A group of 54 detained immigrant parents begged to be reunited with their children and said U.S. officials used deception and trickery to remove them in the first place.
"We were not prepared for the nightmare that we faced here,” the parents said in an open letter to the public obtained by CNN Sunday. “The United States government kidnapped our children with tricks and didn't give us the opportunity to say goodbye."
The group of immigrants detained in Port Isabel, Texas, detailed their suffering, a consequence of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy in which parents and kids are systematically separated at the border and detained apart for weeks and even months.
While 57 of the youngest children were reunited last week, more than 2,500 children remain in government custody separated from their parents, according to the most recent figures from the Department of Health and Human Services.
"To the people of the United States, please help us. We are desperate parents,” they wrote in longhand on a yellow pad in Spanish.
Several immigrant parents say their children were taken from them in cruel ways, and many are concerned about the lasting trauma of separation.
Other parents shared similar stories. Immigration authorities told Jose, a 27-year-old Honduran father, that they were taking his 3-year-old son to use the bathroom and then never brought him back. He didn’t see his son again for two months. “It was very hard, the hardest thing that's happened to me,” Jose said.
Ever Reyes Mejia, 30, also from Honduras, said officials took him out of the cell he was sharing with his 3-year-old son, who was sleeping at the time. That was the last time he saw him for two months.
“They didn't even let me give him a kiss goodbye,” he told the Detroit Free Press. “They didn't even let me warn him and tell him: I'll be right back."
In total, the government took away 103 kids under 5 from parents at the border. On June 26 a federal court in San Diego ordered the Trump administration to reverse the policy and reunite all of the families it has separated by July 26.
Fifty-seven of the youngest kids aged 4 and under were reunited with their parents last week, including Jose and Reyes Mejia. Forty-six of those young children remain in government custody because their parents were deemed ineligible: 12 have already been deported, 11 have criminal histories, 7 are not actually the parents, one has a contagious illness, one has not been located for more than a year, and one has been accused of abuse.
The ACLU, representing the families, will work with the court to reunify as many of these remaining "tender age" children as possible after the deadlines.
There are 2,551 kids 5 years and older who are still waiting to be reunified. Judge Dana Sabraw, who is overseeing the reunification process, said the government must confirm all parent-child relationships by July 19, one week before the July 26 deadline to reunify all families. In a court filing over the weekend, HHS complained that the tight deadlines are putting kids at risk of being reunited with unfit parents. Judge Sabraw responded bluntly, criticizing the government for instituting the family separation policy in the first place.
“Unfortunately, HHS appears to be operating in a vacuum, entirely divorced from the undisputed circumstances of this case,” he wrote.
The parents at Port Isabel who penned the letter are likely still waiting to be assessed by the Department of Homeland Security and HHS. Some parents have only had one phone call with their children since they were separated, according to the letter.
“The children cry, they don't recognize our voices, and they feel abandoned and unloved,” they wrote. “This makes us feel like we are dead.”
Cover image: El Salvadorian immigrant Ania, 9, removes her shoe laces at Border Patrol request she and her family crossed the Rio Grande from Mexico into the United States to seek asylum on April 14, 2016 in Roma, Texas. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
This article originally appeared on VICE News US.