EL PASO, Texas, July 18 (UPI) -- As many migrant parents still anxiously wait to be reunited with children forcibly taken away at the U.S.-Mexico border, some fear the separations will be an episode with a lasting impact on their lives.
Mario and Digna, migrants from Honduras and El Salvador, were in the final stage of the reunification process Monday after spending weeks apart. They were released by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement June 24 to Annunciation House in El Paso, which provides shelter and legal assistance to migrants.
In the days after their release, both learned their children had remained in federal custody. But despite the proximity, the process to take their children back hasn't been easy for them.
"I just feel it has been way too long," Digna said in Spanish.
Days after Mario and Digna were released, a federal judge in San Diego issued an injunction forcing the Trump administration to reunite more than 2,500 children who became separated as part of a government policy enacted in April and rescinded in June following public outcry.
After federal officials agreed to reunify all children 5 and younger by a court-mandated July 11 deadline, the focus shifted to returning other minors still in the custody of the Health and Human Services Department's Office of Refugee Resettlement.
Mario, who arrived with then 9-year old daughter Fabiola at the border last month, was separated from her and was able to visit her just once at a public space near the ORR facility. He said it was a beautiful moment to finally get to see her daughter after a month, and he now anxiously awaits the process to finish.
He says the separation was particularly hard because the girl had to spend her 10th birthday in government custody.
"I just don't want them to continue to make us suffer, because what they've done with us has been an injustice," Mario said. "This has been very hard for me."
Digna is in a similar situation -- the main difference is she had two children, 9-year old William and 6-year old Stephanie, taken away after they arrived at the border in May.
Since her release, she's been able to visit the children once a week for an hour. Although she hasn't been able to speak with them as freely as she'd like, Digna says seeing them has given her enough strength to continue an agonizing wait.
"They've told me they miss me and that they want to be with me soon," she said. "Since they took them away, I promised I was going to get them no matter the way or time it took. I told them I wasn't going to go anywhere without them."
The Trump administration was given until July 26 to return all minors over 5, but Mario and Digna say they've been waiting nearly a month.
Taylor Levy, legal coordinator for Annunciation House, said it's been in contact with ORR and other agencies on a daily basis to try to speed the process, with little luck. It wasn't until Monday -- when Mario and Digna were about to talk to the press -- that federal officials told Annunciation House the children could be returned that evening.
Levy said they've taken all the requisite steps, to no avail, while other children are being flown across the country with fewer steps from some parents.
"To me, it is absolutely unacceptable and egregious," Levy said. "We're demanding that the government makes this reunification happen immediately. Tomorrow isn't soon enough."
In a court filing Friday, the government told the court that, in order to meet the tight deadline to reunite the remaining minors, HHS would have to forego some portions of the vetting process.
"The department has been operating in good faith and earnestly trying to comply with court orders, including the rapidly approaching deadline for reunification," said HHS spokesperson Evelyn Stauffer in a statement. "Our interpretation of the court's order is that HHS must make a determination of parentage, fitness, and safety before reunifying families, but that HHS need not undertake the fuller process of vetting for children's safety that HHS would ordinarily conduct in its operations."
"In the interests of transparency and cooperation, the department felt it necessary in our filings on Friday to share with the court our view that meeting the deadline would mean truncating the process we might have otherwise followed."
Both Mario and Digna have voiced concern about the possible psychological impact the separations could have on their children. Digna said hers are old enough to remember what they went through.
"This is something that she will never forget, everything they've done to us, having separated us, especially for my daughter who has to spend her birthday [in detention] and not with me. I believe she won't be able to forget that."
UPI was notified Tuesday the reunification of both parents with their children took place Monday evening.