Eva Haydee Ordóñez López decided to flee her country after realizing that her small fast-food business was collapsing because of the exorbitant protection money she was required to pay to a gang in order to remain alive. “Eight hundred quetzals a week,” Ordóñez told The Intercept over the weekend in a telephone interview from Guatemala.
For Ordóñez, 46, that meant the equivalent of almost $450 a month in extortion payments. They wiped out not only her profit, but also her principal. She knew of other local business owners who were murdered after skipping payments. Her 17-year-old son attended school on Sundays; from Monday through Saturday, he worked with Ordóñez. He, too, was in danger. The two left for the United States. On June 6, near the tiny Texas border town of Roma, they gave themselves up to U.S. Border Patrol agents.
The teenager was separated from Ordóñez and she soon became distraught. She was told that she would be quickly reunited with her son if she would agree to be deported. She decided not to even bother waiting for a “credible fear” asylum interview, and she was flown back to Guatemala on June 15. She thought her son would already be there, or if not, that he would arrive within days.
Instead, almost two months later, the boy remains in a shelter in Texas, one of more than 400 children who have yet to be reunited with parents who are now outside the U.S. They constitute the majority of the 572 boys and girls who as of Thursday still had not been returned to their mothers and fathers, according to filings in U.S. District Court in San Diego. There, the American Civil Liberties Union has filed suit challenging the Trump administration’s family separations. President Donald Trump issued an order on June 20 stopping the separations, and six days later, Judge Dana Sabraw ruled that the government must reunite separated parents and their children, about 2,500 of them, within a month.
Sabraw said that the government was fully responsible for locating parents who have been deported, but so far, there is no evidence that a concerted effort is being made to find out who and where they are. The Trump administration implied that the ACLU and other nongovernmental organizations should do this work — a contention rejected by Sabraw — but those groups have not indicated that they know the parents’ whereabouts either. The ACLU said it had located only 13 parents.
Meanwhile, deported parents and their loved ones have been calling The Intercept from Central America. Ordóñez got my phone number soon after being put into detention in Texas and just before being deported. It was given to her by another detainee who passed it out to her compañeras after I interviewed her.
Rudy Ramirez Mendez is another deportee who came to my attention at random. He crossed into Texas from Guatemala in early June with his 9-year-old, Rudy Jr. Like Ordóñez, he felt despondent and frightened after being separated from his son — his only child after another died in infancy a decade ago. Ramirez said he quickly agreed to deportation after being told that Rudy Jr. would be on the Immigration and Customs Enforcement airplane with him. He got on the plane, realized his child was not there, and has been emotionally devastated ever since. Back in Guatemala, he was hospitalized for two days after anxiety caused one of his arms and half his face to go numb.
Today, Rudy Jr. remains in a shelter in the Bronx.
Bizarrely, some if not many of the 400-plus children separated from a parent who is no longer in the country come from families in which one parent remains, detained, in the U.S. — yet the government will not free the detained parents and reunite them with their children.
This has happened because many families who travel from Central America get split up at the northern Mexico border before crossing into the U.S. As a result, one parent crosses with the child or children as a “family unit,” while the other crosses alone.
Ramirez’s family is an example. His wife is Ingrid Lopez Mendez. She left Guatemala in May with her husband and son; they expected to cross into Texas as a three-person family. But Lopez was split from the others in Miguel Aleman, a small Mexican city across the border from Roma. Their smuggler divided them to make them less conspicuous to gangs and Mexican authorities at the river. He put Ramirez and Rudy Jr. into one group, and Lopez into another. The Rudys crossed first, while Lopez was held in a stash house in Miguel Aleman for five more days until the coyote deemed the coast clear enough for her to cross.
Lopez was immediately apprehended. Only then did she learn that her husband had been deported on June 14, while her son remained in the U.S. “Your child will be adopted by another family,” officials told her, and she swore she would never leave America without Rudy Jr. She ended up in detention in ICE’s Port Isabel facility, near Texas’s Padre Island. She has been there for almost two months.
In late July, she was overjoyed to learn from the ICE officials who run Port Isabel that Rudy Jr. was about to be flown from New York to Texas to be reunited with her. Lopez was instructed to trade her detention center uniform for street clothes and was assured that she would soon be free and Rudy was on his way.
Lopez waited, dressed in her freedom clothes. One day, two days, five, six, seven. Still no Rudy Jr. On the 11th day, “la Miss” — what women in the detention center call their female guards — took Lopez aside along with other women who were also waiting for sons and daughters whom they hadn’t technically crossed the border with.
“I’m a mother, too,” said la Miss. “So all I can say is, I’m sorry.”
“We don’t know why,” said the deportador — another item of inmate speak, signifying the resident ICE agent. “All we know is that the change came from higher up.”
Lopez and the others shuffled back to their dorms, lay on their beds, and took turns singing hymns in brave voices. Then they wailed.
Lopez’s attorney, Jodi Goodwin, who is based in Harlingen, Texas, said that local ICE officers had “processed the parents as ready to go and their children ready to be released to them. But ICE didn’t know if the Department of Homeland Security had actually identified Rudy Jr. as a child who qualified for reunification. And ORR” — the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which follows orders from DHS — “hadn’t made arrangements to bring Rudy to his mother.” Goodwin blamed the mix-up on a lack of communication between agencies. She said she expects Lopez to be joined with Rudy Jr. within the next several days.
But meanwhile, to families such as Rudy Jr. and his parents, the deportations without quick reunifications and the whipsawing plans are a terrifying mystery. One thing is evident to them, however: According to Rudy Sr. and Eva Ordóñez, no one from the government has contacted them, nor has anyone from the ACLU or other nongovernmental entities. No one seems to be working systematically and transparently — least of all the government — to get these parents and their children back together. The lack of information is excruciating. In Guatemala, Ordóñez said her blood pressure is out of control and her heart is acting up.
From the shelter in Texas, she gets two calls a week from her son, lasting 10 minutes each. He is a teenage boy, she is a mother, and they find it difficult to talk. “He says he’s OK,” Ordóñez said. “Or he says, ‘I’m feeling hopeless, but I don’t want to talk about it because I know you’re feeling alone.’ I don’t want to tell him how I feel, either. We don’t want to worry each other.”
As for 9-year-old Rudy Jr., his mother describes him as “a very intelligent child, one who learns quickly.” Lately, he has been telling his family during phone calls from the children’s shelter that he is feeling angry and that he hates the United States. “There are good people everywhere,” his mother demurs. She tells herself that she will get her son back, and to distract herself from her worries in detention, she folds white paper over and over into strips, then weaves the strips into paper wallets. That keeps her going in the daytime. But on the second-level bunk bed in her dorm, she imagines never seeing Rudy Jr. again. “It’s at night,” she says, that “I am very frightened of this country.”