Helen—a smart, cheerful five-year-old girl—is an asylum seeker from Honduras. This summer, when a social worker asked her to identify her strengths, Helen shared her pride in “her ability to learn fast and express her feelings and concerns.” She also recounted her favorite activities (“playing with her dolls”), her usual bedtime (“8 P.M.”), and her professional aspirations (“to be a veterinarian”).
In July, Helen fled Honduras with her grandmother, Noehmi, and several other relatives; gangs had threatened Noehmi’s teen-age son, Christian, and the family no longer felt safe. Helen’s mother, Jeny, had migrated to Texas four years earlier, and Noehmi planned to seek legal refuge there. With Noehmi’s help, Helen travelled thousands of miles, sometimes on foot, and frequently fell behind the group. While crossing the Rio Grande in the journey’s final stretch, Helen slipped from their raft and risked drowning. Her grandmother grabbed her hand and cried, “Hang on, Helen!” When the family reached the scrubland of southern Texas, U.S. Border Patrol agents apprehended them and moved them through a series of detention centers. A month earlier, the Trump Administration had announced, amid public outcry over its systemic separation of migrant families at the border, that it would halt the practice. But, at a packed processing hub, Christian was taken from Noehmi and placed in a cage with toddlers. Noehmi remained in a cold holding cell, clutching Helen. Soon, she recalled, a plainclothes official arrived and informed her that she and Helen would be separated. “No!” Noehmi cried. “The girl is under my care! Please!”
Noehmi said that the official told her, “Don’t make things too difficult,” and pulled Helen from her arms. “The girl will stay here,” he said, “and you’ll be deported.” Helen cried as he escorted her from the room and out of sight. Noehmi remembers the authorities explaining that Helen’s mother would be able to retrieve her, soon, from wherever they were taking her.
Later that day, Noehmi and Christian were reunited. The adults in the family were fitted with electronic ankle bracelets and all were released, pending court dates. They left the detention center and rushed to Jeny’s house, in McAllen, hoping to find Helen there. When they didn’t, Noehmi began to shake, struggling to explain the situation. “Immigration took your daughter,” she told Jeny.
“But where did they take her?” Jeny asked.
“I don’t know,” Noehmi replied.
The next day, authorities—likely from the Office of Refugee Resettlement (O.R.R.)—called to say that they were holding Helen at a shelter near Houston; according to Noehmi, they wouldn’t say exactly where. Noehmi and Jeny panicked. Unable to breathe amid her distress, Noehmi checked herself into a local hospital, where doctors gave her medication to calm her down. “I thought we would never see her again,” Noehmi said. She couldn’t square her family’s fate with the TV news, which insisted that the government had stopped separating migrant families.
Helen had been brought to Baytown, a shelter run by Baptist Child and Family Services, which the federal government had contracted to house unaccompanied minors. Helen was given a pack of crayons and spent the summer coloring patriotic images: busts of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, the torch on the Statue of Liberty. She was granted an hour of “Large Muscle Activity and Leisure Time” each day, and received lessons on the human respiratory system, the history of music, and “the risk and danger of social media.” “Helen,” a caseworker observed, “has excellent behavior at all times.” She had no major sources of stress, her reports noted, aside from “being separated from her family.” Her teachers encouraged her to develop “SMART goals”—ambitions that are “Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound.” Helen’s goal was simple: “Minor disclosed wanting to live with her mother and family in the U.S.”
According to a long-standing legal precedent known as the Flores Settlement, which established guidelines for keeping children in immigration detention, Helen had a right to a bond hearing before a judge; that hearing would have likely hastened her release from government custody and her return to her family. At the time of her apprehension, in fact, Helen checked a box on a line that read, “I do request an immigration judge,” asserting her legal right to have her custody reviewed. But, in early August, an unknown official handed Helen a legal document, a “Request for a Flores Bond Hearing,” which described a set of legal proceedings and rights that would have been difficult for Helen to comprehend. (“In a Flores bond hearing, an immigration judge reviews your case to determine whether you pose a danger to the community,” the document began.) On Helen’s form, which was filled out with assistance from officials, there is a checked box next to a line that says, “I withdraw my previous request for a Flores bond hearing.” Beneath that line, the five-year-old signed her name in wobbly letters.
As the summer progressed with no signs of Helen’s return, Noehmi and Jeny contacted LUPE, a nonprofit community union based in the Rio Grande Valley, to ask for help winning Helen’s release. Founded by famed activists César Chávez and Dolores Huerta in 1989, LUPE fights deportations, provides social services, and organizes civil mobilizations on behalf of more than eight thousand low-income members across south Texas; Jeny, employed as an office cleaner, was one such member. Tania Chavez, a strategy leader for the organization, met with the family to hear their story.
Helen’s case didn’t fit the typical LUPE mold. “Historically, we have served longtime residents of the Rio Grande Valley,” Chavez told me, “but since this new surge of refugees came about, we’ve been on the front lines of advocacy against family separation.” Freeing Helen struck Chavez as a tangible and urgent goal. “Right away, we said, ‘How do we help this little girl?’ ” she said. As Chavez saw it, the girl’s seizure by the government showed that the family-separation crisis hadn’t been resolved, as many Americans believed—it had simply evolved.
The first stage of the family-separation crisis unfolded largely out of public view, not long after Trump took office. By January, 2018, when I began collecting the stories of parents who had been separated from their children at the border, the government denied that these separations were happening without clear justifications, and insisted that they weren’t encouraged by official policy. In late spring, the Secretary of Homeland Security, Kirstjen Nielsen, was still espousing this line, even as she ramped up “zero tolerance” prosecutions—criminally charging parents with “illegal entry,” and seizing their kids in the process.
Stage two of the crisis unfolded in the national spotlight. As the number of separations soared past two thousand, and their wrenching details surfaced, hundreds of thousands of Americans protested in the streets. Laura Bush said that the practice broke her heart. The American Academy of Pediatrics denounced it as “abhorrent,” noting that the approach could inflict long-term, irrevocable trauma on children. On June 20th, the President issued an executive order purporting to end the practice.
Now stage three has commenced—one in which separations are done quietly, Tania Chavez asserts, and in which reunifications can be mysteriously stymied. According to recent Department of Justice numbers—released because of an ongoing A.C.L.U. lawsuit challenging family separations—a hundred and thirty-six children who fall within the lawsuit’s scope are still in government custody. An uncounted number of separated children in shelters and foster care fall outside of the lawsuit’s current purview—including many like Helen, who arrived with a grandparent or other guardian, rather than with a parent. Many such children have been misclassified, in government paperwork, as “unaccompanied minors,” due to a sloppy process that the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General recently critiqued. LUPE’s Tania Chavez believes that, through misclassification, many kids have largely disappeared from the public’s view, and from official statistics, with the federal government showing little urgency to hasten reunifications. (O.R.R. and U.S. Customs and Border Protection did not respond to requests for comment.)
Noehmi and Jeny connected with LUPE’s newly hired attorney, Eugene Delgado. Delgado had grown up in the Rio Grande Valley, a child of migrant workers. He left the region for a life in corporate law, practicing in New York and in the United Arab Emirates. But, when the family-separation crisis flooded the news this summer, he told me, “I wanted to help my community.” He moved back to McAllen and joined LUPE to fight deportations full time. He agreed to represent Noehmi and her family, and at the summer’s end he went with them to court to represent them in removal proceedings. There, a judge granted Noehmi and her relatives more time to apply for asylum. Toward the end of the hearing, Delgado brought up Helen.
“Judge, this case doesn’t stop here,” Delgado said. “What about the little child lost in the system?”
The judge looked confused. “What do you mean?” he asked.
“Well, where is Helen, the five-year-old?”
The judge, Delgado recalled, seemed startled. Both he and the government prosecutor had no idea that Helen existed, let alone where she was being held. “I could give you a couple of phone numbers to call?” the prosecutor offered.
Delgado began the search. “It was just a complete maze, trying to trace the girl down,” he recalled. “I talked to at least ten people—case workers, social workers.” Eventually, he learned of Helen’s placement in Baytown, the Houston shelter. After that, Noehmi and Jeny were allowed two ten-minute calls with Helen per week, during which the girl often pleaded, “Come get me, Grandma!” The government collected fingerprints and other information from Noehmi and Jeny, to determine whether they were Helen’s rightful guardians; the Office of Refugee Resettlement soon deemed Jeny a fit sponsor, Delgado told me, but the completion of Noehmi’s background check was delayed for unexplained reasons.
On August 17th, Helen was transferred to a foster home in San Antonio. “I feared, did they give Helen away?” Noehmi told me; she worried about the prospect of adoption. Delgado managed to arrange a supervised visit between Noehmi and her granddaughter. At the visit’s start, Helen was gleeful, shouting, “Grandma, you came to get me!” But the girl exhibited strange new behaviors that troubled Noehmi. “She kept hiding under the table,” Noehmi said. After an hour, the two were separated again; again, they both cried. A case worker offered Noehmi a chance to ride the elevator downstairs with Helen before the girl was taken away. Noehmi declined. “I took the stairs, so I could scream and cry,” she told me. But she raced down to meet Helen outside and hugged her one more time before Helen was loaded into a minivan and carted back to foster care.
By the end of August, Noehmi felt desperate. She ate only a few spoonfuls of beef stew each day. Again, she sought hospitalization, for anxiety. “I was sick in the head,” she told me. Tania Chavez asked if the family wanted to escalate their tactics for getting Helen back. “People forget that family separation has been happening in our community for decades—it’s not a new thing,” Chavez told me, referencing the routine nature of deportations for mothers, fathers, and grandparents with deep Texas roots, and the children often left behind. Chavez had found, in these cases, that authorities sometimes responded to public pressure; she’d never tried this in family-separation cases, but it seemed worth a shot. Chavez reached out to Alida Garcia, the vice-president of advocacy for the group FWD.us, and Jess Morales Rocketto, the chair of an alliance known as Families Belong Together. These teams worked together to craft a national social-media campaign, using Helen’s O.R.R. case-file photograph: an image that eerily resembled a cherub-cheeked mug shot. On August 31st, they began to circulate a petition addressing the O.R.R. official in charge of Helen’s case. “By that Friday, we already had six hundred signatures,” Chavez said. Right away, they began receiving calls from O.R.R., promising that Helen would be returned to her family as soon as possible. There was simply a holdup with her grandmother’s fingerprint check, they said.
On September 7th, LUPE was told that Helen would finally be released, nearly two months after she was taken from Noehmi. “We were attached to our phones all freaking Saturday,” Chavez said. “Then she wasn’t released—they played us!” LUPE’s team adjusted the petition to address a greater number of O.R.R. officials, each of whom received a personal e-mail every time a person signed. Paola Mendoza, an artist and prominent voice for immigrant rights, tweeted about the petition, as did the actress Alyssa Milano. “We got six thousand signatures, then ten thousand,” Chavez said. Then, that Monday, Noehmi and Jeny got a phone call: they should be at their local airport at 6:20 P.M.
At the airport, Noehmi breathlessly scanned the gates: nothing. Then, she heard a little voice cry out, “That’s my grandma! That’s my grandma!” Helen raced into her arms. “Is that my mom?” Helen asked. She hadn’t seen her mother since she was an infant. The whole family held one another, and then went home. Noehmi had prepared a surprise for Helen: a giant Teddy bear, a pizza party, a stack of new clothes, and a Disney princess castle with a “Mulan” theme (“She’s a princess fanatic,” Noehmi told me).
Soon after, the shelter sent a small black backpack that Helen had left behind. It held Helen’s legal paperwork, including the document that the five-year-old had been told to sign, withdrawing her request to see a judge. The backpack also held Helen’s colored sketch of Lady Liberty. Beneath the statue’s image, a lesson summary, in Spanish, read, “Objective: That the students draw one of the most representative symbols of the United States.”
Last Thursday, Helen’s family held another party, with cake and more princess gear, to celebrate the reunion and to thank the advocacy groups that helped make it happen. Chavez hoped that the party would also help the family’s healing. “Helen had resentment,” she said, “because I think she thought she was abandoned by her family.”
Jess Morales Rocketto, of Families Belong Together, told me that Helen’s reunion—the result of the first known public mobilization to free a specific kid from O.R.R. custody—holds lessons for a broader organizing effort. “One of the things Helen’s story really showed us is that the Trump Administration never stopped separating children from their families,” Morales Rocketto said. “In fact, they’ve doubled down, but it’s even more insidious now, because they are doing it in the cover of night.” She added, “We believe that there are more kids like Helen. We have learned we cannot take this Administration at their word.”
Noehmi fears that some of the damage inflicted on her family can never be mended. “Helen was always a very calm girl,” she told me, sitting in LUPE’s office on a recent Friday night. “Now I have to be very patient with her—she’s very attention-seeking.” Lately, at bedtime, Helen hides in the closet and refuses to go to sleep, afraid that her family might leave her in the night. Sometimes Noehmi wants to hide, too; she buried her round face in her hands, weeping, when she recounted one of Helen’s declarations upon her return: “You left me behind.” But Noehmi decided to share their story with me because she worries that other families are still living out a similar search. “I fear there are still other children suffering,” she said. “Other families are feeling this anguish, this struggle, and they need us to act.”
A document from July shows a checked box where Helen asserted her legal right to have her custody determination reviewed by a judge.
Later, in August, officials assisted Helen in filling out a form—signed by the five-year-old, while separated from her family—withdrawing her request for a hearing before a judge. While in custody, she was also given crayons and asked to color patriotic images, including one of the Statue of Liberty.