Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
EL PASO – Concepción arrived at the airport with her three children Thursday morning, weary but relieved they were together again.
“I felt like I came back to life when I was reunited with them,” she told the Journal at El Paso International Airport.
The Salvadoran mother’s children are among hundreds of kids returned to their parents as the federal government rushed to meet a court-ordered deadline Thursday.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said 1,442 children were reunited with their parents by the deadline, but at least 693 were not because more than 450 parents had been deported. Others had criminal records or other reasons they were not eligible for reunification. HHS had said nearly 3,000 children could be reunited with their parents.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement facilities in El Paso, San Antonio and Phoenix served as the primary locations where the Trump administration reunited parents in custody with their kids and then released them together.
“We’ve been running 24-7 at many of our detention facilities to help facilitate the reunifications,” said Matthew Albence, executive associate director of ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations during a conference call with media Thursday evening.
“We made our facilities as family-friendly as possible to ensure reunifications could occur any hour of the day.”
The families were reunited in conference rooms and offices, not where the parents were detained.
During a recent interview with the Journal inside the ICE detention center in El Paso, Concepción talked about the pain of being separated from her children. She spent most of her time detained in the Otero County Prison Facility in Chaparral under the zero-tolerance crackdown on all illegal border-crossers. Charges against her were later dismissed.
Her son, 11, and daughters, 9 and 8, were at a shelter in New York City. They were flown to El Paso and reunited with her Wednesday evening after being apart nearly two months.
“Last night, they woke up calling, ‘Mama!, Mama!’ They’re afraid,” Concepción said. “I told them I’m right here.” At the El Paso airport, her youngest daughter clung to her mother’s arm. Her son smiled and said he had recognized a friend, another boy from the children’s shelter in New York, who was also at the airport with his parent waiting for a flight.
Concepción was flying with her three kids to Virginia to join her husband, a former police officer whose asylum claim is before immigration court.
Thursday was the court-ordered deadline to reunite children 5 and older as part of a class-action lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union. Children under 5 were supposed to be returned to their parents two weeks ago.
In one of the last reunions before the court-ordered deadline expired four-year-old Franco was back in his mother’s arms late Thursday night. A social worker arrived on a flight with the Guatemalan boy. At first he looked bewildered but then ran to his mother Maria when she called out, “Come here Papi!”
Earlier in the day, Wendy, a mother from Honduras, was reunited with her 15-month-old son, Brian, after being apart three months. She was waiting at the airport for a flight to New Orleans to join relatives.
“I just want to be with my family,” she said after a long sigh.
Annunciation House, an organization that helps migrants and refugees, worked with churches in El Paso and Las Cruces to provide temporary shelter for reunited families. Volunteers escorted them to the airport. There was one group of 18 parents and children catching flights Thursday morning.
“They’ve treated us like we’re from this country,” said Carlos, a father from Honduras who was traveling with his 9-year-old daughter. “We greatly appreciate all the support.”
Many of the kids had donated backpacks and clothes. One small boy held a stuffed Spider-Man doll. All waited near the airline ticket counter as a volunteer listed a last set of instructions.
“Hold your boarding passes in your hand,” she said. “Throw away any bottled water or other drinks before reaching security. Get off the plane in Dallas and look for your connecting gate.”
Then she had each parent say the name of their final destination.
Leonel, a father from Guatemala, struggled to pronounce “Gainesville.” His 11-year-old daughter stood at his side, wearing a small silver backpack.
Most of the parents released by ICE including Concepción, wore GPS ankle monitors and had temporary travel documents and orders to appear in immigration court at their final destination. Though many are seeking asylum, they still face deportation proceedings.
“I know they’re scared,” said the Rev. Arturo Bañuelos, a Catholic priest who happened to be catching a flight at the same time.
As the group walked toward the security checkpoint, he offered a blessing.
“Go with God,” he said.