BLOOMINGTON, Illinois – The first time Jeny Amador fled Honduras for the United States (US), she tried to enter the country legally: She presented herself at an El Paso, Texas, border checkpoint in early 2018 and asked for asylum.
Amador instead was separated from her 10-year-old son. Authorities accused her of being a smuggler. She was detained for months until she agreed to be deported – without her boy, who went to live with relatives in the Midwest.
When Amador tried to enter the country again in February, she found a shocking about-face. She was turned away from the same checkpoint at the Mexico-Texas line. When she and a teenage daughter then crossed the border illegally, they were taken into custody, spent five days in a US immigration jail, and were suddenly released into the United States, setting up a reunion with her son, Isaac.
“I missed you so much,” Amador whispered to him on February 16, shortly after stepping off a bus here in central Illinois, a few hours’ drive from Chicago. She kissed his neck and head and tightly clutched her boy, now a year older and a few inches taller than the last time she saw him.
Eight months after President Donald Trump’s retreat from a “zero tolerance” approach at the border, asylum-seeking families like Amador’s are being released into the US in growing numbers. Though Trump wanted to end a policy he says has been a failure – a policy he calls “catch and release” – the administration has reverted to that very approach, favoured under President Barack Obama, as record numbers of migrant families are crossing the border.
Amador experienced both ends of this policy whiplash.
“I prayed that God would give people here knowledge to fix the mistake they made with me,” Amador said. “This second time, it was corrected.”
Experts say Amador’s two interactions with US border policy are emblematic of the confusion and contradictions that have emerged over the past year in the US, as federal officials have been trying to implement tighter controls over illegal immigration while also pursuing hundreds of miles of border barriers aimed at stemming the flow.
Sarah Pierce, an analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington think tank, said Amador’s experience shows how inconsistent the policies have been: “This is a great case to show this administration’s really chaotic approach to the southern border.”
Jessica Vaughan, of the Center for Immigration Studies, which has pushed for strict immigration policies, drew a different lesson from Amador’s situation.
“It shows that as long as the catch-and-release policies are still in place for people bringing children with them, people will keep trying to cross illegally, and the criminal smuggling organisations will continue to have a booming business,” she said. “It’s the catch-and-release policies, together with lax interior enforcement, that are providing the incentive, and that’s why they must be changed. Border barriers will help, but the overall enforcement paralysis is a bigger issue.”
Isaac was one of several thousand migrant children taken from their parents at the border during the Trump administration, according to a report issued in January by the inspector general for the Department of Health and Human Services.
More than 2,700 children were separated from their families under the administration’s now-abandoned “zero tolerance” prosecution initiative. After months of court orders and administrative chaos, the majority of these children were reunited with their parents – some in Central America but most in the US.
Katie Waldman, a spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security, said Amador was not separated from her son because of “zero tolerance”, but rather because of the smuggling charge.
The American Civil Liberties Union has asked a federal judge in California to force the government to reveal the location of all children who were separated from their parents, including those who remained with relatives or sponsors in the US, something the government has argued in court will be a monumental task.
In more than 200 cases, deported parents made the painful decision to leave behind their separated sons or daughters in the hope that they will have a better life in America. Amador is one of the few to then return to the US, according to immigration advocates and attorneys.
Once stripped of her son, Amador now finds herself reunited with him in Illinois. She also was able to bring a daughter with her.
“Here is a case of a woman who suffered the worst form of deterrence we’ve ever implemented at our southern border, and yet she still came back,” Pierce said. “If we’re talking about legitimate asylum seekers, they are not going to be deterred by even the worst we throw at them.”
When Amador and her son crossed the Paseo del Norte Bridge connecting Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, and El Paso on January 13, 2018, it was three months before then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions would announce a “zero tolerance” policy. A pilot project for the policy had ended a few months earlier in El Paso.
Amador asked for asylum, citing death threats from a gang in Honduras because of her political support of the nation’s president. But Border Patrol agents suspected her of being a smuggler and suggested that she wasn’t Isaac’s mother, she said.
Isaac was sent to a children’s shelter in Arizona while Amador was taken to jail and then federal court, where she was charged with “bringing in and harbouring aliens”, a felony. Though charges were dropped six weeks later, she sat in a federal jail, awaiting possible deportation. While she waited, the number of Central American family members apprehended at the southwestern border began to rise.
On April 6, Sessions issued a memo ordering federal prosecutors along the border to “adopt immediately a zero-tolerance policy”.
“If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you and that child will be separated from you as required by law,” he said in a May 7 news conference. “If you don’t like that, then don’t smuggle children over our border.”
By then, Isaac was in Illinois, where his uncle had agreed to take him in. Amador was back in an immigration jail, where an asylum officer had found her credible but an immigration judge had refused to give her parole.
On May 9, with no money for an attorney and no faith she would ever be released, she agreed to be deported.
She arrived in Honduras on June 6, just as the public furor over family separation was peaking. Amid intense scrutiny, Trump signed an executive order ending the policy on June 20. Six days later, a federal judge ordered the US government to reunite the families it had separated.
But the order came too late for Amador. She watched from Central America as her son struggled on his own in Illinois, where he lived in a sparsely furnished apartment and often retreated from his loneliness into video games.
“I’m one of the many mothers separated from her child,” she wrote in an Oct. 13 message to Adriana Zambrano, an immigrant advocate in Pennsylvania. Amador added that she was “dying bit by bit of sadness and pain from being far” from her son.
Zambrano didn’t know how to help.
“I feel like the parents who were separated and deported kind of took a back seat,” Zambrano said. “For those parents, there was even more uncertainty and even less of a path to correct that injustice. That’s why Jeny kind of had to go ahead and help herself.”
Amador is separated from the father of her five children, three of whom are grown. Amador’s year in Honduras, exiled from her son, was full of confusion and turmoil.
When several thousand Hondurans formed a migrant caravan bound for the US-Mexico border, Amador considered joining, but she decided to wait to see whether the migrants would be allowed into the US. They languished at the border and were told to wait months to apply for asylum.
In November, shortly after the midterm elections, Trump signed an executive order denying asylum to migrants who enter the country illegally, but days later, a federal judge struck down the order, again enabling their asylum claims.
Amador began saving for another trip north. The US government shut down for more than a month as Congress and Trump hit a stalemate over funding for a border wall, and on January 25, the day the shutdown ended, Amador and her 14-year-old daughter, Ashly, boarded the first of many buses back to the southern edge of the US.
They arrived at the Paso del Norte Bridge on February 7, more than a year after Border Patrol agents there had separated Amador and her son.
This time, she and her daughter weren’t allowed to approach because of the US government’s practice of “metering”, or capping, the number of people allowed to claim asylum each day at many ports of entry. So they crossed illegally, wading through the Rio Grande before turning themselves in to Border Patrol – part of what the DHS said is a record number of apprehensions of Central American families in February.
Again, Amador asked for asylum. And again, her child was taken from her. For a few hours, Amador and Ashly stared at each other through the windows of their cells in a Border Patrol holding facility.
“I was afraid they were separating us, too,” Ashly said.
That fear subsided when they were reunited and sent to another jail for a few days before returning on February 11 to the El Paso holding facility, where a Border Patrol agent processing her arrival told Amador to hurry up because the President was coming to town.
“I thought he was joking or trying to scare me,” she said.
Trump was, in fact, just a few miles away, making his case for a border wall.
The next morning, Amador and her daughter were released. At a shelter for migrants in El Paso, she searched through donated clothes for pants baggy enough to hide her GPS ankle bracelet. That night, she borrowed another migrant’s phone to call Isaac.
She had kept secret her journey to the border so as not to worry him. And she decided to keep up the charade.
“I’m in Tegucigalpa, my love,” she told her son. “But be patient. I’ll see you soon.”
Four days later, Amador stepped off a bus and into the icy wind whipping through Bloomington. Dressed in a donated hoodie with a broken zipper, she darted inside the station, only to find it empty. As her daughter paced nervously, Amador sat in a waiting room, staring straight ahead.
Ten minutes later, she jumped up to hug two of Isaac’s cousins. But her son was nowhere to be seen. Amador rubbed her face and shuffled her ill-fitting shoes.
“Surprise!” someone yelled in Spanish, and suddenly Isaac was in her arms.
Several immigrant attorneys and advocates said they were unaware of similar cases. But experts on all sides of the immigration debate said Amador’s example speaks volumes about the current immigration system.
“This is yet another demonstration of the administration’s failed efforts to deter Central American refugees from seeking the protection they and their families need,” said Wendy Young, president of Kids in Need of Defense.
Amador’s saga also raises questions about how, even after the end of “zero tolerance,” authorities continue to decide to separate families, according to policy analyst Pierce.
“The first time, Border Patrol seemed to think there was a problem with her. But not the second time,” she said of Amador. “We need something more standard in place.”
Zambrano said she knows of one other case in which a parent was separated from a child and deported but later returned to the US. That parent also was released by Immigration and Customs Enforcement and then reunited with her children. But she said the mother was recently detained a third time during an ICE check-in and remains in jail.
As Amador sat on a couch with her son hours after arriving in Bloomington, her own check-in five days later was never far from her mind. When Amador’s nephew asked about her ankle bracelet, Isaac silently stared at the device. And when her son’s pastor, David Santana, came over for dinner, he delivered both a welcome and a warning.
“You’ve arrived to a beautiful country with lots of freedom and abundance,” he said. “But also with a lot of temptations. You have to be very careful, right, Isaac?”
Then they sat down for Amador’s first meal with her son in more than a year: roasted chicken with Honduran rice. – Text & Photos by The Washington Post