It wasn't a wholly uncommon airport scene — a mother hugging her child and saying "I love you." But in the case of one Guatemalan immigrant mother reunited with her son early Friday morning, camera crews taping the emotional embrace weren't the only indication that something here was different.
The mother's name is Beata Mariana de Jesus Mejia-Mejia. She fled from Guatemala, seeking asylum after facing domestic violence and death threats from her husband. CNN reports that Mejia-Mejia and her 7-year-old son, Darwin, were apprehended in southern Arizona and taken into custody on May 19. Days later, government officials took Darwin away; Mejia-Mejia would spend the ensuing weeks trying to find information about his location.
But her inquiries were never fully answered. So Mejia-Mejia, with pro bono legal help from Libre by Nexus, sued the government. Her lawyers secured an agreement shortly before hearings on the case were set to begin Thursday that led to Darwin's release and prompt reunification with his mother.
President Trump's policy of "zero tolerance" for illegal border crossings has meant thousands of families torn apart upon entering the United States. And while Mejia-Mejia is not the only immigrant to sue the current government over its policies, she is the first do so since family separation became an approved tactic in early May. (Trump signed an executive order this week allowing immigrant families to stay together.)
Raw video of Mejia-Mejia reuniting with Darwin shows just how emotional their reunion was:
Mejia-Mejia described to CNN her desperation throughout her separation from Darwin. "It's like they're putting a knife in your chest and killing you." The Department of Homeland Security, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and US Customs and Border Protection all declined CNN's request for a comment on Mejia-Mejia's case.
Time reports that a Trump administration official has said 500 of the more than 2,300 children who were separated from their parents have since been reunited with their families. And with Trump now reversing his policy of family separation, children apprehended at the border who are with their parents will no longer be removed and detained away from them.
But that policy change in no way represents an end to the controversy over Trump's border policies. Statements made in late May by Steven Wagner — a high-ranking official with the Department of Health and Human Services — raised questions about just who is responsible for immigrant children. Wagner said that of 7,635 kids placed by HHS with sponsors between October and December of 2017, the organization had been unable to locate 1,465 of them.
Wagner argued that once a child is placed with a sponsor, HHS and the ORR (Office of Refugee Resettlement) have historically been released from any responsibility for immigrant children that were in their custody. But the agency faced criticism over the fact it was unable to verify the location and well-being of a full 19 percent of the children it had placed.
Another potential problem is the dubious legality of detaining families together. The Flores Agreement makes it a legal priority to detain children for the least amount of time possible, and stipulates they be held in the least restrictive environment available. As Dara Lind outlines at Vox, the Agreement — which came out of a lawsuit filed in the 1980s by a 15-year-old immigrant — has morphed over time into a set of actual laws governing how migrant children can be detained.
One of the biggest hurdles for the Trump administration’s plan to detain families together is the fact that children cannot be held for more than 20 days. Processing thousands of families — most of them, presumably, facing deportation back to their home countries — is not something the system is currently set up to do expediently.
It's unlikely Mejia-Mejia was thinking about any of that when she and her son were at last reunited Friday. But the legal uncertainty raised by family separation is, for the foreseeable future, still harming plenty of immigrant families.