BALTIMORE – Anyeli, 19, stood by the United Airlines baggage carousel on the lower level of Baltimore/Washington Thurgood Marshall International Airport Thursday evening, nervously eyeing the flow of arriving passengers.
Somewhere in that crowd was her father, Carlos, whom she hadn’t seen in three years, since U.S. Border Patrol agents led him away at a processing center in Texas near the U.S.-Mexico border. Anyeli, 16 at the time, had to navigate a new country and strange language on her own.
At the airport, her hands fiddled with a shiny, new black baseball cap emblazoned with “NY,” a gift she bought her dad months ago while in New York. Thoughts pinged in her head: Would he look older? Would he recognize her?
Suddenly, a familiar face emerged in the crowd.
“That’s him!” Anyeli yelled.
She raced to her father. The two collapsed into a tight, lingering hug.
Anyeli is the latest person to be reunited with their family after being separated at the border under former President Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy, which prosecuted undocumented border crossings and cleaved children from their parents while in federal custody. USA TODAY was allowed exclusive access to witness the family’s reunion.
Carlos and Anyeli have asked that their last names not be printed, for fear of reprisals to relatives in their home country of Guatemala.
Many of the parents separated from their children at the border were deported to their home countries in Mexico or Central America, leaving behind a trail of parentless migrant children across the United States.
Since taking office in January, President Joe Biden has vowed to reunite those families. In February, he ordered the creation of the Interagency Task Force on the Reunification of Families, a multi-agency effort to locate and reunite all separated families.
More than 2,000 of an estimated 3,900 families initially believed to have been separated under the Trump policy have been reunited or located, according to task force statistics. The group estimates an additional 1,700 children may still be separated.
Task force members, led by Michelle Brané, a former leading advocate with the Women’s Refugee Commission, have been slowed by the disorganized, outdated and often incomplete records of separated families found in the digital archives of agencies such as the Department of Health and Human Services, Brané said. Advocate groups have long complained that the Trump administration’s record-keeping of separated families was in disarray.
The task force has had to check lists with advocate groups and relied on them to locate separated parents, sometimes in far-flung rural villages in Central America, she said. The task force also created a website, Together.gov, where families and their attorneys can register and begin the reunification process. The government plans to offer mental and social support to families who have been reunified, she said.
As of Thursday, the task force had helped reunite 49 children with their parents. On Thursday evening, Anyeli became Number 50.
“The magnitude of the harm done requires that we do whatever we can to help them reunify and get the support they need,” Brané said.
Racquel Martin, a San Francisco attorney who helped Carlos legally return to the United States, said bringing families together is just the first step. They also need ongoing mental and social support to readjust to their new lives together, she said.
“They’ve been through a traumatic experience that shaped the course of their lives forever,” she said. “They can’t get those years back.”
Carlos doesn’t talk about the reasons he left Guatemala, for fear of reprisals, saying only he was seeking a better life for himself and Anyeli.
He left his hometown of Jalapas, Guatemala, in 2018 with Anyeli and a group of about 40 other migrants, he said. When he later crossed into Texas, he and his daughter were quickly picked up by U.S. Border Patrol and shuttled to a processing center. He thought his path to asylum and new life in the United States was beginning.
Instead, Carlos was informed he would be deported back to Guatemala. Anyeli would be allowed to stay. Father and daughter were allowed a final hug goodbye, then agents escorted Anyeli away. “That’s the last time I saw her,” Carlos said. “That was the darkest moment for me.”
Carlos was kept in federal custody, first in Texas and later in New Mexico, for five months before being deported to Guatemala.
“I was full of regret,” he said. “I was trying to find a better life for my daughter. Then, they separated us. I didn’t know if I would see her again.”
Meanwhile, Anyeli spent a month in federal custody then was released to a family in Atlanta. She attended high school but the sharp differences in culture and unfamiliar language terrified her, she said.
“I panicked at the beginning,” Anyeli said. “Then I got used to it. It was new people, a new place.”
She studied English and made friends. She moved in with another family in New York and later with friends in Maryland. She left school to begin working and found a job at a local McDonald’s.
Anyeli called her dad every few days and the two would have video chats via WhatsApp on their smartphones. She kept him abreast of her life. But not having him nearby was agonizing.
“He’s my role model,” she said.
The loneliness took its toll. Anyeli lost her appetite. Nothing appealed to her; she didn’t feel like doing anything for days on end. Her father would tell her, “If it gets too hard, just come back to Guatemala.”
But Anyeli stayed, wanting to prove to him that they could someday have a life together in the United States. She studied extra hard.
“He was my motivator,” she said. “He was why I was here and why I would keep fighting.”
In 2019, while still in Jalapas, Carlos received a call from an attorney in Guatemala stating there may be a way to get him back to the United States to be with his daughter. His life suddenly brightened. The next two years were filled with phone calls with various attorneys, meetings in Guatemalan government offices, more phone calls, more meetings. His passport needed updating. A birth certificate needed to be found.
A new U.S. president came into office and a task force facilitated his immigration status.
On Thursday evening, all that time, effort and pain culminated in a dramatic hug in the baggage claim area of the Baltimore airport.
“I was scared you wouldn’t recognize me,” Anyeli told her dad.
“How could I not know who you are?” he said. “You’re my daughter.” He pulled on his new baseball cap and smiled with a grin that shone through his blue paper face mask.
“It’s a great feeling to know there are people out there willing to fight for us, for Latinos,” Carlos said of the team of attorneys, advocates and government officials who helped return him to his daughter.
He draped an arm over Anyeli's shoulders and the two walked back to retrieve his luggage. They chatted excitedly about going for pupusas and tacos the next day and what their new life may bring.
Follow Jervis and Rodriguez on Twitter: @MrRJervis, @AdriannaUSAT.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump zero-tolerance policy separated this migrant family at border