Yeni González emerged into the warm evening air in Eloy, Ariz., her hair braided by the other women in the detention center. We’re braiding up all your strength, they had told her in Spanish. You can do it.
Ms. González, who had been released on a bond, was meeting her lawyer on Thursday and would soon join the volunteers who were driving her to New York City to find her three young children — Lester, Jamelin and Deyuin — who had been taken away from her more than a month before at the southern border.
She is one of the rare ones.
With protests being held around the country on Saturday to demand the reunification of parents and children separated at the border, progress on putting families back together has been painfully slow. Despite a federal judge’s order requiring reunification within 30 days, more than 2,000 children remain scattered across 17 states, including some 300 in New York. Their parents too have been sent around the country — to detention centers in Arizona, Colorado and as far away as Washington State.
How will federal authorities reunite them? “There is no answer that I’m aware of about how the reunification will happen to the parents who are in detention,” said Mario Russell, the director of Immigrant & Refugee Services for Catholic Charities, the nonprofit charged with representing the children sent to New York.
Officials at the Department of Health and Human Services said this week that they were facilitating communication between children and parents, but did not plan to release children while their parents were being detained. Under the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy, thousands have been detained and face prosecution on charges of illegally entering the United States.
Citing the possibility that human traffickers might pose as parents, officials said that the government intends to aggressively “vet” those who wish to gain custody of children, including running background checks on them and requiring fingerprinting for every adult in their household, even if it slows down the reunification process.
The administration declined to say how many children had been reunited with their relatives since President Trump ended the separation policy with an executive order more than a week ago.
Yolany Padilla, 24, is one of about 50 parents who have been sent to two detention centers in Seattle. In a phone call from the Federal Detention Center at Seatac, she said the only trace she still has of Jelsin, her 6-year-old son, is the little case for his eyeglasses.
For close to a month after they were separated, she had no idea where he was.
She had been given a slip of paper with his alien number after they were separated at a detention center near Laredo, Tex., she said, but employees of Immigration and Customs Enforcement took it from her — along with their birth certificates and the backpacks she and Jelsin had carried from the tiny village of Los Puentes, Honduras. So it had been no use calling the toll-free number set up by the federal refugee office for separated families.
For weeks, she knew nothing. “I dreamed of him, sometimes bad things,” she said, speaking in Spanish. “I couldn’t sleep, I just hid under the blanket and cried.”
Honduran consular officials recently came to the detention center looking for parents who had been separated from their children. And last week, Ms. Padilla finally got a call from a social worker at Cayuga Centers, a child welfare agency in New York City.
“Oof,” she said, “It felt like they lifted a huge weight off me.”
When Jelsin got on the phone, Ms. Padilla said neither one of them could speak because they were both crying so hard. She coaxed a few words from her little boy, who she says loves to read and to ride his bicycle.
Yes, he was eating, he told her, but he didn’t like the vegetables. They had cut his hair. He was one of six children staying in his foster home.
Ms. Padilla’s case is particularly difficult to move forward, said her lawyer, Aimee Souza — who recently came on as a volunteer to represent Ms. Padilla in immigration court as she applies for asylum — because her client is being held in federal detention, which is more restrictive than immigration detention. “That throws 45 wrenches into the process,” said Ms. Souza. “I can’t easily get in there. I can’t easily call. The only way to communicate is snail mail, visiting her,” or waiting for her to call.
The Northwest Immigrant Rights Project filed a lawsuit in federal court this week challenging the administration’s practice of family separation on behalf of the parents sent to Washington. Ms. Padilla is one of three plaintiffs named in the lawsuit.
Jorge Barón, the executive director of the organization, said it’s unclear how the reunification process will play out.
He hopes that parents might be able to be released on bond, perhaps with ankle monitors, and then be reunited with their children while they await immigration hearings.
Alternatively, he said, “they could open new facilities and keep them together and locked up. But we’re hoping that doesn’t happen.”
Even if parents are released on a bond, physically getting them across thousands of miles is difficult, especially if authorities hold their identification while the parents go through immigration proceedings. Without proper identification, they cannot board airplanes. That is why Ms. González, the mother held in Arizona, is being driven to New York by a team of volunteers.
Ms. González, who is from Guatemala, contacted relatives living in North Carolina after learning her children were in New York. The relatives contacted a lawyer there and sent him copies of the children’s birth certificates.
The lawyer, José Xavier Orochena, then confirmed that the children — who are 6, 9 and 11 — were placed in foster homes through Cayuga, the largest of the agencies in New York.
After he spoke about the case on television and radio, a group of artists and parents in the New York area started a crowdfunding campaign for Ms. González that raised the money to cover her $7,500 bond and arranged her cross-country trip.
“I feel very happy to be free, and very grateful for all the help,” Ms. González, 29, said through tears after her release, speaking in Spanish. “I’m free and now I can fight for my children.”
Mr. Orochena said he expected the family to be reunited for the first time early next week. “It’s not unfettered, but Cayuga says she can see the children as much as she wants, from 9 to 5.”
Their relative in North Carolina has applied to become the children’s sponsor, meaning that the children might not have to remain in federal custody while their mother’s asylum case makes its way through immigration court — a solution that many families might pursue.
But that too could complicate things. Every adult living in a child’s house must be included in the sponsorship petition. So Ms. González might not be allowed to live with her children.
But at least she will be near them. Many more parents will likely remain in detention for some time, thousands of miles from their children. “I tell myself, God will help us, because we are not criminals,” said Ms. Padilla, the mother being held in Seattle.
There, she waits in her tan-colored prison uniform for her son’s calls, and turns his nine-digit alien number over in her mind like a rosary.
Follow Annie Correal on Twitter: @anniecorreal.
Liz Robbins contributed reporting.