Families like this one were torn apart at the border. The U.S. still hasn’t made things right.

Leticia tells her story to anyone who will listen: judges, journalists, political officials. She recounts the moment she realized strangers had snatched her son while she slept in a migrant detention cell; and the agonizing month that followed, when no one would tell her where her child was or whether he was even alive.

Sharing this story is painful. But Leticia knows it would be more painful to still be living this experience, as hundreds of families still are. Because the U.S. government is, even today, separating families.

“For them I would tell my story over and over again,” she says.

Before the country moves on, before a new administration and the public try to put this national atrocity in the rearview mirror: Leticia wants us all to remember. She wants us to provide what is owed to hundreds of children whose deported mothers and fathers still haven’t been located, because the government didn’t bother to keep records; and to the thousands more families who have been found, and in some cases reunited, but still fear for their lives.

Three years ago, Leticia and her son became victims of one of the largest-scale, ethnically motivated human rights abuses perpetrated by the U.S. government since Japanese internment. Today, they want to be advocates.

“I won’t be calm or quiet until those parents can smile with their children,” Leticia says. As for the U.S. officials responsible for this state-sanctioned child abuse: "Ultimately, we just want to hold them accountable so they can’t do this in the future.”

In November 2017, Leticia and her son Yovany, then 15 years old, fled gang threats and other violence in Guatemala. (The family spoke, through an interpreter, on the condition that The Post not use their full names. They fear speaking publicly will lead to retaliation from U.S. immigration authorities and make it easier for gangs to find them.) When they left Guatemala, they had no idea what horrors awaited them in the United States. After all, by reputation, law and international treaty obligations, the United States is supposed to provide persecuted peoples the opportunity to seek asylum.

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(Connie Chavez/for The Washington Post)

Instead, they were targeted by the Trump administration’s El Paso “pilot” experiment to systematically separate parents from their children, a policy later expanded to the entire southern border. The goal, officials have said, was to make the process of seeking asylum — which is a legal right — so notoriously cruel that it would dissuade eligible families from even trying.

“A big name of the game is deterrence,” then-White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly told NPR.

A few hours after crossing the Rio Grande, Leticia and Yovany were detained by U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents and told they could sleep for a while. She was taken to a room for women, he to one for males. When she woke, other detainees said her son had been taken away. They didn’t know where. Panicked, Leticia began pounding on the locked door, demanding to see her boy.

A guard appeared, asking about the noise. She pleaded for her son. “I don’t know where your son is, I don’t know who your son is,” she recalls him responding. “I’m just changing shifts.”

For a month Leticia was in the dark. No one would tell her if Yovany had been detained elsewhere, deported or worse. Guards said it was her responsibility to locate him. They gave her a list of numbers for other detention centers, and she began calling around to see if one had her son.

Eventually, she learned that Yovany was in a shelter for unaccompanied children, and they were connected by phone. She urged him to eat and not to worry. She told Yovany she was fine — even though daily crying fits had partially paralyzed her face. As time passed, her hopes faded. During a hearing, an immigration judge said that without legal representation she had no chance of obtaining asylum, and she didn’t know how to find a lawyer while still in detention. After seven months, she agreed to relinquish her asylum claim and be deported back to Guatemala; she hoped this would better position Yovany to be released from the shelter at least.

Leticia and Yovany agonized over whether he should go with her, given the death threats he faced back home. Ultimately, they decided he should stay and pursue his own asylum claim.

“He was a child. He had an entire life ahead of him, and he deserves to live,” she recalls. “You have to choose: Your life or the life of your child."

Yovany was placed with a foster family, which arranged weekly phone calls between mother and son. They gave up on seeing each other again.

Several months after returning to Guatemala, Leticia began getting calls from strangers: lawyers, nonprofits or other volunteers trying to locate deported parents. She distrusted them and refused to talk. One day, however, a social worker showed up on her doorstep and convinced her that help was possible. Leticia was then connected with the Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project, which agreed to take on her case.

The organization also asked Yovany to write a letter to the government:

In early 2020, a judge found that Leticia had been coerced into giving up her asylum claim and ordered that she be allowed back into the United States. After more than two years, mother and child were reunited.

“It was almost like I was born again,” she says. “I saw him enter. I thought, it was my son, it’s my son! And at the same time I hugged him, but I knew that I had a lot of pain and fear that they would take him away. I was hugging him so hard, but I thought they would separate us again.”

[Watch their reunion in the video at the top of the page.]

Of the several hundred parents deported without their kids, Leticia is among only about 20 who have been allowed back into the United States, according to Lee Gelernt, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer and the lead attorney in litigation over family separations. Most are believed to be in Central America. Of those who have been located, roughly one-third subsequently chose to have their children deported, too; the others opted to leave their children in the States. Like Leticia, they feared repatriation would prove fatal.

Today, Leticia and Yovany live in New York City. While they are relieved to be together — “being without her is like being a flower without water,” Yovany says — anxiety over their separation persists.

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(Connie Chavez/for The Washington Post)

She aches, too, for the parents still unable to see their children, including some being newly separated even today.

There are multiple barriers to reunification. The Trump administration didn’t track all the families, and what records it did keep are poor; as a result, the deported parents of 666 children — about 20 percent of whom were younger than 5 when separated — haven’t even been located. The government isn’t actively searching for these “missing” parents. Instead, Justice in Motion, a nonprofit that’s part of an ACLU-organized steering committee, has dispatched contacts across remote and sometimes dangerous places to find them. The committee is paying for these search efforts itself.

Traumatized parents may not trust those making contact, as Leticia can attest. She argues that parents already reunited should participate in these efforts to connect families.

“They say, ‘What are they calling me for? Are you calling me to deport my child? Or are they calling me to put me back in detention?’” she explains. “We can be like a reflection for those parents and say, ‘See, I was separated, but now I am reunited, and we want to help.’ ”

Even when deported parents are located, there is usually little to offer them.

Advocates are mostly “trying to confirm that each child knows where their parent is, and each parent knows where their child is,” says Christie Turner-Herbas, director of special programs at Kids in Need of Defense. Then, deported parents are offered the unbearable choice between having their children deported to unsafe conditions, or remaining apart. Having a “more substantive remedy,” she argues, would help get the word out.

What kind of remedy? Mental health services are a good start. (The White House tried to block a deal paying for therapy for separated families, NBC recently reported, but a judge ordered it anyway.) So is some sort of broader financial restitution, perhaps through a victims’ fund. There are already multiple lawsuits seeking recourse on behalf of families; at least 500 individuals, including Leticia, have also filed for monetary damages. Leticia’s lawyers at the Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project say the government has not responded to her administrative complaint, filed in June 2019.

Leticia argues such recourse is necessary to help injured families and to hold the government accountable:

Perhaps more important than money is lawful status in the United States, where families can be safe.

Anita Sinha, director of American University’s International Human Rights Law Clinic, recently visited Honduras to help separated families document claims for monetary damages. When families realized the purpose of the visit — and that they had no hope of receiving asylum — some almost walked out. “No amount of money could help,” she says.

Even those already in the States — including families whose deportations a court temporarily blocked in 2018 — are not secure.

“I think a lot of people don’t realize that the Trump administration is still trying to deport these families, either the child alone or once reunited,” says Gelernt. “So the trauma from the separations exists. But on top of that, there’s the trauma of fighting for your life not to be sent back to danger.”

Victims like Leticia are still waiting for their asylum cases to be adjudicated. The Trump administration has severely restricted asylum eligibility, making it less likely such cases will succeed. Advocates argue that the incoming Biden administration should not only roll back Trump’s asylum policies but also secure separated families a faster path to residency.

President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to create a task force for separated families. His transition team did not respond to questions about whether deported families should be allowed back in the United States and whether Biden supports residency or other forms of redress for these victims.

If Leticia could speak to Biden, she would ask him to pursue more humane immigration policies and to “make amends for [past] mistakes.”

As for the rest of the country, her request is simple: Keep listening, but stop making it necessary for her to speak.

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(Connie Chavez/for The Washington Post)

About this story

Senior Producer Kate Woodsome; Editor: Autumn Brewington; Interpreter: Connie Chavez; Copy Editors: Chris Hanna, Denny McAuliffe and Lydia Rebac.

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Catherine Rampell: Trump didn’t build his border wall with steel. He built it out of paper.

The Post’s View: A federal judge halts another inhumane Trump administration practice at the border

Nickole Miller: Trump’s new rules against asylum seekers are dire. They must be challenged.

Joan Hodges-Wu: Protecting the U.S. asylum system means saving lives. Here’s how you can help.

Jill Biden and Julissa Reynoso: E Pluribus Unum is on the ballot this November

Jennifer Rubin: Just imagine how different Biden’s immigration policy would be

Catherine Rampell is an opinion columnist at The Washington Post. She frequently covers economics, public policy, immigration and politics, with a special emphasis on data-driven journalism. Before joining The Post, she wrote about economics and theater for the New York Times.