WASHINGTON — Walking through the Tampa airport Sunday, Yudissa stopped in her tracks. She barely recognized the young woman coming toward her.
Her daughter Jissel, now 15, was 12 when she hugged her goodbye at a Border Patrol facility in El Paso, Texas in 2018. That was before Yudissa was shackled around her ankles and loaded into a van with other migrant parents, told that she would be able to reunite with her daughter in two to three days after she had “served her sentence.”
Now, three years later, Yudissa and Jissel are one of about 30 families separated under the Trump administration that the Biden administration has been able to reunite this week, according to lawyers representing those families.
“I didn’t recognize her because I left behind a girl and I saw a woman,” Yudissa said.
In May 2018, border agents told Yudissa she would be sent to a facility separate from Jissel. She said they described it as part of her punishment for crossing the border illegally. She begged to be deported with her daughter to Honduras.
“I asked if they could send me back in order to be reunited with my girl because I never thought that they were going to take her away from me. And they started to laugh,” Yudissa told NBC News. “I told them to take me out of there, to send me back to where they had picked me up because I didn’t want them to take her away from me.”
She was sentenced by a judge to serve time in federal prison for crossing the border illegally — a penalty not applied to migrant parents until Trump’s “zero tolerance policy” in 2018.
She was detained with other mothers who had also been separated from their children after crossing the border. “We didn’t even know what was happening,” she said. “Not even the mothers because they would take their kids away and they would arrive one after another and one knew what was happening. Why couldn’t the kids be there?”
While in detention, she was given five minutes to talk to Jissel, she said, who was being held in a Health and Human Services center with other children who had been separated from their parents.
“[Jissel] was having nightmares. She would wake up crying in the morning,” Yudissa said. She eventually agreed to release Jissel to live with her father in Florida.
“I told him to come get her out, that it didn’t matter what would happen to me, but to take her out of there,” she said.
After prison and then months of Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention, Yudissa was deported to Honduras. Jissel remained in the U.S. with her father and brother — the family members with whom Yudissa had hoped to reunite when she first left Honduras for the U.S. They would talk by WhatsApp, but both Jissel and Yudissa agreed it wasn’t the same.
“I was sad because they separated me from my mother,” said Jissel, who added the hurt was most intense each time a birthday passed without her mother there.
For Yudissa, missing her daughter’s early teenage years was also painful.
“I felt distressed more than anything,” she said. “It’s three years where a kid needs their mother most — more so with a girl. [She was experiencing] a lot of things that perhaps she was embarrassed to talk to her dad about.”
Yudissa said she missed her children not only on Christmas, but also many days. She said she spent a lot of days not sleeping, just thinking of when it might be possible to see her children again.
Then in January, the month President Joe Biden took office with a plan to establish a task force that would reunify the thousands of families that remained separated by the Trump administration’s immigration policies, she received a call. An immigration attorney told her she had a shot at reunification with Jissel and told her to get her passport ready because there was a possibility she could be allowed into the United States to see her family.
Still, even back in the U.S. for now, it is not certain that Yudissa will be able to remain here with her children. She is on a temporary visa that will expire in three years unless the Biden administration agrees with immigration lawyers to give special protections for the more than 5,000 families separated intentionally under Trump and allow them to live in the U.S. permanently.
“Yudissa’s and other reuniting families are relying on their faith and on the Biden administration to ensure they are not separated again,” said Ann Garcia, Yudissa’s lawyer from the Catholic Legal Immigration Network.
Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Immigrants’ Rights Project and one of the lawyers negotiating on behalf of separated families in a federal lawsuit, said the “negotiations are ongoing and are proceeding constructively and in good faith.”
“The very least our government can do now is to provide families with the right to remain here given that it was the U.S. government itself that deliberately subjected them to this barbaric practice,” Gelernt said.
Although “only a handful” of families have been reunited, Gelernt expects the pace to pick up soon.
Back in the Tampa airport, Yudissa and Jissel nervously approached each other, then tearfully embraced.
The night before she was to see her mom, Jissel said she was nervous, but “happy because I was going to see her again.”
For Yudissa, the three years she spent apart from her family was “the worst thing someone could live through.”
By Tuesday, though, Yudissa and Jissel were happily reunited and making up for lost time in their hotel room in Tampa before traveling to live in temporary housing provided by a church in Orlando.