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The ordeal of navigating migrant family reunification, in one toddler’s story

Two weeks ago, 3-year-old Sofi and her grandmother were making the journey through Mexico to seek asylum in the U.S. Although they entered legally and with guardianship documents, they were separated two days after entering, and two days after President Trump's executive order ending family separation. Amna Nawaz joins Judy Woodruff to update the story of their separation.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Two weeks ago, we first introduced you to Sofi (ph), a 3-year-old girl who made the journey with her grandmother through Mexico, fleeing violence, to seek asylum here in the United States.

    Amna Nawaz and our "NewsHour" team first met them at a shelter in Juarez, Mexico, before they crossed the U.S. border.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Her family, Angelica says, was targeted by Mexican cartels, already killing her husband son, daughter-in-law, and three grandchildren.

    Getting out of Mexico, she says, is a matter of life or death.

  • Angelica (through translator):

    I'm worried for her. My granddaughter's lived through many very ugly things.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Children are separated from their parents or guardians. Are you worried about that?

  • Angelica (through translator):

    Yes, it makes me afraid that they will separate me from my granddaughter. And I pray that they won't separate me from her.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    They were, in fact, separated, despite making a legal entry, an asylum claim, and carrying guardianship documents.

    This was two days after President Trump's executive order ending family separation.

    In the days since, we have continued to report their story, to follow Sofi's family as they navigate the reunification process, like hundreds of other families in similar situations.

    So, Amna Nawaz joins us now with the latest.

    So, Amna, you have been in touch with them. What do we know more about Sofi, about the family since they were separated?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    We have learned a lot about the family, a lot about the family reunification process as a whole.

    It's very lengthy. It's very complicated. And it looks, Judy, in some cases like it's being made more lengthy and complicated in some cases.

    If you just look at Sofi's timeline in this instance now — and this is what her mother has now been navigating. Her mother is now the one in contact with the government agencies. And her mother is here legally. She entered legally with a younger sibling, has an asylum case pending and she is in the U.S.

    But this is the timeline so far. She got a call saying her daughter has been taken into custody. For four days after that, no word on where her daughter, how her daughter is, or when she can contact her.

    Five days after the separation, she was allowed one phone call with Sofi. It was 15 minutes. Her mother says Sofi cried throughout the whole thing and just couldn't be comforted. She kept asking to see her.

    Ten days after being separated, she was allowed another call. She says Sofi cried again, and the call was cut short because her daughter was so upset.

    Now, all this time, Judy, it's important to point out, mother's been navigating the reunification process. There's a lot of paperwork that goes into it. She has to work across Mexican and U.S. agencies. It costs a lot of time and money.

    And the process, we should point out, is involved for a reason. The officials here want to make sure that they are releasing children into safe custody when they do so.

    And there's parts of it, though, that we found out the administration could speed up if they wanted to. Fingerprints, for example, not just for the people requesting custody, but also for everyone in the home, those have been waived before. They could be again.

    And then there's the actual reunification. Sofi's mom in this case has been told she has to pay not just for Sofi's transport with the family, but also for a round-trip ticket for the escort. And we now know that they are hundreds of miles apart from each other.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Amna, we now have heard a number of Trump administration officials say that, if families cross the border legally, if they're making an application for legal asylum, they will not be separated.

    Clearly, that is not what happened here.

    So, do we know, is this an isolated situation?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Part of the problem in reporting this is, we just don't know.

    We know about the stories we hear about. We know about other reports. In Sofi's case, this wasn't true. The L.A. Times published a piece earlier this week. They had a number of cases they were documenting that were similar to this. There was a Guatemalan mom — I was going through the court records — who had her son separated, a Honduran mom who had her 18-month-old son separated.

    These are all people who are making asylum claims, most cases, crossing legally.

    We should point out, Department of Homeland Security is the agency overseeing any of these decisions to separate or not. They're doing so following some criteria. They're on the front lines. They are trying to prevent smugglers and trafficking. They say those decisions are made in consultation with a number of people.

    The problem here really is transparency. When we ask specifically about this case, we're not going to get an answer, for privacy reasons, obviously. But in this case, they might say, OK, the documentation was lacking. So we go back and say, can you give us a list of the documentation that's required in these kinds of cases?

    And they say that there isn't one.

    Department of Homeland Security has also said that it's a myth that anyone entering legally and claiming asylum will be separated. We now know that's just not true.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And we also know — so we know some of these children who are currently being held in this country came with family. Others came unaccompanied. We don't have the exact numbers.

    But we know they are subject to a federal judge's ruling last week that the administration immediately work to reunite families under — for children.

    And there's an amount of time, depending on the age, 14 days, quickly, for children under 5, 30 days for children who are 5 and over.

    How does that play into all this?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    We don't yet know entirely.

    Look, the White House responded soon after that judge's ruling, said that that complicates their enforcement of immigration laws. They said this basically shows the need for Congress to act soon to change immigration rules.

    And we don't know if they're going to comply with that judge's order or not. It was also reported that Secretary Azar of Health and Human Services, which oversees the care and custody of all these children, he's put together a task force specifically looking at reunification.

    But, again, we have no details about that. We don't know how it will change the process.

    Here's what we know. HHS tells us they have 11,800 minors in their care, in custody right now. The vast majority of those arrived unaccompanied. They're largely older children who came here over the last several years into the past administration as well.

    About 2,000 of those were children who were separated from their parents. And that includes Sofi, the girl who we started talking about in this conversation.

    And, Judy, we should also disclose we have been in regular contact with HHS and with Secretary Azar's office specifically. They had asked for some information about Sofi's story. In consultation with her family and with an advocate they were working with, we went back to Secretary Azar's office and gave them the full spelling of Sofi's name, which we haven't even reported publicly.

    They said they needed it so they could more completely answer some question. That was a week ago that we gave them that information. And, today, we got a response from them that basically tells us what we already know, that she is in their care and custody, and they are in touch with her mother at this point.

    So, today marks 11 days this 3-year-old girl has been in the care and custody of the U.S. government. And we don't know when she's going to be back with her family.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, it is so important to follow this one case. It gives us some sense of the entire process.

    Amna Nawaz, thank you.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Thanks, Judy.

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