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‘What we were suffering for’: Separated, then reunited, immigrant families face what comes next

Jose Luis Villanueva Alvarado and his daughter Danely Villanueva Hernandez walk into the Loretto migrant shelter in El Paso on Friday. (Ivan Pierre Aguirre for The Washington Post)
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EL PASO — Two by two, they came through the double doors of the shuttered retirement home: mothers tightly clutching their children, fathers holding fast to small hands.

They had been among the more than 2,500 parents stripped of their children and imprisoned after illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.

But now, after outrage and protests and a class-action lawsuit, the Trump administration was being forced to reunite the families ahead of a court-ordered deadline Thursday. Hundreds of parents were being released each day from immigration jails across the Southwest. Their children were being set free from shelters and flown to meet them. And within minutes of their teary reunions, the families were being taken to the handful of nonprofit groups that had rushed to help them.

They were the lucky ones. At least 463 parents may have been deported without their children, the government reported to a federal judge Monday night.

At the former Sisters of Loretto convalescent home, in drab rooms that once housed aging nuns, more than 100 immigrant children and parents were reconnecting after weeks or months apart. A boy with a shock of dark hair and wide grin galloped noisily down the linoleum hallway on a plastic horse. In what had been a library, a dozen parents curled up with their children on plastic mattresses on the floor.

On Friday, the day’s final van-load of families arrived just as dusk descended on El Paso. Last through the double doors and into the dimly lit hallways was Jose Luis Villanueva Alvarado. Under the arm of the wiry Honduran construction worker hid his 7-year-old daughter, Danely, whom he had last seen seven weeks earlier, sleeping on a Border Patrol facility’s bare floor as he was led away in handcuffs.

Now father and daughter sat on the ground with their backs against the wall, examining each other for signs of their time apart, as they and two other families were welcomed by Ruben Garcia.

“I want you to know that you are not in immigration custody anymore,” the 69-year-old Catholic activist told the new arrivals in Spanish. Garcia had been helping undocumented immigrants in El Paso for more than 40 years, through other crises along the border. Yet he said he had never witnessed anything quite like the chaos of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” crackdown.

‘They just took them?’ Frantic parents separated from their kids fill courts.

When he learned in late June that the government was going to reunite the separated parents and children, he scrambled to transform the former retirement home into a temporary sanctuary for them.

“We’re going to give you food and everything you need,” including plane tickets to reach waiting relatives, he told them. “Ya están libres.”

You are now free.

But the parents wondered: Free for how long?

Some had been given GPS ankle monitors just an hour or two earlier. All of them were required to check in with Immigration and Customs Enforcement — the agency that had just released them.

For now, they were here, in a place that was part emotional respite, part logistical staging ground. As they waited for a volunteer to take their information, Danely spotted a girl with whom she had spent a week at a shelter in Phoenix.

Julieta Cardona Pedro raced over.

“She says that they’re friends,” said her father, Alfredo Cardona Pascual.

And then the 9-year-old from Guatemala and the 7-year-old from Honduras did what they were never allowed to do in the shelter.

They hugged.

“This is what we were suffering for,” Villanueva said, watching.

“Thank God it’s behind us,” Cardona said before he led Julieta away.

For Villanueva, it was his first night with Danely since June 3, when they spent a few restless hours in a safe house in Juarez, just a few miles from here. Now there were volunteers handing him orange juice, serving him pizza and calling his relatives in New Jersey. Now someone was adding his name to an online spreadsheet so that someone else across the country could buy plane tickets for him and Danely.

“How many minutes do we get to shower here?” the girl asked as a volunteer showed her father how far it was to New Jersey on a map. “Because in the shelter, we only got five minutes to shower and three to brush our teeth.”

Soon, a volunteer showed them to their room, where a Guatemalan father and son were already sitting on one of two hospital beds.

In each room, parents held their children while hiding their worries. Some teenagers clung to their parents like toddlers. Others wouldn’t talk. A few stared into space and cried.

‘They told us to behave, or we’d be there forever’

In Room 109, Villanueva wondered whether Danely was okay, and how long they would be here, and what awaited them in New Jersey.

And yet he was overjoyed to be with her again. As he stripped off her socks and walked her down the hall to the shower, the 41-year-old began to sing to her as he had in Honduras.

“Turn on a light, let it shine,” he sang. “Before such need in the world, turn on a light in the darkness.”

As she giggled in the shower, Villanueva gazed into a mirror for the first time in almost two months.

“I look ugly,” he said. “I’m skinny and scruffy.”

“No, Papi,” she said. “You’re not ugly.”

And then they returned to Room 109 and climbed into bed.

'She cried a lot'

On Saturday morning, Villanueva and Danely sat in a crowded cafeteria, eating pancakes and pan dulce with Cisary Reynaud and his daughter, Shirli, dressed in purple sequins. The fathers had met in immigration jail weeks earlier, swapping stories of their girls. Now they were all sharing a meal. As they finished, a volunteer walked over.

“You are leaving at noon,” she said in Spanish, handing Reynaud a thin slip of paper with his name on it and the number of a flight to Virginia, where a brother he hadn’t seen in 14 years had agreed to take them in.

Villanueva leaned over to take a look.

“Are you leaving, too?” Reynaud asked.

Villanueva didn’t know. As the last ones to arrive the night before, he and Danely were one of the few not to have tickets yet.

Around them was a constant churn as families cleaned their rooms and packed their bags and learned to which ICE office they had to report. All the while, newly reunited families kept arriving, although the pace had slowed. They rummaged through a room full of donated clothes. In short supply were shoelaces and belts — taken from the parents to prevent suicide — as well as small women’s shirts.

“All we have are larges, but the women are so small,” a volunteer said as she shelved a new shipment.

The volunteers were grad students and stay-at-home moms, retired teachers and Jesuit priests in training. One wore a rainbow on her name tag. Another drank out of a water bottle with the sticker “Make America Mexico Again.”

Many were from El Paso — a blue city in a red state — but some came from as far away as California, North Carolina or New York. They stayed late into the night, sometimes driving immigrants to the airport themselves when shuttles weren’t available. What they all shared was a belief that separating families was morally wrong.

Inside Casa Padre, the converted Walmart where the U.S. is holding nearly 1,500 immigrant children

“I think we need to apologize to them for what our country has done to them,” said Annette Tiscareño, a social worker who brought homemade horchata to Loretto.

Many of the volunteers were veterans. One group called itself the Burrito Ladies after the bean-filled tortillas they had been making for undocumented immigrants for years.

But no one had been doing this as long as Garcia. When Mother Teresa visited El Paso in 1976, he told her of his plans to open a sanctuary for immigrants. She told him to “announce the good news and bring the people home to Jesus,” he said. When the sanctuary opened two years later, he christened it Annunciation House.

When refugees from Central America’s civil wars flocked to Annunciation House in the 1980s, Garcia took in six Salvadoran orphans. And when a surge of unaccompanied minors began arriving in 2014, he used the closed retirement home to accommodate them. Now it had been pressed into service again to handle the flood of separated families.

Yet not even the retirement home was enough to host all the reunited families when ICE unexpectedly sent him about 200 parents and children late Thursday night. Almost half ended up in three other Annunciation House facilities alongside other undocumented immigrants who had continued to arrive in a steady stream throughout the latest crisis.

Annunciation House has always relied on donations for its annual budget of about $250,000, Garcia said. When it came to buying more than 300 last-minute, cross-country flights to Oregon or Alabama or Florida — some as expensive as $2,400 — it received help from, an immigration advocacy group founded in 2013 by Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates and other tech entrepreneurs.

Waiting in New Jersey was Villanueva’s 18-year-old son. He had been sent to the United States four years ago after Villanueva’s brother had been killed by a “banda organizada,” one of the organized-crime groups that terrorize Honduras — often with the support of corrupt police officers.

When some of those responsible for the killing had recently gotten out of prison, Villanueva decided it was time for Danely to go, too. With his wife staying behind to safeguard their house, he borrowed $9,000 from relatives to take the girl to the United States, never thinking she could be taken from him.

Villanueva, who had been caught crossing the border once before, had not asked for asylum while in ICE custody, nor had some of the other fathers at Loretto.

“I was afraid to ask for it, because we were told then we’d be there for six or eight months, without our children,” Villanueva said.

His roommate, Wilson Perez Vasquez, nodded in agreement.

Even now that they were free, asylum was an afterthought. The fathers had a more modest goal — to stay in the United States long enough to pay off the debts accrued in getting here, and move their families out of harm’s way back home.

“One year is not enough,” Perez said, “but three, four or five would be good.”

As they spoke, Danely sat on the edge of the bed, peering down the hallway. She caught sight of Julieta, and soon they were running up and down the linoleum halls together with Angely Chinchilla Melgar, a 6-year-old from Honduras whom Danely had befriended in another shelter.

But soon it was time for Julieta and her father to go to the airport. Julieta packed her most precious belongings — the birthday present her father had made her in jail and the Michael Kors purse a Loretto volunteer had given her — next to her father’s ankle-monitor charger in the black duffel bag that she, like the other kids, had been given at the shelters. As they lined up near the door, a volunteer handed them bags of food and told the immigrants — most of whom had never flown before — not to take liquids through airport security. Then they were hustled into a van.

An hour later, it was Angely boarding a van to the airport. And then, an hour after that, Danely silently waved goodbye to Perez and his son as they slipped out of the room.

Then another wave of families arrived. Among them were Sergio and Jennifer Reyes, who had been detained at the same time as Villanueva and Danely and taken to the same Border Patrol facility. It was Jennifer, 14, who consoled Danely when she woke up to find their fathers were gone.

“She cried a lot,” Jennifer said. When Danely stopped eating the cold instant noodles they served, it was the older girl who made her eat.

At dinner, the two Honduran families sat together, eating lasagna donated by a local restaurant. Afterward, the retirement home was quiet. One father read the Bible as he charged his ankle monitor. Another did push-ups with his son outside on a patch of grass in front of a statue of the crucifixion.

German Cardona, a hulking man, boasted that he did 120 push-ups each day in his cell during the two months he was apart from his 14-year-old son, Eber. But separation had been hard, he admitted. One father in his detention center had killed himself, he said, and a few others had suffered strokes. Asked whether he had seen any changes in his son, Cardona said no but then began to cry, prompting Eber to do the same.

As the sun set, a couple more families came outside to talk and throw a football. Eventually, Villanueva and Danely joined them, sitting on the curb a few yards away. Villanueva had gone to the volunteers’ office looking for headache medicine but instead found documents saying that he and Danely were due to leave on Sunday at noon.

Villanueva’s ICE check-in was in 10 days. But unlike most of the parents, he hadn’t been given an ankle monitor.

“I want to do the right thing,” Villanueva said. “But if I show up with my daughter, I’m afraid they’ll deport us.”

After all they had been through — the journey through Mexico, the separation, the seven weeks apart, including a month without being able to speak with each other — to have just 10 days in the United States seemed cruel.

“Me presento o me fugo,” he said. Do I show up or do I run?

'It gives you panic'

On Sunday morning, Danely helped her father sweep and mop their room twice, just to make sure it was clean. Then Villanueva packed her clothes and crayons and coloring book into her small black duffel bag, laying her doll from the shelter with “My First Christmas” on it on top. Finally, he donned the same shirt he had arrived in and put everything from Loretto in a neat pile by the bed.

As they waited for the van to the airport, Villanueva fretted over their stop in Denver.

“My fear is when we have to change planes,” Villanueva said. “Can I ask people for help?”

“Of course,” said Lucila Arronta, a volunteer whose energy made her a favorite of the families at Loretto.

As she walked them to the van, she gave them both hugs and waved as they pulled away. Villanueva put his hands to his face, silently praying for a safe journey.

Five minutes later, they pulled into the airport parking lot, where three more volunteers were waiting for them. Inside, theygave Danely lollipops before taking her and her father to the United counter, where an employee printed out tickets 24C and D.

“All set,” she said in Spanish as she handed them the tickets.

They followed the volunteers through an atrium decorated with a massive American flag, past a Starbucks and up an escalator to the security checkpoint.

Earlier, when the volunteers told them to take everything out of their pockets, Villanueva had been so nervous he had pulled out the lint. Now a Border Patrol agent approached.

“Cómo está, señor?” the agent asked.

“Fine,” Villanueva said. “A little nervous —.”

“Trust me,” the agent continued in Spanish. “Everything is going to be fine. All I’m going to do is review your documents.”

He asked Villanueva his name and birthday. Then he bent down toward Danely.

“And when were you born?”

“2010,” she answered.

“You don’t know the month or day?”

“October 18th.”

“Okay,” the agent said and moved on to the next family.

When he was out of earshot, Villanueva exhaled.

“I wanted to ask him, ‘When are you sending me back?’ ” he said. “It gives you panic.”

“He’s wearing the same uniform as the men who—,” Danely said before trailing off.

Her father’s thoughts returned to their ICE check-in date.

A Transportation Security Administration agent beckoned them forward. Villanueva took his daughter’s hand and, looking around, guided her through the metal detector and toward their gate.

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