CHOLOMA, Honduras (Reuters) - Before deporting him in shackles last week, U.S. immigration agents handed Honduran asylum-seeker Melvin Garcia his few possessions and a small blue wallet belonging to Daylin, the 12-year-old daughter they had taken from him.
Uncertain when he might see her again, after being barred from the United States by his deportation order, Garcia, 37, is one of an uncertain number of parents sent home without their children under the Trump administration.
Frustrated that immigrants and asylum seekers from Central America were often released into the United States to await court hearings, U.S. President Donald Trump implemented a “zero tolerance policy” in April seeking to prosecute all adults who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border illegally, including those travelling with children. This dramatically increased the number of families separated at the border.
Hours after he arrived back in Honduras alone on June 21, Garcia slumped in a concrete shack in a section of the town of Choloma controlled by Barrio 18, one of two gangs whose death threats he said he fled in March with Daylin.
Tortured with thoughts that he might not see Daylin for years, Garcia clutched at her wallet. Whenever he recalled his desperate search for her in U.S. detention, he broke down, tears streaming off his face.
Trump reversed course last week, ordering an end to the family separations. But the government still had 2,047 children in custody as of Tuesday, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told a U.S. Senate committee, adding that reuniting them would be hard.
A federal judge ruled late on Tuesday that the government must reunite families that were split up after entering the country, but immigration lawyers warned that the situation was tremendously complicated for parents who were sent home without their children.
“There’s no structure in place, no legal structure in place to actually reunify the parents who’ve already been deported,” said Jenna Gilbert, managing attorney of the Los Angeles chapter of legal rights organisation Human Rights First.
Reuters tracked at least six Central American migrants last week after they were deported while their children remained in U.S. shelters or, as in the case of Garcia’s daughter, in the custody of sponsors.
Garcia’s deportation order, seen by Reuters, was issued by a Houston immigration judge on May 23. It does not say how long he is barred from returning to the United States, but the U.S. Department of Justice has said people deported in such cases are typically excluded from re-entry for five years or more.
After his wife and two other children left for the United States three years ago, Garcia said Daylin became his whole world.
Before seeking asylum in the United States, Garcia worked as a bus driver in one of the most violent countries in the Americas. He said colleague after colleague on the bus routes was shot dead for failing to pay the “war tax” demanded by Barrio-18 and the rival Mara Salvatrucha or MS-13 gang.
He fled with Daylin after someone pressed a gun to his own head.
When he requested asylum at the McAllen, Texas, port of entry on March 24, Garcia said he showed U.S. authorities proof of Daylin’s parentage and news clippings of murdered drivers to back his asylum claim.
He had no criminal record, he said, showing Reuters a Honduran police document attesting to his clean history. Garcia said the attitude of U.S. officials stunned him. “They asked her if she was pregnant. A girl of 12 years old.”
Garcia said immigration officials led Daylin away after they had spent a day together in the “icebox” - holding cells described to Reuters by dozens of migrants as permanently lit and bedless, pumped with frigid air.
Both had assumed the separation was temporary, so he never said a real goodbye, Garcia said.
When Daylin did not return, he begged for news as he was moved from one detention centre to another over the next two months. Officials only said she had been taken elsewhere.
“They wouldn’t tell me. I had no way to communicate,” he said. “I tried in writing ... I tried many times.”
Finally, Garcia said he received a terse, hand-written note, signed by a U.S. official that said, “Your daughter is being held in a juvenile facility in southern Texas, pending an appointment in court.”
About a month later, Garcia learned that Daylin had been released to her mother in Los Angeles. Her safety brought fleeting relief, Garcia said, before he was hit with the deportation order and unanswered questions about reuniting his family.
In a statement, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency confirmed details of Garcia’s case and said he had been deported one time before, 13 years ago.
Reuters was unable to reach Daylin or her mother at their Los Angeles telephone number.
Back in Honduras, Garcia contemplated the emptiness ahead. To drive a bus again could be a death sentence. A friend suggested he emigrate to Canada. “But how?” he said, pressing the blue wallet.
A day after Garcia returned to his troubled homeland, a wisp of a man walked off another deportation flight in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, and fell to the ground at a bus station, weeping.
Jose Guardado, 42, a farmer, said he could not bear returning without his 14-year-old son, Nixon, who remained somewhere in U.S. detention.
“If only I had crossed at 4 p.m., not at 6,” said Guardado, recalling his immigration ordeal as he waited to board a bus home to his village El Eden.
He wished that he had crossed the U.S.-Mexico border with Nixon at an official U.S. port of entry on June 13, he said, saying he failed to do so because he was told it had closed for the day.
Instead, he followed a guide that night through a storm across the Rio Grande, only to be caught by U.S. Border Patrol agents and separated from his son.
Guardado was moved in handcuffs between six different detention centres in 10 days, he said, adding that he had been unable to locate Nixon.
Guardado said he was not U.S. seeking asylum, only a better opportunity for his son.
“They didn’t treat us like human beings,” Guardado said of his time in U.S. detention. His wife, Elizabeth Cruz, collapsed against a wall while he spoke of Nixon, sobbing hard into a T-shirt that she pulled over her face.
Before he was deported, Guardado said officials gave him a scrap of paper with a hotline for missing children. No one answered the listed phone number, he said.
Reporting by Delphine Schrank; additional reporting by Nelson Rentaria in San Salvador; Editing by Dave Graham, Frank Jack Daniel and Tom Brown