Many families torn apart at southern border face long, uncertain wait
HUEHUETENANGO, Guatemala — In a small village in the Guatemalan highlands, a father smiled into the tiny screen of a cellphone and held up a soccer jersey for the camera, pointing to the name emblazoned on the back: Adelso.
In Boca Raton, Florida, on the other end of the video chat, his son — Adelso — started to cry.
“I’ll send it to you,” the father, David, said during the call in March. “You need to be strong. We’re going to hug and talk together again. Everything’s going to be fine.”
David, who asked that his family’s last name not be published because he is facing death threats in Guatemala, has not seen Adelso in person in over three years, since they and about 5,500 other families were separated at the U.S.-Mexico border under the Trump administration’s most controversial immigration policy.
The distance and the uncertainty of a reunion prevent adults and children from rebuilding lives broken apart at the border, deepening the trauma caused by the separation, experts said. And in some cases, the pain of separation without an end in sight has encouraged parents to try, again, the dangerous trek over the U.S. border. Those who do, in a desperate effort to be with their children again, are re-enacting the crossing that cost them their children in the first place.
More than 5,500 migrant families were pulled apart at the southwest border beginning in 2017, under a policy later known as “zero tolerance.” Adelso, now 15, is one of the more than 1,100 migrant children who are in the United States but separated from their parents, according to lawyers working on the issue. There are at least another 445 who were taken from parents who have not been located.
The separated families received a jolt of hope in early February when President Joe Biden signed an executive order to reunify the migrant families by bringing the deported parents into the United States.
This week, as migrant apprehensions at the southwest border approach a near 20-year high, the Department of Homeland Security announced that it would bring a handful of separated parents to the U.S. in the coming days. The process of reunifying them all could take months or years, and questions remain about what benefits will be offered to each of those families.
Adelso has lived the last three years with his aunt, Teresa Quiñónez, in Boca Raton, Florida, where she works as a real estate agent. She had come to the United States herself at 17, without her parents.
“I still remember him coming out of the airport, and his little face,” Quiñónez said, recalling when Adelso was released after two months in a shelter. “It’s heartbreaking.”
On most days, Adelso leads a normal teenage life, attending the local junior high school, playing soccer and going to the beach.
And then there are the days when the memories yank him back to the time, three years ago, when he and his father set off from their mountain town to escape death threats from people trying to extort David by targeting Adelso, perhaps because they mistook David for the owner of the trucking company where he works.
On those days, Adelso said, he struggles to function.
“Sometimes the feeling comes on strong, and I wonder why it had to happen on that day, when I am trying to do something,” he said. “And because of those memories, I do it wrong. It feels bad. I feel really awful.”
And then there are the nightmares. One in particular haunts him, in which his father is kidnapped and held for ransom — a nightmare he’s had many times since they were separated at the border, and always with the same ending.
“In my dream, I try to do something to help keep him alive, but I can never do it,” Adelso said. “In my dream they always kill him. And I’m afraid that it could be real.”
Once a month, Adelso has an hourlong session with a licensed child psychologist, Natalia Falcón-Banchs, with Florida State University’s Center for Child Stress and Health. The service is paid for by a government settlement of a lawsuit on behalf of separated migrant families.
“Those recurring memories, flashbacks of that traumatic event,” Falcón-Banchs said, are “one of the main symptoms of PTSD.”
According to a 2020 investigation by Physicians for Human Rights, many children separated from a parent at the border exhibited symptoms and behavior consistent with trauma: post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety disorder and major depressive disorder. In some cases, the trauma stemmed partly from experiences in the child’s home country, but researchers found it was likely linked to the separation itself.
Falcón-Banchs currently treats eight children between the ages of 6 and 16 who were separated from a parent in 2017 and 2018. Five of those children received a diagnosis of PTSD, anxiety and-or depression. Adelso is faring better and has shown resilience and coping skills, she said.