On the morning of his sixth birthday, Ederson Malik Eufragio-Mancia hugged his mother goodbye in an immigrant detention centre in El Paso, Tex., and disappeared into the hands of U.S. border guards.
Where he has ended up − close by in the tent city hastily built to house hundreds of boys along the border in nearby Tornillo, or in a foster home thousands of kilometres away − is what worries his mother, Iris Yolany Eufragio-Mancia.
“She is very worried for her son. She always says that she wants to talk to him. But I can’t communicate with him,” says Victor Ayala, a distant relative of Ms. Eufragia-Mancia. He has been calling authorities in a desperate search for Ederson from his home in Maryland since mother and son were arrested near the border in El Paso little more than a week ago.
Ederson is among an estimated more than 2,000 children taken from parents as part of a zero-tolerance policy the White House put in place earlier this year requiring prosecutors to charge any migrant crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally. Until recently, the Trump White House said it interpreted immigration law to mean parents would be sent to federal detention centres, and their children, who cannot be held in custody for more than 20 days, had to go to shelters and foster homes elsewhere.
Mr. Trump relented under public pressure, signing an executive order to continue criminally charging parents and find a way to keep their children with them.
That has created a new round of chaos and confusion: For federal prosecutors struggling over how to charge asylum-seekers without separating them from their families. For defence attorneys and advocacy groups trying to find and reunite thousands of children with their parents. And for adults facing an uncertain future in federal immigration centres far from their children.
The task of reuniting families torn apart by the recently abolished federal immigration policies is “huge,’” said Melissa Lopez, executive director of the Diocese Migrant and Refugee Services, which handles legal cases in El Paso involving unaccompanied minors and children separated from their parents. “The President made the announcement as if that somehow fixes everything,” she said. “But the reality is that you have over 2,000 families that were separated. And unless the government takes some kind of corrective step in reuniting them…the trauma will continue and the crisis will continue.”
Ms. Eufragio-Mancia and Ederson left their home in a rural community in Honduras little more than a month ago. The single mother had struggled to provide for her son, and feared he would be caught in the violence that has swept through the nearby city of San Pedro Sula, Mr. Ayala said.
Nearly a month ago, she paid a migrant smuggler to take her and Ederson to the United States. She was destined for Baltimore to meet Mr. Ayala and hoped to start a new life.
On June 14, they tried to cross the Rio Grande with a group of other families into Texas just west of the Paso Del Norte port of entry in El Paso. Border guards were waiting.
The next morning, Ederson’s sixth birthday, officials at El Paso immigration processing center told Ms. Eufragio-Mancia she would be charged with a felony because she had been previously caught trying to cross the border in Texas, in August, 2008.
Officials told her they would be taking her son, by force if necessary. “They said they will take him the good way, or the bad way,” said Mr. Ayala, who speaks to Ms. Eufragio-Mancia regularly whenever she can call him collect.
Mr. Ayala has been trying on his own to track down Ederson. Government officials gave him the number for a social worker, but he has not been able to reach anyone.
Defence attorneys in El Paso say they got no notice of the White House’s abrupt change in policy to begin separating families, which they say began as a pilot project in El Paso last fall and was extended across the country this spring.
They began receiving brief summaries from government officials of what appeared to be straightforward cases of individual migrants detained at the border, only to arrive at detention centres to find distraught parents desperate for any information about where their children had been taken.
Parents and lawyers say the family separations often happened with little warning. “There were grown men who were crying,” said Jose Moncayo, a lawyer in the public defender’s office. “The frustrating part with it was really, at the time, what could I do except tell them I’m going to try to do my best to locate your child.”
Nicole Bombara’s client was holding her sleeping four-year-old son in a detention facility in El Paso when authorities announced they were charging her with illegal entry and would need to take her son.
“They came and knocked and said, ‘Wake him up. You are going to jail and we are going to take him,’” Ms. Bombara said.
The boy was too tired to wake up, so officials told her to dress him and hand him over. What finally woke him was the sound of the door slamming loudly behind him. “She heard him screaming and saying, ’Mommy, Mommy,” Ms. Bombara said. “She didn’t even get to say bye to him.”
The attorneys say they were shocked to learn that family separation had become an official government policy aimed at deterring asylum seekers.
Just as shocking was the message that came from the U.S. Attorney’s office for West Texas on Thursday that federal prosecutors would start dropping criminal charges against many of the parents who had been separated from their children because of Mr. Trump’s executive order.
“We were going to fight this in the courts and on TV,” Mr. Moncayo said. “It came in the nick of time.”
At least 28 cases with the El Paso public defender’s office were dismissed on Thursday. Attorneys are compiling lists of their clients who have children and will forward them to prosecutors in hopes their charges will be dropped too.
The White House’s sudden about-face has also left defence attorneys and local immigrant shelters with the daunting task of figuring out how to reunite thousands of parents and children.
An 800 number has been set up for people trying to locate children. But the single phone line has been overwhelmed with calls, and only allows people to leave a message. The information is passed on to local shelters, which call family members if they recognize any of the children. “It’s a really backwards system for locating children,” Ms. Lopez said.
Her organization gets lists of parents and children from the local public defender’s office, but is authorized to work in the El Paso area only. So she has to forward cases of children sent outside the region to other jurisdictions.
Most children who are listed as reunited with their families have actually been released to other relatives or friends in the United States, she said. “It does not mean that a child is reunified with their parent literally.”
Public defenders like Sandra Strelzin Lewis have been trying to trace children through unofficial routes such as relatives in the United States or Central America. “I have made calls to Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras to try to speak with family members,” she said. Those people are often the only sources of information about children who have been taken as far away as California and New York.
Many fear the policy of not prosecuting people with children might last only until federal immigration officials find space for all the families.
And they say it’s unclear just how children will be reunited with parents who are in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centres. “Are they going to be reunited with their parent now that their parent is over in ICE detention,” Ms. Strelzin Lewis said. “And how quickly is that going to happen?”
Jocelyn Alves Cordeiro knows just how long and difficult the family reunification process can be.
Ms. Alves and her 14-year-old son James were arrested at the U.S.-Mexican border last August after fleeing domestic violence in their native Brazil.
They were held for two days before authorities sent Ms. Alves to a federal detention centre in New Mexico and took her son to Chicago.
After more than nine months, she was finally reunited with him. “We would call each other. I was in deep anguish,” Ms. Alvez told a vigil for migrant families at a Catholic church in El Paso. “We cried a lot over the phone. I was overwhelmed because now I knew where he was.”
The Trump administration’s family separation policy may have been short-lived, but it has left scars across El Paso’s immigrant and legal communities.
“It’s safe to say that everybody is pretty traumatized,” Ms. Lopez said. “It’s not just the clients, the attorneys are traumatized by the whole thing. Anybody what works in this world is a little bit overwhelmed right now by what’s been happening.”