LA JOYA, Texas -- Growing numbers of migrant families are making the heart-wrenching decision to separate from their children and send them into America alone. Many families with kids older than 6 have been quickly expelled from the country under federal pandemic-related powers that don't allow migrants to seek asylum. But they know that President Joe Biden's administration is allowing unaccompanied children to stay in the U.S. while their cases are decided.
Forced out of the country, they are sending their older children. These self-separations mean children arrive in the United States confused and in distress. Many have traveled hundreds of miles with their parents without understanding why they can't cross the last stretch together.
As more families decide to send their children alone, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas has been pressed by lawmakers about the possibility that expulsions could be a "new source of family separation." There was widespread anger over former President Donald Trump's "zero tolerance" policy that forced apart families on the border, some of whom still haven't been reunited.
Mayorkas has defended speedy family expulsions, saying they protect both the American public and migrants.
He said officials are "hearing anecdotally" of families who self-separate and added that about 40% of unaccompanied children have a parent or legal guardian in the U.S., and 50% have other relatives who can take care of them after they are released from government custody.
April was the second-busiest month on record for unaccompanied children encountered at the border -- 17,171 were stopped -- following March's all-time high of 18,960, according to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency.
Jose Rodriguez, 41, of San Pedro Sula, Honduras, has been staying under a gray tarp with a group of Hondurans, but he hasn't been able to sleep since he sent his 8-year-old son in mid-April with a distant cousin to cross the river into Roma, Texas. Rodriguez had tried to cross the border with his son Jordyn, but the two were expelled in early March. They had no money and no way to return home.
"As a parent, it is very difficult. I do not wish this upon anyone. There are people who ask me if I sent my son. 'Yes,' I tell them, 'but don't do it,'" Rodriguez said. "You need to have a lot of faith and cling to God in order not to fall apart."
To pay the smugglers' fees for his son's solo attempt, Rodriguez washed dishes at a taco stand near the encampment for a month and a half. It also took some convincing to get Jordyn to go.
For four days, Rodriguez says he walked around the plaza, stopping every couple of steps to cry, until he received a recorded audio message from a cousin in the U.S. whose number he had written on Jordyn's birth certificate.
"I have good news for you. They have the boy in a home for children his age," the cousin said.
Social workers now call Rodriguez from a shelter in Chicago twice a week to see if there is anyone Jordyn can stay with in the U.S. Relatives said they could not take care of Jordyn because they also were recent immigrants and had their own children to support.
"To this day I do not sleep. The food doesn't taste of anything, because I think of this every single moment," Rodriguez said. "What I want is to be with him."