Their mothers are missing, their fathers far away. They get pizza, maybe cold cuts. They are exhausted; they cannot sleep. There are other children around, but they had never seen those kids before, and those kids are crying or screaming or rocking or spreading the feeling that everything is not okay.
The children who were forcibly separated from their parents at the border by the United States government are all over the country now, in Michigan and Maryland, in foster homes in California and shelters in Virginia, in cold, institutional settings with adults who are not permitted to touch them or with foster parents who do not speak Spanish but who hug them when they cry.
The separations have stopped and the Trump administration has said that it is executing a plan to reunify the children with their parents before deporting them. Still, more than 2,000 children remain spread around the United States, far from their parents — many of whom have no idea where their sons and daughters have been taken.
The children have been through hell. They are babies who were carried across rivers and toddlers who rode for hours in trucks and buses and older kids who were told that a better place was just beyond the horizon.
And now they live and wait in unfamiliar places: big American suburban houses where no one speaks their language; a locked shelter on a dusty road where they spend little time outside; a converted Walmart where each morning they are required to stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance, in English, to the country that holds them apart from their parents.
Why must they say those words, some of the children ask at the shelter in Brownsville, on the Mexican border in Texas?
“We tell them, ‘It’s out of respect,’ ” said one employee of the facility, known as Casa Padre, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of losing their job.
U.S. authorities are compiling mug shots of the children in detention. Immigration lawyers who have seen the pictures say some of them show children in tears.
At a facility in Crofton, Md., run by Bethany Christian Services, 10 children separated from their parents arrived in recent days. Half were younger than 5, according to Tawnya Brown, a regional director of the organization. Most appeared to be from Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
Each child got a drawstring “arrival bag” containing a change of clothes and other necessities. The little ones got a teddy bear, too. They got to leave the shelter promptly, going to a new home with foster parents who speak to the children in “love language,” Brown said.
In Bristow, Va., about 15 boys and girls between the ages of 10 and 17 arrived in recent weeks after being separated from their parents. Now they stay in some of the 10 modern, $600,000 single-family houses on the sprawling green campus of Youth for Tomorrow, a residential facility for at-risk children.
At some facilities, there are so many children that the staff conduct prison-style head counts. In Brownsville, where the wings of the sprawling building are named for U.S. presidents, that can take hours. A few days ago, a frantic search ensued when one child appeared to be missing from the Reagan wing. He was later found in the Truman wing.
'I'm not crying anymore'
These are the places where the children wait. All around them, and all around the country, people are doing things for them. Caseworkers, lawyers and volunteers work the phones, searching for parents and other relatives.
At first, the kids believe they will soon be back with their families.
“One of them said: ‘I’m not crying anymore. Tomorrow, I’ll be with my dad,’ recalled an employee at the Brownsville shelter. But as it became clear that their release was not imminent, the children continued their routines — karaoke on Monday, cake for those celebrating a birthday, occasional group discussions about their future.
“Some say, ‘I’m going to be the most famous singer’ and others say, ‘I’m going to be a soccer star,’ ” the employee said. Others share a different expectation: “Remember that we don’t have papers,” an older child said. “We’ll probably work in construction.”
The people who devote their work lives to helping immigrant children at shelters are mostly low-level employees, working 12-hour shifts at $12 an hour. They are accustomed to young people arriving unaccompanied, mostly teens who knew that they would be on their own and came at least somewhat prepared. They might have had crucial bits of information pinned to their clothing or in their pockets or backpacks — birth certificates, names and phone numbers of relatives in the United States.
The forcibly separated children, in contrast, usually arrive with nothing. And the younger ones often know nothing.
“It was never anticipated that they were going to be totally on their own,” said Nithya Nathan-Pineau, director of the children’s program at the Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition.
But mostly, from the children’s perspective, people do things to them. At Bethany Christian Services in Maryland, for example, the children get vaccinations and treatment for their physical ailments — “Stomach issues, skin issues, things of that nature,” Brown said. Vigilant for lice, Bethany dispenses shampoo and combs. It also has teachers who instruct the kids in English, colors, letters, numbers. There’s “playtime, nap time, snack, recess,” Brown said.
Antar Davidson, who worked at Southwest Key’s Estrella del Norte shelter in Tucson from February until he quit in early June, described a tense environment that grew worse as the number of separated kids soared.
“People were yelling at the kids all the time” in Spanish, said Davidson, 32. He said supplies were rationed so tightly that kids were given hair gel one spoonful at a time.
“It really wears on these kids, the level of institutionalization,” he said.
Youth-care workers were told to discourage children from speaking their indigenous Central American languages, he said, before the policy was reversed. And when the number of separated kids rose from a handful to more than 50 in the 300-person shelter, employees were given a “refresher” course in how to use physical holds on kids, Davidson said.
Lawyers show up at the centers, sometimes bringing toys or stress balls for the children to play with. Some lawyers try to teach the kids about their predicament, offering “Know Your Rights” presentations, explaining the U.S. legal system to older kids, drawing stick-figure sketches of courtrooms for younger ones.
“You draw someone and say, ‘Okay, this is going to be the government attorney,” said one lawyer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of some of her cases.
Some kids engage. Some remain silent. Some have not spoken for weeks.
Going to 'summer camp'
The children clung to their parents through the terrifying journey north. They rode flimsy rafts across the rain-swollen Rio Grande. They hiked sun-bleached paths under the broiling sun. They were transported in “trucks, on top of railroad trains, in buses,” and on foot, said Gary Jones, chief executive of Youth for Tomorrow.
They crossed the border and were picked up by federal agents and placed in cavernous holding centers. In many cases, that’s where the separation happened. Parents were put in one cell, children in another.
At Customs and Border Protection stations, such as the massive Central Processing Center on Ursula Avenue in McAllen, Tex., some families were divided immediately, especially fathers and daughters, because girls can’t be detained with men. Children were often sorted by country, gender and age, to keep older and younger ones apart.
For some, the separation did not come until the morning they were brought to court on big silver buses. Border officials told parents they’d see their children when they got back from court.
But when they returned, their children were gone, taken to federal shelters. Some parents were told that their children were being taken for a bath, but then the kids did not come back.
At a shelter in McAllen, as word spread that children were being pulled from their parents, some mothers and fathers took to sleeping with their legs wrapped around their children so they couldn’t be snatched.
Sometimes, it fell to lawyers from the Texas Civil Rights Project to break the news, said Efrén Olivares, a lawyer with the organization, which has interviewed 381 immigrant parents who were separated from more than 400 children.
The parents who did know the separations were coming had to tell their kids something. A father from El Salvador said goodbye to his daughter before she was taken to a shelter by telling her that she was going to summer camp.
The scenes of trauma take a toll on everyone — parents and children, but also guards and advocates. Olivares came to the United States legally from Mexico at age 13. He knew no English. His mother stayed at home and his father drove a school bus. Olivares became valedictorian of his high school class and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and Yale Law School. Now, he’s 36, running on coffee and adrenaline to meet parents and try to reunite families.
“I’m going to crash sooner or later,” he said.
Last week, he had his own taste of the trauma of separation. His wife took their toddler to summer camp. There were tears. After an hour, she had to return because the child couldn’t be without her.
“An hour they lasted without one another,” Olivares said. He had tears in his eyes.
The road to reunification
At a shelter for the tender-aged near Los Angeles, one little child, overwhelmed, panicked. The hysteria set off the rest of the group, unleashing a contagion of crying that left the staff at a loss.
“The trauma for these children is significant,” said Brown, of Bethany Christian Services in Maryland. “You don’t always see the trauma. You don’t always see it in their faces. But you can see it in their physical reactions.”
At some facilities, there are mental health counselors who try to talk to the kids. But some immigration lawyers caution the children against disclosing too much to the therapists, worried that information might get passed on to the government, possibly affecting the child’s asylum claim.
At the cavernous Central Processing Center in McAllen, known as the “dog kennel” for its rooms made of chain-link fencing, children slept on mats on the concrete ground. With no parents around, some children suddenly found themselves changing the diapers of strangers.
The children sometimes don’t know their parents’ names or don’t know their own birth dates or how to spell their names.
“There’s just a lot of disconnect,” said Nathan-Pineau of the Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, which has two centers in Maryland and four in Virginia serving as shelters for migrant children. Some kids can’t communicate the “basic information that the staff would need to even start looking for their parents.”
Meanwhile, outside the shelter network, along the country’s southern border, lawyers working on behalf of bereft parents struggle to locate their clients’ children.
Rochelle Garza, an immigration lawyer in Brownsville, tried a toll-free phone number for the Office of Refugee Resettlement on Friday afternoon.
“We are experiencing high call volume,” said a recorded message. “Please stay on the line for the next available case manager.”
The man who finally answered told Garza that he could offer nothing more than an email address, the same generic one listed on the flier distributed to some parents.
“Right now,” the man said, “with the high volume of minors entering the United States, it’s a little complicated for them.”
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced Saturday that it is doing what it can, “bringing to bear all the relevant resources of the department in order to assist in the reunification or placement of unaccompanied alien children and teenagers with a parent or appropriate sponsor.”
Michelle Ortiz is a lawyer with Americans for Immigrant Justice in Miami, which represents a 3-year-old girl who was separated from her father at the New Mexico border. The father was deported, but the details of the case are not clear, Ortiz said, because “she’s 3. She can’t tell us exactly what happened. She can hold up her fingers to tell us how old she is, but not much more.” The girl is living with extended family in South Florida, her future uncertain.
The kids have come mainly from Central America. In the past year, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, based in Baltimore, has found temporary places for 148 children who had been separated from their parents. Half of the children were younger than 5, the youngest 18 months, according to spokeswoman Danielle Bernard. About two-thirds were from Guatemala, a quarter were from Honduras, and the rest came from El Salvador or Mexico.
In a residential section of Harlingen, Tex., a man in a gold pickup truck guarded the front gate of a shelter for young children run under a federal contract by Southwest Key. The shelter is a white frame house with a spacious yard covered with a thick layer of grass.
A worker leaving the shelter in her truck is asked how the kids inside are faring.
“They’re eating better than you,” she said Friday. “For lunch, they had fish, carrots, broccoli, a dinner roll. They’re being treated very well.”
A colorful jungle gym and a volleyball net sit in the front yard, which is shaded by tall trees. Neighbors said the facility has an indoor pool. One neighbor recently saw several little girls dressed in pink tops and shorts playing on the swings in the front yard. There are small basketball courts and two red tricycles for little kids.
Several neighbors expressed concern that the children are rarely outside. Neighbors said the children at Southwest Key can watch television and are taught arts and crafts, such as creating paper flowers.
“As a mother, I don’t like it,” said neighbor Liliana Barajas, 36. “They don’t bring them out enough. They’re kids. The last thing you want is for them to feel what they are in. It’s like a home prison to them. It’s heartbreaking.”
Sacchetti and Sieff reported from Texas; Fisher from Washington. Michael Miller in Arizona; Nick Anderson, Theresa Vargas, Abigail Hauslohner and Nick Miroff in Washington; Trevor Bach in Detroit; Marissa Lang in Bristow, Va.; Jahi Chikwendiu in Harlingen, Tex.; Rob Kuznia in Temecula, Calif.; and
Lori Rozsa in Homestead, Fla., contributed to this report.