Family detention — two words that still haunt Danielle Rosché, an immigration attorney.
It was 2014, during the Obama administration, and Rosché was a volunteer attorney at a family detention center in Artesia, New Mexico.
“There was insufficient food for the children,” she said. Not enough medical care or education, either, she said.
Family detention may be the new reality for those parents and children who were detained separately under the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy. As of last week, 2,053 kids were in a detention facility apart from their parents. The government has 30 days to reunite them, per a judge's order.
While many were relieved that Trump had caved to political pressure, and stopped taking kids from parents, Rosché was not.
She recalled an 18-month-old toddler who stopped walking and eating during the 10 days she was at the center.
“He had been weaned and went back to nursing because he was so traumatized by the conditions,” Rosché said.
Rosché cried as she recounted her experience in Artesia; she fears for families that will be soon held in those conditions.
“There does not exist any way in which the government can detain children humanely – with or without their parents,” she said.
But first, Rosché must reunite parents and their kids.
Maria and her son would move here from Honduras, and they’d be a family — finally, after 10 years in a long-distance relationship.
“I wanted to do everything to give them a better life here,” said Juan, a house painter in Georgia. “That’s my dream.”
But today Maria is in a federal prison near Seattle, where she has been since early June. Her 10-year-old son is believed to be in Texas.
“She never imagined this,” Juan said. “And I never imagined this, that they’d be separated like this.”
Maria’s son is among some 2,300 migrant children separated from their parents at the border, netted in President Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy for immigrants. (Last week Trump signed an executive memo ending the practice; now parents and kids will be detained together.) According to Border Patrol, 522 children have been reunited with their parents.
As families try desperately to find each other, their relatives in the U.S. have stepped in to help navigate this labyrinthine system and release the children.
Maria is being referred to by her first name here; Rosché, her attorney, said Maria received death threats from narco traffickers in Honduras. That fear pushed her north, to “save her son’s life.”
Now mother and son have been forced apart, without a single phone call between them for more than a month.
Juan speaks with Maria by phone several times a week, a few minutes each time. They discuss Maria’s case, her 10-year-old son and how Juan might become the boy’s guardian.
Juan says Maria sounds desperate when they talk.
“She says she’d love to know if the child is with me, or if they’ll give him to her,” Juan said, letting out a deep sigh. “Right now we don’t know, so that’s the problem.”
But Juan is not Maria’s husband, which complicates things, nor is he the boy’s biological father.
Juan and Maria met a decade ago, when Juan still lived in Honduras. They maintained a long-distance courtship, and Juan encouraged Maria to venture north as she became increasingly worried for her son’s safety. Juan describes her son as a friendly kid who likes school and has big goals for his life.
Juan figured Maria and her son would spend a few days on the border to file their asylum request, then join him in Georgia and await a future court date.
But when Maria arrived at the border, the process had gone sideways. Asylum seekers reported difficulty trying to enter the U.S. through lawful ports of entry, so, like many other migrants, Maria crossed illegally. According to Juan, she turned herself in to a border agent, and with the ‘zero tolerance’ policy in effect, mother and son were separated and put on different tracks — Maria to be criminally prosecuted for illegal entry; the boy to a federal facility for unaccompanied minors.
“We haven’t talked much about what happened at the border,” Juan said. “We thought it would go very differently. When she told me they’d been separated — her son is everything to her. I know it’s hard for her. And I feel it, too.”
As an attorney, Rosché is also navigating uncharted territory “since we’ve never dealt with family separation like this.”
Rosché has filed official paperwork for Maria and Juan to get married, authorization forms Maria signed for her son to be released to Juan, and ongoing information requests about the location and well-being of the boy.
“They haven't told me where he's being held, and they haven't allowed me or his mother's fiancé to speak to him,” Rosché said. “I've spoken with a supervisor as well as the direct caseworker. Their response is that they're very busy right now — that they're doing the best they can and they have a lot of children to process.”
Rosché describes Maria as stoic when they meet at the federal prison in SeaTac, where up to 200 migrants were transferred in June when border facilities hit capacity.
“She is resigned to the situation,” Rosché said. “She does not regret her decision, because she continues to be afraid that they would have been killed in their home country.”
In North Carolina, a woman named Amalia is closing in on information about a young relative.
Her niece, also named Maria, moved to the U.S. with her son from El Salvador to escape gang violence and threats.
“Whenever I speak to the case worker, he [the child] is always there, and I say, ‘Hello, how are you?’” Amalia said by phone. “He’s tells me, ‘I’m okay, Tia.’ That’s about it.”
The boy is in a facility somewhere in Pennsylvania. Amalia said they’re working through paperwork to retrieve him soon.
“The times I’ve spoken to him, he doesn’t seem sad,” Amalia said. “They’re putting him in school and he seems content to be with other children. He seems to be treated well.”
Amalia has a clear advantage over many other immigrant relatives trying sponsor children who were separated at the border: She is a legal U.S. resident. She has lived here 30 years.
For other undocumented families, stepping forward to sponsor a child could pose a huge risk.
“There is a fear that people will be targeted for deportation if they come forward to claim their children, which is a one of the more insidious aspects of the separation of the child,” Rosché said. “We've seen that happen.”
Amalia doesn’t know what will happen next. But it seems her time in the U.S. has taught her to hope for the best.
“It’s difficult but I also think that here in this country there are more possibilities for them to be okay here,” she said. “I have faith it will work out.”
As for Rosché, she won’t be a volunteer attorney again. “I couldn’t,” she said. Too upsetting.
When she returned in 2014, she tried to recruit other attorneys. But when they saw how the experience had wrecked her, they said no.
KUOW's Sydney Brownstone contributed reporting.