When a federal judge based in San Diego issued an injunction against the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy last week, immigrant rights activists hailed the ruling.
The injunction gave the government 30 days to reunite parents with more than 2,000 separated children. It followed months of legal arguments and an about-face from President Trump, who, facing mounting criticism, signed an executive order halting the separations last week.
But it was not clear what it would mean for parents like Maria Veliz, a detainee at the Eloy Detention Center in Arizona who had been separated from her two children for more than a month. Like Veliz, many parents are locked up thousands of miles from their children, awaiting asylum or immigration hearings in courts.
An Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman would not say how many parents separated from their children were being held at Eloy, a privately run immigration jail surrounded by barbed wire, an electrified fence and miles of scorching, sunbaked desert.
Eloy is a 1,500-person facility, and Veliz and another mother — separated from her son six months ago, before the Trump administration began its widespread policy — said they knew of at least 40 cases.
Veliz keeps a list, scrawled on the back of religious pamphlets. It has 18 entries, and those “are just the ones in my cell block,” Veliz says.
Instead of the women’s names, there are 18 mothers identified by numbers assigned to them by ICE.
“I haven’t even spoken to her,” wrote a mother separated from her 5-year-old for weeks. “I’m desperate.”
“I’m destroyed,” added another.
“We are all in the same pain,” Veliz, a 32-year-old from Guatemala said during a jailhouse interview conducted before the federal judge issued an injunction. “We are all tormented.”
Most of the mothers on Veliz’s list are from Guatemala, she said, and their notations are in Spanish. But at Eloy, parents’ pleas to be reunited with their children come in many languages.
Bhavan Patel sat in an immigration courtroom there Tuesday, a tiny, solitary figure in a faded green prison uniform. She fled political persecution in Ahmedabad, India, traveling to Greece and then Mexico before crossing the U.S. border illegally with her disabled 5-year-old son, Patel and her attorney said during a bond hearing. Patel’s hair — she is 33 — had started to turn white. She wrung her hands incessantly.
“Her son is not doing well,” said her attorney, Alinka Robinson, as a telephonic translator relayed the proceedings to Patel in her native tongue of Gujarati. Robinson asked Judge Irene C. Feldman to grant her client a $10,000 bond so she could “reunite with her son.”
After an ICE prosecutor said Patel was a flight risk, the judge quizzed her about her path to the United States and whether she had paid a smuggler. An asylum officer had already found she had a “credible fear” of being hurt or killed if she were sent back to India.
She told the judge that her brother arranged her passage and that she never paid a smuggler.
Feldman seemed skeptical and set bond at $30,000, making Patel one of the few separated parents at Eloy to have a bond set, according to detainees.
Veliz said she had requested a credible-fear interview, which launches the asylum process, but had yet to receive it. Until she does, Veliz has no hope of a bond hearing.
She said she and her two children had fled their home in northern Guatemala in May after years of escalating violence. Her husband was already living in the United States, having come two years earlier.
“Several times thieves came into my house,” stealing clothes and gasoline the family could not afford to lose, she said. “There were so many nights that my children were scared.”
Her husband sent money for them to make the journey through Mexico. When they were near the border, Veliz sent photos to him in Massachusetts, showing her and her children smiling in the countryside.
On May 23, after climbing over a wall at the U.S. border, Veliz and her children surrendered to federal agents and were taken to a chilly Border Patrol processing facility. After they spent three days on thin mats on the concrete floor, agents came to take the children away.
Her 9-year-old daughter tried to cling to Veliz’s feet, and her son, a year older, held her arms, sobbing, until she told him it would be okay and he could let go.
“She didn’t want to see me stay there,” Veliz said.
Veliz had made the children memorize their father’s phone number. Two days later, they called him from a shelter in Chicago.
“Papi, cuando nos va a traer,” they asked. Dad, when are you going to bring us?
But Veliz did not know for two more weeks that they had made contact, until she arrived at Eloy.
“Are you still where we left you?” her daughter asked the first time they spoke by phone.
Veliz recently signed paperwork allowing her husband to take the children. But as of last week, they have yet to be released from the shelter, and he does not have the heart to tell them their mother won’t be waiting for them in Massachusetts.