SAN PABLO, Guatemala — On May 5, Lourdes Marianela De Leon boarded a bus in Guatemala with Leo, her son.
Lourdes, a single mother, was 27. Leo was 6. In pictures, they're always smiling together, mom with a dimple on her left cheek, son with a toothy grin.
Their goal: to cross the U.S. border illegally with Leo and start a new life with relatives in New Jersey.
Two days later, as Lourdes and Leo rode a bus through the mountains of Mexico, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions took the stage in a hotel ballroom in Scottsdale, Arizona, at a conference for police officers.
He reinforced the so-called zero-tolerance immigration policy that President Donald Trump's administration had announced a month before.
All illegal crossings at the southwestern border would result in prosecutions, he said — at least, that would be the goal. "The Department of Justice will take up as many of those cases as humanly possible until we get to 100 percent," he said.
Then, he added a detail:
"If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you and that child will be separated from you as required by law," he said. "If you don’t like that, then don’t smuggle children over our border."
Originally, Lourdes had planned to leave Leo at home with family and go the United States alone. She knew about migrants dying in the desert and was afraid to cross with Leo.
But a relative in the United States gave Lourdes a phone number for a coyote, a person who charges a fee to smuggle people into the United States.
It will be easier to cross with your son than without him, the coyote told her. If you're a family, the Border Patrol releases you after a few days, and you'll get a work permit.
What the coyote told her rang true. She knew of other mothers who had been released shortly after crossing the border illegally with their children, including cousins now living in New Jersey.
So instead of alone, Lourdes decided to go north with Leo. It was a decision she now deeply regrets.
Lourdes Marianela De Leon is deported to Guatemala while her 6-year-old son, Leo, is held in New York after they illegally crossed into the U.S. Arizona Republic
Within a few days, Leo became one of the more than 2,300 children taken from parents who were apprehended crossing the border.
As the full effect of the zero-tolerance policy came into focus, it sparked an international outcry that forced Trump to reverse course. He signed an executive order on June 20 putting a halt to the practice of separating families at the border. Days later, a federal judge in California ordered U.S. border authorities to reunite separated families within 30 days.
But the order came too late for Lourdes and Leo. After separating her from her son, U.S. immigration authorities held her in a detention center in Eloy, Arizona. They sent Leo to a shelter in New York, 2,000 miles away.
After four weeks in Eloy, they put Lourdes on a government plane and flew her back to Guatemala.
Recent data indicates hundreds of parents like Lourdes may have been deported without their children since the zero-tolerance effort began. But few of their faces have yet appeared in news reports.
Scattered back to their homes and villages across several countries, those parents may now be difficult or impossible to find — and it’s unclear whether even a court ruling ordering the return of their children will actually reunite them.
Seven weeks after the two were separated, Leo remains in the U.S. in a shelter in New York.
Meanwhile, Lourdes sits on a slip-covered sofa in a house in the lush mountains of southwestern Guatemala, not far from the border with Mexico.
Her aunt's brightly colored house is across a narrow road from the one she shared with Leo before they left for the U.S. She can't bear to stay there alone anymore.
She has dialed every phone number she can find. She still has no idea when she will get her son back.
To describe how she feels, she uses the words of extremity.
"It is inhuman," she says. "An inexplicable pain."
But her actions are subdued. She simply slumps her head on the arm of the sofa. She has no more tears to shed.
'The situation at our Southwest Border is unacceptable'
In recent years, parents who crossed the border illegally accompanied by children were generally excluded from criminal prosecution.
The majority of families arriving at the border are from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, three Central American countries racked by gang violence, drug trafficking and political upheaval.
Border ports — the official points of entry — are set up to screen asylum seekers who cross there. But for years, many Central Americans simply walked across the border and surrendered to Border Patrol agents, asking for asylum.
The Obama administration attempted to deal with undocumented families arriving at the border by opening large detention centers and holding families indefinitely until an immigration judge could determine whether they would be sent home or allowed to stay.
But the Obama administration was forced to return to releasing asylum-seeking families after a federal judge ruled that a legal settlement and law aimed at protecting children who arrived without parents also applied to those who arrived with parents. The children must be released promptly. Since then, most have been released within 20 days.
The Trump administration's zero-tolerance policy was aimed at ending this policy of "catch and release" under the belief that most families arriving at the border didn't qualify for asylum and were instead exploiting "loopholes" in the nation's immigration system by entering the country illegally and then asking for asylum, knowing they would be released.
In announcing the policy, Sessions cited a 203 percent increase in illegal border crossings from March 2017 to March 2018.
“The situation at our Southwest Border is unacceptable,” Sessions said. “To those who wish to challenge the Trump administration’s commitment to public safety, national security and the rule of law, I warn you: Illegally entering this country will not be rewarded, but will instead be met with the full prosecutorial powers of the Justice Department.”
Border Patrol statistics, however, show that the number of families apprehended through May is actually down 3 percent compared with last year.
Lourdes said she knew nothing about the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy before she reached the United States.
She is from San Pablo, a bustling municipality in Guatemala near the border with Mexico, a tropical area between the high plains and low coastal areas of the state of San Marcos.
The main reason she wanted to go to the United States, Lourdes said, was to search for a better future for herself and her son.
To earn money in Guatemala, she sells shoes, clothes, pursues and other items door to door. The endeavor brings in about 2,000 to 3,000 quetzales a month, the equivalent of about $260 to $400.
A big chunk of her earnings, however, go to pay the 1,000-quetzal-a-month rent for the small house she shared with Leo. That left her less than $260 a month to live on.
Guatemala, a country of 17 million people, has some of the worst poverty in Latin America, despite recent years of strong economic growth. The poverty rate rose to 59.3 percent in 2014, according to the World Bank, and 52 percent of Guatemalans living in poverty are indigenous.
A massive eruption of the Volcano of Fire in early June that killed dozens, displaced thousands, and affected nearly 2 million people further exacerbated the country's economic problems, pushing more people to leave.
In addition to rising poverty and widening economic inequality, Guatemala is still struggling to recover from a civil war that lasted 36 years and killed 200,000 people before peace accords between the government and indigenous rebel groups were signed in 1996.
Though the civil war is over, Guatemala ranks among the 25 most dangerous countries in the world, fueled by a severe impunity problem and the easy availability of firearms, according to the U.S. State Department’s Overseas Security Advisory Council.
After peaking in 2009, Guatemala’s homicide rate has fallen in recent years, but remains above the average in Latin America, according to the Washington Office on Latin America. El Salvador and Honduras, the two other Central American countries that make up the so-called Northern Triangle, the source of the majority of undocumented families and unaccompanied minors coming to the U.S., have even higher homicide rates, ranking among the highest in the world.
Guatemalans today describe the threat of attacks, armed robberies, kidnappings and extortion by organized gangs such as MS-13 as part of everyday life, where police are easily paid off by criminals to look the other way, or to release them from jail without punishment.
Families in Guatemala depend on the money migrants send them from the U.S. to survive.
One man estimated 90 percent of the males in his town in the state of San Marcos try to cross the border illegally to work in the U.S. at some point in their lives.
Increasingly women are making the trip, too.
Often, they go with children.
Crossing the border
'The laws have changed'
The coyote charged Lourdes $4,000 to guide her and Leo from Guatemala to the U.S. border and then across into Arizona. A relative in the U.S. lent her the money.
It was a long trip. But she packed light.
There was no room for Leo’s brand-new toy, a red and white plastic tow truck with shiny black tires.
Besides, she imagined, soon she’d be able to buy Leo all the toys he wanted.
“More than anything, I wanted to make money so that I could own my own house someday,” she says now.
The bus trip from San Pablo to the Guatemala-Mexico border took about an hour and a half. The bus shares the narrow, winding roads with motorized rickshaws called tuk-tuks that scoot along the hillsides. The route snakes through lush countryside past street vendors selling coconuts, grilled corn, and mangoes.
Guatemalans with border crossing cards legally enter Mexico by crossing a bridge over the Suchiate River. The bridge is crowded with honking cars, exhaust-spewing motorcycles and pedestrians, some carrying packs on top of their heads. They stream into Mexico past young-faced soldiers in olive-green combat fatigues wielding assault rifles that appear almost as big as their bodies.
Directly below the bridge, practically under the noses of the soldiers and immigration authorities, an unauthorized crossing exists for people without crossing cards.
The smuggling guide walked Lourdes away from the bridge through a shaded back alley. It descends to the river bank behind buildings lined with greasy auto parts stripped from broken cars that have been brought from the U.S. to be rebuilt and sold.
At the water's edge, entrepreneurs on rafts made of inner tubes compete for business. They charge unauthorized crossers 20 quetzales to ferry them under the bridge and across the river to Mexico.
It was evening and the river was running low that day. Instead of taking a raft, Lourdes waded through the knee-deep, mud-churned brown water, hugging Leo against her chest.
Once on the Mexican side, they walked up a dirt path where a smuggling guide paid off Mexican immigration officials to let them pass.
The 2,300-mile bus trip from Tapachula through Mexico to the U.S. border took them more than three days and three nights.
Leo was happy the whole way.
“He didn’t have any idea where we were going,” Lourdes says. “I only told him that we were going somewhere to see snow.”
On May 10, they arrived in San Luis Rio Colorado, a border city in the Mexican state of Sonora across from Yuma, Arizona.
There, the guide handed them off to another smuggler. He drove them about a half hour outside the city to a spot on the border where there is no fencing. Based on Lourdes' account, they most likely crossed east of San Luis Rio Colorado in the Yuma desert.
Reporter Dennis Wagner flies over the sand dunes and the "floating fence" west of Yuma, Arizona. A USA TODAY NETWORK video production.
The smuggler didn’t cross the border with them. Instead, he pointed at a tall tree with a dead branch in the distance on the Arizona side and told them to walk straight there. Another undocumented mother, traveling with a 4-year-old girl, crossed with them.
“He called it the dry stick,” Lourdes says. “He said don’t deviate to the left or the right.”
By the time they reached the tree, Border Patrol agents had already arrived, Lourdes says.
The Border Patrol agents drove them in a truck to a Border Patrol station in San Luis, Arizona, Lourdes says. It was about 6 p.m. when they arrived. The agents took them to a room with computers where other officers asked Lourdes for her documents and took her fingerprints. Dozens of other mothers and children caught by the Border Patrol sat on the floor, she said. Some of the mothers were crying.
Later that night, an officer in a dark uniform spoke to her in Spanish.
He informed her that she was going to be criminally charged with entering the country illegally, then taken before a judge, who would sentence her. Within 48 hours, the officer told her, her son would also be taken away and placed in a shelter.
“Why?” Lourdes asked them. “Aren’t you going to give us the opportunity to pass into the United States?”
No, Lourdes recalls the agent telling her. “The laws have changed.”
The officer assured her Leo would be well taken care of in the shelter,Lourdes recalled, and that she would be reunited with her son as soon as the criminal process was over, in about 10 days, and then they would deported together.
Leo began to cry when Lourdes explained he was going to be taken away and placed in a shelter. But he calmed down after she told him they would only be separated for short while.
The next two nights Lourdes said she slept on the floor with her son. The officers gave them a thin mattress and an aluminum blanket. The room felt freezing cold, she said.
After breakfast on the second morning, Lourdes sat on the mattress with Leo when an officer came into the room and called his name. The officer told her Leo was being taken away to the shelter.
As Lourdes watched the officers take Leo away, the boy began to cry.
“It was the worst look you could imagine,” she says now.
Looking for Leo
'Please, I need to know about my son'
Although the Trump administration has halted the practice of separating children from parents at the border, confusion and chaos remains over where parents and children are being held and how they will be reunited.
Crowds marched in cities across the country to keep pressure on the Trump administration to reunite separated families as quickly as possible.
But most of the public outcry has focused on separated families who remain in the U.S. Little attention has been placed on parents such as Lourdes.
Until recently, few cases of deported parents without their children have come to light. No one knows how many parents separated from their children have already been deported.
The Department of Homeland Security has only said that about 2,300 children were separated under the zero-tolerance policy. Of those, about 522 separated children have been reunited with their parents, the agency said then. DHS has not specified whether any had been reunited with parents already deported.
"I haven’t seen that number anywhere and haven't heard of anyone having that number," said Lisa Frydman, a vice president at Kids In Need of Defense, a non-profit that recruits lawyers to provide legal representation to unaccompanied migrant children and has been helping parents connect with their children following separation.
Family separations actually started before the Trump administration announced the zero-tolerance policy, making it more difficult to track parents deported while their children remained in U.S. custody, she said.
From July 2017 until the end of May, KIND identified 32 cases of parents deported while their child remained in custody. The group has been working with organizations in Guatemala and Honduras to identify other cases, she said.
The number of parents deported without their children both before and after the zero-tolerance policy was implemented is likely in the hundreds, based on case-by-case Border Patrol data obtained by Syracuse University's Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.
The data showed that in April the Border Patrol apprehended 4,537 adults who had arrived with children. Of those, 1,060 were quickly deported.
However, of the 5,144 children apprehended as part of these families, a fewer number, 851, had been deported.
As a result, as many as 209 parents appear to have been deported without their children in April alone.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agency responsible for detaining and deporting immigrants, would not provide information to The Arizona Republic on the number of parents deported while their children remained in U.S. government custody.
Lauren Mack, an ICE spokeswoman, would only say that the agency cannot search records without a specific case to research.
"We don’t routinely track cases involving the circumstances in your inquiry," she said in an email.
Similarly, the Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Refugee Resettlement, the agency responsible for caring for separated children, also did not directly respond to requests for data on the number of separated children who remain in its custody after their parents were deported.
Despite being told she would be criminally prosecuted for crossing the border illegally, Lourdes said she never appeared before a judge to plead guilty. A search of criminal case dockets by the USA TODAY NETWORK during that time frame also found no records with her name.
Instead, after spending nine days in the Border Patrol holding cell, Lourdes said she was transferred to a private-contract immigration detention center in Eloy, about one hour south of Phoenix.
The day after she arrived, Lourdes said she was allowed to talk to Leo for the first time since their separation.
"It was more tears than talking," Lourdes said. "He said, 'When are you going to come and get me?' "
At the Border Patrol station, Lourdes says officials told her Leo was being sent to a shelter for children in Phoenix.
But at the Eloy Detention Center, she discovered that Leo had been placed in a shelter in New York. She had no idea New York was a state across the country until she was told by other separated mothers at the same detention center.
She was shocked when she found out.
"Please, I need to know about my son. I am desperate," Lourdes wrote in Spanish on one of three forms she was handed when she asked ICE officials repeatedly to provide information about Leo's exact whereabouts.
Waiting for Leo
Leo was being held at a shelter operated by Cayuga Centers in New York.
A cellphone video obtained by The Arizona Republic shows Leo inside the shelter along with dozens of other separated children. The cellphone video, apparently shot by an employee upset about the family separations, was provided to attorney Michael Avenatti, a Trump critic, who first shared it with CBS News. Avenatti is now representing Lourdes.
In the video, Leo smiles as he crawls on the floor wearing a white backpack with colored stars. His smile disappears, though, when a worker asks him if he’s sad.
What’s your mother’s name? she asks him.
“Lourdes,” Leo responds.
Have you talked to her?
“Yes,” Leo says.
“Have they told you when you are leaving,” the worker asks.
“No,” Leo shakes his head.
The Cayuga Centers referred requests for comment to the Department of Health and Human Services.
In a written statement, HHS said it does not identify unaccompanied minors in its custody or comment on individual cases, citing privacy and safety reasons.
The department is working toward reunification "for those unaccompanied alien children currently in our custody," the statement said.
According to a statement by ICE, on May 30 Lourdes requested to be reunified with her son and sent back to Guatemala. She was offered the option to remain in custody while transfer arrangements were made for her son, but declined, the ICE statement said.
On June 6, Lourdes signed a form to be deported without her son, the statement said. She was deported to Guatemala on June 7, according to the statement.
Lourdes says that is not what happened.
She said ICE officials told her on May 29 that she was going to be deported to Guatemala within 10 days but first she would be reunited with her son so that they could be sent back together.
The next day, however, Lourdes spoke by phone with an official from the Guatemalan consulate in Tucson, who explained a much different scenario. The official from the consulate, Lourdes said, told her she was being given three options by ICE; none involved being quickly reunited with her son and deported together.
The consulate official told her she could remain in ICE detention while she waited for her son to be transferred so they could be deported together. But Lourdes said she was told the process could take seven months and during that time she and Leo would remain separated.
The consulate official, she said, also told her she could leave her son with relatives in the U.S. and be deported quickly.
And finally, she could accept quick deportation alone, and have her son deported back to Guatemala in about two months.
She chose that last option, she said, because it meant being separated from her son the least amount of time.
"The best option was to come by myself," she said. "We would be apart only two more months."
Carlos de Leon, the Guatemalan consul, and Guatemala’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs could not be reached for comment.
Lourdes said ICE flew her back on a government plane that first stopped in Texas to pick up more people being deported to Guatemala.
The plane landed in Guatemala City, the capital, where a friend let her stay at her apartment for two nights and then bought her a bus ticket back to San Pablo, a 9-hour trip.
Once a week, Lourdes said, she is allowed to speak to Leo at the shelter on a video call on her cellphone through WhatsApp, a messaging service. The first two calls were for half an hour. On the third call they were allowed to talk for an hour, she said.
During the calls, Leo has told her he eats well, received new shoes, and has gone on excursions to a park.
But on the phone, he cries to come home.
"He is desperate," she said. "He doesn't want to be there."
Lourdes tells him they will be together soon. But in reality, she doesn't know when.
As some separated parents inside the U.S. begin to be reunited with their children one by one, it's unclear when deported parents such as Lourdes will see their children returned.
A social worker at the shelter recently gave her some bad news. Instead of two months, it could be longer before the United States government sends Leo back to Guatemala.
She didn't tell Lourdes why. But Frydman, the lawyer at KIND, said there are many factors that make it more difficult to reunite children with parents already deported.
To be sent back, Leo must first appear in an immigration court and receive a voluntary departure order from an immigration judge. Because of court backlogs, an immigration hearing could take several months, she said. Leo will then need to receive a travel document from the Guatemalan consulate. That could take more time. And after he receives a voluntary departure order, and a travel document, he will still need ICE to arrange his travel, which could taken even more time.
Meanwhile, he remains in custody of a fourth agency, the Department of Health and Human Services, she said.
"So the involvement of these four agencies is one of the reasons for delay," Frydman said. "Sometimes the cases in immigration court are scheduled several months out, and then sometimes it takes ICE several months to book travel ... So it's hard to predict how long it will be but it could take some months."
One factor that could speed up Leo's removal to Guatemala is the ruling by a federal judge in San Diego blocking the Department of Homeland Security from separating more families and ordering the government to reunite separated families within 30 days.
The ruling, Frydman said, should apply also to parents who have already been deported without their children.
"In reality it seems to me that the government is under the obligation to reunify him within 30 days of the date of that order," Frydman said.
But that may not happen, Frydman said, because the Trump administration has given no indication that it understands that the court order should also apply to deported parents, she said.
"Clearly the government is scrambling to do it with parents who are in the United States," Frydman said. "It's obviously more complicated to figure out how to do it with parents who are not in the United States any longer."
Back in her aunt's living room, Lourdes reaches up on a shelf and grabs the toy tow truck Leo left behind when they left for the United States.
She now blames herself for the anguish he has been through.
"I'm responsible," she said.
Lourdes said that she would have rather gone to the United States legally. But visas cost money she doesn't have and most likely she would not have qualified anyway.
It angered her when she saw Trump on the news after her deportation, accusing Democrats of wanting migrants to "infest the country."
"I really don't think that is the case," Lourdes says, "because migrants do the work that American citizens do not want to do. No woman over there is going to wash a plate, work as a waitress, clean houses....The migrant does not take advantage of the country, he gives benefits to the country."
She said she understands why she was deported.
"We made the mistake of entering the United States illegally," Lourdes says.
But if the United States is going to deport families who arrive at the border, they should be deported together, she said. Taking children away from parents, and then deporting parents without their children is a punishment, she said, no human being deserves.
"They treat you like an animal," she says. "For them, you're worth nothing."
Dianna M. Náñez of The Arizona Republic and Brian Sharp of the (Rochester, N.Y.) Democrat and Chronicle contributed to this report.