Last weekend, 29 parents from Central America were allowed to cross the border into America to apply for asylum and begin the process to reunite with their separated children.
But that was not the case for Mateo.
The father caught dengue fever and couldn’t make the monthlong journey from Central America to Mexicali, Mexico. He was supposed to have traveled with the group of mothers and fathers, accompanied by lawyers and religious leaders, to see his 13-year-old son who immigration officials took away from him more than 10 months ago.
Now, he has no idea if or when the U.S. government will allow him back in the country to apply for asylum.
“The only thing I have in my mind is ‘When am I going to see my son again?’” said Mateo in a phone call with HuffPost, speaking from Guatemala. “But now I’m sitting at home disappointed, disillusioned and waiting.” Mateo, who requested a pseudonym to protect his privacy, said that even remembering the day he and his son were separated “makes me cry” and that all he wants is to hug his child.
Mateo is one of 471 parents deported under the “zero tolerance” policy without their children, many of whom are stuck in a sort of immigration purgatory.
In December, the American Civil Liberties Union demanded the government let some of the deported parents back into the U.S. and submitted declarations that included their asylum claims, details of their family separation and how their legal rights were violated.
More than three months later the Trump administration still hasn’t told the organization whether it will allow these mothers and fathers to re-apply for asylum.
The only thing I have in my mind is ‘When am I going to see my son again?’
Guatemalan father separated from his son
In the meantime, lawyers from Al Otro Lado, a legal aid organization that works in California and Mexico, took charge of the situation by organizing a trip to the border with 29 parents. After months of planning, 10 hours of waiting at the border and negotiations with immigration officials, the group was let through.
But advocates say it’s too costly and complicated to replicate this effort for the potentially hundreds of other parents in this situation.
Mateo and his son fled persecution in Guatemala and were separated after they crossed the border on May 8. According to the father, he felt forced to sign deportation papers after immigration officials told him the U.S. didn’t want any more Guatemalans and that if he refused to leave, he would be detained for up to two years before seeing his son.
“The only thing I wanted to do was get in contact with my son,” Mateo told HuffPost. “They never gave me a chance to do that.”
Erika Pinheiro, the litigation and policy director for Al Otro Lado, says that during “zero tolerance” many parents didn’t get a fair shot at asylum. She says some weren’t given credible fear interviews – the first step in the asylum process – and were coerced into signing deportation forms by immigration officers who falsely said it was the only way to reunite with their kids.
At a hearing before Congress on Wednesday Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen said no parent was deported without being given the option to bring their child, but advocates dispute her statement.
“Some people were told ‘Your child belongs to the U.S. government now,’” said Pinheiro. “The government broke the law, not our clients.”
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment.
Last fall, the ACLU assembled a group of lawyers and advocates to track down deported parents and ask whether they wanted their kids to be sent back to Central America or stay in the U.S.
Mateo, like the majority of the other mothers and fathers, wanted his son to remain in America because of the danger he faced if he were to return to Guatemala.
“My son is in the U.S. without a father,” he said, adding that the teenager now lives with an aunt. “When I speak with my son he always tells me ‘Please come I’m here alone.’ But I have no choice.”
Lee Gelernt, the lead lawyer in the ACLU’s lawsuit against the Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said that instead of telling the organization whether it will allow these mothers and fathers to re-apply for asylum, the government is holding up the process by asking for more documentation, including forms like affidavits of support from sponsors.
The government has given the ACLU only 30 days to submit the forms.
Gelernt told HuffPost the request is an “enormous undertaking” that would be difficult to complete, given the fact that some of the parents live in remote, dangerous regions that advocates have to reach by foot.
He thinks the government is trying to stall its decision by demanding more paperwork, and he says the ACLU will be meeting with immigration officials in the next few days to determine whether added information about the deported parents is really necessary.
Pinheiro says the government is deliberately creating an “overly complex process” so that deported parents seeking asylum will be easier to reject. “The whole thing really seemed to me like a bad-faith effort to delay the decision,” she said.“‘Zero tolerance’ was a deterrence policy and they are still using it.”
Pinheiro says the Trump administration needs to come up with a plan fast. She is constantly hearing from more deported parents who want to cross the border and given that the judge in the ACLU lawsuit could expand the class to include the potentially thousands more families who were separated before “zero tolerance.”
We continue to do the government’s job for them. They are not giving us a response for these families, and we need to hold them accountable.
Sandra Cordero, the director of Families Belong Together
Sandra Cordero, the director of Families Belong Together who helped organize the deported parents’ trip to the border last weekend, says it’s disappointing the government’s inaction is forcing advocates and organizations with a lack of resources to do all the work.
“We continue to do the government’s job for them,” she said. “They are not giving us a response for these families, and we need to hold them accountable.”
Mateo says he thinks of his son every day while he works on a farm, and often bursts into tears on the job. His only speaks to the teenager once a week and says it’s painful to hear his voice without being able to see him.
The father is waiting to find out whether the government will allow him back into the U.S. If not, he might try and cross the border again anyway, adding that he would “risk his life” to be reunited with his child.
“I know my son needs me and I miss him,” Mateo said. “He tells me all the time that he wants me there, and I want to be there to see him grow up.”
Julie Piñero contributed reporting to this article.