For the past three years, David and his son, Adelso, have communicated only by phone. Adelso is just one of about 5,500 children who was taken from a parent, as a result of the Trump administration’s family separation policy. They’re among more than 1,000 families who have been waiting for the Biden administration to follow through on a promise to reunify them. Now there is a new sense of hope as the Biden government starts to reunite a handful of families. But David and Adelso’s story — split between Guatemala and Florida — offers a firsthand look at the continuing psychological effects of separation … … and how the delay in reuniting families has in some cases encouraged people to make a desperate trek back to the U.S. David and his son spoke with us on condition that we not use their full names and conceal their identities. Since he was jailed and deported, David has kept a low profile in the countryside, evading the gangs he says extorted the trucking business he worked for and threatened his family before they fled to the U.S. David was deported to Guatemala after serving 30 days in a U.S. prison for the crime of illegal reentry. Neither David, his wife or their other children have seen Adelso since. “We can make America, once again, the leading force for good in the world.” Days after he took office, President Joe Biden signed an executive order to reunify families separated under the Trump administration. “The re-establishment of the interagency task force and the reunification of families.” This week, as migrant apprehensions approached the highest level in 20 years, the Department of Homeland Security announced that it would bring four mothers to the U.S. to reunite with their children. The U.S. will reunify another 35 or so families in the coming weeks as part of a pilot project, which David and Adelso might be a part of. But this is just a start, and the process for reunifying all families could take months, and even years. In David’s town of several thousand people, I found three other parents who were forcibly separated from their children under “zero tolerance.” Melvin Jacinto and his 14-year-old son tried to enter the U.S. to look for work that would pay for, among other things, his daughter’s hip surgery. Melvin and his wife Marta’s son, Rosendo, now lives with a relative in Minneapolis. They, too, rely on video calls to stay connected. The reality is that work is really scarce here. Melvin takes what jobs he can find, but the family relies on money sent from Rosendo, their teenage son, who’s now working in the U.S. We visited the homes of two other fathers who were separated from their kids at the border and were told they’d already made the return trip to reunite with them. She allowed me to speak with her husband on her phone. He said he reunited with his son in Fort Lauderdale, and was staying in a house with other migrants. We heard of other parents as well, deported to Guatemala and Honduras, who’d already made the perilous journey to reunite with their children. According to immigration lawyers, about 1,000 separated kids have yet to see their parents again. They’ve had to grow up fast, placed in the care of foster families or relatives. For the last three years, Adelso has been living with his aunt, Teresa Quiñónez, in Boca Raton, Fla. He’s been attending school, and plays soccer in his spare time, but he still struggles with the trauma of what happened in Guatemala and at the border. Unlike some of the separated kids, Adelso does have support. “Yes, definitely, I would go there in the morning, too Yeah —” His aunt Teresa came to the U.S. as an unaccompanied minor, and later became a legal resident. She stepped in to give Adelso the care she didn’t have when she came to the U.S. as a teenager. “I can say that I understand his pain, not being with mom and dad. Living with someone familiar, somehow — still, it’s not the same.” Once a month, Adelso talks with a child psychologist at Florida State University’s Center for Child Stress and Health. The service is paid through a government settlement for families separated under the “zero tolerance” policy. Adelso is one of several children affected by “zero tolerance” that Natalia Falcon now works with in South Florida. “I’ve been working with Adelso and his family for a little bit over six months. We see a lot of sleeping issues. You know, they can’t sleep, they can’t fall asleep or the nightmares, right. We have to look at nightmares very delicately. Those recurring memories, flashbacks of that traumatic event as one of the main symptoms of P.T.S.D. Studies show that childhood trauma, left unaddressed, can negatively affect health and relationships long into adulthood. “I don’t want him to get depressed, taking him to that place, like, ‘Oh, I just want to be alone.’ That’s why I try to bring him out and do things with him.” After being separated from his dad, Adelso spent two months in a New York shelter with other separated kids before Teresa finally won his release. “I still remember seeing him coming out of the airport. His little face, like — it’s heartbreaking, and sometimes I see him now, he has grown so much in this, in this time that he came here, he has become so mature and that’s hard to see too because it’s like life pushing you to be that mature. You are not enjoying your being a child.” For now, Adelso and David continue to work with their lawyers and hope to be part of the first wave of reunions. As for David, he told us that he can only wait so long, and that he has also considered paying a smuggler to cross back into the U.S. and claim asylum again.
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