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article imageGuatemala mother reunited with kids after six weeks separation in US

By Catherine TRIOMPHE (AFP)     Jul 3, 2018 in World

Yeni Gonzalez sobbed as she clutched the lollipop given to her Tuesday by one of her three children, whom she had not seen since being arrested and separated from them by US border police six weeks ago.

The 29-year-old Guatemalan mother drove across the country to be reunited with her kids -- aged 10, eight and five -- in the New York City facility where they are being held under President Donald Trump's zero-tolerance policy towards undocumented migrants.

Only the efforts of hundreds of well-wishers helped her find them in the confusion triggered by the administration's now-suspended decision to separate children from parents who crossed the border illegally. The decision overwhelmed detention centers and courts and led to kids being sent to facilities across the country, sometimes thousands of miles away.

The mobilization to help Gonzalez started eight days earlier when a New York journalist, herself a mother of three, heard a lawyer on the radio describing how the family had been detained on May 19 on the border in Arizona, then separated and the children sent to a holding center in New York.

Julie Schwietert Collazo, a resident of the borough of Queens -- home to a large immigrant population -- quickly launched a GoFundMe page to raise money to help the distraught mother, whose case is the latest to be thrust under the spotlight as a bitter debate rages over Trump's immigration policy.

Collazo told AFP she soon had the $7,500 needed to bail Gonzalez out of detention in Eloy, Arizona -- but there remained the challenge of getting her back to her kids, 2,500 miles (4,000 kilometers) away in New York City.

- 2,500 miles -

The epic cross-country road trip was made possible by a series of volunteer drivers -- some of them migrants or refugees themselves -- who organized the four-day relay from Arizona to New York. A family in Queens offered to put Gonzalez up until her case had been processed.

Social media played a key role in organizing the journey, helped by MSNBC host Rachel Maddow, who has taken a fiercely anti-Trump stance on her nightly news show. Her intervention helped swell financial donations to $40,000 by Tuesday morning, Collazo said.

In the muggy heat, around 20 camera crews waited to greet Gonzalez as she arrived at the Cayuga Centers in Harlem, accompanied by her lawyer and Democratic lawmaker Adriano Espaillat, who arrived as a child from the Dominican Republic and is the first ever formerly undocumented migrant to serve in Congress.

An hour and a half later Gonzalez, a slight woman in jeans and sneakers, emerged from the facility, tears in her eyes.

"I am very happy, my heart is filled with joy because they let me see them," she said in Spanish, holding up a lollipop her daughter had given her.

Guatemalan migrant mother Yeni Gonzalez hugs Democratic Congressman Adriano Espaillat as she speaks ...
Guatemalan migrant mother Yeni Gonzalez hugs Democratic Congressman Adriano Espaillat as she speaks with the news media following a visit with her children at the East Harlem Cayuga Centers on July 3, 2018 in New York City

"I hope all this will soon be over because all I want is to be with them and never be separated again," she said in a voice cracking with emotion and barely audible, as she hugged Espaillat and thanked everyone who had helped her.

But her lawyer Jose Xavier Orochena warned that her battle was far from over. She cannot take custody of her children until the authorities have taken her digital fingerprints, a process that will "best case scenario... take a month," said her lawyer.

And then there is no guarantee that her demand for asylum will not ultimately be rejected, and the whole family be deported.

In the meantime, Gonzalez can make regular visits to her children, "every day if she wants to," said Orochena.

- 400 mothers in detention -

"This is a horrible time in America where women like her are separated from their children," said Espaillat. "We have to make sure the process is expedited."

Gonzalez said that 400 other mothers were being held in the detention center that she had been released from.

"We shared a great sadness... If this message gets to them, I pray to God that they get out of that place soon," she said.

Her lawyer Orochena, who has volunteered his services to 12 detained mothers, said most migrants cannot spend thousands of dollars on bail to get out of detention centers.

The crowd-funding system used by Collazo may be able to help with that however.

While thousands of people joined rallies across the country at the weekend to protest the separation of families at the border, she hopes her actions can provide concrete support to detained migrants.

"We are working on setting up a replication tool kit so that people who would like to do something similar can basically learn from what we would like to be an open source model," she said.

More about US, Politics, Illegal, Immigrants, Guatemala
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