Reuniting immigrant mothers, fathers and children separated by the federal government’s zero tolerance policy remains the focus of activists across the country, including North Texans who are helping clothe and feed families that were once in detention.
A federal judge ordered the government to reunite families by July 26. Now, days after that deadline, volunteers in Texas are helping hundreds of Central American families trying to reach their destinations. Sometimes, the end point in these journeys is North Texas or Houston, but often their destinations are Washington, D.C. or cities in Louisiana, Ohio and Tennessee.
“It’s literally all over the map,” said Julie Schwietert-Collazo, who started the group Immigrant Families Together to help reunite families. The effort began when the organization raised money to help one immigrant mother travel from Arizona to New York City to reunite with her children. Since then, the work continues alongside charities across the country, including the Texas border with Mexico.
Mothers are volunteering with Immigrant Families Together to help immigrant families as they trickle across the country after being held in detention at the U.S.-Mexico border. They meet the families during their travels at stops in Houston and Dallas, where they gauge needs that include hunger, exhaustion and medical care.
Volunteers said their work isn’t over as long as families deal with the trauma and aftereffects of President Donald Trump’s zero tolerance policy. Other activists are pushing the issue during rallies and protests, including a caravan of grandmothers who planning an event in McAllen, Texas.
“They are really trying to be these ambassadors of good will,” Schwietert-Collazo said, describing the loose network of mothers and grandmothers who are trying to help.
‘The human tragedy’
Earlier this year, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the zero tolerance policy, which charged adults who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border without a visa with illegal entry.
The policy was applied at the border, including to families seeking asylum from Central American countries experiencing gang violence. Parents were charged and detained while children were placed in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement. After a national outcry and federal lawsuit, a federal judge ordered family separations at the border to end — and for families that were separated to be reunited by July 26.
The federal government is still under a federal judge’s scrutiny in the matter of reuniting families. Ricardo de Anda, an immigration attorney in Laredo, told the Star-Telegram that in many cases several serious underlying questions remain on the table. For example, can the U.S. government sever parent-child relationships, take children from the immigrant parents and ultimately place them in foster care or adoption?
De Anda said this issue is especially pressing for families that the government claimed were not suitable for reunification.
“What’s at play here is the parent-child relationship,” de Anda said. “It’s a legal relationship. ... the ultimate issue is, Does the government have the right to keep these children as their parent?”
Meanwhile, activists are helping families as they emerge from detention and head to their destinations.
Allyson Vaughn of Dallas volunteers with Immigrant Families Together. Often that means welcoming people who are scared, hungry and dealing with medical issues.
“They are suspicious of us,” Vaughn said, explaining that they are traumatized.
Vaughn said some people arrive with only a backpack of items they were given by Catholic Charities. Some children have arrived with strep throat, fevers or stomach issues. She said some children have been pulling their hair because of stress.
Vaughn said she was moved to tears when one child arrived with a broken bone.
“Everybody hears what is going on, but to see the human tragedy in person is a whole different situation,” Vaughn said.
A frantic situation
Jensey Rodriguez Rivera, a 26-year-old Honduran mother, recently reunited with her family in Dallas. She was separated from and her 6-year-old son at the Texas-Mexico border. She was held in detention in South Texas for several weeks, said de Anda, who represented Rodriguez while she was in detention.
Rodriguez and her son were initially separated from her husband, Elvis, and their baby as they traveled through Mexico and were confronted by thieves. Her husband told the Star-Telegram several weeks ago that he worried that his wife would be deported. Elvis Rodriguez could not be reached for comment.
De Anda said the mother and son reunited after the child was flown from Arizona to Texas. At the time of the reunion, the mother was being held in Port Isabel. Mother and son then rode in a bus about 30 miles to the Basilica of Our Lady of San Juan del Valle, where they stayed until they went to Brownsville to catch a bus to Dallas.
He said Catholic Charities gave her a cellphone.
Rodriguez’s immigration case was likely to be moved from San Antonio to Dallas, de Anda said.
Rodriguez is one of more than two dozen women and children from Central America represented by de Anda. Many of the Central Americans detained said they were seeking political asylum when they turned themselves over to authorities.
Last week, the lawyer said the effects of U.S. policies have had an incredible toll on families. He said in one of his cases, a Central American father was deported, but his 9-year-old child remained in the custody of United States government. When the father returned to Central America, the mother was shocked to find out the U.S. government had her child, so she traveled to the United States to get her child back.
“She ran after her kid,” de Anda said, adding that she ended up in detention in Port Isabel hoping to reunite with her child.
“It goes to show how frantic the situation causes parents to be,” he said.