It’s 10 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 17, in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, and 42-year-old Dora Melara is packing a bag. She grabs some clothes and important documents, and then makes some sandwiches.
In the morning, she will begin her search for a Honduran father who was separated from his teenage son at the U.S.-Mexico border in 2018. Their names are being withheld because the case is sensitive and still in legal limbo.
It’s unclear how long Melara may be away from home — one night, perhaps more. She has learned that this work is unpredictable.
Melara is an attorney working for Justice in Motion, a U.S.-based nonprofit that has been tasked with trying to find and reunify families. They work in tandem with the American Civil Liberties Union and other immigrant advocacy organizations as part of a class-action lawsuit filed against the federal government in response to the Trump administration’s family separation policy. This week, the ACLU and the Biden administration agreed to enter settlement negotiations in the lawsuit.
So far, much of the burden of finding the parents of separated children has been on nonprofits and lawyers coordinating across borders, particularly in Honduras and Guatemala, the home countries of many of the families.
In January, President Biden signed an executive order to establish a task force focused on reunifying families separated by the Trump administration. But the details are still being worked out.
At a press briefing on March 1, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said that parents may be able to choose to reunite with their children either in their country of origin or in the United States.
“If in fact, they seek to reunite here in the United States, we will explore lawful pathways for them to remain in the United States and to address the family needs,” he said.
But so far, federal officials have not laid out concrete policy changes.
Until they act, it’s up to people like Melara to make these trips, looking for people who were separated from their children and then deported by the U.S. government. Melara focuses on cases close to home, in Honduras.
It’s 5 a.m. Monday, and Melara and a colleague who usually accompanies her on these searches head out. Their destination is a mountain town near the border with Guatemala. The drive should take four hours, on a good day. But today, it’s rainy and cold, and the traffic is piling up with everyone heading to work. It’s slowing things down.
This is Melara’s second time making this trip in the past four months. Since 2019, she has performed more than three dozen searches, many of them successful. She said the harm done to people who sought asylum in the U.S. motivates her to do this work.
“There were people who were humiliated, who had their rights violated,” Melara said. “They have the opportunity to know that they can have justice for everything they’ve lived through.”
She’s also a parent herself. The work can be personal.
“Every interview and story I hear from the parents is sad, and it moves me,” she said. “As parents, we want to protect [our children].”
The Trump administration separated more than 5,500 children from their parents. And while a majority of families have been reunited, hundreds of parents are still unaccounted for. That’s in part because the administration did not keep track of where the parents went. And contact information for them is often outdated or incomplete.
When Melara begins these searches, she usually has very little information — a name, maybe a location. Often, she finds that families have moved, or the information was inaccurate, and searching through government documents and online can only take her so far.
She has to rely on the kindness of strangers — family members of the parent, or their neighbors — to point her in the right direction. But getting this information requires building trust, in person.
That’s why she drives long distances for even the slimmest chance of finding parents, despite any challenges — and there have been many. She has performed searches during the coronavirus pandemic. Later, government-enforced curfews prevented her from traveling. It was only in August that she was able to restart the searches in person, but fears of contracting the coronavirus have made building trust more challenging.
The damage from the hurricanes has touched Melara directly. Her home in San Pedro Sula was hit by heavy floods, and while it wasn't destroyed, nearly everything inside of it was.
“The house can’t be entered right now — it’s filled with mud,” she said.
Since then, she has stayed with relatives.
Just two hours into her drive, Melara has already counted four rockslides.
“There are warnings on the road that the roads are damaged and that we must drive with caution,” she said. “There are homemade signs that people have put up themselves.”
They brake often to avoid large potholes.
Around noon, she finally arrives at the first town. With the bad weather and damaged roads, Melara’s trying to make this trip go quickly since driving can be dangerous after dark.
A 2021 report from Human Rights Watch found that “violent organized crime continues to disrupt Honduran society,” and has pushed many to attempt to leave the country. According to a 2018 report from a United Nations special rapporteur, human rights defenders and lawyers are some of the most at-risk of that violence, with the vast majority “unable to work in a safe, supportive environment.”
Mindful that night will fall soon, she meets with local community leaders. She tells them the father’s name and explains why she is looking for him. They say the only people they know with that surname are in another town, about 40 minutes away.
Yet she has no address or contact there. So, once she arrives at the next town, she tracks down local leaders, once again. They tell her to go check yet another town, two hours away.
But now, the sun is getting low and the weather is bad.
“We're going to need to stay the night here,” she said. “The rain won't stop, and the fog is thick. The road isn't good right now, parts of it have washed away because of the hurricanes.”
There’s nothing left to do but sleep and hope for more luck in the morning..
Melara wakes up early, checks out of the hotel and hits the road.
When she gets to the new town — the third in two days — she, again, meets with local officials to explain her mission.
But this time, she’s in luck: Someone knows the area the father is living in.
“We have an address!” Melara said.
But the final road is steep and covered with mud. Eventually, Melara has to ditch her car and continue by foot.
When she gets to the top of the hill, there’s a cluster of small homes. A young boy runs up to greet her. He’s curious about why she’s there, and Melara explains.
Then, finally — after two days of searching — a man steps out of one of the homes. It’s the father.
Lost and Found
At first, when she meets the father, he’s surprised to see her.
“He was completely unaware that we were looking for him,” Melara said.
After a while, and some explanation, he relaxes and invites her to sit. She asks if he knows where his son is and if he has any contact with him.
“He has an idea of where his son is, but he is not in contact with him,” she said.
According to Melara, that’s not uncommon. Parents might not have a phone, or have to walk long distances to get a cell signal.
In the end, Melara and the father talk for more than an hour. She listens to his story, they talk about his son and exchange information. She hopes they will remain in touch.
A few days later, Melara reflects on what parents have told her about being turned back at the U.S.-Mexico border without their kids. She says some parents feel shame. Some don’t want to go home at all to face their spouses without their children.
“There are parents who’ve told me, ‘I felt the desire to die. I felt a desire not to return to my land. I was ashamed to see my wife and know that I took my son and returned without him. What will my wife think of me?’ ” she said.
Even if she cannot change anything right away, Melara said that meeting the parents, listening to them, can be meaningful. When they talk, she said, parents know that someone cares about their family, perhaps brings them some hope — and acknowledgment — of what happened to them.
“They don’t feel so alone,” she said.
‘He Needs Me With Him’
One father said that when lawyers from Justice in Motion found him, it came as a surprise.
The man, whose name we’re not using due to threats against this life, fled to the United States in April 2018, seeking asylum with his 5-year-old son. Gangs in the area had recently killed someone close to him and were targeting him.
“[I fled] because of fear,” he said through a translator. “I was very scared because they had killed my cousin, he was like my brother, and my friend. So, I didn't want that to happen to us.”
When he crossed over into the U.S., border agents took him and his son to the hielera, a cold room where people seeking asylum were often held. The man said immigration officials told him they would take him to court and that he would likely be deported, but his son would be staying behind.
“I asked him, ‘Please, deport me with my child.’ The officer said, 'No, your child will stay here in this country and you'll be deported,' ” he said.
The officer told the man that his son would make it to his sister’s, where the two intended to stay, but that he would not be able to join him.
His son was taken from him while he appeared in court. The father said he never got a chance to say goodbye. It was 20 days before he knew where his son was, and it wasn’t until he was deported back to Central America that he was able to make contact with him.
Attorneys said that when the boy’s mother found out he had been taken from his father, she was so desperate to get him back that she journeyed to the border and crossed into the U.S. herself, to be with her child.
The boy is now 7 years old and living with his mother and an aunt. The father said when they talk on the phone, his son often asks why he isn’t there with him.
“He misses me a lot,” he said. “He talks to me, and he is always asking me when I'm going to get there, and he has told me that I'm a bad father because I abandoned him in the U.S.”
And sometimes, the father thinks so, too.
Despite the fact that the U.S. government is responsible for the conditions of their separation, and that he did everything he could to prevent it, the man still feels like it’s his fault.
“To be honest, I felt and I still feel sometimes like I failed as a father,” he said.
He tried to adjust to this new life, with the pain of loss in the backdrop.
Then, a little more than a year ago, an attorney called.
“I was not expecting anything. I really did not know what was happening,” he said.
The attorney explained who they were working with and his possible options. They helped put him in touch with Justice in Motion and Melara who has been working on his case.
“It was very, very great to hear from her because it's only, really, a few people helping and I am still very thankful to her,” he said.
It was because of this meeting that the man eventually got connected to Al Otro Lado, a California-based binational advocacy and legal organization that is currently helping him pursue asylum. While he waits, he is in hiding in Central America.
But advocates say the order doesn’t go far enough. The order focuses mainly on reunifying families who are still separated. It doesn’t specifically address remedies for parents who were pressured to accept deportation with their child rather than being separated.
And, they say, some families may be wary of interacting again with the U.S. government.
“They don't have any reason to believe the U.S. government is going to do anything to help them. Why should they, right?” said Cathleen Caron, founder and executive director of Justice in Motion. She says the government should rely on people like Melara, who’ve already established connections and trust in the communities, and make sure they take the family’s preferences into account.
Biden’s order also does not guarantee any legal immigration status for those affected or ensure social services will be provided, though it does recommend the task force look into these issues.
When it comes to the father’s case that Melara is working on — the issue of legal status is especially pressing.
Melissa Flores, communications manager at Al Otro Lado, said that without a guarantee of protection, the father could risk applying for asylum and being turned away again, “resulting in a doubly traumatic re-separation from his child.”
Still, the father said — with the help he now has from Al Otro Lado and others — he can imagine a future where his family is together again.
“I hope to be able to reunify with my son because he's so little, and he needs me with him,” he said.
The World's Monica Campbell contributed to this story.
This story was updated March 12. It was originally published on Feb. 4, 2021.