SAN DIEGO — More than three years ago, Bryan Chavez hugged his mother inside a U.S. immigration office, terrified that he would never see her again.
“You are not going to see her anymore,” the female U.S. immigration officer told Chavez, according to his account. Then the officer turned to his mother Sandra Ortiz. “And you will go to prison.”
Mother and son were separated. Chavez went to an immigration facility in California. His mother, who didn’t pass an initial asylum screening, was deported to Mexico.
They were among the earliest family separations during the Trump administration, well before splitting up families became publicized U.S. policy. More than a thousand families remain separated, but the long ordeal for Chavez and his mom is finally over.
On Tuesday afternoon outside the San Ysidro Port of Entry, the main border crossing point into San Diego from Tijuana, the pair were among the first four families separated by the Trump administration to be reunited under President Joe Biden. Chavez brought a bunch of red, silver and pink Mother’s Day balloons to make up for the years he couldn’t shower her with gifts.
When he saw her, his hands flew to his face, overcome by emotion. They held each other, crying as people brushed by them in the bustling border crossing. “I was seeing her with my own eyes, but I couldn’t believe she was there in front of me,” Chavez said.
The mother and son reunion marks a key moment for the Biden administration, which is touting the homecomings as a way to signal more of a humanitarian approach to immigration — a departure from the “cruel” policies of the past administration. Earlier this week, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas said a task force established by a February executive order has been “working day and night” on reunifying families and called this week’s reunion “just the beginning” and said more would follow.
But lawyers and advocates who have been working for several years on reunification efforts say the administration is dragging its feet and that these reunions could have happened sooner. They also criticize the administration for not doing more to provide funding for the travel and other costs needed.
Such funds are necessary because the Trump administration kept very little information on deported parents, so attorneys and advocates in Latin America at times have to search on foot and run radio segments to reach out to the deported parents.
Donors from the U.S. have been footing much of the bill thus far, said Erika Pinheiro, the litigation director for Al Otro Lado, a nonprofit that represents the family. Pinheiro said she was glad that Ortiz had been able to reunify with her family but that the Biden administration shouldn’t be taking so much credit for the moment. “The victory lap was definitely premature,” Pinheiro said.