Sandra Ortíz and her son Bryan Chávez have hugged for the first time in more than three years. Separated at the southern border by the prior administration in 2017, the family reunited at the San Ysidro, California, port of entry on Tuesday. They’re the first of four families expected to be reunited this week, following the Biden administration announcing on Monday that it would be returning parents deported by the prior administration to the U.S. on humanitarian parole.
“Ortíz, 48, from central Mexico, had packed her bag days earlier: three outfits, a pair of shoes and the birth certificate of her son, whom she hadn’t seen since they were separated at the border in 2017, when he was 15,” The Washington Post reported. “He’s now almost 19.”
The previous administration had separated the family in October 2017. It had already been stealing children from their parents at the southern border for several months but would not officially announce the inhumane “zero tolerance” policy until the following May. Like many other parents, Ortíz was kept in the dark by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials about the whereabouts of her child. And like many other parents, Ortíz was told her child would be put up for adoption.
Ortíz was then told she would be deported after she failed her asylum interview. While it’s unclear the circumstances behind why she failed it, the previous administration took steps to undermine the interviews of other asylum-seekers. Then Ortíz found out she would be deported without her son. When she finally got to talk to him over the phone, it was after she’d been deported. “I assumed, ‘This is it. I’ll never see him again,’” she told the Post.
On Tuesday, they had a joyous and tearful reunion, but with some sorrow. Ortíz secured necessary travel paperwork, airline tickets, and other assistance from Al Otro Lado, which has done important advocacy for asylum-seekers and their families. But during a video chat shortly before leaving for the U.S. Ortíz told the Post she noticed something about her son. First, he looked grown-up. “’He looks like a man,’ she thought,” the report said. “And then she thought: ‘He looks sad. He’s not the same son I had. This whole thing has changed him.’”
Ortíz and Bryan have a lot of catching up to do, and even though she has been able to return to the U.S. to reunite with her child, the road ahead is not yet a secure one. While CBS News reports that Bryan is now a permanent U.S. resident, Ortíz must still try to make her own case. The just thing is for her to be able to stay here permanently. Ortíz also missed over three years of her son’s life—in fact, his entire U.S. high school education. He graduated early, “and his experience affected him so deeply that he is now working with an organization helping refugee children who are going through a similar crisis,” CBS News reported.
Three more families are expected to be reunited this week, including at least one family that has also been separated for three years. “In total, more than 1,000 families are expected to be reunited,” the Post reported. “Being together again will be beautiful,” Ortíz continued in the report. “But it might not be easy.”
“Today, after over three excruciating years of separation, our client Sandra is holding her son Bryan in her arms again,” Al Otro Lado tweeted. “This moment was a testament to the resilience strength, + determination of a parent who asked for nothing more than safety for themselves + their children.” Al Otro Lado said it also worried about Ortíz’s emotional well-being during the reunification process, since she returned to the U.S. through the same port of entry where she’d been separated from her son more than three years ago.
”Al Otro Lado is humbled and honored to have played a role along with our partners in justice @ImmDef,” the organization continued. “We look forward to many more reunifications and to the Biden administration fulfilling its commitment to redress the harms of this torturous policy.”