Juana, a Guatemalan immigrant who crossed the border at a port of entry in Arizona hoping to seek asylum, refused to stop for meals. She spent nights in the homes of well-meaning American families. Each night a different city. Each morning a different car.
Juana, whose lawyer asked that her last name be withheld for fear that identifying her could jeopardize her and her daughter’s legal case, was the beneficiary of a growing legion of volunteers who have offered up their cars, homes, food and clothing to aid migrant parents separated from their children as a result of the Trump administration’s “zero- tolerance” immigration policy.
In two weeks, this loosely organized network of citizens has helped reunite nearly a dozen separated families, in some cases connecting them with housing, lawyers and other services they may need.
They call their coalition “Immigrant Families Together.”
“It’s empowering to think how much we’re getting done,” said Meghan Finn, a theater director and mother of two from Brooklyn who has helped lead the effort. “We’ve changed the course for these families and we’ve connected thousands of people across the country who have stepped up to help and formed this huge community.”
The federal government is under court order to return more than 2,500 separated children to their parents by July 26. A total of 102 migrant children younger than 5 were supposed to be reunited with their relatives by Tuesday, although the government said that it could return only 38 by that deadline and that more than two dozen children were not eligible for reunification for various reasons. A Trump administration official said Wednesday night that the government expects to have reunited by Thursday morning all children age 4 and younger “who are eligible under the court order for reunification with parents in the United States.”
In most cases, the government has been releasing parents from detention and children from federal shelters, then transporting them to a meeting place to be reunited. The parents are usually given ankle monitoring devices and told they are free to go but must report back for immigration or deportation hearings.
Immigrant Families Together is trying to speed the process by identifying parents who can be freed from custody, paying their bonds if necessary, then coordinating caravans to move the parents across state lines to where their children are being held.
Their first success was Yeni Gonzalez, whose story and tearful reunion with her three children in New York made national news last week.
Juana’s journey began Friday, after an online fundraiser collected enough to post her $15,000 bond at Eloy Detention Center in Arizona and get her on her way. Unlike Gonzalez, she had already been cleared to claim her daughter. All she needed was to get to Cayuga Centers, the shelter in Harlem that also is responsible for Gonzalez’s children.
As of Wednesday, three more mothers from Eloy were waiting to be picked up and taken to their children. One was headed to Georgia. Another needed to get to Texas. The third would also be making the journey to New York City.
They would spend their nights in the homes of volunteers like Bill O’Brien, a Detroit resident, who took in two Honduran fathers Tuesday night after they were reunited with their 3-year-old sons.
Ever Reyes Mejia, 30, and another father, also in his 30s, arrived at O’Brien’s home with only their children and the clothes on their backs. He gave them clothes and toys and food that was bought and donated by members of O’Brien’s church and community.
It’s not just individuals. Companies like Lyft have partnered with nonprofits to offer free rides to migrant families and advocates. Cayuga Centers collected hundreds of toys from donations via an Amazon wish list.
Rosalie Lochner, a philosophy professor turned stay-at-home-mom, has spent the last week at the marble-slab table in her Detroit kitchen, cold-calling anyone she could think of to build a database of people willing to donate frequent flier miles, toys, clothes, food and more. She said she’s received more offers than she knows what to do with.
“I, as a citizen, feel like I am responsible for this policy and am responsible for helping in some small way to change it,” she said.
Juana’s journey included a total of eight drivers over five days. They took her from Arizona to New Mexico to Colorado to Nebraska to Illinois to Michigan, where she settled into a minivan driven by Mira Sussman, a mother of three from Ann Arbor.
They spent five hours Monday driving to Pittsburgh, Sussman said. She drove most of the way a few miles an hour under the speed limit — just in case. “I was terrified we would be pulled over in a regular traffic stop and they would find her and take her away again and she’d never make it to New York to see her kid,” Sussman said. “I was being so careful.”
Juana, exhausted, crawled into the back seat of the minivan, held her Bible to her chest and slept.
She woke in Ohio, Sussman said, and talked about what she had gone through, how she and her daughter, who is 15, would carry this experience with them for the rest of their lives. She used the word trauma, which sounds the same in Spanish as it does in English. Sussman said her Spanish “isn’t very good,” but she understood. “I told her she has so many friends across the United States now who care about her and her family and their well being,” Sussman said. “I’m glad we have the opportunity to show her that there are people with morals and courage in this country, but it’s just disgusting that we have to do this at all.”
On Tuesday, after traveling from Pittsburgh to Newark, Juana got into one last car for the drive into New York City. She met her daughter at the shelter and hugged her for the first time in weeks. A volunteer sent a message to a group text that included eight of the volunteers who helped Juana get there: drivers, organizers, translators, people who offered Juana a place to spend the night.
The recipients responded joyfully, sending each other congratulations and emoji of big red hearts.
Maria Sacchetti contributed to this report.