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For 7 weeks, Sofi begged to go home. Now reunited, her journey isn’t over

When a young girl named Sofi and her grandmother came legally to a U.S. immigration checkpoint, they tried to apply for asylum but were separated by U.S. officials. After 47 days, their story took a happier turn late Thursday in California. Amna Nawaz joins William Brangham to share an update.

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  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    We start tonight with an update on the immigrant children taken from their families by U.S. officials when they tried to enter this country.

    Amna Nawaz was reporting on the border earlier this summer when a young girl named Sofi and her grandmother came legally to the U.S. checkpoint, tried to apply for asylum, and were then separated.

    But late yesterday in California, their story took a happier turn.

    Amna was there, and has this update.

  • AMNA NAWAZ:

    For weeks, Ana has waited, wondering and worrying about her daughter. But now the wait is over. On Thursday, 3-year-old Sofi was reunited with her family in California, seven weeks after being separated by U.S. officials at the Mexican border in Texas.

  • ANA (through interpreter):

    I feel good, very good, to see her with my mom, and to know that she will now be with us, and she won't apart from me.

  • AMNA NAWAZ:

    We first met Sofi in June at this migrant shelter in Juarez, Mexico, with her grandmother and guardian Angelica.

    Angelica said her family had been targeted, some murdered by a Mexican cartel. Her daughters, including Sofi's mother, had already fled to the U.S. The next morning, Angelica and Sofi crossed legally into El Paso, seeking asylum. Soon after, they were separated.

  • ANGELICA (through interpreter):

    An immigration officer told me, "You're going to enter with your family, but the girl will be sent to a place to go through a process so she can be with her mom."

  • AMNA NAWAZ:

    As Angelica made her way to California to join her family, Sofi was sent to a shelter across the country in Pennsylvania. For seven weeks, Sofi's family worked to get her back through the U.S. government's reunification process. For seven weeks, they navigated the paper trail, submitting documents and data, including fingerprints.

    For seven weeks, Sofi's only family contact was moments like this, brief calls begging to come home. On Wednesday, another call. Sofi was being released and flown to San Francisco the next day. On her way to the airport, Ana worries about what her daughter has been through.

  • ANA (through interpreter):

    She cried all the time, told me she didn't want to be there. One time, she didn't sound OK. She couldn't speak clearly, and they were giving her a bad look. They would scold her. And she wanted to tell me something, but couldn't, because they would scold her. So that had me very worried.

  • AMNA NAWAZ:

    This was Sofi's first time away from her family, her first time on an airplane. Cradled in her mother's arms for the first time in weeks, she collapses into tears.

    (CRYING)

  • AMNA NAWAZ:

    Sofi is showered with gifts, welcomed by her baby brother. She is home at last. After their first day reunited, Angelica is relieved to see the Sofi she remembers, running around and playing with her cousins. She is slightly taller now, with her hair finally long enough to pull into pigtails. Angelica worries, though, about the unfamiliar flashes they have seen so far, a passing reference Sofi made to medicine she was given at the shelter, a brief mention of punishment for crying or refusing to eat.

  • ANGELICA (through interpreter):

    We haven't asked her many questions because she says that it was a bad place. We want to eventually ask her little by little how she was treated. I think that, with time, we need to let her know that they separated her from us for some time.

    We want to take her to see a therapist, for her to be examined to see how she is, how her health is, because she looks good now, but who knows how she will react later on.

  • AMNA NAWAZ:

    Seven weeks ago, Angelica walked across a border seeking refuge for her family. Today, she says she will continue on that journey until she knows Sofi can be safe.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    And Amna joins me now from California.

    Amna, it's such wonderful reporting to see Sofi reunited with her family. Thank you for bringing us this reporting.

    I have to wonder, though, after seven weeks apart from her family, how is she going to be tomorrow, two weeks from now, two months from now?

  • AMNA NAWAZ:

    Yes, William, I think that is the big question right now, because nobody really knows.

    There have been some hints that the family has seen that have given them some moments of concern. Right? They have been together for a little over a day now. Sofi made a reference to being punished sometimes if she cried too much or didn't eat her food. She made another reference to being given medication.

    She also has bags under her eyes that her family mentioned that they noticed. And they asked her why that was, wasn't she sleeping well? And she said, well, no, we slept all the time. We slept all day.

    And so her family is now concerned about why. Why was this 3-year-old sleeping all day? And how was she treated during her time away from us?

    So, they have a lot of questions, and they're going to say — they're going to see this. They say that, over time, they will try to pull some of that information out of her. They don't want to focus on that right now.

    Obviously, right now, they want her to get comfortable, to be back with the family, to remember that she is loved, that she was missed. But they have some real concerns. And they're based on the very valid concerns and consensus in the medical community, right, that the very act of forcibly separating children, particularly this young, from their caregivers, that is a deeply traumatic and, in some ways, irreversible event.

    Sofi just 3. And little things were you're 3 can have a really big impact. This was no little thing that she lived through. So a lot of questions ahead for her.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Do you have any sense, Amna, as to why she was released now?

  • AMNA NAWAZ:

    This is another bit of a head-scratcher, to be honest.

    Look, the family had been navigating the process step by step, somewhat responding to piecemeal requests along the way for documentation, for submitting to — for fingerprints, and so on. We know that we have been providing sustained attention as a national media network, right?

    We also know that there's been a volunteer group that's been providing a lot of pressure, not just helping support the family on the ground, but also working with the government agency that has custody of the children, trying to figure out, give us a checklist. Like, what do you need to get Sofi released?

    We also know that Sen. Casey's office, who, of course, represents the state in which Sofi was being held, got involved after he caught wind of Sofi's story as well. And there's also a pro bono immigration attorney working out of San Francisco.

    So all of these things combined were sort of applying pressure and highlighting the story over several weeks.

    But we don't know why. All of a sudden, William, in the last few days randomly, it seems, the government agency called and said on Wednesday, we're releasing her tomorrow.

    Now, if we were to trace it back, you remember, last week, we did report that the volunteer group was planning to fly mom out from San Francisco to Pennsylvania, basically to raise the — basically, to apply pressure, to say, I have done everything you asked me to do. Please tell me when I can get my daughter back.

    It does seem that, after that was reported, that the process accelerated somewhat. But we have no idea, because there's very little insight, there's very little transparency to how this process works.

    And sort of the chaos in which it unfolded, even in the last final minutes, is emblematic of the entire system and how chaotic it's been throughout.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Obviously, this is a wonderful single reunion of one girl back with her family.

    But what about all the other children who still remain in custody?

  • AMNA NAWAZ:

    It's a good point.

    Sofi, we will remember, is just one of thousands of children who was separated at the border from her family. The latest filing from the government says there's, I think, over 500 children still in government custody, over 300 of whose parents have already left the country.

    Look, I mentioned that chaos earlier, William. This is sort of deeply and well illustrated in this recent story we have been paying attention to, which was a mother and her daughter who had been detained together after being separated and then reunified.

    And mid-flight, on a deportation flight back to El Salvador, the judge, who, in Washington, D.C., was hearing a case about her and other potentially deported families, realized she was being deported and said, you have got to turn her around. This is outrageous.

    And so the government had to stop that plane when it landed in El Salvador. The mother and her daughter never deplaned. They were turned right back around and put into family detention in Texas. That judge actually threatened to hold Attorney General Jeff Sessions in contempt if that plane wasn't brought back.

    Chaos is the only word we have for how this process is unfolding. There is no set path forward for those hundreds of children who are still in government custody. It looks like the courts are where the battles are going to be fought moving forward.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    All right, the NewsHour's Amna Nawaz, thank you so much.

  • AMNA NAWAZ:

    Thanks, William.

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