Tears, Hugs and Help: Church Groups Assist Reunited Immigrant Families
As the government faces a deadline to reunite hundreds of families, it is shifting the responsibility of their well-being to faith-based groups primarily in Texas and Arizona.
Immigrant parents arrived at Catholic Charities in white vans with their children, their paperwork and almost nothing else.
They needed food, clothing, a place to stay and a way to travel to family in the United States. Many were still shell-shocked from weeks in government detention. One father carried an infant who didn't recognize him after two months apart. A mother held the hand of her 5-year-old daughter, who refused for a time to talk on the phone because she blamed her for their separation.
Scenes such as this are unfolding throughout Texas and Arizona as the Trump administration works to meet a Thursday deadline to reunite immigrant parents and children. The government is releasing hundreds of families to faith-based groups and leaving the groups to care for them.
The Associated Press observed newly reunited families spending their first day together Monday at Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of San Antonio, which took them in after they were released from custody. The families included children as young as babies and old as teenagers, as well as asylum seekers fleeing violence in Central America and people who were shuttled around the country to various immigrant detention facilities.
Natalia Oliveira da Silva, a mother from Brazil, waited nervously outside the immigration detention center in Pearsall, Texas, for her young daughter, Sara. She soon spotted the 5-year-old coming in a vehicle, a seatbelt over her chest.
Sara got out and was quickly in her mother's arms, asking her, "They're not going to take you away again, right?"
Since their separation in late May, the girl had been at a shelter for immigrant minors in Chicago, while Oliveira was moved through facilities across Texas.
Like other families reunited at Pearsall, Oliveira and her daughter were taken to Catholic Charities in San Antonio, about an hour's drive away. Charity workers checked them into a hotel Sunday night and picked them up Monday morning, along with another immigrant family.
Oliveira, 30, had not slept the night before. Instead, she said, she watched Sara sleep next to her in bed.
At one point while they were detained, Sara refused to talk to her on the phone. She thinks it's because Sara was angry about what had happened. She's still angry herself.
"I hope she doesn't have any memories of this," Oliveira said.
When Oliveira and her daughter arrived at the Catholic Charities office, two people held open the doors and said "hola." Inside, volunteers were folding donated clothes and preparing for the day ahead. A local restaurant had dropped off a catered meal of tortillas, beef and grilled vegetables. In a conference room upstairs, parents could pick from shopping racks of clothes and boxes of toys for the children.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement had notified Catholic Charities in the morning to expect seven families to be dropped off. Catholic Charities also takes in families that ICE drops directly at the local bus station, but who might otherwise have to stay there overnight or change several buses to reach their destination. Volunteers from a local interfaith group keep watch at the station for immigrant families and call Catholic Charities when they see them.
Drop-offs usually happen in the afternoon or early evening. But the first time that ICE sent families to Catholic Charities, two weeks ago, it didn't release families until around 3 a.m. And Catholic Charities once found the families it was expecting to receive dropped off at the bus station instead.
"The logic behind how they decide that, we don't know," said Matthew Martinez, the group's vice president of administration.
Caseworkers purchase plane tickets for families and have phones available to call the friend or relative sponsoring them. They also provide hotel rooms for families waiting for buses or planes. To fund the effort, Catholic Charities has raised $127,000 and received the help of more than 300 volunteers.
After the reunions, the mood inside the waiting area brightened from somber to joyful.
A group of boys started to play with a foam soccer ball. The younger children played with toy trucks and guitars. Parents holding their children laughed and swapped stories about where they were headed next. Most families were headed to distant locations, from California to Florida.
Many told horror stories about their ordeals, all while cherishing the fact that they had their children back.
Carlos Fuentes Maldonado of Honduras held his 1-year-old daughter, Mia. She and her 4-year-old sister had been taken to a shelter in Arizona shortly after they had tried to cross the Rio Grande about two months earlier. Their mother, Jennifer Maradiaga, said Mia was still breast-feeding at the time they crossed and she was taken away.
When they got her back Monday, the little girl didn't immediately appear to recognize them, Fuentes said. By the evening, she was nestled on her father's shoulder.
Around 8 p.m., Maradiaga's mother and brother arrived to pick them up and take them home. Her mother began to cry as they hugged, holding her daughter's cheek against hers for several seconds. The members of the family smiled and laughed, taking turns holding Mia.
Other parents recalled how the food in adult detention facilities was sometimes inedible and that detention officers disregarded their complaints or requests. Two mothers said officers told them they might never see their children again. They were watching Spanish-language television when they learned of the Trump administration's announcement that it would end mass separations.
"Seeing the protests gave us all encouragement," said Ildra Medrano Castillo, who brought her 9-year-old son from Guatemala. She said an officer at one facility told her son would be put up for adoption.
They had been reunited a few hours before and sat together, eating lunch. Her eyes filled with tears and she laughed when asked what that moment was like.
"It was wonderful," she said.
The group's staff took other families to nearby hotels to await their flights the next day. Staff members instructed the families how to use the elevator, since some have never been in one before. The first wake-ups were at 2 a.m. Tuesday, for a 5 a.m. departure.
"They were tired, but they were happy. They were excited," said Thelma Gutierrez, the director of one of Catholic Charities' local shelters for immigrant children.
The parents had their boarding passes and packets of information, along with an information card written in English that they could show if they needed help along the way. Some of them were nervous about what a flight would be like, Gutierrez said.
The staff did several rounds of drop-offs at the airport before dawn, taking a total of 32 people. "We're going to do what's right for them," Gutierrez said. "For now, this is all we can do."
Associated Press' Nomaan Merchant reported this story, and Associated Press photographer Eric Gay contributed to this report.