Reunions for some migrant parents and children who were separated by the Trump administration were bittersweet Tuesday: Some of the little ones no longer recognized their mothers.
One mother had waited four months to wrap her arms around her little boy. Another had waited three months to see her little girl again.
When the reunions finally happened Tuesday in Phoenix, the mothers were met with cries of rejection from their children.
“He didn’t recognize me,” said Mirce Alba Lopez, 31, of her 3-year-old son, Ederson, her eyes welling up with tears. “My joy turned temporarily to sadness.”
For Milka Pablo, 35, it was no different. Her 3-year-old daughter, Darly, screamed and tried to wiggle free from her mother’s embrace.
Darly cried for the social worker who had cared for her at the shelter, saying, “I want Miss. I want Miss.”
Theirs were some of the first reunions after the Trump administration began returning children to their parents, upon order of the court.
Government officials said they were struggling to meet Tuesday’s court-ordered deadline to reunite 102 migrant children under 5 with their parents; only about one-third were expected to be reunited by then.
The reunions that did happen were chaotic. Parents were warned that pickup and drop-off times could change throughout the day. The federal agency that oversees the care of migrant children, the Department of Health and Human Services, was still conducting background checks on parents into Tuesday morning.
As Darly and Ederson sat with their mothers, awaiting their Greyhound bus, they referred to one another as brother and sister.
Darly, who had been potty-trained before the separation, had regressed to diapers. Ederson bounced up and down on his mother’s lap and downed Doritos with gusto. All of the adults were fitted with ankle monitors.
“I want to go with my little sister,” he said, pointing to a 13-month-old named Carmen in the arms of Denis Espinoza, her Honduran father who was released from detention to recover her 20 days after they were separated.
According to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, after parents are reunited with their children, they are given ankle bracelets and released from detention.
“Parents with children under the age of 5 are being reunited with their children and then released and enrolled into an alternative detention program,” Matthew Albence, Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s executive associate director of enforcement and removal operations, told reporters on Tuesday.
He said that means the migrants will be given ankle bracelets “and released into the community.”
Mr. Albence said the ankle monitor would track the families being released, but that ICE would consider other methods to ensure migrants show up for court. A total of about 80,000 migrants wearing tracking devices currently live in the United States, including migrants who were released from detention before the zero-tolerance policy was enacted in April.
In an effort to continue the zero-tolerance policy, the Trump administration asked U.S. District Judge Dolly M. Gee to amend the Flores settlement – which dictates that migrant children can be detained for no longer than 20 days – in order to keep families together while parents await the resolution of their court cases.
But Judge Gee declined to make any such amendment on Monday.
“Defendants seek to light a match to the Flores agreement and ask this court to upend the parties’ agreement by judicial fiat,” Judge Gee, who was appointed by President Barack Obama, wrote in her order.
She called the Justice Department’s request to amend the settlement “cynical” and said it was an attempt to “shift responsibility to the judiciary for over 20 years of congressional inaction and ill-considered executive action that have led to the current stalemate.”
To date, government officials have not stated whether they will be able to meet the court-mandated July 26 deadline to have all of the nearly 3,000 migrant children in federal custody returned to their parents.