Parents wait by the phone hoping immigrant kids will call

Manuel Tzah, Manuela Photo: AP
Manuel Tzah, Manuela

July 20, 2018 11:51 AM

NEW YORK (AP) — An immigrant father from Guatemala dotes over his despondent teenage daughter during a weekly 10-minute phone call, while other parents wait weeks for the phone to ring.

A mother in Louisiana has phone video chats with her detained 5-year-old son in Texas, while a Honduran asylum-seeker had actual face time with his little girl, visiting her in person. He made sure to bring along a McDonald's hamburger to share.

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Immigrant parents who were separated from their children under President Donald Trump's "zero tolerance" policy for illegal border crossings are struggling to communicate by any means possible in the age of instant, international social media with sons and daughters kept in government-contracted facilities around the country. For most parents, phone calls have been the only connection to their children as the separations dragged on for weeks.

Honduran immigrant Carla Garcia waits each day in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on calls for unscheduled telephone and video conversations with her son at a holding facility in Texas — calls she cannot return. She and 5-year-old Jonathan were separated after crossing the border together in late May. Garcia was released from detention a month later with an ankle monitor and moved in with relatives.

"I was happy to be able to see him, and then it was even more difficult to see him from far away," she said. "He just looked at me, worried."

Several parents say it has been difficult or impossible to maintain their composure as children break down in tears, complain of loneliness, ask for clues about when they might be released or think they were abandoned.

"She was crying, inconsolably," said Guatemalan immigrant Josue Aguilar about his 16-year-old daughter, who he believes is at a holding facility somewhere in Texas. "She said, 'I don't want to be here anymore.' I could only tell her to try and have a little patience."

Aguilar said he and his daughter have just enough time to console one another before the calls end. They are only allotted 10 minutes.

"They give her one call a week. Ten minutes. It's just not enough time," said Aguilar, who moved in with relatives in Atlanta after his release from detention to await asylum proceedings.

In other cases, parents and children are finding creative ways to cope. A 15-year-old boy tells his 5-year-old brother that their separated mom was working and that's the reason they're apart, says the lawyer for the mother.

Adrian Velasquez persuaded a social worker to text him three pictures of his 8-year-old son. The images show Jason doing math homework inside a government facility in Texas and standing alongside smiling children of his age.

Velasquez said his son initially threatened to break free and escape his location after they separated by authorities at the Texas border. A month later, he believes the boy has adapted and will eventually be freed without signs of emotional trauma.

"He is a really active kid," Velasquez said. "It's not going to affect him."

The Justice Department last week filed a plan to reunify more than 2,500 children age 5 and older by a court-imposed deadline of July 26. It was unclear how many of those families remain separated as the number of releases accelerated this week in Texas.

In rare instances, immigrant parents have been allowed to visit face-to-face with their children under supervision, as authorities take weeks to complete background checks and custody paperwork.

Asylum seeker and mother Digna Perez of El Salvador said the arrangement was stifling and upsetting.

"They didn't feel free to talk to me that way — not as if I were alone with them" said Perez of her 9-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter. She was separated from them in late May as they crossed from Mexico into El Paso, Texas. "They're always going to have this memory when they're older. They're not going to forget this easily, the separation."

Mario Romero of Honduras recalled an hour-long visit with his 10-year-old daughter, Fabiola, at the office of a child-detention contractor in El Paso, Texas — a few blocks from the border with Mexico.

He brought along a burger to share and told his daughter that he owed her another present — for a birthday she spent in detention.

"I could see her, I could hug her," Romero said. "Thank God I was given the opportunity to kiss her."

Perez and Romero were reunited with their children on Monday.

Released from an immigrant detention center on June 24, Manuel Marcelino Tzah played detective to connect with his 11-year-old daughter. He called home to Guatemala and found his daughter had left a working phone number with her mother.

"I started to cry when I heard her voice" after two months, he said. "She also cried. I told her, 'Don't worry, we will be together soon.'"

They were reunited at an airport in New York City on Tuesday.

Parents who remain in detention confront even greater difficulties in communicating with separated immigrant children.

Attorney Jose Xavier Orochena said jailed immigrant parents he has represented were at the mercy of social workers who coordinate outgoing calls from children at the Cayuga Center in New York.

"One has to wait for Cayuga to call the mother," he said. "From the detention center, no one can call the social worker."

___

Lee reported from Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Credits

By MORGAN LEE and CLAUDIA TORRENS

(Copyright 2018 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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