EL PASO, Texas, July 12 (UPI) -- Among a group of parents reunited with their children this week in El Paso were at least two who had crossed the U.S.-Mexico border legally -- and were separated anyway.
Three parents, each with one child, were released from Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody on Tuesday night under a court-ordered deadline to reunite the families. Two of them spoke to reporters at a news conference Wednesday at Annunciation House, which provides shelter and legal assistance to migrants.
Roger, whose last name was withheld over safety and legal concerns, is from Honduras. He came to the United States in mid-February, seeking asylum along with his 4-year-old son. After reaching a port of entry to initiate the asylum process, he was asked to sign separate paperwork for him and his child and was told his child was going to be taken away.
"For me, it was very hard, he's the only son I got. He's my only reason to live," Roger said. "Reunification was a beautiful moment because of how long he had been taken away."
Roger said he was pinned down by several officers as they took his son away and that the boy was physically reprimanded in detention. Roger said he resorted to threatening suicide to get ICE to let him speak to his son. He knew the boy was in Texas, but not his exact location.
Policy piloted in El Paso
The family separation policy was implemented nationally in late April, just a few weeks before the Trump administration's zero-tolerance policy was enacted for illegal border crossings. But many parents who crossed through El Paso were separated from their children starting in the summer of 2017 as part of a pilot program put in place by the Department of Homeland Security.
Roger said he acted according to the law, arriving at a port of entry to initiate the process of requesting asylum.
"I didn't expect any of this because supposedly the well-being of the children is a priority in this country. I don't know why they did this, don't know what's their goal or end game," Roger said.
Ruben Garcia, executive director of Annunciation House, said, "You have here an example here of a dad who was prosecuted after presenting at a port of entry. That is an issue of great concern."
Garcia said another migrant in the group released Tuesday had a similar story to Roger's. That parent left El Paso immediately after release.
Threatened with deportation
A third parent, Pablo Ortiz of Guatemala, was reunited with his 3-year-old son, Andre, after nearly three months apart. Ortiz came to the United States in late April. He didn't say whether he crossed illegally.
He said the biggest struggle for him in detention was not knowing about the well-being of his child, who was held in Arizona and later moved to Texas. He was only allowed to speak to him three times.
Upon detention, Ortiz said he was threatened by immigration officials that he would be deported back to Guatemala without his son.
"I told them I wasn't going to leave him behind. If I had to go back, I was going to take my son with me," Ortiz said.
All three parents released Tuesday were exempted from wearing ankle monitors and are free to move inside the United States. They must check in routinely with ICE.
Initial reunifications complete
The government was only able to reunite 57 of the 103 children under 5 in its custody by Thursday morning. The 46 others were not able to be returned due to safety concerns or questions about the whereabouts of their parents.
The Department of Health and Human Services, which is in charge of the children in custody, wouldn't comment on the El Paso cases.
"HHS' Administration for Children and Families is focused on continuing to provide quality services and care to the minors in our Office of Refugee Resettlement-funded facilities and reunifying children and teenagers with a relative or appropriate sponsor as we have done since inheriting the program," HHS spokesman Kenneth Wolfe said in a statement. "Reunification is always the ultimate goal of those entrusted with the care of unaccompanied alien children, and we are working toward that for those unaccompanied alien children currently in our custody."
Garcia commended ICE and ORR for working through the night to reunite the parents and children close to Tuesday's deadline.
"I would really encourage them for that spirit to be extended to all remaining separated parents and children, 1,200-1,400 parents still in ICE custody," he said.
Annunciation House is working with 48 parents who were separated from their children and although only four of them had reunited with their children by the Tuesday deadline, more were expected.