Five-year-old Alexa peers over the back of her chair as her mother, Araceli Ramos, speaks during an interview in San Miguel, El Salvador, in August.Rebecca Blackwell / Reuters

Samuel arrived in Michigan wearing black sweatpants and a black hoodie with the drawstring pulled so tightly his new foster parents could hardly see his face. The 10-year-old gave off an overpowering stench—he was so afraid of the ICE agents who had separated him from his dad that he refused to use the bathroom during the trip from the Southwest border, and instead defecated in his government-issued clothes.

His new foster parents, Jen and Karl, scrambled to locate his father, Anacleto, in one of the ICE detention centers scattered throughout the country. When they finally got him on the phone from an ICE detention center in Texas, he sounded suspicious of them—were Jen and Karl trying to keep his son forever? They weren’t, Jen told me. They were only caring for him temporarily through a government contractor, called Bethany Christian Services, that houses unaccompanied child migrants and kids separated from their parents at the border. Still, when she put Samuel on the line, Anacleto implored him to repeat, “I’m Samuel, I’m your son.” Anacleto pleaded, “Remember me, remember the mangoes, the avocados, your grandparents,” Jen recalled. (Bethany introduced me to the foster parents on the condition that their last names be withheld.)

Anacleto’s fear was not unfounded. Last week, the Associated Press reported that in a small number of cases since 1980, state child-welfare officials have allowed immigrant children of deported parents to be adopted in the United States without their parents’ consent. The report details the case of a Salvadoran asylum seeker named Araceli Ramos, who was separated from her 2-year-old daughter, Alexa, during the Obama administration and did not get her back from various foster families in the U.S. for two years. Officials determined that Ramos was a threat to her daughter’s safety based on what Ramos said was a false police report—accusing her of encouraging a 17-year-old girl to have sex with an adult—that her children’s father had filed during a bitter custody battle.

Ramos cleared her name in El Salvador, but the damage was already done. U.S. officials considered Ramos a criminal and a threat to her daughter. They deported her to El Salvador and placed Alexa in a series of foster homes; eventually she landed with a Bethany family in Michigan. Alexa’s foster family fell in love with her and believed that she had been abused in her mother’s care, so they decided to seek adoption. Their effort got far enough that a Michigan judge granted them temporary custody. Ramos became desperate and took to Facebook. In an impassioned video, she cried, “Look inside your hearts. I had her in my belly for nine months. I’m the mother, and I’m waiting for her.” The video went viral in Latin America. Federal officials eventually intervened, and Alexa is now back in El Salvador with her mother.

This summer, more than 300 parents were deported to Central America without their kids, and there are 66 children still in government custody whom officials have designated “not eligible for reunification.” The possibility of involuntary adoption is more of a fear among some immigrant parents than an actuality for now—no cases emerging from the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy have been documented. A spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security called talk of involuntary adoption “premature.” Some immigrant parents have chosen to leave their children in the United States, she said, to live with a sponsor—not to be adopted.

Alive beneath the angst over adoption is the historical record of permanent family separation. World War II–era government authorities facilitated the adoption of so many American Indian children by white families that by the mid-1960s, up to 30 percent of all such kids had been separated from their parents. “From chattel slavery to American Indian schools to convict leasing, child-snatching has been a tradition in America since before there was an America,” my colleague Adam Serwer wrote this summer on the day President Donald Trump halted the practice. “What horrifies Americans is not the novelty of Trump’s policy, but its familiarity.” But Trump’s about-face may prove to be only temporary: Last week, The Washington Post reported that officials are considering relaunching family separations at the border.

Bethany Christian Services told the AP it instructs foster parents that they can’t adopt migrant children. In Samuel’s case, his foster parents not only respected this boundary, but also made a concerted effort to communicate with his parents. Though Anacleto was circumspect at first, Jen pressed forward. “In my Spanglish, I’d say, ‘He’s your son. We want him back with you,’” she recalled texting. “He was grateful, grateful, grateful.” Samuel began to open up, too. His favorite activity with his foster parents was to eat pizza at the airport and watch the planes take off. “He wants to be an airline pilot, and we tell him he can be,” Jen said. That week in June, she helped Samuel pack his bags and get dressed in a clean outfit for his flight back to Guatemala after eight months separated from his parents. Jen and Karl sent the family about $100 a few times to help them get back on their feet. Anacleto told them he bought a cow. Karl told me he went even further, connecting Anacleto to a successful Guatemalan farmer who offered him a job. But Anacleto told Karl about another plan that took him aback: Despite the separation ordeal, he vowed to attempt the journey to the United States again as soon as possible.

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