The last time that Cesar saw his daughter, she was being pulled from his arms near the U.S.-Mexico border in Arizona.
The farmworker from Guatemala recalled how the girl, 8 years old, had tightened her arms around his waist in a final embrace, and how they both cried as an immigration officer forcefully separated them.
It is a moment that Cesar has replayed in his mind, time and again, ever since. He was not told of his daughter’s whereabouts for another month, and then was deported back to northern Guatemala, where he lives in extreme poverty and fear of gang violence. His daughter, meanwhile, was placed in federal custody and then sent to live with her aunt in Minnesota, even as she and her father pleaded with immigration officials that they be allowed to stay together.
“Sometimes I cry because my daughter is not with me, and I don’t know when she is coming back and when she will be in my arms again,” the 25-year-old father said by telephone last week from his home in northwest Guatemala. The man spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared that immigration officials might retaliate against him for speaking publicly.
The father and daughter remain several thousand miles apart, separated by a controversial and short-lived federal policy that removed more than 2,300 migrant children from their families. A decision early this year to prosecute all those caught illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border meant that parents and children were sent to separate detention centers and shelters. Most have yet to be reunited.
While President Donald Trump has issued an executive order aimed at ending the practice, his administration has yet to establish a clear process for children to be reunited with their parents. As a result, hundreds of unaccompanied children and their parents languish in bureaucratic limbo, unsure of how or whether they will ever see each other again, immigration attorneys and advocates said. Some are seeking asylum, while others simply want to go home.
Reunification is complicated by the fact that many of the children struggle with trauma and have difficulty advocating for themselves, say attorneys for the families. In many cases, federal immigration agencies do not have updated information about the location of the parents and the children, and the families have limited means of communication. They are also arriving as social service agencies strain to accommodate a longer-term surge of unaccompanied minors from Central America crossing into the U.S. illegally, propelled north by poverty, violence and lawlessness in their native countries.
While only a small number of separated children have arrived in Minnesota since Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy was announced in April, immigration law experts say the numbers could reach into the dozens by this fall. They would add to an existing influx of such children coming here from the region.
All told, more than 1,300 unaccompanied migrant children have joined relatives in Minnesota since 2014, and their numbers have grown 30 percent over the past two fiscal years, according to data from the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement. Amid a massive and growing immigration court backlog, it can take a year or longer for their cases to be processed and for families to be reunified, attorneys said.
“This is a giant, complicated mess,” said Alison Griffith, staff attorney for the Advocates for Human Rights, a Minneapolis nonprofit that has represented more than 100 unaccompanied migrant children, including the 8-year-old girl from Guatemala. “The Department of Homeland Security has created a situation where reunification is unnecessarily difficult.”
A ‘public spectacle’
The absence of a clear policy around families crossing the border lies at the heart of a federal lawsuit filed last week against the Trump administration by attorneys general in Minnesota and 16 other states. The states allege in the 128-page lawsuit that the administration has created a “public spectacle” designed to deter potential immigrants seeking refuge from violence. What’s more, the suit alleges, Trump’s executive order purportedly ending family separations “says nothing about reuniting the families already ripped apart,” and will have no impact on the hundreds of children and parents who have already been separated, the suit says.
“There is distrust and confusion and shifting stories by the [Trump] administration, literally by the hour and by the day, about what the policy is and what it would mean for children,” said State Attorney General Lori Swanson.
Like thousands of other migrants from Central America, Cesar and his daughter were fleeing both violence and poverty.
The father said he works as a farm laborer in the northern Huehuetenango region of Guatemala, and spends most days doing menial jobs like cleaning corn, tilling fields and cutting wood. He made the difficult decision to migrate north after one of his five children became sick with an infection, which caused blisters on much of her body, and he lacked the money to get her treatment.
He had also become concerned by the growing levels of violence in his rural community. There were reports of children being kidnapped and fathers being beaten up and left on the street after their motorcycles were stolen, he said. One man from a nearby town was murdered in his sleep, with a knife wound in his stomach, he said.
His family became afraid to venture outside at night for fear that area gangs, known as “maras,” would attack them.
“There are people here who don’t want to do anything and rob children,” he said of the violence. “I became afraid about that happening to my daughters.”
It would take Cesar and his daughter five days — traveling by car, bus and foot — to reach the U.S. border. The scariest part, he said, was traveling through Mexico, where they were occasionally followed by uniformed immigration officers. Cesar said he and his group evaded them by hiding in the mountains, where they were often unable to sleep amid fears that his daughter might be kidnapped by authorities and “made to disappear.”
Within an hour after crossing illegally into Arizona, Cesar and his daughter were apprehended by Border Patrol agents. They were then taken to a detention facility that migrants call “la hielera,” or “the icebox,” because it is kept cold day and night, he said. Late one night, he was called into an office and told that he would be deported and that his daughter would have to stay in the United States.
“I pleaded with them to let me bring her [back to Guatemala] because she doesn’t want to be by herself,” he said. The officer refused, then used physical force to separate the two.
Cesar would spend another month in confinement, he said, before learning that his daughter had been sent to a federal shelter for unaccompanied minors in New York, where she stayed briefly until relatives were found in Minnesota who could care for her. While in detention, Cesar said he gave officers handwritten messages begging that he be given an opportunity to talk with his daughter, but they repeatedly ignored him.
“I was unable to sleep, thinking about her and where did she go,” he said.
Such forced separations have been condemned by many in the medical community.
The American Academy of Pediatrics issued a statement last month saying separating children from their parents can cause “irreparable harm” to a child’s brain development. Young children can suffer a wide range of physical reactions, including frequent nightmares, loss of appetite, anxiety and “disassociation,” a form of emotional numbness, said Tom Steinmetz, chief executive of Minneapolis-based Washburn Center for Children, one of the state’s largest providers of mental health services for children.
“We’re playing Russian roulette with these kids, their bodies and their brains,” added Megan Gunnar, a child psychologist and director of the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Child Development. “Losing your parent, which is your lifeline, in a strange place and in a strange land — that’s as traumatic as it gets.”
So far, the family separations have not deterred migrants from crossing illegally into the United States — one of the Trump administration’s stated goals. According to federal data, the number of families apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border has actually increased from 37,385 in March, just before the policy was announced, to 40,344 in May.
For now, attorneys at the nonprofit Advocates for Human Rights are working to protect Cesar’s daughter from deportation proceedings, while pursuing her request to be reunified with her family in Guatemala. They talk to each other by telephone twice a day.
“When I feel bad, I think about her, the places we have been to and what we did,” Cesar said.
Even so, the young farmworker did not hesitate when asked if he would one day attempt another dangerous crossing into the United States.
“If God gives me the opportunity, I would do it again because my children have needs,” he said. “They need clothes, shoes and food.”