By Brian Thevenot and Loren Elliott
New Orleans (Reuters) – Maria Marroquin Perdomo fretted as she waited with her 11-year-old son, Abisai, in the New Orleans International Airport.
A day earlier, the mother and son had been reunited in Texas after being separated by U.S. immigration officials for more than a month, an ordeal that followed a harrowing journey from Honduras.
Now they awaited another reunion: With the father Abisai had not seen in person since he was an infant.
“Maybe he didn’t come,” Marroquin Perdomo said.
Then the boy spotted his father and sprinted toward him. His mother moved more tentatively. For days, she had been consumed by a range of emotions: joy and relief at finding her son; anxiety over whether his father truly wanted her with him after a long estrangement; guilt over the terrors Abisai had suffered; and fear over how her asylum case would play out amid a sweeping U.S. immigration crackdown.
Such anxieties are common as the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump scrambles to return as many as 2,500 immigrant children to their parents by a court-ordered deadline of July 26.
The joyful reunions are by no means happy endings. Even as some of the parents get glimpses of the lives they had hoped for in America, they face new challenges in avoiding deportation and keeping their families together.
For Marroquin Perdomo, that will mean trying to convince an immigration judge she fled Honduras for one of the specific reasons outlined in asylum laws. Making that case got much harder last month with an appellate decision issued by Attorney General Jeff Sessions that immigration attorneys say disallowed some of the asylum justifications most often cited by Central Americans, including fear of unchecked domestic or gang violence.
Marroquin Perdomo has passed a first hurdle, convincing an asylum officer that she has a “credible fear” of returning home. That determination was based on her account of how two policemen pistol-whipped her, invaded her home and tried to extort money, according to a transcript of her credible fear interview reviewed by Reuters.
Most immigrants who pass that first test, however, are not ultimately allowed to remain in the United States, and Hondurans have a particularly low success rate. Between 2007 and 2017, just 16 percent of the Hondurans whose cases were decided in immigration court received asylum or other permission to stay, according to a Reuters analysis of data from the Executive Office for Immigration Review.
Sessions, in his June 11 decision, sharply narrowed the circumstances under which immigrants can use violence at home as grounds for U.S. asylum. To qualify, applicants now need to show either that the government condoned the violence or that they were targeted because of their membership in a “socially distinct” group, based on characteristics such as race or religion.
He also instructed immigration judges and asylum officers to view illegal border-crossing as a “serious adverse factor” in deciding a case and to consider whether applicants could have escaped danger by relocating within their own countries.
Marroquin Perdomo’s case faces long odds in court, said David Ware, a New Orleans immigration attorney.
“It’s hard to put her in a distinct group,” he said. “The sad thing about Central American immigrants is that they are fleeing what amount to failed states with high levels of criminality.”
Texas attorney Jodi Goodwin, who helped reunite Marroquin Perdomo with her son, said she is already seeing an increase in asylum applicants failing to pass their initial credible-fear interviews.
“Sessions did what he could to gut asylum law,” she said.
The Department of Justice declined to comment on whether Sessions aimed to make asylum claims more difficult for Central Americans or whether recently reunited families now face a tougher fight against deportation.
In a speech on the day he issued his decision, Sessions said that “the asylum system is being abused to the detriment of the rule of law, sound public policy, and public safety.” His decision, he said, restored “sound principles of asylum.”
A KNOCK ON THE DOOR
The basis of Marroquin Perdomo’s asylum application, described under oath in her credible-fear interview, is an attack she says occurred on May 20.
Two uniformed Honduran national police officers pushed their way into her home and demanded money, she said. One of them hit her with a gun. Later, after they left, the telephone rang and a voice told her to have the cash in 24 hours or die, according to the transcript of her account to authorities.
Marroquin Perdomo had long been separated from Abisai’s father, Edward Montes Lopez, but he kept in touch with their children through phone calls, emails and video-chat. Together they decided Maria should flee with their youngest, Abisai, to New Orleans. They could not afford to move the whole family, and Marroquin Perdomo’s other five children were older teenagers or adults.
Montes Lopez borrowed $3,000 from friends among the several dozen other Hondurans he worked with as a welder for a New Orleans shipbuilder to help pay for their journey.
Two days after the police officers threatened them, the mother and son started their journey north, traveling for 15 days by van, bus and truck, she said. At one point they spent a night in a tractor trailer carrying 108 people.
Marroquin Perdomo closed her eyes and held Abisai as they crossed the Rio Grande River on June 6 in an overloaded raft that resembled a “kiddie pool,” she said. They were quickly apprehended on the other side.
SEPARATING A MOTHER AND SON
Marroquin Perdomo and her son spent their first night in the United States on the floor of a Border Patrol processing center in McAllen, Texas.
The next day, Marroquin Perdomo said, she was shackled and shuttled to a nearby federal courthouse. Immigration officials, she said, told her Abisai would be waiting for her when she returned.
He was not. Like hundreds of other children, Abisai had been separated from his mother under the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy toward illegal immigration, which was announced in April. Under the strategy, all adults crossing the border illegally were to be prosecuted, and their children put in the care of the Department of Health and Human Services.
The agents did not say where Abisai had been taken, and Marroquin Perdomo said she did not learn his whereabouts for another 15 days.
Parents and children were often not told what was happening at the time of separation, said Goodwin, the immigration lawyer, echoing something other immigrants have said to Reuters and in court documents.
“They told everybody that – ‘When you get back, your kid will be waiting,’” she said.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesman Daniel Hetlage confirmed that Marroquin Perdomo and her son were separated while she was away at court, but said he could not determine what Border Patrol agents told the mother and son in the process.
Deceiving parents when separating them from their children would violate agency policy, Hetlage said, and parents are typically given written instructions for finding out where their children have been taken and how to contact them.
In June, Trump ordered the family separations stopped after widespread outrage over the policy. A federal judge in San Diego ordered the government to reunite families it had split up by July 26.
Two days after crossing the Rio Grande, Marroquin Perdomo was transferred to the Port Isabel Service Processing Center, a massive Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center outside Brownsville, Texas.
There, she bonded with three other mothers, all of them Christians, and spent her days with them crying, praying and fasting.
After two weeks, she said, her son finally called. She had no privacy as they spoke and did not want to worry him. She just repeated: “We’ll be together very soon,” though she did not know if that was true.
Abisai, it turned out, was not far away. Unlike some children, who were taken to centers thousands of miles from their parents, Marroquin Perdomo’s son was sent to Casa Padre, a facility designed to house up to 1,500 boys in former Wal-Mart Supercenter about 25 miles from where his mother was detained.
Marroquin Perdomo was released on July 13, and a day later, she was reunited with her son in the lobby of Casa Padre. As they held a long embrace, she begged for his forgiveness, said Goodwin, who witnessed the scene.
“She’s thinking it’s all her fault,” Goodwin said of the separation. “It’s not her fault at all.”
Marroquin Perdomo gave her son a set of colorful handmade cards she had made for him in detention. On one of them, she had drawn flowers surrounding a Bible verse – Salmos (Psalms) 121:8.
It reads in English: “The Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.”
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(Reporting by Brian Thevenot in New Orleans and Loren Elliott in New Orleans and South Texas; Editing by Sue Horton)