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Hundreds of migrant families who were separated after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border are still living apart. In many cases, the parents are back in their home countries because they were deported without their children. One desperate father recently made the 2,000-mile journey from Honduras to the U.S. determined to find his daughter. NPR's John Burnett has their story.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Last week, Jose Eduardo pushed open the door to apartment 204 and threw his arms around his 15-year-old daughter Yaimi. They'd been apart for 10 months. They wept. Then they went out for shrimp and rice and talked about their remarkable journey.
JOSE EDUARDO: (Speaking Spanish).
BURNETT: This is Jose's second trip to Texas. The first time was in May. He says he and Yaimi trekked from Copan, Honduras, to the U.S. border, floated across the Rio Grande on a smuggler's raft and surrendered in Texas. He says they were fleeing marauding gangs in their village who had marked them both for death. The last time Jose saw Yaimi, she was standing in a frigid holding cell. He was marched off to court to face charges of unlawful entry. When he returned, she was gone.
EDUARDO: (Through interpreter) When we entered immigration, I never imagined they would separate us. I told my daughter, don't worry; we're going to be together. I never thought they would separate us. I asked the officials, crying, where is my daughter? And they replied, we don't know.
BURNETT: NPR agreed not to use the family's surname because they worry that speaking out could affect their asylum cases. Jose's story is similar to that of thousands of parents who'd been torn from their children by the Trump administration. Last spring, immigration officials defended the so-called zero tolerance policy, saying they have to remove a child when their parent is jailed for a federal crime. But the international community said family separation was an atrocity. And Trump rescinded the practice in June. Then came revelations that potentially thousands of additional families were separated before zero tolerance. When Jose was deported, Yaimi went to a government contracted youth shelter in South Texas where other girls from Central America were being held.
YAIMI: (Through interpreter) There were lots of girls there who offered to be my family, but that's not what I wanted. I wanted my papa. I didn't know what to do. I passed the time crying. The staff was good to us. They treated us well, but I missed my papa a lot.
BURNETT: After three months at the shelter, Yaimi was discharged to live with an adult cousin in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. That's where she's been staying for the past five months in a low-budget apartment whose walls are dominated by a painting of the last supper. She's been going to school, taking English classes, attending church and playing with four rambunctious cousins.
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BURNETT: Yaimi was one of nearly 3,000 children forcibly removed from their parents under zero tolerance. Most families have been reunited, but 200 or so parents were returned to their home countries without their children. Many say they did so reluctantly or against their will. A group of nearly 30 determined parents returned to the border earlier this month and presented themselves at the Mexicali port of entry. Jose was among them. Most of the parents remain detained and still haven't seen their kids. But immigration agents released Jose who was traveling with his 9-year-old son Anderson.
LEE GELERNT: As sad as it sounds, this is now one of the lucky parents.
BURNETT: Lee Gelernt is a senior attorney with the ACLU who sued to force the government to reunite the families.
GELERNT: There are still hundreds of parents in Central America who have not reunited with their children. We're hoping that some of them will be allowed back. But at this point, very few have been able to come back.
BURNETT: Jose, Yaimi and Anderson consider themselves doubly lucky. They've been reunited. And on Sunday, they boarded a flight to Seattle. They'd been taken in by a generous family there while they await their day in immigration court. Sarah Riggio is a stay-at-home mom and a devout Catholic. She found out about the Honduran family on a Facebook post and decided that her family had to act.
SARAH RIGGIO: When we first heard the news of the family separation taking place at the border, we were absolutely sickened by it. Having five children of our own, I cannot imagine being separated from one of my children. We felt that our faith compelled us to open up our home to do whatever possible to help the families that were separated at the border.
EDUARDO: (Through interpreter) We're very happy because they're beautiful people with good hearts.
BURNETT: As for Yaimi, this immigration Odyssey has exposed her to the world outside of her village in a way that she never anticipated.
YAIMI: (Through interpreter) In Honduras, I led a boring life. I didn't like to leave the house much. But with this experience, I'm not afraid to be out in the world. I want to know even more places. I wasn't this way in Honduras. I've changed a lot.
BURNETT: There may be more reunions like this to come. Last week, a federal judge ruled that the government might have to find and reunite hundreds, if not thousands, of migrant families that remain separated because, he said, families belong together. John Burnett, NPR News.
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