“It’s something I would never wish on any father, any mother,” Bartolome Martinez said in Spanish at a restaurant in Phoenix, holding Jonathan, 4, on his lap. “God doesn’t give you the strength to see a child go off to something uncertain, where you don’t know what’s going to happen, who will take care of him, who will receive him.”
Martinez, of Honduras, had last seen his son in a West Texas detention facility in May. Jonathan is one of the 103 children 4 and younger taken from their parents as part of the Trump administration’s effort to criminally prosecute all parents who cross the border illegally, including those who then request asylum.
A federal judge had ordered all those children reunited with their parents by Tuesday; the government could not meet that deadline, but said Thursday it had returned 57 children and considered the rest ineligible for reasons that range from concerns about their safety to their parents having been deported. A much larger group of older separated children — believed to number about 2,500 — is supposed to be returned to their parents by July 26.
Martinez and his son were caught trying to cross the Rio Grande near El Paso. Once he learned they were going to be separated, he decided to lie.
“See those officials, the men that are over there?” Martinez said he told Jonathan, pointing out Border Patrol officers. “They gave me a job.”
He would go work, he told his son. He would make money. And soon, he would buy a plane, “so that we can go home,” he said.
But he explained that he had to go to his new job alone — it was too dangerous for the little boy to come along. Martinez told Jonathan that “a woman would come to take care of him, and he would play with lots of kids, and he would have lots of toys.”
After Jonathan was taken to a shelter in Arizona, his father suffered an emotional breakdown of sorts. At the restaurant Tuesday, he recalled becoming so distressed that he yelled out to officers in the detention facility for assistance.
“I didn’t know If I should cry, if I should scream, whether I should stand up or sit down,” he said. “I felt like I was to blame for bringing the boy.”
As Martinez recounted the story Tuesday, Jonathan sat wide-eyed in his father’s lap. He giggled, holding crayons up to his face as if they were a multicolored moustache.
Chicken nuggets and 'I Spy'
At the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Chicago, a Guatemalan man who asked to be identified only by his first name, Juan, was reunited with his 3-year-old daughter, Gricelda, who had been transported there to meet him.
“Seeing the look on her face when she saw her dad walk out, I didn’t really think she understood why she was there until she saw him,” Gianna Borroto, their lawyer, said.
As the pair was driven to Borroto’s office downtown, Gricelda held on tightly to her dad and a teddy bear. Inside the office, they shared chicken nuggets from McDonald’s, read an “I Spy” book and rolled a toy car in between the cubicles.
The pair hadn’t seen each other since May 19, when they crossed into the United States at San Luis, Ariz., and were stopped by border officers. Gricelda’s mother stayed behind in Guatemala.
Officers told Juan, 23, that they would be taking Gricelda to bathe and he would see her again in a few minutes. That never happened, he said Tuesday. Instead, Gricelda was transported to an Office of Refugee Resettlement shelter in the Chicago area, Borroto said, as Juan was moved from one detention facility to another across at least three states.
“Every day I would ask, ‘Where is my girl? I want to see my girl and she wants to be with her family,’ ” Juan said. “So little, and she doesn’t know anything.”
He said ICE officers refused to tell him anything about his daughter, who primarily speaks K’iche, an indigenous Mayan dialect.
At the Stewart Detention Center in Georgia, none of the officers spoke in Spanish, Borroto said. At another facility, she added, officers told Juan he should return to Guatemala without his daughter.
When Borroto and other lawyers met with Gricelda, the 3-year-old had to stick her ear to a phone to have their questions translated from a remote interpreter.
Borroto said that the father and daughter will soon head to Texas to join family there.
'A knot in my heart'
At a news conference in El Paso on Wednesday that was live-streamed on Facebook, Roger Andino, 24, recounted how he signed two stacks of paper while in detention, and was told he was declaring asylum for himself and his 4-year-old son, who is also named Roger.
He watched from a locked room with a window, screaming and shouting, as officers took little Roger away.
“I will not leave my son behind,” he recalled telling officers inside the facility, as six of them pounced on him, trading jabs and fists. A heavyset officer eventually subdued Andino by sitting on him.
For days after, Andino said, he wouldn’t eat or sleep — until he managed to speak to his son over the phone from a detention center in Pearsall, Tex.
“Daddy, when are you coming to get me, for me to go with you?” asked the boy, who had been taken to a shelter in El Paso.
“That was when there was a knot in my heart,” Andino said Wednesday. “I felt like I couldn’t breathe.”
He said he had fainted, waking up the next day in a stretcher.
Back at the restaurant in Phoenix, Martinez sat in a booth next to Jonathan, who played with the salt and pepper shakers on the table.
The boy still had little idea what was happening.
It had been 44 days since he had last seen his father. But they were together now, and headed to the airport soon, to move in with a cousin in Denver.
“How do you feel now, son?” Martinez asked. “Want to travel on a plane?”
Alonso Parra in Phoenix and Robert Moore in El Paso contributed to this report.