Guatemalan Mother Finally Reunited With Her Kids After 5 Weeks Of Separation

Volunteers across the country rallied to help make it happen.

Guatemalan Mother Finally Reunited With Her Kids After 5 Weeks Of Separation

Janey Pearl Starks knows what it's like to be separated from her parents, which is one reason she volunteered to help Yeni González, a Guatemalan mother forcibly separated from her children because of President Trump's "zero-tolerance" immigration policy.  

When she was 8 years old, Starks came to the United States from Mexico — leaving her parents behind to live with relatives. But she knows the pain she felt is nothing compared to what González and her three children, ages 6, 9 and 11, went through over the past few weeks. 

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"I imagine if a parent loses their children at a grocery store, that's the worst five minutes of their life," Starks told A Plus. "Now amplify that by months of not knowing where your child is at all."

Starks (left) and Gonzalez (right) pose for a picture on the way to New Mexico.  Janey Pearl Starks

Starks, who is an immigrant activist in Phoenix, Ariz., said she works at a community health center where she recently heard a pediatrician do a media event about how family separation affects children. Starks recognized much of what he spoke about in herself: lingering sadness children feel even after reunification, acting in a constant fight or flight mode, and trouble trusting adults. 

"Mine was definitely not worse case scenario at all, but if that was how it impacted me throughout my life, how is it going to impact the children who are being forcibly removed?" Starks said. "That when they were detained, they weren't given any food, which was what Yeni said about her children … when they were detained and telling them they are going to get separated and saying 'you're never going to get to see them again, you're going to get deported and the children are going to get adopted.' It's definitely not a situation where these kids are in a safe, nurturing, loving environment." 

When Starks got a text message about González's case, she decided to step up to help. At first, she was supposed to simply greet González when she was released from the detention center in Yuma, Ariz., where she was being held. All she knew was that the Guatemalan woman was on her way to be reunited with her kids, who had been taken to a shelter across the country in New York City. 

Once Starks heard González's story, though, things changed. The two women bonded, and Starks agreed to bring González to Albuquerque, N.M., the next stop on the journey to New York City. When Starks offered González a hug, González broke down crying and told her that in detention, the women weren't even allowed to touch or comfort each other. 

González's journey across the United States was aided by a group of volunteers and a GoFundMe page that was organized by New York City mothers who had heard about González's story on the radio. They ended up raising $50,000 to pay for González's bond and to fund her trip across the country. From there, activists and volunteers stepped up to offer housing, food, shelter and funds as González made her way across the country. 

On the way to Albuquerque, González got to speak to her children for the first time since they were separated. When she heard her daughter's voice, and how sad she sounded, González insisted she just let it out and cry. Instead, her daughter told her that she got in trouble at the shelter whenever she cried. All along the drive, Starks watched as news outlets contacted González or stopped the group and asked her to tell her story over and over again.

"But every time she tells it, she relives it," Starks said. "The tears you see in the interview, those are very real. And every time she is feeling that pain all over again. So it got to the point on the drive where we said, 'we're done with interviews until we get to NYC.'"

González speaking on the phone with her children for the first time in weeks. Janey Pearl Starks

Starks didn't finish the journey with González, but after a short time apart she began to feel a deep sadness. While there were people organizing the reunification, looking out for the kids in the shelter, and handling media, there wasn't really anyone there for González. So Starks was asked to come back to be an assistant, advocate and translator as González prepared to see her kids again.

Last week, González finally reunited with her children. Because of her pending immigration case, and because a family sponsor for the children is currently out of the country, her kids are still being held in a shelter. For now, she can only visit them where they are being held during the day, but simply knowing where they are and getting to speak to them is an improvement from where she was for the last five weeks. 

"The day they took them away from me I told them I promise that I'm going to fight for you and I'm going to find you," González said at a press conference. "Here I am."

Now, González and her lawyer aren't just fighting for her own kids — they are fighting for other mothers who have been separated from their children. 

"It's a long road ahead," Starks said. "There are no guarantees. Right now, the beautiful thing is she does get to see her children during the day, and she has now helped to get information from other mothers ... over the weekend, two other mothers were released who she was in detention with and she is guiding them along this journey."

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