Separated At The Border, A Father Reunites With His Son. But Struggles Remain Néstor was 11 when he and his dad, Melvin, left El Salvador and crossed into Texas in 2018. They were separated for over two months, split apart by the Trump administration's zero tolerance policy.

Separated At The Border, A Father Reunites With His Son. But Struggles Remain

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Families who came from Central and South America to the United States knew before their journey they'd be leaving behind other relatives and loved ones. What they didn't know is if they made it all the way to the U.S.-Mexico border, they would be separated again. Roughly 5,500 families were split apart by the Trump administration. Most were separated under the zero-tolerance policy, which was meant to curb legal and illegal immigration to this country.

Today, we're going to hear from one of those families as they reflect on that experience in their own words and how they're coping on the other side. First, though, I'm going to bring in NPR's Joel Rose, who covers immigration. Joel, thanks for being here.


MARTIN: So just give us the update at this point. How many migrant families are still separated as a result of the Trump administration's zero-tolerance policy?

ROSE: Well, the Biden administration is trying to figure that out. The White House put together a task force a few months ago, in part to do just that, and they put out an initial progress report last week. We knew already that record-keeping from the Trump era was terrible, but the task force says it was incompetent and sometimes just wrong. And so they aren't sure if as many as 2,100 kids are still separated from their parents simply because they don't have a record of them ever being reunited.

Immigrant advocates say some of those children probably are back with their parents, either in the U.S. or in Central America. The Department of Homeland Security just doesn't have the paperwork to prove it. But the bottom line is probably more than a thousand families are still separated at this point.

MARTIN: OK, and what do we know about the families who have been reunited? What's happening with them?

ROSE: Those families still have asylum cases that are pending and which can take years to work their way through the immigration courts. And there's no guarantee that they will win those cases. In fact, it's likely that many will not be granted asylum or other forms of protection. So immigrant advocates are pushing the government to grant permanent legal status to families that were separated under zero-tolerance. They also want social services and even financial compensation for the families. Advocates say that is the least the federal government can do to try to right this historic wrong. The Biden administration says it is helping these families and is negotiating with advocates about what more can be done. But there are no firm commitments yet about what that's going to look like.

MARTIN: NPR's Joel Rose. Joel, thank you for that.

ROSE: You're welcome.

MARTIN: And at this point, I want to bring in MORNING EDITION producer Lilly Quiroz because, Lilly, you actually spent some time talking with a family who went through this experience, right? Tell us about them.

LILLY QUIROZ, BYLINE: I spoke with Melvin (ph) and Nestor (ph), who are father and son. For their safety, we're only using their first names. In 2018, they traveled over a thousand miles from El Salvador to the U.S. after receiving death threats from gang members. Melvin had been politically involved and says he knew a bit about the law, but he never expected to be separated from his son when they finally arrived at the Texas border. It was one difficult realization after another.


MELVIN: (Through interpreter) They threatened me and my son with death. They wanted me to do things I didn't want to do. In the end, I decided to leave it all. My son was almost 11 years old at the time. The mother of my children was about to give birth to our third son. We talked with her, and she said she didn't want to risk the journey because it's very dangerous. This is when I made the decision to bring my son because he was the oldest one.


NESTOR: (Through interpreter) I didn't want to leave anything that I had there. And coming here, we lost it all. Ever since my mom was pregnant, I wanted to meet my brother. And because we came over here, I didn't even have the opportunity to see my brother be born. And whenever I think about that, I feel like crying.

MELVIN: (Through interpreter) That is when we left. On the road, there is a lot of police that stops you. They extort you. They threaten you. Then you also find people that threaten you with death on the road and say you need to pay them because if not, they won't let you pass and then suffering and the cars, walking. I also had to carry Nestor in my arms, on my back. At least when we arrived at the border, we arrived in a car. When we arrived to the Rio Grande, we had to pay a group of people to pass us through on a small makeshift raft.

NESTOR: (Through interpreter) After we crossed the river, we walked a while. Immigration authorities stopped us, and they made us take out everything we had. They put us in vans, and after that, we arrived at this sort of retention center, and that's where they separated me from my dad. I was scared because I thought they were going to take me somewhere else, and I wouldn't see him again - not him nor my family.


MELVIN: (Through interpreter) And I began to ask about the kids, and they said, no, you guys are going to return, and they will stay here. You guys are going to criminal court for having entered the country illegally. But after the court case, they didn't return us to the same place. They took us to a different place. This is when the despair began. Everyone was asking, and the children? And the children? What about the children? And they stopped telling us anything.


NESTOR: (Through interpreter) They took me to the place where all the separated kids were being kept. They gave us a mattress, and they had us in a prison-like place for I don't know how many days. I would always ask for my dad. And they said, we're going to take you to see your dad over here when they moved me. They would always tell me these sorts of lies. At night, I would always cry because I thought I would never see my dad again.

MELVIN: (Through interpreter) I'd cry at night, feel sad and not know what the future would be, because for me, every day what they told me was, no, they're going to deport you. They're going to send you back, and your kids are going to stay here. They're going to get adopted. I would say no. How are they going to take away my son? That's my son. He's mine. You can't. You can't.


QUIROZ: At this point, Melvin was in Texas, and Nestor was in New York. After about two months and two weeks of separation, Nestor's foster mom told him he'd finally be reunited with his dad. It would happen on August 26.

NESTOR: (Through interpreter) And then when I arrived and I saw my dad there, what I did was run. I went to hug him, and I began to cry as I hugged him. For me, it was beautiful.

MELVIN: (Through interpreter) I have that memory present every day. And of course, I couldn't stop crying of happiness from seeing him and having him once again.

MARTIN: Lilly, I can't even imagine that scene, the emotion of it. How are they both doing today?

QUIROZ: They're doing well. I mean, they're together, and they're living with Melvin's brother in Southern California while their asylum case makes its way through the court. Melvin has a job driving a delivery truck, and Nestor has just graduated middle school. They're happy to be back together, but they're still dealing with the trauma of the separation, especially Nestor. Listen to what he told me.


NESTOR: (Through interpreter) Every night, I had the same dream - that I was there where they kept me. In my dreams, I felt like I was reliving it all again. Those dreams made me feel really bad, and sometimes, I would wake up crying.

MELVIN: (Through interpreter) I would notice him looking very sad without any motivation.

QUIROZ: And really, what's been getting them through all of this is regular therapy. Since October 2020, Nestor has seen a therapist every week for 50 minutes. The sessions are free, and they're sponsored by a non-profit called Seneca.

MARTIN: Right. And we wanted to get a better sense of how these counselors are helping migrant families like Nestor and Melvin, so we called up Melissa Tith.

MELISSA TITH: I'm a program supervisor, a licensed clinical social worker, and I work for Seneca Family of Agencies through the program, Todo Por Mi Familia.

MARTIN: Melissa isn't working directly with Nestor and Melvin, but she's counseled other families like them who were separated at the border during the Trump administration's zero-tolerance policy. And during that time, she did an assessment of the trauma that the separation was causing in all these families.

TITH: We saw some pretty traditional post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms, a lot of nightmares, flashbacks, fear of it happening again, not being able to be without their child because of the very, very valid fear of thinking that they're going to be ripped apart once again, and just, like, not being able to do daily tasks without having that emotional weight on them at all times - like, not able to concentrate, not able to focus, not able to work to be able to provide for their families because, I don't know, I feel like the flashbacks are so intense. For a lot of these families, it's like it happened yesterday. A lot of them haven't been able to talk about it, and they've been on survival mode.

MARTIN: Can you describe what that therapy looks like? I mean, what are the tools that you try to equip people with in order to navigate their way through this?

TITH: A lot of what I've seen is just teaching them coping skills of how to 1, have the language to explain to their child that it wasn't their choice or their fault that that happened, and helping the children understand where their parents were coming from in making the decision to come here and how a lot of it was because of safety reasons and because of how much they loved them that they wanted to be together in a safe place.

MARTIN: So, Lilly, does Nestor feel any of that kind of resentment about being brought here that Melissa talked about?

QUIROZ: I didn't get that feeling when I talked with him, but as you heard him say earlier, he feels like he lost everything when his dad brought him here, although his dad, Melvin, says the relationship is still the same, and they do talk about what happened. And the therapy is helping, too. Here's Melvin again.


MELVIN: (Through interpreter) His changes are very much noticeable. He's a more active kid. He seems to be leaving behind that fear he once had.

NESTOR: (Through interpreter) Yes, it's helping a lot. I hardly have any more nightmares. I'm a bit calmer. My therapist says that's good, but she's going to keep helping me because she's not sure I'm completely well.

QUIROZ: I asked Melvin how he imagined their lives moving forward. He said what's most important was to keep his family together and to live without fear.

MARTIN: Lilly, thank you so much for bringing us the story of this family. NPR's Lilly Quiroz.


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