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Deported father agonizes over getting his 6-year-old daughter back

In rural Honduras, a separated family is desperate for answers about their little girl. After crossing illegally into the U.S. in June, 6-year-old Marianita was sent to a children's shelter as her father was deported without his daughter. More than 400 parents have experienced the same fate, and so far only 21 children have been reunited in their home countries. Yamiche Alcindor reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The announcement last night by the Trump administration of new sharply lower limits on the number of refugees who will be admitted to the U.S. comes amid an overall clampdown on immigration.

    That's been illustrated starkly by the official policy of family separation at the U.S. border that has left hundreds of immigrant families split apart.

    As Yamiche Alcindor reports, for one man in Central America, it has meant months of separation from his daughter and lingering painful questions.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    In a small bedroom in rural Honduras, reminders of an absent little girl a family separated and desperate for answers.

  • Misael Ponce Herrera (through translator):

    Sometimes, I don't eat. Sometimes, I don't sleep thinking about her. It's something I wouldn't wish on anyone. You wouldn't understand it until you go through it. It's something so tough, for her to be so far from me and without us.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Her is Marianita, the 6-year-old daughter of Misael Ponce Herrara. The two were separated in June after they crossed the border from Mexico into the United States illegally.

    They haven't seen each other for three-and-a-half months. Misael, like hundreds of other immigrants, was deported a few days after the separation without his daughter. Marianita remains in the United States in a children's shelter in New York.

    Misael has tried immigrating to the U.S. three times. This time, he left behind his wife, Ana, and the couple's 3-year-old son, Hadel. His plan was to find work in the United States and then send for them.

  • Misael Ponce Herrera (through translator):

    I thought that, with my daughter, we would be able to get some kind of permit or political asylum to be able to stay there, where I can work and live with her. It never crossed my mind that I could be separated from my daughter. If I had known that, I wouldn't have come with her. But I didn't know anything.

    That was the worst surprise I found, that, in coming here, they separated me from my daughter.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Between April and June, more than 2,500 immigrant children were forcibly separated from adults with them as they tried to enter the United States. Hundreds of those adults, in many cases parents, were then deported without their children back to their home countries, including Honduras and Guatemala.

    In June, President Trump signed an executive order meant to change his policy of family separation. That led to some family reunifications inside immigration detention centers. Others were released from detention, reunited, and are now trying to remain in the United States.

    But the president's order also set off a frantic search for parents who had already been deported. It's unclear when, if ever some of those parents will see their children again. The Trump administration flew many parents back to capital cities. Those parents then returned to rural villages, where they are often hard to reach, according to immigration advocates.

    In Misael's case, he says he keeps trying to come to the United States to escape poverty and violence in Honduras.

  • Misael Ponce Herrera (through translator):

    And violence here is tough. In a month, there were five deaths around here. Children see that. They hear about these things. All these things make us leave in search of new horizons.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Using money earned working as a barber, Misael paid smugglers to get him and his daughter into the United States. But the two are then taken into custody only minutes after arriving in South Texas.

  • Misael Ponce Herrera (through translator):

    We crossed the river. From there, officials found us and took us to a station where they held all the immigrants.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    He was detained with his daughter for about a week. But early one morning, immigration officers came to take him to court.

  • Misael Ponce Herrera (through translator):

    When they told me they would take me to a judge, I asked them who my daughter would stay with. They said she would stay with other children here, "And you will see her when you get back."

    "Are you sure?," I asked.

    "Yes. When you get back, you will see your daughter."

    My daughter hugged me, gave me a kiss. We said goodbye.

    When everything with the judge ended, I was supposed to see her again, but no.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    A few days later, Misael says he and several other immigrants were pressured into signing deportation orders.

  • Misael Ponce Herrera (through translator):

    I was trying to read what I was signing, but they said no. In a rush, they said, "Hurry up, hurry up."

    I asked about my daughter, and "My daughter. What happened with my daughter? She is staying, and I'm leaving?" I said.

    "I don't have information about that, they told me."

    It was hard. I felt bad. I thought, how can I go and leave her here? It's impossible. These were moments I wouldn't wish on anyone, very, very hard.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Shortly afterwards, immigration officials informed Marianita's aunt in Ohio that they had the little girl.

    But it was weeks before a social worker contacted Ana, Marianita's mother in Honduras, and told her that her daughter was in a shelter.

  • Ana Liliana Zuniga (through translator):

    It affected me a lot. I was sick, even hospitalized, because I was very depressed. I got headaches and constant dizziness because I found myself always crying, crying, crying.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Do you think that the president of the United States wronged your family at all?

  • Ana Liliana Zuniga (through translator):

    Yes, I think so, because, if they traveled together, they should have been kept together, because if they knew they would deport her father, they should have deported her as well.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    According to court records, the Trump administration has reunited more than 1,900 children with their parents. About 200 have been sent to sponsors, such as family members living in the United States.

    But more than 400 parents were separated and then deported without their children. So far, only 21 children have been reunited with those parents in their home countries. The number of reunions abroad is so small because the Trump administration has done little to help deported parents, according to attorney Efren Olivares.

  • Efren Olivares:

    This was a cruel and misguided policy that violates not only U.S. law, but international human rights law. And the officials who designed it and implemented it should be held accountable.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Olivares works near the border in Alamo, Texas, for the Texas Civil Rights Project. The group is providing legal counsel to Misael and other deported parents.

  • Efren Olivares:

    They all say, yes, I signed lot of papers. I didn't know what I was signing.

    They told me that signing was a way to get my child back, so I signed whatever they put in front of me.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Olivares says the Trump administration hasn't taken enough responsibility for a problem they created.

  • Efren Olivares:

    Mr. Ponce lives in a remote area of Honduras. His daughter, hopefully, eventually will be sent back to the capital. Who's going to make sure that Mr. Ponce can either travel to the capital or that his daughter makes it all the way to their hometown from the capital?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    In the meantime, President Trump has only doubled down on his hard-line immigration stance. At campaign rallies and meetings with supporters, he's repeatedly compared separated immigrant families to families hurt by undocumented immigrants.

  • President Donald Trump:

    The media doesn't talk about the American families permanently separated. They're not separated for a day or two days. They are permanently separated because they were killed by criminal illegal aliens.

  • Woman:

    He was hit head on by a repeat illegal alien criminal.

  • Man:

    Trying to get away, he drove over my son's body. He backed up.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Last month, the White House also tweeted out this video. Citing ongoing litigation, the Department of Homeland Security declined to comment about family separations.

    Back in Honduras, when Ana talks to Marianita, she tells her daughter to hold on.

  • Ana Liliana Zuniga (through translator):

    She always tells me she doesn't want to be there anymore. Every time I call her, she cries. And that's why I try not to call her every day, because she gets upset. I tell her to wait and wait.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Misael is plagued with guilt.

  • Misael Ponce Herrera (through translator):

    I promised my daughter that we would always be together. And that's why we were embarking on the trip. I want them to send her back to me fast. I'm anxious to hug her, tell her how much I have missed her, and for her to forgive me for all of this.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And Yamiche joins me now.

    So, Yamiche, let's step back for just a moment. Give us the overall picture of parents who've been separated from their children, parents who've been deported.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Well, parents that were deported without their children are really the toughest group of separated families.

    Advocates say it could be months, even years before they see their children. And I want — I want to walk you through some of the numbers here.

    There were 414 parents deported without their children by the Trump administration; 302 of those parents have been reached either by phone or physically found. And — but only 21 children, 21 families only have been reunited in their home country.

    So there are a lot of families that are still separated.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now, the man you were talking with, Misael, was saying that he brought his child because he thought that would help their chances of staying in the United States. But wasn't it meant to be a deterrent, to say to parents, you're not going to be able to stay if you bring your children?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    That's exactly right, Judy.

    Misael did exactly what the Trump administration doesn't want people to do. He had tried to get into the United States two times before that. He had been deported both — back to the United States twice.

    And then he said, on this third time, I'm going to bring Marianita with me, and they're going to see the 6-year-old girl, and they're going to say, OK, maybe they can stay.

    He said that he's fleeing violence and poverty, that his little girl can have a better life here. But, instead, that backfired. And what happened was, officials took Marianita away from him, and now she's in a shelter still in New York, and he's back home.

    And he feels really guilty about that. He feels as though his decision-making is why his family is separated now.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The other thing is that he was telling you that he felt pressured to sign this deportation order. He wasn't aware of what it would mean, that it would mean leaving his — his daughter behind.

    Now we have this suit by the ACLU, the American Civil Liberties Union, that's aimed at reuniting the parents. Do we know how that could affect him and other people in his situation?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    There's a little bit of hope that the deported parents that were — that were separated from their children might be able to come back to the United States.

    A judge, a federal judge last week told the ACLU and the government that they needed to get moving on this proposed settlement agreement, which would allow parents who are in the United States to reapply for the asylum and to really make their case a second time, to say, I should be able to stay in the United States because I have a credible fear.

    Under that proposed settlement, there's a part of it where deported parents could actually come back to the United States and also say, I had a credible fear and I was deported, and I really want a second try at this.

    But the Trump administration has not agreed to that portion of the settlement. So it's really up in the air whether or not these deported parents will be able to ever come back. Advocates say that they should have a chance to come back to the United States because the United States has essentially tortured them by separating them from their children.

    But it's unclear whether or not they will be able to do that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Such an important story, and I know you're going to continue to follow it.

    Yamiche, thank you.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Thanks

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