The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

They were one of the first families separated at the border. Two and a half years later, they’re still apart.

María Reynoso and her 9-year-old daughter Adelaida were one of the first migrant families separated at the U.S.-Mexico border in 2017. (Video: Kevin Sieff/The Washington Post)

FORT MYERS, Fla. — She tries to avoid the word. What she says is that her mom is in Guatemala. Or that her mom has been deported and will try to come back soon.

But when her teacher, or her social worker, or her best friend Ashley asks, Adelaida sounds it out — one of the first words she learned in English. “They separated us.”

Adelaida Reynoso and her mother, María, were among the first migrant families broken up by the Trump administration, on July 31, 2017, long before the government acknowledged it was separating parents and children at the border.

They haven’t seen each other since.

Adelaida is now 9, a third-grader in southwest Florida, one of the top students in her class, carrying a thick English dictionary in a purple backpack. María, now 31, was deported alone to rural Guatemala. She has met with lawyers and smugglers and priests about reuniting with her daughter. Nothing has worked.

Despite a massive legal effort and protest movement, many of the migrant families split up at the border remain apart. The children have now spent enough time in the United States to narrate their stories of separation in fluent English. Their parents are back in Central America, watching sons and daughters grow up over grainy video calls.

One call came last month, from Sacapulas, Guatemala, to Fort Myers, Fla., as Adelaida leaped off the school bus on a quiet, palm-tree-lined street.

“I want to show you my papers from class,” the girl told her mother. “It’s the report about how I behave.”

In squalid Mexico tent city, asylum seekers are growing so desperate they’re sending their children over the border alone

She held the black cellphone in front of her. On the screen, her mother’s face was blurry, a sliver of the Guatemalan countryside in the background.

“I got a 100 and a 92 and two A’s.”

“How smart,” her mom’s voice crackled through the phone.

Adelaida wore a red polo shirt and a ponytail. She waved her books in front of the phone. She showed her mother her bus stop, a stretch of sidewalk outside the two-bedroom apartment she shared with 11 people, including two aunts and an uncle.

“Do you have any homework?” María asked.

“No, they didn’t give us any today,” Adelaida said.

María summoned her most maternal voice.

“When you get home, you need to wash your hair,” she said.

They stared at each other and said nothing. Adelaida moved her finger over the image of her mother’s face, caressing the screen.

“You’re always in my heart,” Adelaida said.

It’s the same every afternoon. Adelaida spends her days at Manatee Elementary, her English vocabulary overtaking her Spanish. Then she goes home and looks at her mother’s face on the phone.

Some days, Adelaida gets angry. When other kids in class talk about their mothers. When her aunt kisses her cousin Angel good night, but not her.

María can see her daughter’s eyes getting big and glassy, her face turning red.

“I need you by my side,” Adelaida exclaims.

“I’m trying,” María responds. She hangs up and cries.

A hidden separation

The Trump administration said in 2018 that nearly 3,000 children had been separated from their parents at the border — the parents detained or deported, the children sent to foster care or family members in the United States.

A court ordered the government to reunite them, in the United States or their home countries. The American Civil Liberties Union and other lawyers searched for parents and children, and have reunited most.

But the actual number of separated families was much higher. María and Adelaida’s case was one of the hidden ones. They weren’t acknowledged in reports to Congress. They weren’t given the option of reuniting in the United States.

Then, last year, officials gave the lawyers a batch of Excel spreadsheets identifying 1,556 earlier cases of separation, above the 3,000 previously acknowledged. Many of these newly identified families remain split up.

After the volcano, indigenous Guatemalans search for safer ground — in Guatemala, or the United States

Lawyers traversed Central America with only scraps of information: misspelled names and phone numbers no longer in use.

Some parents have disappeared. Others have gone into hiding to avoid the threats they once tried to escape.

The lawyers found María in December.

She’s a small woman with big brown eyes who keeps her cellphone tucked into a hand-stitched skirt. She lives in a ­cinder-block hut at the top of a hill at the edge of Sacapulas. She’s lost weight.

“You could just see how fragile she had become, how profoundly sad,” said Rebeca Sanchez Ralda, an attorney affiliated with Brooklyn-based Justice in Motion.

After María was deported, she tried twice more to cross the border. She told immigration agents she was trying to get to her daughter. Each time, she was ­deported again.

María had her interview with an asylum officer on Aug. 16, 2017. She kept a copy of the transcript.

“I hope you or the officer can give me the opportunity to stay here with my daughter,” she told the interpreter. “I don’t want to return to the things that happened in Guatemala.”

This school aims to keep young Guatemalans from migrating. They don’t know it’s funded by the U.S. government.

Other separated parents — the ones initially recognized by the administration — have joined a class-action lawsuit filed by the ACLU. Some asked to be reunited with their children in the United States.

A federal judge ruled in favor of 11 of them. Nine of them landed in Los Angeles last month. Twenty-nine others, aided by American lawyers, crossed the border last year.

But María wasn’t a part of the ACLU lawsuit, or any other petition, because her case hadn’t been recorded.

“This is a group who the government kept hidden from us, the court, Congress and the public,” said Lee Gelernt, an ACLU attorney. “And these children were even younger than the original group, hundreds just babies and toddlers.”

After each deportation, María returned to the hut in Sacapulas and picked up the phone to tell her daughter she had failed.

“I tried my best, but it didn’t work,” she said.

She asked Adelaida if she wanted to return to Guatemala. But by then the girl had astonished her teachers, acing math tests fast enough to read chapter books while the other kids are still working.

“She’s one of those kids who just does everything right,” said her principal, Scott LeMaster.

Adelaida tells María she should come to Fort Myers, where “they protect us.”

“I tell my mom, ‘No, you need to come here, because there, there’s a little danger.”

They’ve now spent nearly a third of her life apart. Adelaida has grown six inches. She’s lost her baby teeth. She’s learned to ride a bicycle. She sends her mother photos of her Florida life.

There’s Adelaida on the Fourth of July, watching fireworks. In a white dress as the flower girl at a wedding. Holding a stack of library books. Blowing out the candles on her birthday cake, when she turned 7. When she turned 8. When she turned 9.

“She’s such an intelligent girl,” María said. “I know she’s better off there. But seeing [the pictures] — sometimes it only makes things harder.”

‘Reasonable fear of torture established’

The threats started even before Adelaida was born.

When María was pregnant, she says, Adelaida’s father tried to force her to have an abortion. He was married. When Adelaida was a baby, María says, he entered their home with a pistol and threatened to kill them both.

María and Adelaida fled to Guatemala City, where they were threatened by a gang. María and her younger sister Patricia, with a baby of her own, decided it was time to try for the United States. They paid a smuggler $8,000; they planned to request asylum at the border.

Once María was in custody, she said, an immigration agent approached.

“He said, ‘I’m taking your daughter with me,’ and he took her arm. I started screaming. He wouldn’t say where she was going or for how long.”

Adelaida started wailing.

“I didn’t want to leave my mom,” she said. “When I was almost going to say goodbye, they took me, so I couldn’t.”

Patricia Reynoso, Adelaida’s aunt, tried to reason with the agent. She wasn’t sure why María was separated from Adelaida, but she was allowed to stay with her daughter.

“The agent looked at me and said, ‘I’m a father. I don’t want to be doing this, but it’s my job,’ ” Patricia said.

Adelaida was flown to New York, where she was placed with a foster family.

María was taken to a detention center in southern Arizona, where she pursued her asylum case. She told the asylum officer about Adelaida’s father: “He said he was going to kill me. And that I was not going to know how or when.”

The officer put a check next to the box: “Reasonable fear of torture established.”

The officer asked where Adelaida was now.

“I was told that she was going to be taken away because I had to serve my sentence,” María responded. “I asked if I would see her and I was told they don’t know, that I was not going to see my daughter again.”

The U.S. is putting asylum seekers on planes to Guatemala — often without telling them where they’re going

María borrowed $3,000 to hire an attorney. But after seven months, he told her to drop her case to avoid being detained for a much longer period.

“I know she wanted to be reunited with her child,” lawyer Israel Hernandez said in an email. “But with the new Trump rules and lack of evidence to support [her] claim, it was difficult.”

The guidance confused María. She had a folder full of documentation to support her case.

“It all happened quickly,” she said. “The lawyer told the judge that I was dropping my case.”

Within days, she was on a plane to Guatemala.

Adelaida was sent to Florida, where she moved in with her aunt, Patricia, in the crowded two-bedroom apartment. Another aunt moved in, and then an uncle. Other housemates were strangers.

She started attending Manatee Elementary — but at 6, she couldn’t read or write in any language. “She needs to improve all the Spanish skills and the English skills as well,” an instructor wrote.

Officials from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which facilitated the family separation policy, gave Patricia a pamphlet in Spanish on how to support Adelaida. It was called “How to Help My Child.”

“Spend time together as a family,” it suggested. “Make time for your family to eat together and play and take trips.”

A Guatemalan ‘mirror city’ in Florida

One Saturday afternoon last month, two police cars drove into Adelaida’s apartment complex in Fort Myers. Adelaida stood near the window in a gray dress with a plush koala. Her shoulders trembled. Every time she sees a man in uniform, she feels a shock of fear.

The officers had made the building a frequent stop. It is overwhelmingly Guatemalan, often with 10 people or more crammed into small apartments.

Women walk around in Mayan fabrics. Many speak indigenous languages, not Spanish. The men work mostly in landscaping and construction. There are dozens of children, most newly arrived from the border, with asylum cases pending.

“When I just arrived, I was a little afraid,” Adelaida says. “There were so many boys.”

In Guatemala, lenders that were supported by USAID and the World Bank are now funding illegal migration

Sometimes when she gets scared, she sneaks away to her room and squeezes her plush bear.

“I pretend it’s my mom,” she says. “I dream that we are playing together.”

This corner of Fort Myers has become what Guatemalans call a ciudad espejo — a “mirror city” in which Guatemalan villages are replicated on this side of the U.S. border. A pipeline has formed between the northern Guatemalan departments of Quiche and Huehuetenango and the city of Fort Myers.

Almost half of María’s class is Guatemalan, mostly children who arrived in the United States over the last two years. LeMaster, the principal, has come to feel as if he’s on the front lines of the country’s immigration crisis, 1,500 miles from the border.

“Here it just comes and smacks you in the face,” he said. “We have 6-, 7- and 8-year-olds arriving who have never been to school a day in their lives.”

When the government began separating families, Manatee Elementary saw the consequences. In his Wednesday staff meetings, LeMaster told the school’s teachers: “We need to be aware that some of these kids are missing water and clothes, and others are missing both of their parents.”

Adelaida says “about half” of her classmates “don’t have their moms.”

“It’s hard because sometimes the kids with moms make fun of us.”

She told her aunt. Patricia gave her advice: “Tell the other kids that your mom is coming.”

It was confusing for Adelaida. Was her mom coming or not? She did what her aunt advised. The bullying stopped. But Adelaida’s pleas became more frequent.

“I need you by my side,” she screamed at her mother last month.

“I know,” María said. She had run out of responses.

In western Guatemala, cultivating coffee was once a way out of poverty. As prices fall, growers are abandoning their farms for the United States.

An American attorney had suggested María might be able to petition to return to the United States, now that her case was finally recognized. But there was no timeline, and no certainty. She was reluctant to mention it to Adelaida.

“I miss you more than you miss me,” Adelaida said.

“No, I miss you mooooore,” María said.

Their calls could go on like that for an hour. But lately, Adelaida has had homework to do and friends to play with and books to read. The Florida Standards Assessments test was coming up and she was nervous. She excused herself.

“I remember less and less about Guatemala,” she said. “When I left, I was small.”

She paused.

“And sometimes it’s hard to think about what happened.”

The State Department is helping elderly Mexicans reunite with their undocumented children in the United States

29 parents separated from their children and deported last year cross U.S. border to request asylum

These migrants were separated from their children — and aren’t sure they should be reunited

Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

Like Washington Post World on Facebook and stay updated on foreign news