The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Separated from her 3-year-old at the border in 2018, a mother wonders if the U.S. election will bring a reunion

Noyemi, a Honduran migrant who was separated from her 3-year-old son in 2018 under the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy, speaks with Jarvin, now 5, during their nightly video call. She’s staying with a friend of a friend in Torreón, Mexico; he’s with a great-aunt in Houston. (Kevin Sieff/The Washington Post)

TORREÓN, Mexico — It was 7 o'clock, so Noyemi picked up her phone, dialed the Houston number and waited for her son's face to appear on the screen.

Noyemi and Jarvin had been apart for two years, six months and four days, since the morning a Border Patrol officer in Roma, Tex., took the sleeping 3-year-old from Noyemi’s arms. Jarvin was almost 6 now. Their nightly phone call has become an exercise, she said, in reminding him “that I’m still his mom.”

“I’m not sure what he remembers of me any more.”

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The phone was ringing. When his face flashed onto the screen, with a new buzz cut and a wide smile, she had to stop herself. For so long, it seemed they might never see each other again. But now, suddenly, there was a reason to be hopeful. She wondered: Should she tell him?

“Mi amor!” she shouted.

Noyemi and Jarvin are among an unknown number of migrant parents and children who were separated under the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy and have not been reunited. They have endured their prolonged separation in relative obscurity, Jarvin with his great-aunt in Houston and Noyemi on the run from their native Honduras.

But after the ACLU said in October that it had not yet located the parents of 545 separated children, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden pledged to create a task force to reunite the still-separated families. An advocate for immigrants called Noyemi. When Noyemi turned on Telemundo at the home where she has been staying, there was the anchor talking about “family reunification.”

Americans across the political spectrum have imbued this week’s election with almost existential importance. But for some noncitizens, such as Noyemi and Jarvin, the impact might be even more direct. One candidate’s policy led to their separation; another is promising to reunify them.

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

That’s all Noyemi, now 26, knows about Donald Trump and Joe Biden, the two names she’s teaching herself to pronounce. She knows that Americans are once again talking about the way families like hers were separated at the border. She knows a lawyer is suddenly interested in taking her case.

Noyemi spoke on the condition that her last name be withheld for fear of impacting her reunification with her child. The Department of Homeland Security did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

DHS spokesman Chase Jennings said in October that the department had “taken every step to facilitate the reunification of these families where the parents wanted such reunification to occur.”

Between being separated and rediscovered, Noyemi lived for more than two years in a kind of purgatory. Her story offers a glimpse into the afterlife of the administration’s zero-tolerance policy, when hundreds of parents who were deported without their children scrambled to figure out what to do next.

The confusion that began on the day of their separation never lifted. Noyemi and Jarvin crossed the international bridge from Ciudad Miguel Alemán, Mexico, to Roma, Tex., in April 2018 and presented themselves to U.S. immigration agents to request asylum.

Jarvin was soon taken away by U.S. agents; Noyemi was transported to the South Texas ICE Processing Center in Pearsall and given a blue prison uniform. No one would tell her where her son was. No one would explain why she remained in detention, after she had passed her reasonable fear interview for asylum in the United States.

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Her only source of information was a television hanging on the wall of the detention center. She and other separated mothers gathered around it to watch Spanish-language news on Telemundo. They saw images of children in cages. They crowded the screen, trying to identify their own kids.

In November 2018, after seven months in detention, Noyemi was deported back to her native Honduras. By then, Jarvin had been sent to live with his great-aunt in Houston. Without her son and back in the city of San Pedro Sula, which has one of the world’s highest homicide rates, Noyemi considered killing herself.

She had lost the phone number of the American lawyer who represented her in detention. The ACLU filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of separated parents, but Noyemi heard nothing. No one told her she could choose for her son to be deported back to Honduras, she said (though that option was hardly ideal).

She still owed her smuggler $7,000 for her failed trip to the United States. The violent threats she fled in Honduras — which she did not want to discuss in detail — haunted her upon her return. She decided the only way she could live was to return to the United States to find Jarvin. 

“Not being with him, not even trying to be with him — that felt like dying, too.” 

Last year, she paid a smuggler to help her cross the border again. On three separate nights, they leaned a ladder against the border wall outside of Ciudad Juárez, but each time something went wrong — the ladder fell or the U.S. Border Patrol drove by. Eventually, she gave up. A friend of a friend invited her to stay at her house in Torreón, 300 miles south of the border.

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Being that close to the United States made her feel closer to Jarvin. And if there were a way to reunify, she would be only a bus ride from Texas. So now she’s here, in a quiet subdivision at the edge of this industrial city, cleaning houses and babysitting other people’s children during the day, waiting for her 7 o’clock phone call.

“Mommy, I hear you,” Jarvin squealed Saturday night.

“Look how handsome you are,” Noyemi said.

“How was school today?” she asked. “Did you behave yourself?”

“Look at these words I learned,” he said, and flashed the phone’s camera to hand-scrawled letters: The Spanish for “computer” and butterfly.”

They continued for a few minutes. Then: “Let’s talk tomorrow,” he said. Noyemi tried to take a screenshot of his face, asking him to smile.

“Okay, I’m going to go,” Jarvin said. “Talk to you tomorrow.” He hung up.

Noyemi stared at the blank screen and said nothing.

The conversations have been getting shorter for months. Sometimes Jarvin doesn’t want to talk at all. He calls his great-aunt “Mom” now. It’s been more than a year since he asked Noyemi when she would come see him.

“Sometimes I think, even if we were able to reunite, what will he do?” she said. “Will he reject me?”

Some deported parents were given the option of having their children returned to their countries of origin, but many declined, in some cases for fear of the threats the families had fled in the first place. Others, such as Noyemi, were not told of that option. The ACLU said it was heartened by Biden’s pledge to reunify families in the United States.

“Because the Trump administration intends to allow few, if any, of the separated families to return to the United States, their fate likely will rest in the court or a change in administrations,” said Lee Gelernt, the lead ACLU attorney on the case. “Given Vice President Biden’s recent statements, there is good reason to believe that he would take care of these families who have suffered so much.”

Now Noyemi is back to watching Telemundo’s evening broadcast the way she did in detention, hoping the anchor will mention family separation again. She’s trying to remember how to type “separación de familias” into Google on her smartphone.

She fled detention and torture in Nicaragua for asylum in the United States. The government put her on a plane back home.

Other still-separated parents, dispersed across Mexico and Central America, are also scrambling to keep up with the news.

María, whose 9-year-old daughter Adelaida is in Fort Myers, Fla., with her aunt, is back in northern Guatemala. They were among the first families separated, according to government records, in July 2017.

“I wonder if there’s a chance I could see her before Christmas,” María said.

Magdalena, a few towns over in Guatemala, is still apart from her daughter, María, who is in Indiantown, Fla., with a great-aunt.

“It’s just waiting and waiting,” Magdalena said.

José Luis, in central Honduras, remains separated from his son in Virginia.

“Only God knows why these things are permitted even though they are so difficult,” he said.

In Torreón, Noyemi has so far decided not to tell Jarvin about the potential path to their reunification. It seems too uncertain, predicated on intricacies of American politics that she doesn’t pretend to understand.

But the boy’s 6th birthday is in January, and there have been moments when she’s had to bite her tongue before suggesting that maybe, somehow, they could be together for it.

“I probably shouldn’t say anything until I’m standing in front of him,” she said. “Wouldn’t that be a nice surprise?”

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