HOUSTON — Alison Jimena Valencia Madrid walked out of a Houston airport early this morning to cheers, holding her mother’s hand, one month after they were separated at a Border Patrol detention facility and the 6-year-old’s voice was captured in an audio recording, begging for a phone call. A van pulled up, and Jimena sat on her mother’s lap in the backseat. She looked out through a window and waved at a handful of reporters, beaming.
It was a whirlwind government handoff as improvised and clandestine as their separation. Jimena was bundled out of a shelter in Phoenix on Thursday evening, loaded onto an airplane at supper time and flown three hours to Houston, where she kept herself awake all night in a passenger lounge in Terminal A with crayons and coloring books. Meanwhile her mother, Cindy Madrid, fresh out of a detention facility in south Texas, got word about the government’s plans too late to catch a flight, and barreled with her lawyer six hours down the highway to reach the little girl.
Both were too exhausted to answer questions upon leaving the airport at 3 a.m. Madrid’s lawyer said that Jimena had a bit of an emotional meltdown at the first sight of her mother. When asked in an earlier interview what she’d feel once she had her daughter back in her arms, Madrid said, “I’ll be the happiest woman in the world. It’s been very painful to be apart.”
Their exhausting, exhilarating reunification gives a window into the government’s handling of the nearly 3,000 others still pending. After a federal judge in San Diego set a deadline for the government to reunify the families that had been separated by the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy, the government promised to comply and asserted that it had a “well-coordinated” plan for doing so. A recent statement from the departments of Health and Human Services and Homeland Security said, “The Trump administration does not approach this mission lightly, and we intend to continue our good faith efforts to reunify families.”
However, in the weeks since the reunifications were started, there’s been little evidence of a plan. On Tuesday, authorities fell short of the court’s first deadline, which ordered them to reunify 103 children under 5, saying that several parents were ineligible because of criminal records. But they offered no evidence to support those assertions. They deemed other children ineligible for immediate reunification because their parents had been deported without them.
With every administration pronouncement and media call, the most fundamental facts and figures about the reunification effort change, including how many children have been separated under the new enforcement policy, how many have been reunified and what measures are being taken to match parents with their children.
Plans for reunifying Jimena with her mother seemed to change by the hour.
When Cindy Madrid, 29, was released from detention on Wednesday, authorities told her that she and the relatives who had agreed to serve as sponsors would have to undergo rigorous background checks before Jimena could be released to them, and that the process could take 10 days. By Wednesday night, the authorities were saying they might be able to waive the background checks and release Jimena based solely on the results of their DNA exams, which would take five days. Then authorities offered to allow Madrid to visit Jimena in Phoenix, raising the possibility that the child could be released to her in Arizona. With help from her lawyer and donations from a Salvadoran woman in Houston who learned of the situation from news accounts, Madrid scrambled to arrange to travel to Phoenix, and wait there for her daughter to be released. But on Thursday evening, the government’s plans for Jimena changed again, and at 5 p.m., Madrid was abruptly summoned to Houston instead.
Madrid said she’d do whatever the government asked to get her daughter back so that she could focus on fighting for asylum and starting a new life here. Madrid said she left El Salvador fleeing gang violence. The Trump administration, however, which derides asylum as a “loophole” that is used by undeserving immigrants seeking access to this country, has sought to shrink the program by narrowing grounds for relief. As part of that effort it has said it would not count either gang violence or domestic violence as sufficient for demonstrating persecution, potentially shutting the border to hundreds of thousands of people from Central America. Still, Madrid managed to pass her initial credible fear interview and has been released on bond until her case is heard in court, which could take years due to tens of thousands of backlogged cases.
For her daughter’s sake, Madrid says she won’t dwell on their monthlong separation. In an interview, however, she wondered aloud whether anything had been accomplished by it.
“It’s unfair what they are doing to the adults,” she said. “But what they’re doing to children is worse. They’re harming them, possibly for life. What’s the point of that?”
Read a Spanish-language version of this story here.