino Border Initiative found that about 10 percent of families reported parents being separated from their children during the apprehension and detention process.
Haunted by daughter’s screams
When Mendoza arrived at the Hutto center earlier this year, she wasn’t the only mother there who had been separated from her child. Marleny Gaspar Menchu, a 33-year-old Guatemalan asylum seeker, also was grieving the absence of her 5-year-old daughter. Menchu’s case demonstrates the complications of families with mixed immigration statuses: Menchu had first crossed illegally in 2007 after Hurricane Stan struck her homeland, and her daughter was born in the United States and so is a U.S. citizen and not detainable.
Menchu had returned to Guatemala with both her American-born children after her father died in 2012. She sent her son back to California on an airplane, and soon after that, she and her daughter followed, by land through Mexico. In November 2015 they arrived in Reynosa, Tamaulipas, where the Hidalgo International Bridge crosses the Rio Grande.
At the end of 2015, many Central American mothers in similar situations were being released with notices to appear. But when she turned herself in to authorities, Menchu was sent to a detention center.
She remembers her daughter being pulled from her arms as she pleaded with immigration agents. “She said, ‘Mommy, Mommy, don’t let them take me! Help me, Mommy!’” Menchu said during an hourlong interview at the Hutto center. “I’ll never forget the look of my daughter. It haunts me, the memory of her eyes, her screams.”
Menchu has been deported twice since then but has continued her quest to reunite with her children through the asylum process. She hasn’t seen her daughter since that afternoon nearly 18 months ago.
“It’s very hard to be locked up,” she said. “There are days when I want to sleep and never wake up again.”
Problems at state facilities
Since 2014, when the number of Central American children and families seeking asylum at the southwestern border increased dramatically, immigration officials have sought to reduce the flow.
That year, the Obama administration opened two large family detention centers in South Texas to house mothers and their children. (The only other family center at the time was in Pennsylvania.) The Hutto facility had closed as a family detention center in 2009 after an outcry about conditions and now houses women only.
But the Texas family facilities ran into difficulties soon after they opened, failing to get licensing from the state to hold children for an extended period. In December, after a Travis County judge’s ruling, 460 women and children were released from the detention centers in Karnes City and Dilley.
Texas lawmakers have proposed a change to the state’s licensing requirements that would make it easier for the facilities to win licensing as a day care, arguing that the centers would keep families from being separated.
Today, the centers are largely being used for short-term detentions.
Since Trump took office, much of his administration’s early immigration focus has been particularly aimed at reducing the number of Central American mothers and children seeking asylum, according to a recent Reuters report.
In addition to making the separation threat, Trump officials have vowed to end the so-called “catch and release” practice of letting asylum seekers stay in the U.S. while they await hearings and instead place all arriving immigrants in detention. That probably means dramatically increasing the amount of detention space along the border to avoid releasing immigrants because of lack of space.
The administration is also taking aim at a 2009 Obama administration rule change that allowed increasing numbers of asylum seekers to receive parole while they await hearings, which opponents have called a magnet for would-be crossers.
Meanwhile, asylum officers — U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services employees who determine whether an immigrant has proved “credible fear” of returning home — have been given guidance that could result in them applying stricter standards. Asylum seekers must first win a credible fear ruling before an immigration judge rules on their asylum request.
And while the Department of Homeland Security has walked back its threat to separate families as a way to deter would-be crossers, earlier this month Kelly told Congress that separations would still be possible if “the situation at the time requires it.” As examples, he cited situations where the mother was sick or addicted to drugs.
The policies, as well as the high-profile arrests of immigrants in cities such as Austin and Los Angeles, appear to have resonated.
The first two months of the Trump administration have seen historic drops in the number of families and children trying to cross the border: from 16,000 in December to just over 1,100 in March. The 93 percent decline mirrored an overall decline in illegal crossings that brought arrest numbers to their lowest in at least 17 years.
And while advocates on both sides of the immigration debate say Trump’s policies and rhetoric have had an undeniable impact, they differ on how permanent they expect the impact to be.
“This (decline) will be kept up as long as the policies are kept up,” said Jessica Vaughn, with CIS, which advocates stricter immigration controls. “If they are relaxed, the smugglers will see that right away.”
Vaughn said she thinks the threat of separation might have played a role with some would-be crossers, but that the end of the catch and release system is the main factor.
Doris Meissner, director of the U.S. Immigration Policy Program with the Migration Policy Institute and a former immigration commissioner (under President Bill Clinton), said she has been surprised at the quick decline in apprehension statistics.
“But it’s hard to say if this is temporary or a new trend,” she said. “The conditions that have been compelling people to leave Central America have not ended, and this could be more of a wait and see rather than a real shift.”
Perils of going home
Both Mendoza and Menchu say if they had known they would be separated from their children, they wouldn’t have turned themselves in and sought asylum.
But both say remaining in their home countries isn’t an option, either. Mendoza said it’s too dangerous in Honduras, which has the world’s highest murder rate and where she worries that gangs would target her son.
“If I knew this was going to happen, I wouldn’t have come here,” she said. “I would still have left Honduras but maybe would have gone to Mexico. I can’t go back to live in Honduras.”
In early April, an asylum officer at the Hutto center granted her credible fear claim, and she has since been released on parole as she awaits her immigration court hearing on asylum. Her son, Cesar, who had been released from the shelter a few days earlier and faces a separate asylum case, was at the detention center when she was released.
“I felt my life return to me,” she said of the reunification. “It’s like I was missing something in my heart, but when I saw him, everything was beautiful. I wouldn’t ever want to go through that again.”
Cesar said his time at the shelter, where he saw a parade of other children come and go, was difficult and confusing. “I was sad,” he said. “I thought I wasn’t going to see my mom again.”
Now they await their asylum hearings — which, given backups in the immigration court system, might not be held until 2019 — while living with a relative in North Austin. Mendoza is scared to leave the apartment, fearing that she or her son could be picked up by immigration agents and that they will once again be separated.
On April 19, an immigration judge denied Menchu’s asylum request, meaning she is likely to remain in the Hutto center for several more months as she appeals the decision. If she loses her appeal, she will be deported once again to Guatemala.
Menchu says if she is sent back she will be driven to return.
“I need to see my kids,” she said. “I don’t have anyone else. They are my only comfort.”