Family with 3 children in immigration detention in NY waits for ICE to decide their future

From a cinderblock church shelter that sits on a Tijuana public landfill, Ignacio Villatoro used a spotty internet connection to call his three children in immigration detention in New York. His bloodshot eyes filled with tears as he stared at his phone while waiting to see his three sons appear.

Ignacio Villatoro's 2-year-old and 13-year-old sons in the detention center in New York. (Courtesy Ignacio Villatoro)

But only the face of his 13-year-old filled the screen.

"They don't want to talk to me?" Ignacio asked about his two other sons, ages 2 and 6.

"No," the boy said, avoiding eye contact with his father.

"But are they OK? They are not sick, are they?" Villatoro asked, holding back tears as his hands visibly shook.

Before hanging up, Villatoro pleaded with a case worker who took over the call. He asked for a video chat with his two youngest children.

His cell phone screen went dark as the call disconnected.

"They are traumatized," Villatoro said between sobs. "I would give my life for my children."

The Villatoros are caught in the middle of the Trump administration's hard-line immigration policy, which has officials detaining asylum-seekers and separating them from their families.

The six members of the Villatoro family fled violence in Guatemala together, only to find themselves divided between sanctuary and detention in two countries and across three US states.

His three sons in New York feel abandoned and blame him, Villatoro said. And the 41-year-old has limited communication with his wife and 20-year-old son, who are detained in separate detention centers in Texas and California, respectively.

In a sanctuary but separated from his family

The younger Villatoro boys are in a New York detention center, while their mom is in Texas and dad in Mexico. (Courtesy Ignacio Villatoro)

As Villatoro looked out a small window of the shelter, at the buckled graves of a cemetery just feet away, he pondered how his family fell apart. The owner of a once-thriving bakery lives with four other immigrants in a church in Mexico. A small pile of clothing -- which is everything he owns -- lay next to his bed, made with raw two-by-fours and a piece of plywood for a mattress.

Taking the perilous journey from Guatemala to the US-Mexico border was a decision, he said, that was forced onto him because of the dangerous gangs that rule his home country. But he didn't leave without putting up a fight.

He and a dozen of his neighbors armed themselves with machetes and clubs to stop rapes, kidnappings and killings on their street, he said. They built a civil police force. They patrolled their neighborhood day and night.

But those efforts put Villatoro and his family in the crosshairs of the vicious gangs. Villatoro said that the last threat they received was so vicious, he refused to utter it -- for fear his children would one day read or learn about the menacing details in news reports.

The plan to have his wife, Maria, and their children, ages 2, 6, 13 and 20, turn themselves over to US immigration officials and ask for asylum appeared to work at first -- with one exception. The older son was sent to a detention center in California.

Villatoro had to take sanctuary in the church in Mexico because an earlier deportation barred him from seeking asylum and entering the United States.

He said he found solace in knowing that his three youngest children were with their mother, safe in a detention center thousands of miles away from the gang violence from which they were escaping.

But his relief was short-lived.

Permanently barred from US

Immigration and Customs Enforcement separated his wife from the three youngest children on May 19. In a statement to CNN, ICE stated that Maria Villatoro was convicted of falsely claiming to be a US citizen in 1999 and sentenced to 75 days in federal prison -- something the agency said bars her from entering the country again, even legally.

Then US Attorney General Jeff Sessions implemented a new policy rejecting gang violence as a basis for asylum -- the premise for the Villatoro family's asylum claim.

"Don't sign deportation papers," Ignacio Villatoro said he told his wife by phone. "Be strong. Be strong."

The couple's phone conversations have veered back and forth between tears and moments of silence as they both try to be strong for one another. Villatoro said he fears his wife could end up deported alone back to Guatemala, where she could be kidnapped or killed.

"My soul is broken," Villatoro said. "It's torture. I feel trapped."

In the last month, Villatoro has lost weight. He said he can't eat. He can't sleep. The pain and agony take over at night, and he tosses and turns in his bed.

During the day, Villatoro tries to stay busy by helping break a concrete floor with a jackhammer. The church giving him refuge plans to expand a shelter area to house the growing number of immigrants who need a place to stay in Mexico while their families seek asylum in the United States.

'Zero tolerance'? Not always

While the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" immigration policy vows to prosecute every person who crosses the border illegally, there appears to be some leniency.

Bernardo Orellana, who works with Villatoro to expand the shelter, said his wife and three children asked for asylum a few days before Maria Villatoro and her children. The two families were even housed in the same detention center in Texas. But while the Villatoros were separated, his family has been allowed to stay intact.

As Orellana described his situation, his phone rang. His wife was calling from Louisiana, where she is living with family while she and her children await an immigration check-in. Orellana explained that his wife has one thing in her favor: She has never attempted to enter the United States illegally. He, on the other hand, has two prior deportations and is, for now, barred from re-entering the country.

Family life via video conference

Ignacio Villatoro tried to call New York several times Thursday, hoping to talk to his two youngest children.

He flashed back to the last time he saw his 2-year-old over video conference, perhaps one of the most painful exchanges any parent could have.

When the toddler saw him on a cell phone screen, the boy rushed with open arms to hug Villatoro -- and abruptly learned his father couldn't hug him via video. That left him wailing.

As Villatoro dialed this time, he looked down at his phone and his eyes welled up.

His 13-year-old son again picked up the video call. His brothers, however, were absent.

"Tell me you're fine. Tell me you're fine," Villatoro implored his son.

'Tell your little brothers that you talked to me'

Villatoro stared at his phone screen anxiously waiting for a reply. Holding back tears, he encouraged his son to go to church and ask for strength. To learn English. To respect his elders. And he reminded him what an intelligent and well-mannered boy he was.

"I love you," Villatoro said in a broken voice. "Tell your little brothers that you talked to me."

After they spoke, the child's therapist took over the call and began scolding Villatoro.

"Put yourself in their shoes," the unnamed therapist said. "They don't understand. They think that you abandoned them."

"He (the 2-year-old) thinks it's your fault. Seeing you via telephone screen enrages him," the therapist said. "He feels you hurt him."

"I can barely cope with the sadness and the depression," Villatoro said.

He wishes he were at least surrounded by his children's toys and clothing. But the few items left behind after they departed north caused him so much pain he gave them away. He now regrets doing so.

As he looks through the window bars of the shelter, at the handcrafted crosses in the nearby cemetery, he holds on to the only things he has that belong to his children -- their birth certificates. The outlook for his parental rights is as thin as the sheets of paper between his fingers, the outlook for what his family's future holds as bleak as the view before his eyes.

Mending his broken family would take a pardon from President Donald Trump, he said.

"Or a miracle."