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In dreaming of a new life in America, Elsa Johana Ortiz Enriquez had imagined the harrowing journey many times: seven days on the road from Guatemala to Mexico with her 8-year-old son, Anthony; turning themselves in to a Border Patrol agent; being held in detention for weeks at the perrera, or dog kennel, as migrants refer to U.S. immigration detention facilities. “I thought I might even have to wait weeks or months to be released, but then I’d eventually make it to Virginia,” she says.
But just 24 hours after they arrived in McAllen, Texas, on a warm Saturday morning in May, the reality was far different: Immigration authorities entered their cell and grabbed her son. “It all happened so quickly,” Ortiz says. “I went to get his shoes, and he was gone.” As the door closed behind Anthony, Ortiz struggled with the guards holding her back. “They told me to stay calm,” she says. A Border Patrol officer soon explained that she was facing criminal charges for attempting to cross the border illegally. “He told me there was a new law and so they needed to take him from me while I went to court,” Ortiz says, “but that I’d get him right after.”
Border Patrol turned her over to immigration authorities. Ten days later, with no word from Anthony, a guard called Ortiz’s name, handcuffed her and shackled her legs. “Where are you taking me? Am I being deported?” she asked. “You’re going on the bus to go home,” the guard said. Meaning Guatemala. She assumed her son would join her.
The bus, filled with women set for deportation, drove all night to the airport in Laredo without stopping. Ortiz couldn’t sleep. With every mile marker the bus passed, she believed she was getting closer to him.
At dawn, the bus pulled up to the airport. She scanned the line outside to board the plane: only men and women. No children. No Anthony. Ortiz felt nauseous. She cried for help. An officer handed out deportation orders and asked the women on the bus to sign. “I am not signing anything until you tell me where my son is,” Ortiz said. “I can’t leave without him.” One by one, the rest of the women filed off the bus and made their way onto the plane. Ortiz remained seated, sobbing. “I’ll sign,” she said, “but only when you bring him.”
She refused to sign the paperwork but got off the bus, her legs still cuffed. A female official asked what was wrong. Ortiz confided in her; she says the woman started crying. “That just can’t be, my dear,” the official said. “You can’t leave without your son.” Ortiz says the woman tried to find a supervisor, but the deportation order was clear. Authorities sat her in the first row of the plane. The other women tried to console her.
Two and half hours later, the flight landed at an air base in Guatemala City. Ortiz, still in shock, couldn’t walk. The other deported women carried her off the plane. She told officials that Anthony had been left behind. Nobody appeared concerned. One officer even waved her off, saying her son would be back in two weeks.
Like the other women, Ortiz was given a chicken salad sandwich, a juice box and a phone call. She rang her father. Then, officials fingerprinted her, opened the airport gate and left her standing on a curb near a bustling intersection. Wearing the same gray hoodie and jeans she’d left home with, she waited for her dad to pick her up. She felt numb. Would she ever see Anthony again?
When the Trump administration instituted its “zero tolerance” immigration policy last April, it effectively separated 2,551 families at the border in just three months. Past administrations generally avoided breaking up families by keeping them together in detention centers or releasing them to await court hearings. The Trump White House went further, pushing for the criminal prosecution of every migrant who tried to enter the U.S. illegally.
Authorities arrested parents and placed their children—some as young as 12 months old—in the care of the Office of Refugee Resettlement at the Health and Human Services Department, which typically handles children who crossed the border alone. The administration argued that this approach was necessary to curb illegal crossings and close loopholes in immigration law. “A big name of the game is deterrence,” John Kelly, the president’s chief of staff, told NPR in May.
But in June, Trump capitulated to public outcry and reversed the practice, and a federal judge soon ordered the government to reunite families by the end of July.
For Ortiz and 462 other migrants, this was easier said than done. Unlike most of their fellow migrants, they had been deported without their children—in some cases under the false belief that, if they signed deportation orders, their children would be returned sooner. Government officials labeled these parents “ineligible” for reunification—simply because they had already been deported—and, facing a lawsuit over the separations, told a judge that getting their kids back to them was not the government’s responsibility.
Judge Dana Sabraw of the U.S. District Court in San Diego disagreed. “The reality is that for every parent who is not located, there will be a permanent orphaned child,” he said in court, “and that is 100 percent the responsibility of the administration.” Nevertheless, these deported migrants face the longest odds for reunification. Today, more than 300 children remain separated from their parents.
According to a government source familiar with the crisis, no protocols were put in place for the Department of Justice, Homeland Security, and Health and Human Services to track families who were broken apart, “leaving behind paper files, incomplete lists of names and a black hole.” There are no records of many deported parents’ locations, especially if they were fleeing violence in their home countries, says Michelle Brané, director of the migrant rights and justice program at the Women’s Refugee Commission. “Let’s not forget,” she tells me, “the government separated these families with really no plan for reunifying them.” (The administration is still seeking to harden immigration policy. In September, it moved to sidestep time limits on child detention. If approved, a new regulation would allow authorities to hold kids with their parents indefinitely until cases are resolved in immigration court.)
Back home, many migrants cannot rely on their own governments for help. Central American leaders have issued statements on social media condemning the separations but made little effort to locate deported parents, let alone curtail illegal immigration. This is especially true of Guatemala, the top country of origin for migrants apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border. Facing widespread gang violence and endemic poverty, more than 37,000 Guatemalan families have attempted crossing so far this fiscal year—a 50 percent increase over the previous fiscal year. That includes 1,171 children apprehended under zero tolerance.
Newsweek, in collaboration with Plaza Pública, an independent, investigative nonprofit news outlet in Guatemala, found the country’s Foreign Ministry had no tally of family separations or people deported under zero tolerance, making it nearly impossible for officials to track them. In a statement, the ministry said it had requested the information from U.S. authorities but had yet to receive it. Officials declined multiple interview requests and provided little detail on how they were helping parents separated from their children, saying only that they “offer migrants legal assistance.”
Anita Isaacs, a Central America scholar at Haverford College, says Guatemala’s tepid response has roots in corrupt policies and practices that date back decades. A civil war lasted 36 years and claimed at least 200,000 lives. The conflict ended in 1996, but not before the military nurtured an illegal—and lucrative—adoption market by kidnapping thousands of children. It wasn’t until 2007 that an anti-graft commission exposed a system fraught with fake birth certificates and DNA samples. “It is no surprise we are currently witnessing total indifference on the part of Guatemalan authorities,” Isaacs tells me. “It’s indifference verging on acquiescence.”
Today, Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales faces various corruption charges, as do several top administration officials. Dubbed the “Latin American Trump” by local media, he recently shut down a U.N.-backed anti-corruption commission investigating a number of government officials, including himself. As Nate Snyder, a former senior counterterrorism official at Homeland Security during the Obama administration, puts it: “Relying on a corrupt government to help reunify families is just a pipe dream.”
Shunted by the U.S. and ignored by her own government, Ortiz was alone.
Ortiz looks like your average 25-year-old millennial: skinny jeans, shiny flats, brown eyes glued to her smartphone. But her diminutive appearance belied her tenacity and media-savvy. Twenty-five days since she’d last seen Anthony, on a breezy summer afternoon, she walked for nearly half an hour on unpaved roads to catch a taxi to the U.S. Embassy. The driver charged her 100 quetzales, about $13—the equivalent of a full day’s pay—for the 17-mile drive into Guatemala City’s business district. A local journalist had tipped her off to a protest, and she leaped at the chance to raise her case’s profile.
She made a homemade sign that read, “I’m Anthony’s mother. Give him back to me, por fabor.” The last word was misspelled; Ortiz dropped out of school in the sixth grade. As she joined the crowd, she held the sign high. TV crews surrounded her. She stood up straight and looked into the cameras.
Ortiz became a mom at 16 and split from Anthony’s biological father soon after. She waitressed for a bit in her hometown, but the 12-hour shifts barely netted $100 a month, less than a third of the national minimum wage. Four years ago, she took a job as a live-in maid in the capital, and she and Anthony struggled to get by. Through a fellow maid, Ortiz met Carlos.
Carlos had left Guatemala for the U.S. more than 15 years ago and made a comfortable living working construction in Virginia. Their relationship started, and blossomed, entirely over WhatsApp. “I know people think it is strange, but I really love everything about her,” says Carlos, who asked that his real name not be used because he fears reprisal from federal authorities. “She is so responsible, such a good mom and such a nice girl.”
To show her his commitment, Carlos began sending Ortiz $200 a month, so she could quit her job to take care of Anthony. Ortiz moved back in with her mom in Ciudad Pedro de Alvarado, which is about 105 miles south of Guatemala City.
After almost a year, Ortiz and Carlos began talking about her joining him in America. Ortiz was tired of living in poverty, but she told him, “I wouldn’t leave without my son. And I wasn’t going to leave on any of the trips you hear of people waiting in warehouses for weeks or taking months just to cross. I needed guarantees.”
So Carlos used his savings on a VIP coyote service that would smuggle Ortiz and Anthony into the U.S. for $13,000—about three times the going rate. There was no cramming into a shipping container or jumping aboard “the Beast,” one of the Mexican freight trains migrants use. Instead, Ortiz and her son traveled with another mother and child in a car for five days. Right before they crossed into the U.S., the smuggler sent Carlos a video of Ortiz and Anthony on a small yellow raft bobbing across the Rio Grande. At that moment, Carlos sent the final payment. Then Ortiz and Anthony surrendered to a Customs and Border Patrol agent in McAllen, Texas. She expected “catch and release”—temporary detention followed by monitoring in the U.S. Instead, she got zero tolerance.
Now, Ortiz was on Reforma Avenue in Guatemala City, protesting her separation from Anthony. Pedro Pablo Solares, a lawyer specializing in migrant cases, passed by in an Uber. It was rare to see protesters in front of the U.S. Embassy, and when he spotted pro-migrant advocates, he told the driver to stop. Dozens of people waved signs, but Ortiz’s caught his eye. “It was the only one written in first person,” Solares tells me.
He listened, horrified, as Ortiz told her story to reporters. After the TV crews packed up, he approached her and took her hands. “My dear,” he told her, “I’m going to help you get your boy back.”
After her deportation, Ortiz had moved in with her father, stepmom and two sisters outside Guatemala City, to be closer to a capital bureaucracy she hoped would help her. It had been 35 days since she and her son were separated, and she was busy making breakfast for the family. The three-bedroom house, at the bottom of a ravine, was cramped and had spotty utilities.
Ortiz slept badly, busying herself as best she could by helping with her younger siblings. Sometimes, to pass the hours, Ortiz accompanied her dad as he drove around in his old white pickup, acting as a sort of taxi for day laborers. Often, she’d unlock her phone and swipe through old photos of Anthony. Her favorites were pictures of him at school. There was one of him dressed up as a tree made out of a brown paper bag for a school play.
Ortiz was lucky in some ways; many parents didn’t know where their kids were. At least Anthony had remembered the phone number of his grandfather in Guatemala—Ortiz had helped him memorize it before their journey in case something went wrong—and the family knew, a few days into his detention, that he was safe at a Texas shelter for unaccompanied minors. And yet: “I had a dream that I went to the United States to pick him up. It was so real. I could feel him close to me, hugging me,” Ortiz says. “I woke up at 5 a.m., and he wasn’t there.” She pauses. “Even in my dreams I can’t stand still. I have to keep fighting for him.”
Three times a week, she’d travel to Guatemala City to talk to reporters and the officials Solares would help her meet, an exhausting process. Some officials told her nothing could be done until the boy went before a judge. Others blamed Ortiz. “You knew exactly what you were exposing him to, by bringing him to a person that is not the child’s family,” one official wrote in reference to Carlos. It was hard for Ortiz not to feel guilty.
One afternoon, 45 days since the separation, Ortiz gave me a tour of Ciudad Pedro de Alvarado, the town where she grew up and last lived with Anthony. It’s less of a city than a way station on the El Salvador border. Surrounded by arid slopes, a slum of cinder-block homes with tin roofs rises from the valley floor. Its most distinctive feature is the smell of diesel fuel from a stretch of state-of-the-art gas stations where semis idle until their customs inspections. Most of the town’s residents work as street peddlers or tend food stands that cater to truckers. Traffickers frequent the area because of the unprotected border.
Ortiz walked a few paces off the main road to Anthony’s elementary school. She peered through the chain-link fence: small kids sitting under leafy trees, listening to their teachers, were making crafts. She entered the school and lingered in the doorway of a classroom. A room full of first-graders looked over. “Have you brought me back the boy?” Anthony’s teacher asked, brushing past Ortiz in hopes he was behind her. Ortiz froze. She shook her head no. Tears rolled down her cheeks. “I should have never done this,” she tells me afterward, referring to her journey north. “But I wanted a better future for him. He always dreamed of speaking English.”
Later that day, as she ate lunch in a pupusería, a waitress recognized her from TV and started talking to her. The woman explained that she’d been planning to leave for the U.S. with her daughter. “But when I heard what happened to you,” she said, “I changed my mind.” Ortiz’s eyes widened. “Don’t do it. It’s not worth it.”
Tuesdays were the best days. That’s when Ortiz knew she’d get a 20-minute video call from Anthony on her cellphone. On those days, Ortiz woke up motivated. She showered first thing in the morning and picked her outfit with her boy in mind.
When Anthony called, he usually sat in a big, well-lit room where he met with social workers for counseling sessions. Sometimes, he was drawing at a desk. Other kids passed by in the background. If they weren’t shy, he introduced them to his mom. He often told her about children whose parents hadn’t been found yet.
One Tuesday, the phone barely rang for three seconds. Ortiz was sitting in the passenger seat of her dad’s pickup; her stepmom and two sisters were peering into the phone from the back of the truck. Anthony appeared on screen with a big smile. He was wearing a red T-shirt and moved the camera to show the top of his head.
“Chiquito, did they chop off your hair?”
“Yes, Mami, I got that haircut I wanted, all square.”
“You look so handsome, my love.”
“Who’s there with you, Mami? Show me Papá Chepe.”
“Yes, everyone is here. Doña Francis is in the back too. Very soon, you’ll be riding with us, like we used to, God-willing. We’ll go have hamburgers at that place you always wanted.”
“You know, Mami, the place they took me to get a haircut, I ate pizza,” the boy said excitedly.
“Really, my love? That’s great. My love, you have to be patient. We’re going to be together…and you have to be brave and strong. You can’t get sad, OK?
“OK, Mami,” he replied, looking down for a few seconds.
“My love, don’t bite your nails.”
“Is your cough better? Have they given you medicine?”
“I have to go. It’s time. I love you, Mami.”
“I love you too!”
She hung up. She was relieved. During other calls, Anthony cried. She dissected everything he said or didn’t say. What did they tell him? What is he thinking? Is he sick? Can they take him away forever? Will he forget me? At the start, for the first three weeks, when she spoke to him, she pretended she was in the U.S. “So that he didn’t think I was so far away,” she says. When she finally told him she was in Guatemala, Anthony did not understand. “How could you lie to me, Mami?”
In mid-July, for the first time, Ortiz sounded buoyant. It had been 50 days since she last saw her son, but she was eagerly preparing for his return. A few weeks earlier, a federal judge had given her hope, she told me, by ordering all kids to be returned by July 26. “The good thing is that if Anthony makes it back that same afternoon, I’ll still have two full weeks to plan his ninth birthday party,” she said. Anthony had begged for a bicycle for years; she had always refused, fearing he’d get hurt. “This year, I’m finally going to surprise him with one. You’ll see.”
The reunification, however, was far from certain. That month, the Texas shelter had called. Officials asked Ortiz if she wanted to send her son to Carlos, the boyfriend she had never met in person. Under pressure from the courts, the U.S. government was pressing for this type of reunification—through what they referred to as a qualified sponsor—because it’s easier, cheaper and, perhaps most importantly for American authorities, quicker. International reunions required another level of diplomatic effort, if the deported parent could even be located.
Ortiz’s case showed the paradox of Trump’s separation policy: The federal departments most involved had diverging institutional agendas. Immigration and Customs Enforcement was designed to deport people as quickly as possible, while the Office of Refugee Resettlement was designed to care for them in the U.S. Under a federal court ruling, ORR case managers must do two things: place children with a close relative or family friend “without unnecessary delay,” and keep immigrant children in custody in the “least restrictive conditions” possible. With the July deadline looming, the pressure was now building to release Anthony.
Ortiz panicked. While she had forged an emotional bond with Carlos online, entrusting him to raise her son was entirely different. It was obvious to her that if she sent Anthony to live with him, there was no clear path for her to join them. “My boyfriend can’t accept him without me,” she told an official in a video call. “That would cause me so much suffering.” She added, “You must understand my position, don’t you?”
All this time, Ortiz’s legal team had been searching for solutions. Then, it added a superstar: Michael Avenatti, the sharp-elbowed attorney representing adult film star Stormy Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, in her lawsuit against the president and his former personal attorney. Avenatti had tweeted that he would take on immigration cases that came his way, and a retired couple in Albuquerque took him at his word.
Randy and Tina Carter had read about Ortiz in The New York Times and contacted Avenatti’s firm. They told him they were traveling to Guatemala on a humanitarian trip and were interested in finding her. “If you offer to represent her,” Randy said, “we would gladly relay any paperwork required.”
Days later, the Carters were sitting with Ortiz in a restaurant in Guatemala City. Solares, her Guatemalan attorney, explained the legal documents to her. Now, she also had representation in the U.S.: Avenatti and Ricardo de Anda, a civil rights lawyer who has worked along the Texas border for more than 40 years.
But Ortiz’s case was complicated. Sources with knowledge of it believed the Office of Refugee Resettlement had raised questions about Ortiz’s ability to care for her son, since she and Anthony intended to live with a man neither one had met. Under U.S. law, authorities must verify parents have legal custody of their children, as well as the ability to look out for their best interests. (A Health and Human Services official said the department does not discuss individual cases, and declined to discuss the process by which this government determines parental fitness.) Critics say these policies stem from a presumption that parents like Ortiz are unfit precisely because they have exposed their children to the inherent risk of migration, not because they’re actually neglectful or abusive.
By July 26, the government had reunited 1,442 children with parents who were in U.S. custody. Another 378 children were released “in other appropriate circumstances,” including to family sponsors, according to a Justice Department court filing. Anthony was not one of them. In Guatemala, Ortiz watched videos on her phone of parents and children reuniting. “God give me strength,” she wrote on her WhatsApp status, complete with an emoji of hands clasped in prayer. Meanwhile, on August 8, Anthony turned 9 in the shelter.
On August 14, the 81st day of their separation, Anthony walked into an immigration courtroom in downtown Houston. There was little trace of the smiling boy from the video calls. Today, he slumped against the wall and hid under his oversized gray sweater. He avoided making eye contact with anyone in the room. He walked to the second row, escorted by a government custodian, and lowered his head. He had bitten his nails ragged.
Minutes later, de Anda walked through the door sporting a cowboy hat. He put his backpack down. “Hi, Anthony. My name is Ricardo, and I am your mom’s lawyer,” he said in Spanish. Anthony’s face brightened. “My mom,” he said, looking up. The lawyer pulled out a rubber stress ball shaped like a sheep from a plastic bag. “Your mom sent you this toy,” he said. Anthony smiled. He rubbed his fingers over the surface as if he had been given some sort of treasure. Looking at his government custodian, he said, “My mama sent me this.”
De Anda and Avenatti had hatched an unprecedented—and risky—plan to speed up reuniting Anthony and his mom. They filed two motions. The first asked the government to dismiss the case against the boy. The second asked that Anthony be allowed to voluntarily go back to Guatemala—though to make that happen, Ortiz would have to temporarily sign over custody of Anthony to her attorneys. If the gambit succeeded, Anthony could fly home that very night. If it failed, it could further endanger Ortiz’s ability to win back her child.
Avenatti walked into the courtroom. Before the hearing, he and de Anda attempted to negotiate with the government attorney. “Come on, isn’t this what the government wants, for all these kids to be returned without you having to pay for it?” Avenatti said across the aisle.
At 9 a.m. sharp, Judge Chris Brisack entered the courtroom. Avenatti outlined his first plan, for the government to drop the case. The judge seemed intrigued, but immigration law gives the government vast discretion in these matters, and government attorney Rory Potter simply said, “No.” Brisack had no choice but to deny the motion. As Anthony listened to the translation through a headset, he began to weep.
Then Avenatti and de Anda argued their second plan, for voluntary departure—and won. But it was a qualified victory: The reunification process could now take up to 60 more days.
After the hearing, Avenatti and de Anda held a press conference outside to denounce the result, calling it an “outrage.” Because the government had refused to dismiss Anthony’s case, the deportation process would continue to grind through the immigration bureaucracy—meaning mother and son could be looking at nearly half a year apart. Avenatti told reporters the Trump administration “wants to continue to send this message to the world that if people come to this country and are caught, that basically their child is going to be detained, stolen from them, and their families are going to be destroyed.” Later, he tweeted a picture of Anthony speaking to de Anda. “He hasn’t seen his mom in 81 days,” Avenatti wrote. “Trump and his cronies have no heart.”
After the hearing, Anthony was loaded onto a van and returned to the shelter. The lawyers called Ortiz, who’d been waiting by her phone all morning. “Lo siento,” de Anda told her. “We weren’t able to convince them.” Ortiz broke down in tears and hung up.
Meanwhile, news stories about Avenatti’s offer traveled across the internet. His tweet racked up nearly 14,000 likes and 6,000 retweets. Two hours after the hearing, a Health and Human Services official called Avenatti wanting to negotiate. The official didn’t understand why the government attorney had not taken the offer for a 9-year-old. Eight hours later, officials handed over Anthony to the lawyers at the airport in Houston. He was finally going home.
In Guatemala City, Ortiz waited at the airport in a special room for deported unaccompanied minors. She stood near the doorway. Just after 9:30 p.m. local time, Solares told her the flight had landed, but a part of her didn’t believe it.
Then, Anthony came through the door. Ortiz fell to her knees, grabbed her son’s head and kissed him. “What a blessing,” she said through tears. “Oh, my little one,” she repeated over and over. Anthony said to her, his voice soft, “Don’t cry, mama.”
Carlos Arrazola and Alicia Álvarez from Plaza Pública contributed to this report from Guatemala City.