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Salvadoran Man Sought Asylum With His Daughter, Then He Was Deported Without Her

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

It has been a week today since President Trump reversed himself on family separation at the U.S. border, but thousands of children are still waiting to be reunited with their parents. One of those parents is 26-year-old Arnovis Guidos Portillo. He came to the U.S. in May from El Salvador. He says he was fleeing gang violence, and he was hoping to seek asylum with his 6-year-old daughter Meybelin. But Portillo says he never got the chance. He was deported back to El Salvador last week. Meybelin is being held in a shelter in Phoenix in Arizona.

Sarah Kinosian went to meet Portillo back in the one-room house where he and his daughter were living. Kinosian is a freelance journalist, and she wrote about that meeting for The Guardian newspaper. She joins me now from San Salvador in El Salvador. Hey there, Sarah.

SARAH KINOSIAN: Hey. How's it going?

KELLY: So you tracked Portillo down back in El Salvador as he's back, as we said, living in this one-room house that he had shared with his daughter. Describe it, and describe what he told you about his life there and why he was trying to come to the U.S. in the first place.

KINOSIAN: So I met Arnovis outside of the returned migrant center. It's when migrants get deported from Mexico or from the United States - they get sent - and he was the last one to leave the center because he had been separated from his daughter. So there he talked to - he was able to speak with his daughter as well as a U.S. immigration official, but the U.S. immigration official wouldn't tell him where his daughter was at that time. And so then after that, he took the three-hour car ride back to his house in a place called Corral de las Mulas (ph). This is the second time that he's fled to the United States, third time that he's fled El Salvador. And in all of those cases, he was fleeing death threats from gangs.

KELLY: OK. So you make this drive to go out and see him and interview him at his house. And I gather from your account that while you were there, the phone rang, and it was his daughter on the phone from Arizona. What happened?

KINOSIAN: Yeah. So we were at his house, and the phone rings, and he put it on speakerphone. And so then we realized that it was his daughter. And he asked her a ton of questions. The answer to a lot of the questions when he was asking her about the people who she was with and the woman running the home that she was in was, I don't know - but things like, have they given her chicken, which is her favorite food? Has she gone to church? Does she have any friends, which - she said she just had one. But she said she was with a lot of other kids.

KELLY: He's trying to check that his daughter's OK.

KINOSIAN: Exactly. And this whole time, he was kind of holding back tears but clearly sort of overcome with emotion. But then there hit a point in the conversation where she sort of just stops and says, Daddy, when are you coming to get me? And he couldn't respond. And he pulled the phone away and was sobbing.

KELLY: A couple of questions I have to ask - one is, did you ask him whether he knew about the zero tolerance policy, that it was in effect, that families coming in were being separated from children?

KINOSIAN: He said he didn't know. He said that if he had known, he might have thought again.

KELLY: We have also heard reports of people making the deliberate decision to travel with children on the theory that it might improve their chances at the border, improve their chances of being allowed to come into the U.S. So I have to also ask, have you been able to verify his story that this is actually a father and a daughter?

KINOSIAN: Yes, it's actually a father and a daughter. Documents corroborate this. His lawyers at RAICES corroborate this.

KELLY: When did you last speak to him, to Arnovis Guidos Portillo? And how's he feeling?

KINOSIAN: I spoke to him yesterday. And he said he's feeling grateful that he has the help of lawyers in the United States that have taken up this case and that the Salvadoran government appears to be trying to help him get his daughter back. But of course he's anxious because he knows that these processes can take a very long time.

KELLY: Thank you, Sarah.

KINOSIAN: Thank you.

KELLY: That's freelance journalist Sarah Kinosian with the story of one of the families navigating the aftermath of the Trump administration's now-rescinded policy of family separation. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.