Over three years ago, Bryan Chavez hugged his mother in an American immigration office, terrified he would never see her again.
“You’re not going to see her again,” the female U.S. immigration officer told Chavez, according to her account. Then the officer turned to his mother Sandra Ortiz. “And you will go to jail.”
Mother and son have been separated. Chavez visited an immigration center in California. Her mother, who failed an initial asylum exam, was deported to Mexico.
They were among the first family separations under the Trump administration, long before family splitting became high-profile US policy. Over a thousand families remain separated, but the long ordeal for Chavez and his mother is finally over.
Tuesday afternoon outside the San Ysidro Port of Entry, the main border crossing point between San Diego from Tijuana, the couple were among the first four families separated by the Trump administration to be reunited under President Biden. Chavez brought a bunch of red, silver and pink balloons for Mother’s Day to make up for the years he couldn’t get her presents.
When he saw her, his hands flew to her face, overcome with emotion. They held onto each other, crying as people brushed past them in the busy border crossing. “I saw her with my own eyes, but I couldn’t believe she was there in front of me,” Chavez said.
The mother-son reunion marks a pivotal moment for the Biden administration, which touts homecoming as a way to further signal a humanitarian approach to immigration – a break from the “cruel” policies of the past administration. Earlier this week, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas said that a task force created by a February decree had “worked day and night” on family reunification and called the meeting of this week “just the start” and said more would follow.
But attorneys and attorneys who have been working on reunification efforts for several years say the administration is dragging its feet and the reunion could have happened sooner. They also criticize the administration for not doing more to finance travel and other necessary costs.
These funds are needed because the Trump administration has kept very little information on deported parents, so lawyers and attorneys in Latin America sometimes have to search on foot and manage radio segments to reach deported parents.
American donors have footed much of the bill so far, said Erika Pinheiro, the litigation director of Al Otro Lado, a nonprofit that represents the family. Pinheiro said she was happy Ortiz was able to reunite with his family, but the Biden administration shouldn’t take so much credit just yet. “The victory lap was definitely premature,” said Pinheiro.
The family’s ordeal began in October 2017, when they sought refuge in the port of San Ysidro after fleeing cartels in Michoacán, Mexico, who killed Ortiz’s husband and tried to recruit Chavez, according to reports. interviews with the family and the lawyers who represented them.
When the two separated, Chavez, 15 at the time, said he was so shocked he said nothing. The mother and son cried and kissed for a while before being torn off. Ortiz couldn’t understand why they were separated. She still remembers the way her son kept his eyes on her as he was escorted.
Many families were separated the following spring as part of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy that demanded that anyone who crossed the border illegally be prosecuted. But Ortiz and Chavez didn’t cross illegally and were separated under much more nebulous policies that were never officially released. In all, more than 5,000 families have been separated by the Trump administration, according to court records. The parents of more than 400 children have yet to be located by lawyers, according to court records.
Ortiz was eventually located in Michoacán, where she worked in the agricultural fields. After being separated from Chavez, she had failed an asylum screening interview which is the gateway to immigration court. Many people fleeing organized crime groups find it difficult to take this step, as the San Diego Union-Tribune found in the case of a young man who was deported to Honduras and killed by those he held. fled.
It took almost two months after their split for Ortiz to finally speak with Chavez by phone, she said.
Her son, after more than a month in an immigration center, had moved into his older brother’s house in Southern California. It was there that he learned that their mother had been deported to Mexico. Ortiz’s exile means that she missed important milestones in her son’s life. She wasn’t there for birthdays. She missed her son’s prom and, most importantly, his high school diploma two years ago.
Chavez will always wish his mother would see his accomplishments. “It was really hard to see all the other kids with moms hugging them. Moms cry and say to their children, “We are so proud of you,” said Chavez.
Meanwhile, Ortiz has watched his son’s life develop from afar, his sense of pride in his successes mixed with sadness and punctuated with tearful phone calls. Each time he would tell her, “I wish you were here.”
What comes next for the family is far from clear. Chavez has a green card, but the legal status of Ortiz, who was allowed to enter the United States on humanitarian parole, has not yet been determined. US officials have not formulated a policy for separated parents who have been allowed to return to the country.
For the near future, his plan is clear. The two are going to eat Chinese food together, one of her son’s favorite dishes and a cherished memory from her childhood.
They will have plenty of time to get to know each other, but it may not be easy. In a way, her boy has changed. Before his trip, he seemed calmer, lacking the joy she remembered from his childhood.
But whatever the future holds, the two agreed it would be better together.