Migrant mothers separated from children released from detention center
The two mothers from Guatemala would still be in an Arizona detention center if not for the donations of hundreds of strangers across the country working to reunite migrant parents with their children.
Nearly 3,000 children remain separated from their parents as a result of the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy.
In total, strangers raised $43,700, as of Sunday morning, to free the mothers.
That made them two of the latest in a handful of parents who were first detained and separated from their children, then later freed on bond as they pursue asylum cases.
A few of those parents have since been able to reunite with their children through a seemingly chaotic combination of legal filings and public pressure. One mother who filed a lawsuit had authorities agree to return her child to her in Baltimore. Another had her child released to her and her husband in Los Angeles.
Another woman, Yeni Maricela Gonzalez Garcia, was freed from Eloy and took a high-profile road trip to New York to meet with her children at a shelter there, though the children had not yet been released to her.
On Friday, Itzep-Lopez and Soch-tohom de Bulux hoped to follow her lead. They had miles to go, and days to travel, before they were to reach the East Coast. Soch-tohom de Bulux will reunite with her daughter when she arrives, but the U.S. government is holding Itzep-Lopez's children.
But the first big step is complete.
Now they must navigate a federal system without a clear path.
They remember leaving their home in Guatemala with their children by their side, knowing that they would do whatever it took to reach a safe place.
They haven't seen their children in about a month, the mothers recounted in interviews the day they left the detention center.
Itzep-Lopez was told her two sons are in Florida. Soch-tohom de Bulux was told her daughter is in New York.
The next part of their travels that starts in Arizona — where they ended a journey, thousands of miles long, when they crossed the border illegally — will depend on the good will of others.
Both mothers said their children were with them when they entered the United States in San Luis, Arizona, about 20 miles south of Yuma.
The same day Border Patrol apprehended Itzep-Lopez and her boys, officers took them from her, she said.
The had five minutes to say goodbye, she said.
Since May 25, she spent 43 days in detention without her sons Juan, 8, and Mario, 7, who were sent to Miami.
Soch-tohom de Bulux said her 15-year-old daughterwas taken from her while they were held in a windowless room in San Luis nicknamed the “ice box” for its cold floors.
She didn't share her daughter's name — it was one more way to keep her child safe amid an unexpectedly public fight with the U.S. government.
The day they came for her daughter, she said a government social worker told her she had court dates and her child could not stay with her.
She doesn't know the exact time or day she and her daughter were separated. She knows she spent at least 33 of 36 days in detention without her child. Someone told her they took her child to New York.
The mothers imagine holding their children again soon. They may have the help of the federal judicial system, if not the Trump administration.
A deadline is set to reunite families, but will it stick?
Last month, federal judge Dana Sabraw set a deadline for all parents and children to be reunited by July 26.
A government lawyer said in a court hearing Monday that the Trump administration will miss the judge's deadline to reunite about 100 migrant children under age 5 with their parents.
Department of Justice lawyer Sarah Fabian said federal authorities have reunited two families and expect to reunite another 59 by Tuesday's deadline. But in other cases, parents have been deported or are in prison facing criminal charges.
Health and Human Services Secretary Alan Azar had said last week that the government was on-track to meet a federal judge's deadlines to reunite children four and under by July 10, and all remaining families by the end of the month. The administration plans to reunite families in Department of Homeland Security facilities.
Azar said the administration has been moving detained parents to facilities closer to their children, adding that it will speed reunification.
According to HHS's data released on June 25, children separated from their parents were in facilities scattered across sixteen states.
Itzep-Lopez's and Soch-tohom de Bulux's children were moved thousands of miles away from where their mothers were held in Arizona.
Hundreds of strangers guide the way
Itzep-Lopez arrived to the 1,596-bed Eloy Detention center on June 6, after spending 11 days eating soup and sleeping on a cold floor with only a Mylar blanket.
The following week, she had a credible-fear interview, the first of many steps to pursue asylum and relief from deportation.
By June 13, her domestic abuse case was deemed credible, and she was issued a bond, which would allow her to leave detention. Between tears Itzep-Lopez recounted when she found out her bond was $15,000.
“I became afraid,” Itzep-Lopez said in Spanish. “I saw it and I wanted to say, 'My dear God, with this, how I am going to leave? Holy Father, I want to see my children. I don’t have resources to pay this.'”
Woman released from detention center to reunite with her children
Another Guatemalan woman at Eloy, Yeni Gonzalez Garcia, had been speaking with Jose Xavier Orochena, a lawyer in New York, where her own three children were sent to foster care. Gonzalez Garcia began to pass along the names and registration numbers of other mothers she knew in detention to the lawyer.
"3 down 12 to go," Orochena wrote in a text message Friday afternoon.
Gonzalez Garcia’s bond was set at $7,500. Her family members in the U.S. were unable to pay for both the attorney and the bond.
Orochena, was interviewed about his family separation case on a local NPR station, which caught the ears of a New York resident wanting to help.
Julie Schwietert Collazo was listening. The New York resident began organizing donations and volunteers to get Gonzalez Garcia to New York,
“How would someone who came here with nothing come up with the money to pay the bond, to make it to New York, and then be able to stay here?” Schwietert Collazo said.
After talking with Orochena, Schwietert Collazo began a GoFundMe page for Gonzalez Garcia. Another volunteer coordinated a cross-country caravan of drivers to help the mom make it to New York.
The loose group of mostly mothers, now called Immigrant Families Together, vowed to replicate their model until no more parents are separated from their children.
They launched two more campaigns to raise enough money to cover the costs of Itzep-Lopez’s and Soch-tohom de Bulux’s bonds, in addition to longer-term expenses.
As of Friday, with more than $30,000 raised, the mothers were freed.
'I stopped crying that day'
At a chain Italian restaurant near Eloy, the mothers stopped for a meal. They ordered lasagna and chicken Parmesan, and shared half of their plates with the other.
“Never in my life did I eat lasagna, but I know about it from watching Garfield as a kid,” Soch-tohom de Bulux said in Spanish before they drove to a hotel in Phoenix Friday night.
The mothers remember watching a Telemundo broadcast, sitting inside the Eloy Detention Center, of the thousands of Americans at Families Belong Together marches.
Soch-tohom de Bulux said it was the first time she knew the hundreds of detained parents were not alone.
Families Belong Together: Arizona protest of Trump separation policy
“I said to Amalia that I stopped crying that day,” Soch-tohom de Bulux said. “These people breathed life back in us.”
After being released on bond, Itzep-Lopez’s and Soch-tohom de Bulux’s car stopped on the side of road outside Eloy.
The two mothers stood on the street and video chatted with Gonzalez Garcia. The immigration detention facility, where they all met, where hundreds more mothers are still waiting, was in the background.
Saturday morning, the two women woke up and readied to leave Phoenix together. A volunteer would drive them to Albuquerque.
In an Albuquerque coffee shop parking lot, the women parted ways. Soch-tohom de Bulux would continue north through Colorado, Itzep-Lopez would join another volunteer driver headed to Texas.
“We now have legal representation on-the-ground,” Schwietert Collazo said. “In Miami and New York, each will have their own attorney."
Soch-tohom de Bulux knows that when she arrives to New York, she will be reunited with her daughter. Earlier this week her daughter was released to her father, who is already in New York, according to Orochena, her attorney in New York.
Itzep-Lopez’s children are still in foster care in Miami.
She may face a battle against bureaucracy before she gets to see her two children again.
But she's traveled more than 2,000 miles, and when all that mattered to her was taken, strangers stepped in.
Now Juan and Mario are waiting. She'll do whatever it takes to make sure they are safe.
Photos: Guatemalan mom separated from kids arrives in NYC
Follow Pamela Ren Larson on Twitter: @PamReporting