A five-year-old Guatemalan girl, Dailin Lopez, was listening to a court translator relay the messages of an immigration judge through headphones when she broke down sobbing.
Her 24-year-old father, Noe Lopez, had been told he could not participate in her hearing. But when Dailin became inconsolable, the judge requested that Lopez be brought in to soothe her.
"I took her headphones off," Lopez said. "She was crying and crying and crying, and I said, 'calm down, they're not going to hurt you.' And she said, 'they're going to put me in jail,' and I said, 'don't worry, nothing is going to happen to you.'"
Since the Trump administration started separating immigrant families, children are increasingly having to appear before immigration judges without their parents. But attorneys in San Diego say the Department of Justice is even dividing the cases of families that were never physically separated while in custody.
Lopez and his daughter were not subjected to the pain of family separation that nearly 3,000 families are experiencing. They got lucky -- after crossing the border through Tecate in October, they were released together on parole after a few days in detention. They are now living in Encinitas together.
But their cases are being processed separately. Lopez's attorney Matt Holt said there's no reason for this, and that he's seen an increase in this happening.
"The government is choosing to give these families seeking asylum different court dates, different judges, and sometimes even forcing them to fight their cases in immigration courts in different cities," Holt said.
Holt is working to consolidate their cases but he said that in the meantime, it is "emotionally, logistically and financially exhausting for all parties."
The Department of Justice did not respond to a request for comment.
Lopez said he brought his daughter to the U.S. to seek asylum because members of a criminal organization in his home country had threatened to kill him and his daughter if he didn't join their ranks. He didn't want to. He had a degree in education and was working as a volunteer at an organization fighting against substance abuse.
He said he wanted to be a good role model for his daughter and to teach her integrity.
Once in U.S. immigration custody, Lopez said, Border Patrol officers tried to take Dailin from him -- but he clung to her.
"I'm not letting go of her," he recalled saying.
He said officials also tried to get him to sign documents agreeing to self-deport -- but he knew a bit of English, and could see the words "deportation to Guatemala" on the paperwork. He refused to sign. Border Patrol did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Lopez said he thinks he owes his fortune to a female officer with Immigration and Customs Enforcement who told her colleagues that they weren't treating him fairly. He said she worked to get him and his daughter released together.