For the past three months, the telephone chats between six-year old Adayanci 'Yanci' Daniela Pérez Chávez and her parents in Guatemala have ended the same way – with the girl crying and the parents desperate, not knowing what to do from more than 2,600 miles away.
The girl was separated from her father, Hugo Leonel Pérez Mazariegos, on May 12, the peak of the zero tolerance policy ordered by President Donald Trump, after U.S. border patrol agents detained them when they crossed the Mexico border without documents.
He was sent to a detention center in Arizona, where he spent two weeks before being deported to Guatemala. She wound up in a U.S. Health and Human Services Department center for minors in Kalamazoo, Michigan, run by Bethany Christian Services (BCS). During the day she goes to school with other immigrant children separated from their families, and spends nights with a host family.
But neither the dresses nor the toys she has received, or her new friends and activities at school, where she's beginning to learn English, have managed to calm her down. Every conversation with her parents ends with repeated pleas to be reunited with them.
“My daddy, my daddy! I want to be with my daddy,” she repeats incessantly as she cries.
Her mother, Alma Lucerito Chávez, said the first time a BCS social worker called the family, the girl asked why her father had abandoned her.
“Yanci was crying and saying, 'My dad left me here. They tell me that my daddy is working and will come for me soon, but it's been days and my dad doesn't come for me,” the mother said in a telephone interview with Univision Noticias from Malacatan in the Guatemalan province of San Marcos.
She said her husband decided to go to the United States to escape their poverty by working for a time to save some money and build a house where they could live with their two daughters – Yanci and three-year-old DiMaria Leonel. The house where they live now belongs to a mother-in-law.
The decision to take Yanci along on the trip north was sparked by a rumor, she added. “We heard that people were crossing the border all right, that way, with children, and that there was no problem,” the mother said.
“He came back shaking, came back crying”
But the father did not expect that after crossing the border they would be detained and separated. He said that he signed a voluntary deportation order because he was assured Yanci would be with him. But a few weeks later he was put on a plane for Guatemala, alone.
“I told them that I wanted my daughter to come as soon as possible. They took her away from me. They did not give her back, and now she cries when she talks with me,” he said.
His wife said her world fell apart when he returned alone to Malacatan. “He came back shaking, came back crying. He said, 'My daughter is there. They cheated to get me out, and they did not give me my daughter,” she said.
ICE did not reply to a Univision Noticias request for information about the case. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has filed legal documents arguing that there's “overwhelming evidence there are parents who signed documents they did not understand,” and that some believed they would be immediately reunited with their children.”
That first call from the BCS social worked eased some of the family's concerns, but weeks passed without news of a reunification, and they were told the process could take months. But the girl was growing increasingly desperate.
“When we chat, she chats okay at first but then starts to cry,” said the mother. The girl also has said that some of her school friends in Michigan, all separated children of migrants, have been leaving little by little and that she feels increasingly lonely.
“The other children leave and I don't. I think they forgot about me,” the girl told her mother in a recent conversation. The mother said she tries to console Yanci, telling her she will be home soon. But the girl wants to know “when is soon,” and has asked whether she will go home walking or aboard an airplane.
A “voluntary departure” hastened by tears
It's been two months since many U.S. residents were shaken when they heard the audio recording of crying children who had been separated at the border. But more than 500 children have yet to be reunited with their parents.
The zero tolerance policy generated a chaos that separated parents and children but created problems when it came to confirming family ties before reuniting them. Cases like Yanci's show that some of the children continue to cry because of a separation that could cause psychological damages the ACLU has called “irreparable.”
Like Yanci, more of the minors who have not been reunited with their parents despite court orders are the children of parents who have already been deported. Yanci does not understand borders or legal procedures, but her tears have made it clear that she needs to be with her family. And that has accelerated her legal case.
“The emotional situation was more difficult for her, or she was taking it worse than other children. It's a trauma for all of them, but we saw in her more signals that the trauma was affecting her,” said Ana Raquel Devereaux of the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center. The MIRC represents all the nearly 50 separated minors sent to the Michigan area.
“She cries every day. Every conversation with the parents is extremely emotional and she ends up crying. The other children get used to being here, and they are not in such a difficult emotional situation every day,” said Devereaux.
The BCS social worker also told Yanci's mother that at one point the girl grabbed some scissors and cut her own hair.
“I told her, how is it possible that they left the scissors there,” said the mother. “What if the girl had done something else? She does not want to be there, and I am desperate because I don't want her to be crying, I don't want her to be sick.”
The mother said she even considered borrowing money so she could go to the United States to search for her daughter.
The immigration court in Michigan has been scheduling the children's hearings for October. But MIRC attorneys, worried about Yanci, asked a judge to allow her “voluntary departure” without the need to first appear in court.
Yanci's mother received a call in Malacatan Aug. 10 with news that the judge had approved the early processing. But the family is still waiting on some paperwork for a reunification.
The girl will be returned to Guatamala in the next few weeks, accompanied by an ICE agent, Univision Noticias was told by the Guatemalan consulate in Chicago, which issued her a passport.
The family in Guatemala is trying to find the money for the seven-hour bus ride to Guatemala City, where she will land. They plan a big meal later with relatives and school friends who remember her as a good student who loved dancing.
The mother said the girl's friends have not stopped asking about her.
“They are all asking me,” she said. “Even her teacher. She tells me, 'Pray to God, and if she comes now, you send her to school and I will bring her up to date. The girl will continue to study, don't you worry. We are waiting for Yanci.'”