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‘I didn’t know we could be separated’: Migrant teen has no idea when he will see his dad

It's been more than a month since this 17-year-old has seen his dad. In April, they fled Honduras, leaving behind the rest of their family in hopes of supporting them financially from the U.S. Picked up after illegally crossing into Texas, they were separated and he spent weeks in windowless cells and government shelter. Yamiche Alcindor shares his story.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    This week, a federal judge barred the separation of immigrant children from their parents and ordered those currently detained to be reunited with their families within 30 days.

    That ruling followed President Trump's executive order earlier this month that said the administration would stop separating families, but had not put a timeline in place for when families would be reunited.

    White House — I should say "NewsHour" White House correspondent Yamiche Alcindor reports on why many families are still searching for answers.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    It's been more than a month since 17-year-old Omar has seen his dad.

  • Omar (through translator):

    No one explained anything to me, if I could be with him, or see him. I was just waiting for days, thinking about how I could be with him.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Omar, who requested we not use his real name, and his father fled Honduras in late April, leaving behind Omar's mother and three siblings. They hope to support them financially from the U.S.

  • Omar (through translator):

    I left because I couldn't do anything there. My dream is to work. I want to have a better position. I'm the oldest of four siblings. There's no school near me, and the route is very dangerous. Many people die on the road.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    On May 16, Omar and his dad were picked up near McAllen, Texas, just hours after illegally crossing into the U.S. Immigration officers immediately separated them.

    Did you know before you crossed the border that you might be separated from your father?

  • Omar (through translator):

    No, I didn't know we could be separated. At first, I didn't know anything about what happened to him. I didn't hear anything from him. No one explained anything to me, if I could be with him or see him. I was just waiting for days, thinking alone.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Omar wept as he explained what happened next. He spent three weeks being shuttled between two windowless cells and a shelter housing underage migrants. They were similar to these facilities photographed by the Departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services.

  • Omar (through translator):

    All of the kids cried because they were told that their parents were going to be deported. They were all crying, all of them.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    While the most dramatic scenes may be playing out on the U.S.-Mexico border, all across the country, in neighborhoods like this one in Maryland, families remain desperate for answers about their loved ones.

    That includes Omar's aunt Jenny. She is also undocumented and requested not to be identified. After Jenny was told by Omar's mom that Omar had been separated from his father, she urged his mother in Honduras to have him call her. Then, U.S. immigration officials called.

  • Jenny (through translator):

    Immediately, they called me from where he was and told me, "You're related to him. We have your nephew and we need someone to sponsor him."

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Jenny says she decided to sponsor Omar, even though she knew it was risky. She must be fingerprinted and undergo a background check.

    As part of a new Trump administration rule implemented earlier this month, that information is now shared with Immigration Enforcement.

    Are you afraid that the information that you provided in order to sponsor your nephew might be used to deport you now?

  • Jenny (through translator):

    Yes, I'm afraid. I'm afraid. I don't know what's going to happen. I'm thinking about my immigration case, but because he is my nephew, I can't abandon him. For me, my nephews are like my first sons. I live for them.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Omar's case and Jenny's dilemma are not unique. Some 900 unaccompanied immigrant children were released to sponsors in Maryland between October 2017 and April 2018.

    About 90 percent of the sponsors Helany Sinkler has met are undocumented. Sinkler runs the family reunification program at Esperanza Center, an immigrant resource group funded by the Catholic Charities of Baltimore.

  • Helany Sinkler:

    We get at least one individual a day saying, how will this affect me? Will something like that happen to me? I'm worried about my family here. I'm worried about my children here.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Sinkler says workers are honest about the danger.

  • Helany Sinkler:

    We don't make any false promises to our sponsors. We don't say things like, it's going to be OK, nothing bad will happen to you, because, frankly, we don't know. We don't know how the information will be used in the future.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    According to John Cohen, a former senior official at the Department of Homeland Security, sponsors like Jenny have reasons to be worried.

  • John Cohen:

    The aunt has every reason to be concerned that, now that she's come out of the shadows, now that she's identified herself, that she could be subject to removal.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Cohen also questions how much planning and coordination went into President Trump's zero tolerance policy. And he's skeptical federal agencies are equipped to match each and every child with their families.

  • John Cohen:

    If they were not fully prepared to implement this program when the program began, that could cause real problems as far as being able to connect or reunite children who were separated from their parents.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Like his aunt, Omar also faces a very uncertain future, but, last week, he finally got to talk to his dad during a 10-minute phone call. His father is now being held at a facility in New Mexico and has hired a lawyer. But the teen has no idea when they will see each other again.

  • Omar (through translator):

    I feel bad because I would like him to be with me. Imagine making the decision to separate from our entire family to find a better life, and, once I get here, they separate my family even further.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    If his father is deported, Omar may have to hire a lawyer to plead his own case. In the meantime, Jenny is supporting Omar and her own 5-year-old daughter by cleaning houses.

  • Jenny (through translator):

    I'm worried because I don't want him to lose the opportunity to go to school and study. He has dreams, and I think I'm no longer here to realize mine. I try to live to realize their dreams.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Omar wants to one day become a computer engineer. But, for now, he's not sure if he will go to school in the U.S. come fall or return to Honduras.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Yamiche Alcindor outside Baltimore, Maryland.

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