After being freed from an immigrant detention center in Arizona, Juana traveled nearly 3,000 miles to New York, where U.S. government officials had taken her daughter.
Juana, whose lawyer asked that her last name be withheld for fear that identifying her could jeopardize her and her daughter’s legal case, did it with the help of a growing legion of volunteers in the United States. They are people who have offered up their cars, homes, food and clothing to aid parents separated from their children as a result of the Trump administration’s “zero- tolerance” immigration policy.
In two weeks, this loosely organized network of citizens has helped reunite nearly a dozen separated families, in some cases connecting them with housing, lawyers and other services they may need.
They call their coalition “Immigrant Families Together.”
The federal government is under court order to return more than 2,500 separated children to their parents by July 26. A total of 102 migrant children younger than 5 were supposed to be reunited with their relatives by Tuesday. As of Thursday, the Trump administration says it has reunited 57 of 103 young children with their parents after separations of weeks or months. It will not return another 46 children for reasons that range from concerns about their safety to their parents having been deported.
In most cases, the government has been releasing parents from detention and children from federal shelters, then transporting them to a meeting place to be reunited. The parents are usually given ankle monitoring devices and told they are free to go but must report back for immigration or deportation hearings.
Immigrant Families Together is trying to speed the process by identifying parents who can be freed from custody, paying their bonds if necessary, then coordinating caravans to move the parents across state lines to where their children are being held.
A Guatemalan immigrant, Juana had crossed the border at a port of entry in Arizona hoping to seek asylum. Her journey to be reunited with her daughter began Friday, after an online fundraiser collected enough to post her $15,000 bond at Eloy Detention Center in Arizona and get her on her way. She had already been cleared to claim her daughter. All she needed was to get to Cayuga Centers, a shelter in Harlem.
Juana’s journey included a total of eight drivers over five days. They took her from Arizona to New Mexico to Colorado to Nebraska to Illinois to Michigan, where she settled into a minivan driven by Mira Sussman, a mother of three from Ann Arbor.
They spent five hours Monday driving to Pittsburgh, Sussman said. She drove most of the way a few miles an hour under the speed limit — just in case. “I was terrified we would be pulled over in a regular traffic stop and they would find her and take her away again and she’d never make it to New York to see her kid,” Sussman said. “I was being so careful.”
Juana, exhausted, crawled into the back seat of the minivan, held her Bible to her chest and slept.
She woke in Ohio, Sussman said, and talked about what she had gone through, how she and her daughter, who is 15, would carry this experience with them for the rest of their lives. She used the word trauma, which sounds the same in Spanish as it does in English. Sussman said her Spanish “isn’t very good,” but she understood.
On Tuesday, after traveling from Pittsburgh to Newark, Juana got into one last car for the drive into New York City. She met her daughter at the shelter and hugged her for the first time in weeks. A volunteer sent a message to a group text that included eight of the volunteers who helped Juana get there: drivers, organizers, translators, people who offered Juana a place to spend the night.