Sitting on a sofa-bed in the small room where she lives with her son in a quiet Miami-Dade neighborhood, Morena Mendoza talks about the months she spent in an immigration lockup, not knowing the whereabouts of the 12-year-old.
The mother is interrupted occasionally by the boy’s laughter as he watches videos on his new tablet.
Mendoza, 30, said it’s been a long time since Antonio laughed so much. Their lives are now very different, far from the dangers they left behind in El Salvador, one of the most violent countries in Latin America.
“Listen to him laugh. He’s spent the whole day at it,” the mother said during a recent interview.
Fleeing their country, Mendoza and her son crossed the Mexico-U.S. border on April 27 as part of a caravan of immigrants who walked for months to ask for asylum. They were one of the first 10 families from the caravan to be detained and separated.
Mendoza was charged with a crime for illegally crossing the border and was sent to an immigration detention center in San Diego. Antonio wound up more than 2,700 miles away, in a New York shelter for immigrant children. Their separation was part of the controversial zero tolerance policy, which Attorney General Jeff Sessions officially announced a week later, in San Diego.
It would be three months before they reunited, with the assistance from non-profit organizations that worked from coast to coast to help them.
Mendoza and her son are among the lucky ones. After the Trump administration halted the policy of separating parents and children at the border, and almost three months after a federal court ordered the reunification of the more than 2,000 separated families, nearly 500 minors remain in U.S. custody. In 366 of those cases, the parents have been deported.
At least 25 of the children still separated from their parents are in Miami-Dade, according to an attorney from Americans for Immigrant Justice, a legal aid organization that represents children held in shelters in South Florida.
Mendoza and Antonio were reunited with the help of Mi Jente, a non-profit that contacted Mendoza at the Otay Mesa detention center in San Diego. The American Friends Service Committee is helping them in Miami, providing shelter, some financial assistance and a legal representative.
Mendoza said that while she was held in San Diego she was never told about her son’s whereabouts, despite her tears and requests.
“I asked and asked, and no one there told me anything. It’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to me, the worst,” she said.
At the shelter in New York, Antonio was having trouble sleeping. He feared that he would never see his mother again.
“I thought that if she had left, I would be adopted by another family,” he said. Mendoza said her son has always been shy, but he is “too quiet” now.
Six weeks after their detention, while they were still in immigration custody, a judge considering Mendoza’s case ordered that she be put in contact with her son.
Now in Miami-Dade, they said they are thankful to be together as the asylum cases move through the courts. Mendoza had her first court appearance on Wednesday. But it’s still an uphill battle, according to lawyers and activists.
“It really does take a village. It took many organizations and people working together to reunite them, and we are still trying to find ways to help with everything that’s coming their way,” said Lis-Marie Alvarado, an activist with Mi Jente and the Friends Service Committee. “Imagine what will happen to the families that don’t get this kind of help. It’s hundreds of families around the country, trying to reunite or overcome the trauma of separation.”
What’s more, many of those families and even the children will not have legal representation before the immigration courts, said Jennifer Anzardo Valdés, director of the Children’s Legal Program at Americans for Immigrant Justice, the non-profit that represents children held in South Florida immigration shelters.
“Family reunification is just the beginning for these families. Now they are tasked with navigating through the complex immigration system, many times on their own, against a government attorney who is fighting for them to be deported,” said Anzardo Valdés. “There is no right to a government- funded attorney in immigration, not even for children. Even a 3-year-old would be expected to represent themselves in they are unable to hire an attorney.”
Court documents show Mendoza was detained by a Border Patrol agent four miles from the port of entry in San Ysidro, Calif., along with seven other people. She was separated from Antonio the same day. The Justice Department announced the group’s arrest in a May 1 news release titled “Justice Department Announces First Criminal Illegal Entry Prosecutions of Suspected Caravan Members.”
The records show she passed the interview for “credible fear” – one of the first steps in the asylum application to determine if an applicant fears harm if returned to his or her country.
The government dropped the illegal entry charge in late June, on the same day Mendoza’s trial was to start, according to the Voice of San Diego. A prosecutor told the federal judge that there were issues with her arrest report, and that the government was working to reunite families that had been separated at the border.
Mendoza’s attorneys in San Diego had argued that the immigration agents who intercepted her after crossing the border locked her up even though she told them she did not understand her Miranda rights.
Mendoza is now preparing her asylum petition. At her first hearing on Wednesday, an immigration judge gave her until October 3rd to submit the application.
Her legal representative, Lucio Pérez-Reynozo, with the American Friends Service Committee, said he could not talk about the details of her case but said that the U.S. government is wrong to lock up people like Mendoza.
“They come here in search of refuge because their lives have been in constant danger in countries like Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala. They come here to protect their sons and daughters from being raped and tortured there,” said Pérez-Reynozo. “When they get here what they find is the separation of parents and children, even babies still nursing. How can we do something like that?”
Non-profit groups have helped families like Mendoza’s, while civil rights groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union have filed lawsuits against the federal government demanding the reunification of parents and children.
Government officials say they are working to reunite them as quickly as possible and investigating some of the parents still in custody to protect the children. But the job of bringing the families together again has fallen largely to the non-profits that are trying to locate the parents still in the United States or who have already been deported.
Several families have been reunited in recent weeks at U.S. and Central American airports. Mothers and children sometimes break into tears when they meet. But other times small children turn away from their parents and refuse to hug them. Apparently, after months of separation, they do not recognize their parents.
Mendoza and Antonio reunited in July at the Miami airport. A video shows her crying and hugging her son while he tries to console her.
Like many immigrant parents, Mendoza wants her son to study, learn English and have the opportunities she did not have. She said she dreams that Antonio will grow up without violence.
Just last week they took another step toward realizing that dream. Antonio, now 13 years old, started middle school in Miami.