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Reunited migrant family clears one obstacle, now face more in bid to remain in SoCal

Irma, a migrant mother from Guatemala, holds hands with her young daughter and son at her sister's Reseda apartment in late July. The family is together again after they were separated by federal officials in May as part of President Trump's zero-tolerance border enforcement policies.
Irma, a migrant mother from Guatemala, holds hands with her young daughter and son at her sister's Reseda apartment in late July. The family is together again after they were separated by federal officials in May as part of President Trump's zero-tolerance border enforcement policies.
Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC

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Migrant families separated earlier this year under President Trump's strict border enforcement policies and ordered reunited by a federal court are settling in communities like Southern California as they await a decision on whether they'll be deported.

For some, like a Guatemala mother and her two children now living in San Fernando Valley, the trauma of their separation lingers in their lives as they work to adjust to life in the United States, however short or long that may be.

Irma, who asked her name and that of her children not be used for fear they'll be deported, sat on the floor of her sister's small, sunny apartment in Reseda on a recent afternoon. She and her children had been detained in Arizona in May while crossing illegally at the southern border. 

Federal officials sent Irma to an immigration detention center in Arizona while her children were taken to a federal shelter. She said officials told her after their arrest that she was going to a court hearing on her own, not that the family was being separated. Her children, a 10-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter, were sent to a shelter in Texas.  They were among more than 2,500 children taken from their parents under Trump's zero-tolerance policies and placed in federal shelters.

Irma said she and other detained mothers would plead with officials to tell them where their children were. "We would ask and ask, 'What has become of our children, tell us, please!'" she said in Spanish. "We would cry bitterly."

It was Irma's sister who tracked down the children and connected them to their mother by phone. About six weeks after they were detained, Irma's children were released to her sister while Irma awaited her fate in Arizona. 

More weeks in confinement passed, then Irma learned her bond would be posted by a group of American mothers. Living in states from New York to California, the moms informally connected online and raised money through GoFundMe to help migrant mothers.

“It felt like I was dreaming, after being locked up for two and half months," said Irma, 34, a petite woman whose dark eyes would occasionally well up with tears as she spoke. 

Volunteers from the group met Irma upon her release in Arizona and drove her as far as Burbank airport. There, one of the American mothers, Evelyn Belasco of Thousand Oaks, picked Irma up and drove her the rest of the way to her sister's apartment. They called from the gate downstairs.

"When her sister answered the phone, you could hear her kids in the background. And then her knees buckled, and I held her, and we heard the kids running," said Belasco, her voice trembling as she recalled the emotional reunion.

Seeing her kids was "like my heart was restored," Irma said. "All I had asked God for was to please, let me see my children."

More challenges await

Close to 2,000 families that were separated at the border have been reunited after a federal judge in San Diego ordered Trump officials to do so by a July 26 deadline. Many were released and others are detained together. Some families, like Irma's, were not reunited in ICE custody, but after the children were released to adult sponsors and the parents followed.

But as of Thursday, 559  children remained in federal custody without their parents. Hundreds were deported without their kids and U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw has pressed the government to find these parents and return their children to them.

For those families that have been reunited, were released and remain in the U.S., the government is pushing to deport them.

Some women, like Irma, are seeking asylum and protection from what they describe as violent domestic abuse back in their home countries. She said she fled a dangerous situation after her ex-husband tried to strangle her and threatened to kill her and their children.

It won't be easy for her and others with similar claims. Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently raised the bar for asylum seekers, saying that domestic abuse and gang violence are no longer sufficient grounds for asylum.

An immigration judge will hear Irma’s case at a date yet to be set. In the meantime, families like hers will be living in limbo.

“It’s very difficult, because you’re trying to plan for the new normal, taking care of your child, doing what’s best for your child — pursuing education, pursuing health care, pursuing mental health care," said Niels Frenzen, who directs the immigration clinic at University of Southern California's Gould School of Law.

"But you also have to be doing emergency contingency planning. 'What happens if I get taken into custody at my next check-in interview?'" 

Immigration officials could detain them, or they could be ordered deported by an immigration judge. And if so, the parents must decide whether to take the children with them or leave them in the care of U.S. relatives while the children pursue their own asylum claims.

Deportations of the separated families are currently on hold: Judge Sabraw issued a temporary stay on their removal last month as they were being reunited. He has not yet ruled on a request from the American Civil Liberties Union to extend the stay.

Getting to what's ordinary

For now, in Irma's sister's apartment, there's a sense of normalcy. One recent weekend, Irma took a breather from packing boxes as the family prepared to move to a bigger apartment with her sister, her sister's husband and their young child.

Irma's children return with their aunt from their first visit to an American dentist. Irma did not want them to be interviewed just yet, but she says they're doing better following their detention.

"Now, thank God, they're eating," said Irma, whose children lost weight in the shelter. They told her they were too upset to eat much.

Irma wants the children to settle in and feel safe. She and her sister enrolled them in a local school, where classes start next week.

Irma is working through her own emotional issues. She had trouble leaving the apartment at first. Her sister tried to coax her out to the store or for walks with her. But Irma was haunted by the fear she'd be arrested and detained again without her kids. 

“I was scared," Irma said when her sister invited her out. "I told her, ‘I’m afraid they will come get me.’ “

Belasco and the volunteer moms have been helping the family deal with the issues they're facing. They connected Irma to an attorney who will see her asylum case through. Thanks to the moms, the kids have received vaccines to start school. And the group arranged for Irma, who was suffering from stomach pain when she arrived, to visit a doctor and then paid for her prescriptions. 

“I am so grateful, I have no way to repay them," said Irma, who describes herself as a devout Christian. "But I know the one upstairs will repay them in a big way."

Irma hopes, if her asylum case moves forward, that she can eventually obtain a work permit. But that will depend on what the immigration judge decides. For now, at least, the family is together.

"Blessed be God, I'm here with my kids ... I got to see them, I have them with me once more," she said.