a collage of a border wall, a border patrol headshot, and text that reads "then they just took him."
Jeremy Raff / Arsh Raziudden / The Atlantic

‘The Separation Was So Long. My Son Has Changed So Much.’

U.S. border guards took a 6-year-old Honduran boy from his mother, and ultimately returned a deeply traumatized child.

SAN BENITO, Texas—Anita and Jenri, mother and son, fled north from Honduras and crossed the Rio Grande on a raft near McAllen, Texas, in mid-June. They immediately turned themselves over to Border Patrol and asked for asylum.

Agents transported them to the station known among immigrants as the perrera, or “dog pound,” because of the chain-link cages used to hold them. Anita and Jenri had no way of knowing, during their journey, that the Trump administration had begun separating families along the southwest border in early May in an attempt to deter migration.

Moments before agents took Jenri, 6, away from Anita, they snapped a mug shot of them together with vacant expressions. It was one of the few record-keeping measures the government took in what would become a national crisis involving hundreds of separated families, missing children, and, ultimately, deported mothers and fathers faced with the haunting prospect of never again seeing their sons and daughters.

“I remember [Jenri] grabbing my clothes, saying, ‘Mommy, I don’t want them to separate us,’” Anita later told me.

Border Patrol took a photo of Anita and Jenri before separating them.

Soon, Anita was shuttled to a mass trial where she was convicted of misdemeanor illegal entry and sentenced to time served. Agents falsely told her that Jenri would be returned to her after the trial, but instead she was sent to Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Port Isabel Service Detention Center to await the first step of the asylum process, known as the “credible-fear interview.” If it went well, she would receive a court date to present her asylum claim, months or even years from now. And if it didn’t—if officials thought she had crossed the border for better work opportunities or family reunion or anything short of a life-and-death situation at home—she would most likely be deported. Quite possibly without Jenri.

Jodi Goodwin, a local immigration attorney, first met Anita in a conference room at the Port Isabel Service Detention Center, where she’d gathered a dozen immigrants and briefed them on the asylum process. Anita sat in the back of the meeting room, a small woman leaning her head against the wall looking so despondent she struggled to keep her eyes open. “When I first met Anita, I knew I had to focus on her case,” Goodwin said.

At that point in June, more than a month into the family-separation crisis, Goodwin was spending most of her waking hours trying to represent as many mothers like Anita as she could. Each time she visited Port Isabel, she emerged from the barracks with a fresh list of desperate parents pleading for information about their children.

Around that time, Goodwin invited a group of lawyers from the East Coast to help try and reunite families at the Texas border. They were en route when, amid national and international outcry, President Donald Trump ordered the family separations to halt. He did not offer a plan to reunite those already split. When the East Coast lawyers arrived, they gathered at a restaurant called Pepe’s to hammer out the ad hoc reunification plan. They would add as many names as possible to Goodwin’s list of separated detainees, then create a database and try to match the parents to their kids. Goodwin sat at the end of the table looking buoyed by the support. “It’s my due-process army,” she told me.

Locked up at Port Isabel, Anita had no way of knowing that Jenri was only 25 miles away, at a Department of Health and Human Services shelter in Harlingen. Their proximity made little difference to Anita because agents would not tell her where Jenri was. Three weeks into her confinement, Anita—whom I’d met through Goodwin, her lawyer—called me on the phone. “I haven’t spoken to my son. I don’t know how he is,” she said, sounding frantic and exhausted because she could hardly sleep. She later told me, “I’d close my eyes then jolt awake seeing my son’s face, because we’d never been separated before.” At night, she cried in silence because to weep aloud brought reprimand from the guards.

At her credible-fear interview, Anita had told the immigration officer the story of her life back in a rural Honduran town distinguished by its Mayan ruins.

She sold fruit and cut hair on the side. She got around town by ATV, and took pride in her self-sufficiency and grit. Last year, after a severe car accident, one of her brother’s arms was amputated, and Anita slept on the ground outside of the hospital to ensure he received care. But there was gang violence that made her fear for Jenri’s safety. “I was threatened at gunpoint,” Anita told me.

Goodwin told an ICE officer, “This is bullshit to continue to cause prolonged trauma to a fucking 5-year-old.”

The officer found her fear of returning to Honduras convincing enough to give Anita the chance, at some later date, to make her case for asylum before a judge. But though she passed the interview, ICE abruptly denied Anita bond, which meant she would remain in custody, possibly for months. She would have no opportunity to search for Jenri.

Goodwin was outraged. After more than 20 years working inside Port Isabel, she knew the ICE agents well. “I mean, we’re neighbors, we go to the same churches, the same baseball teams,” she said. “That’s just the way of life down here.” It’s part of the reason why she was able to exert a surprising amount of pressure on the officers when their dreaded bureaucracy did something that defied logic—like denying Anita bond.

When Goodwin found out what had happened, she called a deportation officer to protest. With a bond, Anita could leave detention and reclaim Jenri. “This is bullshit,” Goodwin told the deportation officer, “to continue to cause prolonged trauma to a fucking 5-year-old.” She got a supervisor on the phone, and he reversed ICE’s decision. After a month behind bars, Anita was released.

I met Anita in front of the Port Isabel Service Detention Center that night in mid-July. Before the car even cleared the property line, she had borrowed a cell phone to call a number for Jenri’s social worker, seeking information. “I got out of there,” she said, welling up with tears, “but all I want is to see my son.”

Goodwin met Anita later on at the La Posada Providencia immigrant shelter in San Benito to plan their attempt to pick up Jenri. Through her connections, Goodwin had figured out that he had been taken to the HHS shelter in Harlingen. Despite a federal judge’s order to return children as quickly as possible, other migrant moms were being turned away from similar facilities in the area after brief visits with their children. Activists purchased tents and planned to help parents camp in front of government shelters and create a media spectacle meant to pressure the government. Goodwin asked Anita if she was prepared for such measures if officials declined to return Jenri. “Yes,” she said, without hesitation.

The next morning, Anita was sweating despite the air conditioning. It had been one month almost to the day since she had seen her son. Meanwhile, at her office, Goodwin called and emailed HHS officials urging them to release Jenri that afternoon.

When Goodwin and Anita arrived in Harlingen, they were led inside the shelter without incident. Goodwin said that employees emphasized how well they had treated Jenri, “saying positive things like, ‘You played a lot here, right papa? You learned your numbers here, right papa?’” Jenri was seated on a chair in a drab room. Anita “tried to give him a hug,” Goodwin recalled, but he did not respond at first. Anita knelt on the floor in front of him and looked in his eyes. “She asked for forgiveness,” Goodwin said, “‘Perdóname, perdóname, perdóname.’ It was awful.”

The trauma of separation began to surface only after Anita and Jenri were reunited. Jeremy Raff / The Atlantic

Later that day, back at La Posada Providencia, Jenri seemed fine. He petted the dogs, climbed the playscape, and ate fried fish at dinner. But by evening, his ordeal had begun to surface. In one of the dorm-style cottages, Anita packed a duffel bag for their flight the next morning to Charlotte, North Carolina. Sister Margaret Mertens, a 20-year veteran of the shelter, arrived with some donated clothes they could take with them to their new home, where Jenri’s father worked as a construction worker. Jenri, in a hyperactive mood, climbed the bunk beds, yanked on the ceiling fans, and reached for the wall-mounted television. “No, no, honey,” Sister Margaret said. “Don’t touch that.” The reprimand seemed to bring Jenri’s month in government custody rushing back. “No touching!” Jenri said. “No touch!”

Because he does not speak English, I asked him in Spanish where he had learned the phrase. “Over there, where I was,” he replied. Inside the government shelters like the one where Jenri was detained, kids are reportedly barred from touching even their own siblings, depriving them of an essential way to soothe themselves in crisis.

Jenri began to perseverate on the phrase. He screamed “No touch!” again and again. Then, he threw himself face down on the bed and yelled at Anita through tears. “Just take me back to jail,” he cried. “You’re not my mom anymore.”

When he finally fell asleep, Anita stood in the darkness outside.“The separation was so long.” she said. “My son has changed so much.”

The trauma of separation “can disrupt the architecture of a child’s brain,” explained Julie Linton, a co-chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Immigrant Health Special Interest Group. Prolonged separation weaponizes a child’s fight-or-flight response, elongating it into toxic stress that can damage health in both the short and long term, she said. Sometimes children “hear a specific phrase or comment that triggers a traumatic event,” Linton added, which can touch off exaggerated or unusual responses. Jenri’s cascading anger later that night was “consistent with experience of trauma,” Linton said.

The day after Anita and Jenri were reunited, they boarded the jet for Charlotte. It was the first time either had ever flown. For a moment, they seemed to leave the experience of separation behind. Jenri marveled that he was “above the clouds,” and Anita said, “See the river? Remember when we crossed the river?”

Weeks later, living in a clean, modest group home in a nice neighborhood, Jenri continues to exhibit disturbing behavior. When Anita took him to Walmart for a belated birthday present—he turned 6 in government custody—he threw himself on the floor crying and she had to carry him out of the store. He feared starting school because he thought he was being separated again. Now when another child tries to share his toys, he is firm: “No touching.”

Jenri has started school in North Carolina while they await their next asylum hearing in immigration court. Jeremy Raff / The Atlantic

Still, they celebrated being together again as Jenri started public school, in America. Anita has no idea what will happen at her asylum hearing, or when it will take place. But Jenri is with her, and his father. The worst, it seemed, was behind them, which meant they were among the lucky ones.

As of last week, more than a month after the court-ordered deadline to reunify all the families, about 500 children remained separated from their parents.