He stuffed the U.S. government records in his backpack. There was a note printed at the bottom of the first page, a dispatch from the Biden era that had made its way here:
“Do whatever you can to find the family.”
More than four years after the Trump administration began separating migrant families at the border, Pop is among a handful of searchers trying to find the parents deported alone to some of the farthest-flung corners of Central America. Two hundred seventy-five of them are still missing.
Most of their children remain in the United States with relatives or foster families. Some were babies when Border Patrol agents took them from their parents; they’ve now lived most of their lives apart from them.
The Biden administration has agreed to reunify those families in the United States — a reparation for the most controversial U.S. immigration policy in decades. The hardest part has been simply locating the parents.
The Trump administration kept little data on the families that were separated. In many cases, only scraps of information remain: a deported parent’s name, a village in Guatemala or Honduras, a phone number that may no longer work.
That information makes its way from the U.S. government through a chain of legal organizations and eventually to people such as Pop, a 33-year-old human rights lawyer in Guatemala’s Alta Verapaz department who is crisscrossing the country in search of the missing parents.
He has a baby face, wears a collared shirt and carries a black backpack. Away from his one-room law office, stacked with legal briefings and books on the Mayan legal code, he is sometimes mistaken for a student.
Pop is paid an hourly rate for the work. He often sleeps on the floors of schoolhouses. His motorcycle has been swept away by flooding rivers.
He has plastered the walls of Indigenous villages with fliers printed in bold letters: “SEPARATED FAMILIES.”
“If you have been deported recently …”
“If your child is still in the United States …”
“We can put you in touch with American lawyers to speak about your reunification options.”
While the Biden administration has publicized its Family Reunification Task Force, it has left the work of finding parents to small civil society organizations, which the government believes are more trusted on the ground. The result can seem bizarre: a Guatemalan volunteer on a rented motorcycle trying to deliver on a promise from the White House.
Even before the Biden push, Pop had been doing this work, and by this spring, after more than a year of searching, Pop had found 80 parents. In Chicamán, he was searching for the father who might be his 81st.
A description of the man had come to him in an email from Justice in Motion, a Brooklyn-based nonprofit. It included his name, but few other details. Pop printed out the message and slid it into his backpack.
“Every search is a little different,” Pop said. “Did the family move? Are they hiding? Did the parent try again for the United States? Sometimes you knock on the door and there’s no one there.”
He keeps a list of the parents he hasn’t been able to find. They remained, in the parlance of the U.S. reunification effort, “unreachable.”
Pop parked his motorcycle and started to climb the hill. His loafers were quickly covered in mud. A farmer stared at him. Pop waved and asked for directions.
The farmer pointed to a hut that was being overtaken by the earth around it. It looked like a freeze-frame of a landslide in progress.
Moments like this occurred frequently — when Pop arrived at an address that appeared to be uninhabitable, when he imagined adding another name to the “unreachable” list. Another dead end.
This time he said it out loud: “This whole place feels like it’s about to be destroyed.”
Then a woman stepped out from the tangle of branches that surrounded the hut. She wore a hand-embroidered blouse and plastic sandals. Her hair was pulled back tightly in a bun; a pendant of the Virgin Mary hung from her neck.
“Good morning,” Pop said in Q’eqchi’, the language of Chicamán. “I hope we didn’t surprise you.”
By the time a federal judge ordered an end to the Trump administration’s family separation policy in June 2018, more than 5,000 children had been separated from their parents.
More than 1,000 parents were deported alone, their hands and feet cuffed, on charter flights back to the countries they had fled.
Once they arrived in capital cities, some took buses or taxis back to their hometowns. Others went into hiding to avoid the threats they had attempted to escape. Many more sold their homes to pay smugglers for the failed journeys north, ending up displaced in their own countries.
Pedro C. was separated from his son Wilson in August 2017 — nearly a year before the Trump administration made the policy public — as part of an unannounced pilot program in El Paso. The boy was then 13.
Pedro — Justice in Motion asked that his full last name be withheld to maintain his safety — was held in a West Texas detention center. He was not told where his son was taken. When he was flown back to Guatemala City, he assumed his son would be there waiting.
He called his wife from the airport. She told him Wilson was still in the United States.
“We will never see our son again,” he thought to himself.
They had put up their home as collateral to pay the smuggler who arranged their journey to the border. Within weeks of Pedro’s return, it was seized.
Pedro didn’t realize it, but he had fallen off the U.S. radar. He had no lawyer. The U.S. government had no working contact information for him.
He drove into town once a week to make a video call to Wilson, who was living in Arkansas, attending high school and working on a farm.
Wilson turned 14, then 15, then 16, then 17. Although he was in the United States, the government had lost track of him, too.
The Department of Health and Human Services had a phone number for Wilson’s uncle, who had become the boy’s legal guardian. But when investigators called, the number was dead. Wilson’s uncle, it turned out, had been deported in 2018. After that, Wilson lived mostly alone.
Nearly all of the “unreachable” parents are in communication with their children. But the U.S. government can’t locate the parent or the child, making reunification impossible.
This has become a challenge for President Biden. Days after taking office, he signed an executive order creating a task force to reunite the families.
“We are going to work to undo the moral and national shame of the previous administration that literally, not figuratively, ripped children from the arms of their families at the border,” he said.
Suddenly, the government wanted to know where the parents were. Lawyers working alongside the government started poring through the Trump administration’s incomplete data. They broadcast radio ads throughout Central America.
“If you or someone you know was separated from a child at the border with the United States between 2017 and 2018,” a narrator said in Spanish, “this information will interest you.”
Back in Chicamán, Pedro never heard the ad. Nor had he heard that a new U.S. president had launched a family reunification task force.
He wasn’t surprised that no one had tried to reach him.
Pedro knew other people deported from the United States. He knew deportation was final. The U.S. government doesn’t come knocking on your door in rural Guatemala to invite you back, he thought.
The morning sun was rising over Chicamán when Pedro looked out from his hut and stared, bewildered, at Pop.
“Good morning,” Pop said. “I work with a group of lawyers from the United States.”
Pedro’s expression did not change. He was wearing blue jeans and rubber boots. He had a square jaw and a buzz cut. He invited Pop to sit down on a plastic chair in his one-room hut.
“We know some migrants have their rights violated, some are separated from their children,” Pop continued. “Our organization focuses on ensuring the rights of migrants.”
“I understand you tried to migrate to the United States,” Pop said.
“How did you know that?” Pedro responded, his eyes narrowing.
“Yes, it’s true. I went with my son,” he said, relaxing his shoulders a little. “We tried.”
Pop could read the distrust on his face. It was an expression he knew well.
Just an hour earlier, as he searched for another separated family, a group of community leaders had come upon him.
“What are you doing here?” one demanded, angrily.
On other searches, mainly in larger towns and cities, the mistrust was so deep that people were sometimes unwilling to even offer directions, or point out the homes of relatives. Families refused to open their doors.
They worried that he was there to seize their land, or that he had been sent by the United States to punish them again for crossing the border illegally.
But the truth was that Pop was one of his community’s most respected lawyers, a man who grew up selling food on a roadside in Guatemala’s highlands. Many of his own relatives had migrated illegally to the United States.
He searched for parents in part because he knew that if his life had gone slightly differently, he could have been one of those separated from a child at the border.
He leaned closer to Pedro.
“I know that our brothers migrate to the United States because they have needs, because they need work, because they need money,” he said.
Pedro described his WhatsApp calls with his son. “Whenever I hear his voice, I start to cry,” he said.
Then Pop turned to what he could offer.
He had to be careful about suggesting a path to reunification. It wasn’t his job to make promises. He was meant to make the unreachable families reachable — to connect them to lawyers in the United States who could facilitate their return. The U.S. program has reunited about three dozen families so far.
But the process has been slowed by logistical hurdles, both in the United States and Central America. Hundreds are waiting for updates on when they will be reunified.
“Are you willing to talk to an attorney in the U.S.?” Pop asked.
“Yes, I am,” Pedro said. “No matter what they want to ask me or tell me, I’m interested.”
Pop took notes. Pedro was now joined by his wife and two young daughters.
“I did not expect this,” he said. “I did not think that someone was worried or asking for information about me.”
Pop tried to wind down the interview by calibrating expectations.
“I promise nothing yet,” he said. “We are just going to wait. We are going to send the information.”
But it was too late. For someone to come all this way, carrying papers with his name — “It’s the beginning of something,” Pedro thought.
He followed Pop out the door.
“I thank you a lot. I thank you for coming,” he said, “As I said, I need help. We need your help.”