ELOY, Arizona — Two days after asking for asylum at the bridge connecting Reynosa, Mexico, with McAllen, Texas, Jose was sitting in a freezing-cold holding room with his 3-year-old son, when immigration officials came in.
The officials scooped up little Josecito and said they were taking him to use the bathroom. They never brought him back.
“I never thought they would separate me from my son,” said Jose, a 27-year-old from Honduras, of that day in mid-May. “I never imagined it.”
“It was very hard, the hardest thing that's happened to me.”
Jose did not see his child again until they were reunited in an ICE field office in Phoenix on Tuesday, the court-mandated deadline for the government to return children under 5 who had been separated at the border from their parents as part of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy on illegal immigration.
But the question is why Jose was separated from Josecito in the first place. The Trump administration has repeatedly said that migrants presenting legally at the border and asking for asylum would not be separated from their children.
“DHS is not separating families legitimately seeking asylum at ports of entry,” said Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen at a White House press conference on June 18.
“There is a surefire way to avoid separation from your children, and that is present yourself at a border crossing,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar on a press call on July 5.
Jose was not prosecuted for the crime of illegal entry like thousands of other parents under the policy, but the government still separated him, and he's not alone. The L.A. Times identified several cases like Jose’s in which families seeking asylum at ports of entry were separated and detained, stretching back to last year, before the “zero tolerance” policy went into effect, in April.
Customs and Border Protection told the paper that just seven families have been separated at ports of entry since May, and the agency did not respond to repeated requests for information from VICE News about why officials separated Jose and his son.
Jose had a prior removal order, which may have been the reason Customs and Border Patrol targeted him and his son for separation. He cleared a background check, which was required to get his son back and participate in the class-action suit the ACLU filed to return nearly 3,000 migrant kids to their parents.
On June 26, U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw of San Diego described cases like Jose’s as a “casual, if not deliberate, separation of families that lawfully present at the port of entry, not just those who cross into the country illegally,” and ordered that all children be reunited with their parents by the end of July.
Meanwhile, in June, immigration officials interviewed Jose in detention and determined that his fear of returning to Honduras is credible, meaning his asylum case will move forward. Jose and his son fled Honduras after several family members were murdered by an organized criminal group and the same group threatened to kill Jose, according to his lawyer, Gracie Willis at the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement moved Jose five times to different detention centers as far as Georgia before he landed in Eloy Detention Center near Phoenix in late June. During their two months apart, Jose and his son had one video call, but at 3 years old, Josecito couldn’t communicate very well.
“On the video call I just watched him play”
“On the video call I just watched him play,” Jose said. “Just one time I saw him.”
On Tuesday, two months after government officials took Josecito away from Jose in Texas, father and son were reunited inside the ICE field office in Phoenix. Josecito is one of 102 children under 5 years old who were supposed to be reunited with their parents by a court ordered Tuesday deadline. Just 34 children got to see their parents Tuesday because of issues attributed to DNA testing and locating separated families.
When asked Tuesday why the government had missed the deadline for most of the youngest kids covered by the order, President Trump said, “Well, I have a solution: Tell people not to come to our country illegally. That’s the solution.”
The government has until July 26 to reunite the nearly 3,000 children aged 5 and older with their parents.
Once they were released Tuesday afternoon, Jose and Josecito boarded a Greyhound bus for the three-day journey from Phoenix to their original destination of Washington D.C., where Jose’s brother-in-law lives. The brother-in-law purchased the $200 ticket when he heard the father and son were being reunited and released.
“He must have thought that I had abandoned him”
“Are you seeing the planes, son?” Jose asked as they waited for the bus to leave outside the bus station in Phoenix, looking down at Josecito and then pointing to the sky. “Did you see that big one?”
Josecito stood below, his big, brown eyes distracted by a toy truck in the gravel.
At the first rest stop, in Flagstaff, Arizona, Jose, who now has to wear an ankle bracelet, told VICE News he's worried his son will suffer long-term harm from the separation.
“I just think I should take him to a psychologist,” he said, holding a yawning Josecito. “His mind is confused, because of the solitude he lived through, without the love of his father or his mother. He was forgotten. He must have thought that I had abandoned him. Sometimes children get sick from so much desperation. They get sick.”
Additional reporting by Ani Ucar
Cover image: Three-year-old "Josecito" plays with a toy next to a bag of his belongings at an ICE detention center in Phoenix where he was reunited with his father after being separated for two months. (VICE News)
CORRECTION (June 11, 5:10 p.m.): An earlier version of this story misidentified the location where Jose and Josecito reunited. It was at the ICE field office in Phoenix, not the Eloy Detention Center.