Originally Published in The New York Times

Miriam Jordan – April 9, 2021

With a record 20,000 migrant children in shelters and detention facilities, many parents have waited weeks to learn what happened to their children after they crossed the border.


Maria Ana Mendez, left, got a phone call when her daughter Cindy arrived in the United States from Guatemala, but then waited weeks to hear her voice again. They were reunited in San Diego this week.
Credit…Ariana Drehsler for The New York Times

When Maria Ana Mendez left Honduras a decade ago to earn money in the United States, her daughter Cindy was still in pigtails and playing with dolls.

But settled now with a job and an apartment in upstate New York, Ms. Mendez was ready to bring Cindy to live with her. Because she is still undocumented and could not legally bring her into the country, she paid a guide $8,000 in February to take Cindy, now 16, across thousands of miles to the doorstep of the United States.

Three weeks later, Ms. Mendez heard from her daughter for the first time: She had crossed the Rio Grande on a raft and was being held in a temporary U.S. border camp in Donna, Texas. She had not showered in five days, and was sleeping on the ground. She did not feel well.

Days without news turned into weeks of anguish as Ms. Mendez made repeated phone calls to a U.S. government hotline to learn her daughter’s whereabouts. On April 3, Cindy was able to call — from a hospital in San Diego. She was “very sick” with Covid-19, she told her mother.

“I can’t take this anymore,” said Ms. Mendez, who booked a flight to San Diego.

A surge of arrivals on the border has put nearly 20,000 migrant children in government custody — the largest number in recent memory — creating chaos and confusion as immigration authorities scramble to care for them, contact their parents and process them for release.

The Biden administration has rushed to open emergency intake sites at convention centers in San Diego and Dallas, a coliseum and expo center in San Antonio, a former oil camp in Midland, Texas, and at the Army base at Fort Bliss, Texas. Other sites, including a convention center in Long Beach, Calif., are expected to accommodate children soon.

The San Diego Convention Center is one of several temporary housing sites for migrant children.
Credit…Ariana Drehsler for The New York Times

But the government is still struggling to bring in people to staff them, and immigrant parents across the country, who often have no idea what happened to their children after they entered the United States, are growing increasingly desperate.

Some children have gone weeks or longer without being able to contact their parents.

In Austin, Texas, a Honduran woman is waiting for news of her two children, 6 and 9, who were brought to the border in March by a family member but then separated from the adult relative and taken to an unknown destination.

A Honduran father said he had been told that his 14-year-old son, who arrived in March, is one of 2,000 migrant boys being housed at the convention center in Dallas. But he has yet to speak with him.

“I am very worried about her,” said the woman, Juana Cuyuch Brito, 32. “I don’t know why they transferred her or what is going on.”

Lidia Cuyuch Brito, the 16-year-old sister of Juana Cuyuch Brito, photographed in Guatemala before leaving for the United States.

The problem appears to be one of sheer numbers, as the new administration struggles to hire enough people to staff the temporary shelters, make contact with parents and verify that children can be safely released to them.

Administration officials say they are doing the best they can to handle the latest rush to the border, trying to provide safe housing and secure placements for children who have already faced substantial dangers traveling through Mexico and crossing the border, often with no adult guardian.

“I can say quite clearly: Don’t come over,” Mr. Biden said last month. “Don’t leave your town or city or community.”

Yet hundreds of children continue to be intercepted and transported to processing centers each day. In the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, border facilities were operating at 743 percent capacity last month. A tent structure in Donna was at 1,707 percent capacity.

About half the children arriving at the border are coming to reunify with a parent, like Ms. Mendez, who has been residing in the United States for many years.

Often the children were raised by grandmothers and other close relatives who are now aging and can no longer care for them. Like their parents, many are teenagers who do not see a future in their home countries.

Because the parents lack legal status or have asylum cases stuck in immigration court backlogs, most are unable to sponsor their children to immigrate legally to the United States; they resort to smuggling networks to transport them.

Nearly 16,500 migrant teenagers and children who crossed the border without a parent are being housed in Department of Health and Human Services facilities until they have met the requirements for release. Roughly 4,000 more are stranded in Border Patrol stations waiting for beds in those shelters to open.

The emergency facilities provide clean sleeping quarters, meals, toiletries, laundry and access to medical care, including coronavirus screening. Services are provided by a combination of contractors and federal staff.

But there is still a severe shortage of case managers to handle the bureaucracy. It is these social workers who contact parents and request documents to start the process of releasing their children to them.

Once a parent has submitted the paperwork and passed a background check, the child’s placement must be approved by a specially designated officer, to ensure that a child will be safe.

The dearth of staff at every level, according to child-welfare experts, is one of the main reasons that, on average, only about 300 minors a day are being released, creating a frantic race for new bed space as more children cross the border.

Migrant children last month in a pod at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility in Donna, Texas, the main detention center for unaccompanied children in the Rio Grande Valley.
Credit…Pool photo by Dario Lopez-Mills

Leecia Welch, a lawyer whose team interviewed about 20 children in several intake facilities in Texas on March 29 and 30, said none of the children had been assigned a case manager by that time.

The lawyers found that many children were waiting several weeks before being permitted to speak with family members.

“What these kids want first and foremost is to be reunited with their families,” Ms. Welch said. “They were desperate to hear their parents’ voices.”

One child she interviewed in Dallas, she said, teared up as he told her that he had gone three months without contact with his family and that he had made his first call the day before.

Many parents already had undergone weeks of anxiety as their children undertook the dangerous journey through Mexico, often in the hands of smugglers. Customs and Border Protection officials this week released a video of a sobbing 10-year-old Nicaraguan boy who had been found wandering in a remote area of Texas after he was abandoned by the group he was traveling with.

“The inhumane way smugglers abuse children while profiting off parents’ desperation is criminal and morally reprehensible,” the secretary of homeland security, Alejandro N. Mayorkas, said in a statement in March. “Just this month, a young girl died by drowning, a 6-month-old was thrown into the river, and two young children were dropped from a wall and left in the desert alone.”

Since arriving in the United States a decade ago, Ms. Mendez, 42, has juggled jobs as a housekeeper, a packer at a seafood processing plant and a chef’s assistant at a diner, sending $200 to $300 every two weeks back to her family.

Last year, Ms. Mendez watched her daughter graduate from high school by video. Cindy wanted to fulfill her dream of becoming a computer programmer, and the time to do that was now, she said.

As she headed north toward the border, Cindy checked in with her mother every few days.

To prepare for her arrival, Ms. Mendez painted her room pink, furnishing it with a new bed and a colorful princess spread. She hung helium balloons to make it festive.

Cindy reached Texas in early March and was intercepted by the Border Patrol, which took her to a processing center.

After an initial phone call from her daughter, Ms. Mendez waited anxiously for more news.

But weeks went by, and every time Ms. Mendez phoned a call center at the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is responsible for sheltering migrant children, she heard that her daughter’s case was “pending.”

“I have no idea where my daughter is,” Ms. Mendez said in an interview on March 26. “No one is telling me anything at all.”

Ms. Mendez hired a guide to bring Cindy from Guatemala, entering the United States via the Rio Grande.
Credit…Adrees Latif/Reuters

The agency has not responded to questions about staffing and reunification procedures, though it has said generally that children are being carefully accounted for and put in touch with their parents as quickly as possible. Rushing the process risks the possibility of releasing children into unsafe conditions, officials say.

When Ms. Mendez could learn nothing of her daughter’s whereabouts, she contacted an immigration lawyer, Kate Lincoln-Goldfinch, who filed a complaint with the inspector general for the Department of Health and Human Services. The handling of Cindy’s case, it said, represented a “gross deviation” from the Biden administration’s stated policy of reuniting unaccompanied minors with their parents as swiftly as possible.

“We fear that the child has either been lost or unaccounted for by the agency,” the letter concluded.

Nothing happened.

Then, last Saturday, Ms. Mendez’s cellphone buzzed. It was Cindy.

“Mami, I am in the hospital in San Diego. I have Covid,” she told her mother, her voice feeble.

She said that she had been staying at the convention center in San Diego before she began feeling very sick and was transferred by ambulance to the hospital.

“How could they leave her alone in the hospital and not advise me?” Ms. Mendez said.

It took a day before she would receive an update about her child’s condition. Ms. Lincoln-Goldfinch called the hospital, but a charge nurse and social worker initially refused to release any information, referring her to the Border Patrol, she said.

In an interview from the hospital on Monday, Cindy said she had been isolating in a room at the convention center, which holds about 1,400 girls, with 20 others who had tested positive for the coronavirus.

Finally, on Tuesday, Ms. Mendez learned that Cindy had recovered from her illness and would be discharged soon. The government had approved her release from custody, she was told.

Ms. Mendez immediately flew to San Diego, and went straight from the airport to the convention center late on Wednesday.

Mother and daughter emerged 15 minutes later, holding each other in tears.

Credit…Ariana Drehsler for The New York Times
Miriam Jordan is a national correspondent who reports on the impact of immigration on the society, culture and economy of the United States. Before joining The Times, she covered immigration at the Wall Street Journal and was a correspondent in Brazil, India, Hong Kong and Israel.