A Family Faces an Impossible Choice: Reunite Child With Her Detained Mother or Undocumented Father?

Jhoseline was still in detention and likely to be deported, while Miguel could end up deported himself if he engaged with the system.

On May 20, Miguel Amaya’s phone rang. An undocumented immigrant living in Oakland, California, Miguel had been anxiously awaiting a call from his wife, Jhoseline, who, along with their 8-year-old daughter, Michelle, was braving the dangerous journey from El Salvador to the United States. Days earlier, Jhoseline and Michelle had escaped a near-death experience after being locked in the trailer of a semi-truck, where they and other migrants nearly suffocated after being abandoned by their coyote.

The voice on the other end of the line wasn’t that of Jhoseline, but of an ICE agent. What mother and daughter believed to be the end of their journey, in fact, marked the beginning of a new nightmare. Under the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy, Jhoseline and Michelle were separated at the time of their apprehension. This was the first time Jhoseline had ever been apart from her daughter.

The weeks that followed were marked by anxiety and desperation for the Amaya family, as Miguel scrambled to locate his daughter and Jhoseline sat in a detention center in El Paso, awaiting return to El Salvador after a judge deemed her ineligible for asylum and signed a final deportation order. After two weeks of frantic searching, Miguel finally located Michelle. Then began the daunting process of getting the young girl released, and an unenviable decision: work toward reunifying her with her mother, still in detention and likely to be deported, or her father, who could end up deported himself if he engaged with the system.

As thousands of minors are reunified with relatives, the story of the Amaya family sheds light on the lasting impact of “zero tolerance,” even after Michelle was released into her father’s care. Jhoseline, meanwhile, continues to pray for her own release as lawyers successfully overturned her final deportation order and appealed for a review of her asylum case. The future remains uncertain, but the psychological and emotional trauma inflicted on this young family is lasting and visible.

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