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The president’s family separation policy has unleashed a reign of chaos and confusion around the U.S.-Mexico border.

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A representative of Annunciation House, an immigrant shelter, says goodbye to one of the would-be immigrants housed there after being released by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) agency last week.Ivan Pierre Aguirre/The Globe and Mail

Inside the crowded detention centre, Maria Hernandez hugged her eight-year-old son and handed him over to the immigration officers. She told him to be strong, and to pray, and that they would be together again soon.

Ms. Hernandez and her son had arrived at the U.S-Mexico border earlier that day. They had come from Honduras, fleeing poverty and hoping to be reunited with her husband who had come to the United States six years earlier.

(Maria Hernandez is a pseudonym, because she is concerned about her immigration case in the United States and of reprisals against her family back home.)

The journey north had gone smoothly. The smugglers fed them three times a day, provided medical care and even arranged for fake documents to fly across Mexico to avoid the perilous journey of buses, vans and commercial trucks.

They crossed the Rio Grande into Texas at dawn. “Once we got into U.S. immigration, everything changed,” she says.

Ms. Hernandez had heard rumours that U.S. officials were taking away the children of asylum seekers who crossed the border illegally. But relatives in the United States had told her to ignore them.

Now sitting in a cell in an El Paso detention centre, she overheard an immigration officer tell another mother that she would be deported, and her daughter given to a U.S. family for adoption. Ms. Hernandez had called out to the woman to stay strong. But soon she was handing over her own son to authorities. “I felt like I wasn’t in this world any more,” she says. “I felt like I couldn’t breathe.”

Explainer: Families separated, children detained: What we know so far about Trump’s ‘zero-tolerance’ policy

The Trump administration sparked an international outcry against its “zero tolerance” policy of criminally charging thousands of Central American asylum seekers flocking to the border.

For the six weeks that the family separation policy was in effect, parents were held in jails and prisons across the Southwest to await criminal court proceedings. Some still remain there. At the same time, more than 2,300 of their children have been sent to shelters and foster homes as far away as New York State and Michigan.

U.S. President Donald Trump ended the practice in a June 20 executive order, promising to keep migrant families together, while still finding a way to charge and detain parents.

But the family separation policy had unleashed a reign of chaos and confusion at the border. As the government removed thousands of boys and girls from their mothers and fathers, and scattered them across the country, many parents are asking: Will I ever see my child again?

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Parents being released from custody must navigate a maze of bureaucratic red tape to locate their children, on top of the uncertainty of their own asylum cases. Adults have been held under the auspices of the Department of Homeland Security, while children are being handled by the Department of Health and Human Services. By most accounts the two agencies don’t communicate with each other.

“The parents aren’t told where their children are, and the children aren’t told where their parents are,” says Melissa Lopez, executive director of Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services, a legal-aid clinic affiliated with the Catholic Church that has the exclusive contract to represent unaccompanied minors in the El Paso area.

Judge orders family reunification

Last week, California federal judge Dana Sabraw ordered that children must be reunited with their parents within 30 days, or two weeks for children younger than five, saying the federal government had not presented a credible plan to reunite families. “The government has no system to keep track of, provide effective communication with, and promptly produce alien children.”

Ms. Lopez’s agency has compiled its own database of parents and children from information gleaned from parents by the local public-defender’s office. But its contract only covers children in the El Paso area, so there is little she can do for parents whose children have been sent to other regions of the country.

Many parents said the only information they have about their sons and daughters is an 800 number for the Office of Refugee Resettlement, the federal agency given the task of caring for migrant children who have come to the United States alone, or have been taken from their families at the border.

“We call and they don’t answer or it says they can’t take calls,” says Mario, who came with his daughter from Honduras. (Several of the parents were instructed by aid workers and lawyers to avoid using their full names in order to protect their asylum claims.) “My girl is turning 10 years old and I can’t even call her to tell her I love her so much.”

Some worry they may be deported without their children, a legitimate fear since deportation cases tend to happen much faster for adults than for children. Others are weighing whether to abandon their asylum claims in the hopes it will speed up the reunification process.

Ms. Hernandez is one of the lucky ones. She was reunited with her son after just two days.

I felt like I wasn’t in this world any more. I felt like I couldn’t breathe.

Maria Hernandez on the moment her child was taken from her.

He described being taken to a place “with an infinity of children,” she said, who slept together on the floor or in plastic sleds, with emergency blankets for warmth. Many cried. Immigration officials grilled her son on why he had fled Honduras and asked for information on family members living in the United States, questions Ms. Hernandez says she felt were inappropriate for a young child.

“They treat you terribly, like you are the worst criminal,” she says while nursing a bowl of stew hours after being released from custody.

Ms. Hernandez was staying the night at a Catholic retreat in Las Cruces, which takes in migrant families every week who have been released from custody by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement . Her son sat beside her, playing silently with a bowl of ice cream. She had been given paperwork for a coming court hearing in Memphis, where her husband lives, but was reluctant to claim asylum as she only wants to stay in the United States long enough to earn a bit of money to take home to Honduras.

“What I need is to get this off and get to work as soon as possible,” she says, pointing to the electronic monitoring device attached to her ankle to ensure she doesn’t evade authorities on release. “That’s what I want.”

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Julio (who did not want to give his last name for fear or repercussions) and his son Julio Cesar of Guatemala arrive at the Holy Cross Retreat Center hours after being released by the U.S. immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) agency last week.Ivan Pierre Aguirre/The Globe and Mail

As Mr. Trump has maintained, family separation is technically not a new policy. Federal prosecutors have always had the power to criminally charge anyone who crosses the border illegally, and remove their children. However, the crime is considered a misdemeanour when it is a first offence, punishable by up to a year in jail and a US$5,000 fine.

But in the past, lawyers and advocates say they have only seen the occasional prosecution, or temporary program targeting a specific section of the border, which has separated parents from their children. All say they have not seen anything on the scale that has happened in recent months.

U.S. challenging detention time limit

Responding to a surge in Central American asylum seekers that began in 2014, former president Barack Obama tried to detain large numbers of families in facilities in east New Mexico and Texas. But the program ran afoul of a 1997 settlement that required the government to limit the amount of time children could spend in detention to 20 days. Under Mr. Trump, the U.S. government has gone to court to challenge that time limit and allow authorities to detain families indefinitely.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office quietly piloted a “zero tolerance” policy in El Paso last fall, before rolling it out across the entire Southwest border in May.

Lawyers say they began receiving a trickle of criminal cases that appeared to be fairly routine arrests of single adults trying to sneak across the border. Instead, when they went to meet clients in detention, they found asylum seekers from Honduras or Guatemala frantically searching for their children.

Early on, some parents believed their children were still somewhere within the same facility. “They were tricked sometimes and told that the child was going to get some food, or they were going to play with the other children, or were going to take a bath,” says El Paso’s top public defender, Maureen Scott Franco.

By the spring, however, the trickle of cases had turned into a flood. The influx of criminal immigration prosecutions has strained the resources of the El Paso immigration office, Ms. Franco says.

At the same time, she has seen federal prosecutors file fewer charges for more serious crimes, such as drug trafficking, child pornography and child exploitation. “It’s overwhelmingly immigration cases, overwhelmingly people that we normally would never have seen because of how scant their [criminal] record is,” she said. “So to me, it means that some other crime is not being prosecuted.”

Since Mr. Trump signed the executive order ending family separation on June 20, federal prosecutors in West Texas and New Mexico have begun to drop criminal charges against some parents, although they have continued to prosecute others, sentencing them to time served and waiving the US$10 court fee.

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen has publicly urged asylum seekers to go to U.S. ports of entry rather than try to cross illegally, saying they would not be charged or separated from their children.

But aid groups say many families who have tried to turn themselves in at Mexican border crossings are being turned away, told that immigration centres are at capacity. That has led to a backup of migrants waiting at the Mexican border in the past six weeks.

Joanna Williams began to notice families sleeping on the ground next to the border crossing at Nogales, Mexico, near Tucson, Ariz.

Mexican border guards threatened to detain them. So Ms. Williams, who works for a Catholic cross-border non-profit group called the Kino Border Initiative, and other local aid groups, scrambled to open three makeshift migrant shelters near the border in Mexico.

She now has a waiting list two weeks long. Each day, Ms. Williams’s organization brings groups of migrants to sit in front of the border crossing, where U.S. officials sometimes accept just two or three families a day.

“The administration has repeatedly said people shouldn’t be crossing illegally, they should be going to the port,” she says. “But the reality is that people are standing at the port and they’re being made to wait there.”

The White House said it now plans to detain migrant families together, including housing tens of thousands on military bases. Some reports say the White House is looking at denying asylum claims to those who cross the border illegally.

But it’s not clear that any policy, from family separation to long-term detention, will do much to slow the influx of Central American families fleeing violence, corruption and poverty.

The U.S. asylum acceptance rate for migrants from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador is already less than 25 per cent. That has not stopped more than 90,000 unaccompanied children and families from arriving at the border since January.

Parents have mixed views over detention

Several parents interviewed by The Globe and Mail say that being detained or separated from their children was a better alternative to the risks they faced back at home in countries that have been rocked by gang violence, corruption and poverty.

Others say they would have never tried to migrate to the United States had they known the government would take their children. Their responses reflect the varied reasons why families are coming to the United States, pointing to the complexity of trying to stem the flow.

Jesus, a father from Honduras, said he had heard rumours that U.S. immigration officers were taking children from their parents. It made him think twice about crossing the border with his 10-year-old son, Yostin.

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Jesus and his son Yostin of Honduras have dinner with their host family, Steve and his partner Jack, hours after being released by the U.S. Imigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency last week.Ivan Pierre Aguirre/The Globe and Mail

But he said having his son held somewhere in custody in the United States was better than returning home. In Honduras, his ex-wife had joined one of the maras, the violent organized street gangs whose turf wars have devastated many Central American communities, and was pressing him to enlist their son as well.

“He is small and I do not want him to go to the maras,” he says. “I want to give my son a future.”

After they crossed the border, a judge told Jesus he was lucky he had arrived when they did: Mr. Trump had just signed his executive order ending family separation.

However, child advocates fear the lasting effects on migrant children of the prolonged government detention away from their parents.

Adela Santiago knows something of how that feels. As a seven-year-old girl, Ms. Santiago set out with her mother and father to escape crushing poverty in the Mexican border city of Juarez. They had done the short trek across the Rio Grande to El Paso several times before.

When they emerged in Texas, Ms. Santiago hopped on a bike her parents had carried with them. A van drove up and border guards jumped out. Ms. Santiago sped off on her bike into the city. And then she was alone.

A local woman found her crying in the street. Bernice, as she called her, took her home and wrapped her in towels. She was so scared, she hid under the kitchen table. She was sick for days. It was three weeks before she saw her mother again. Years later, her father drowned attempting the crossing after being deported, on his way to join the family for Christmas.

“I think when you pass through things like that it stays with you forever,” says Ms. Santiago, who is now 48 and has sought professional help for the fears of abandonment she has carried with her since childhood. “It’s just devastating that it’s happening again. It’s like it’s happening to me again through these kids. Even though I’m no longer a child, that child is still in my heart. And that heart is broken.”

For now, many of the parents are focused on the more immediate challenge of finding their sons and daughters. Of 32 parents released from custody to a local El Paso shelter last week, only a few had been in contact with their children.

One of those is Christian, who had been able to reach his five-year-old daughter in Chicago.

For others, contact has been difficult. Miriam, a mother from Honduras, heard her four-year-old son had been sent to New York State. Iris Yolany Eufragio-Mancia learned her six-year-old son was somewhere in Arizona, but had not been able to find out where.

When immigration officials had taken Ms. Eufragio-Mancia’s son away 11 days earlier, he told her he was afraid that the other children would hit him and promised to hug her so tightly that immigration officers wouldn’t be able to pry him from her arms.

At a news conference at the El Paso migrant shelter before Ms. Eufragio-Mancia headed to Maryland to stay with a relative and begin the process of tracking down her son, reporters asked her if she had any message for Mr. Trump.

Yes, she says, “May God forgive him for what he has done.”

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