WASHINGTON — Angelica Gonzalez-Garcia answered the call from an unknown number with suspicion.
She was scared and alone in a small apartment in Framingham, desperate to find her 7-year-old daughter after they had been separated a month earlier without any explanation at an Arizona detention center. At the time, in mid-2018, the public was only becoming aware of what immigration lawyers along the US-Mexico border had long suspected: The US government was splitting migrant families apart not by incompetence or chance but as a matter of policy, a form of deterrence, as then Attorney General Jeff Sessions described it, to discourage others from coming north.
While Gonzalez-Garcia was shuffled from immigration facility to immigration facility, her daughter managed to call her grandmother in Guatemala from a shelter in Texas. The mother tried to connect with the girl by phone, and was able to reach an acquaintance willing to house them in Massachusetts. When Gonzalez-Garcia was released in Colorado, a social worker guided her to the airport for a flight to Boston.
Yet, no one — not the federal officials, the asylum officers, or the advocates — could tell her how to get the government to return her daughter.
President Biden this month created a task force to reunite hundreds of families separated under the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy over the past three years. Immigrant lawyers and advocates who have long worked to reunify the families see some hope in the change of direction. But Gonzalez-Garcia’s case provides a window into the immense challenges as Biden administration officials try to reverse the legacy of what many call a stain on the nation’s history. Once families are separated and scattered, getting them back together is an epic challenge — and many such heart-rending cases remain.
The first signs of hope in Gonzalez-Garcia’s long journey came with the phone call that summer night in 2018, from a stranger who insisted she let him stop by. As director of the Metrowest Worker Center, Diego Low focused on labor rights. But the Trump years had thrust organizations like his into new forms of advocacy as federal immigration vans became common sights in Framingham’s immigrant neighborhoods, and people pushed back against what they saw as harassment.
“He told me he wanted to help me, and I wasn’t sure I could believe him,” Gonzalez-Garcia said. “I told him I didn’t trust anybody.”
But with no other options, she agreed to Low’s visit. He went over her rights and texted immigration lawyer Susan Church about the case. He called a female pastor who let Gonzalez-Garcia move in with her over the next two weeks. The next day, Church called the federal agency housing migrant children, thinking the case would be open and shut. Gonzalez-Garcia had all the right paperwork and had pictures of her daughter on her phone. The Globe is not naming the child at the request of her mother as their cases remain pending.
But Church was met with a barrage of questions. Shelter officials seemed to doubt Gonzalez-Garcia could prove the young girl was indeed her child, Church said. They wanted a fresh set of fingerprints, even though the mother had twice been fingerprinted in detention. The first available appointment to get printed wouldn’t be for a month and was in New York City.
As a parent and a lawyer, Church was incensed. “I can’t remember feeling that level of rage in my life,” she said.
Trump administration officials launched their “zero tolerance” policy along parts of the border as early as July 2017 and formally implemented it along the border in April 2018. It required all adults who crossed the border illegally to be taken into the custody of US marshals and face prosecution for what was a misdemeanor crime. With their parents behind bars, government officials alleged, children had to be funneled into shelters, camps, and other facilities under the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement, which until then had been charged with the care of children traveling into the United States without their parents.
But the American Civil Liberties Union in February 2018 had filed what would become the first major class-action lawsuit representing migrant parents across the country. As the separations multiplied and chaos ensued, informal networks of immigration lawyers and private attorneys, immigrant rights advocates and volunteers scrambled to reunite adults and children who had been haphazardly shuffled across the country.
Reunification demanded equal measures of luck and ingenuity, lawyers said.
Members of the Texas Civil Rights Project surveyed detainees brought into Texas courtrooms along the border, taking the information of those who reported having been separated from their children.
In shelters in New York, where ultimately 400 children landed, staffers with the Unaccompanied Minors Program at Catholic Charities Community Services repeatedly plugged in children’s assigned “alien” numbers into an immigrant detainee locator website, varying the last two digits in hopes of drawing a match with their parents.
“We would try to find parents,” said Anthony Enriquez, the program’s director. “But one of the hallmarks of this whole policy was the total lack of coordination between any of the agencies, so the parents really slipped through a black hole.”
Back in Boston, Church enlisted the help of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, the Nixon Peabody law firm, and the offices of Representative Katherine Clark and then Representative Joe Kennedy III. The two called various federal immigration agencies over Fourth of July weekend. They managed to get Gonzalez-Garcia an earlier appointment.
At the same time, she filed the first complaint in Massachusetts against the Trump administration over the separations. According to her complaint, she and her daughter, listed simply as “S.K,” arrived at an Arizona detention center around May 9, 2018, and formally pleaded for asylum, citing domestic violence, abuse, and discrimination.
The day after their arrival, when Gonzalez-Garcia learned Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials planned to take her daughter away, an agent asked her if they celebrated Mother’s Day in her home country, she recalled. When she said they did, he mockingly wished her “a Happy Mother’s Day.”
“He didn’t explain anything to me — not how they were going to take her, not where they were going to take her,” Gonzalez-Garcia said.
The next day, she and other mothers were roused near 5 a.m. and taken to a trailer, where two at a time they were ordered to bathe their children and dress them in government-issued shirts, jackets, and pants. Gonzalez-Garcia whispered with the other women as they waited, speculating about where their children might be taken.
She wept as she washed her daughter’s hair, glancing at the door, wishing for a way to escape, she said. As they lined up the children to march them out, she tried to rush over to her daughter to give her one last kiss goodbye, she said, but an officer stopped her.
“I always kissed her goodnight, goodbye,” she said. “On the bus, I was later told, she cried and cried, and no one could console her.”
President Trump finally caved in the face of international outrage and rolled back the family separation policy in June 2018. By then, the ACLU’s case was giving way to what would become a steering committee with members of nonprofits, including the ACLU, Kids in Need of Defense, and Women’s Refugee Commission, to assist the government in bringing families back together, but its members said their efforts were more often met with resistance from the government.
Federal officials slow walked the handover of information that could have helped speed the identification and location of parents, and the data they did provide was frequently out of date, attorneys said.
In all, at least 5,500 children have been separated since July 2017. More than 600 parents of those children have still not been found. Attorneys estimate that at least 1,000 families were separated even after a federal judge in California halted the practice, as federal officials cited alleged doubts over whether the adults actually were the children’s parents. They also cited previous criminal charges, cases that were often years old, that had never resulted in conviction, and often involved minor offenses like littering or trespassing.
“These were things that in a domestic family court would not be reasonable grounds to separate a family,” said Leah Chavla, a senior policy adviser at the Women’s Refugee Commission.
Social workers had a particularly hard time connecting parents with babies and toddlers who couldn’t verbalize who their parents were. Other children struggled to speak through their trauma. Church had one teenage client who watched officers wrestle his younger sister from his mother as he banged on a window begging them to stop.
Another lawyer, Catherine Weiss with the law firm Lowenstein Sandler, represented a father whose daughter, then 4, was ripped from his arms after agents woke them up near 3 a.m. as they slept on a mat in a McAllen, Texas, processing center. In a separate case, adults and children were loaded onto different buses parked next to each other.
“The children kept trying to crawl out the windows,” Weiss said, her voice catching. “The mom who was in the other bus watched them scream and claw for half an hour.”
When Biden signed the executive order forming the task force, he called it the first action “to undo the moral and national shame” after the Trump administration separated families without a plan to ever reunify them. The task force will have to provide a thorough count of all children separated between Jan. 20, 2017, and Jan. 20, 2021, and issue a series of reports and recommendations on legal remedies, presidential actions, and additional social and mental health services that could facilitate the reunification of every family.
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, the first Latino and immigrant to lead the agency, will head the task force. He has promised to reunite the families, no matter how hard it proves.
“I am a father. I am a husband. I am a son. I am a brother,” he told CNN. “I have not heard before a pain as acute and heartbreaking as that.”
Lawyers and advocates on the front lines appreciate the shift in tone but wonder what more the government can do when they’ve already exhausted so many avenues, and a pandemic and deadly hurricanes have all but stopped searches for deported parents in several Latin American countries.
But they hope the task force might be able to churn up new information, perhaps even records not before disclosed. They want the government to provide redress to help make families whole. More than anything, they want officials to act with urgency — not only to reunite families but to ensure a crisis like this does not happen again.
“I have been living these cases day and night for three years,” said ACLU attorney Lee Gelernt, lead lawyer in the family separation lawsuits. “I welcome the commitment to righting this wrong. But I am concerned that there are not enough details.”
In July 2018 — after Gonzalez-Garcia and her daughter had spent nearly two months apart — the federal government began to release some children, as it faced a looming court order and multiple lawsuits, including at least four filed by women in Massachusetts. Her daughter was one of those released. The video clips went viral, of Gonzalez-Garcia dropping to her knees, flanked by Clark, Low, and Church, as her daughter burst into a room at Logan Airport.
“Forgive me, my child, forgive me,” she sobbed as the two embraced.
Clark called it one of the most heart-wrenching moments of her life.
“Even though her situation, her life experience, couldn’t be more different from mine, that universal love of our children and wanting them to have a fair shot, opportunity, were really represented for me in Angelica,” she said.
People watched the reunion between Gonzalez-Garcia and her daughter with joy. But while it seems the world has moved on, she said every day is a battle for them.
She followed the November election and the Jan. 6 insurrection in anguish over what it could mean for the fate of her and her daughter, who have tried to make their home in Framingham. Biden’s words have brought some relief, but Gonzalez-Garcia still lives in fear of deportation and racism. Her daughter, now 10, wakes up in terror screaming in the middle of the night.
“Sometimes, she cries and tells me she wants to leave, and that the people here are mean, and I start to think that maybe we should flee to another country,” Gonzalez-Garcia said. “But I’ve fought so much, and I try to explain the best I can, that our lives are going to be better here.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the time period that the task force will review to provide a thorough count of all children separated from their families. It is between Jan. 20, 2017, and Jan. 20, 2021.