The boy rocked back and forth as he searched every face at the airport, trying to find his father.
Byron Xol blended with dozens of others waiting at Los Angeles International Airport to greet their loved ones. But then a man behind Byron asked how long it’d been since the 9-year-old had seen his dad.
“Over 600 days,” said Holly Sewell, whose family has cared for Byron for the last nine months. Her eyes filled with tears.
Byron had been waiting nearly two years for this moment.
His father, David Xol, was among nine parents who arrived from Guatemala City late Wednesday night. All of them had been deported without their children during President Trump’s separation of immigrant families.
In September, U.S. District Judge Dana M. Sabraw declared the removals unlawful and ordered the government to allow them to return to the U.S.
The nighttime reunion served as a reminder of the lasting effects of the Trump administration’s family separation policy on thousands of children and their parents. Advocates for migrants say the administration has continued to quietly separate hundreds of families using different tactics.
“As happy as this reunion is, it’s really the beginning of a whole other journey for these parents and children who have been highly traumatized by what they’ve been put through,” said Dr. Amy Cohen, a child psychiatrist who has worked closely with Byron and his family.
The total number of children separated from a parent or guardian under Trump remains unknown. At least 471 parents were deported without their children, and some have yet to be reunited.
“I want to make sure that people understand this is a crisis that’s still going on; it’s not resolved,” said Rep. Jimmy Gomez (D-Los Angeles), who was at the airport to greet returning parents. “I know that there’s impeachment going on, I know that there is a presidential election going on, but these families’ lives haven’t been able to move on because they’ve been ripped apart.”
At the Tom Bradley International Terminal, a crowd of family members, friends, media and advocacy organizations gathered to wait for the plane’s arrival shortly before 11 p.m.
A handful of people carried a sign that read, “Welcome immigrants and refugees.” One man held nine heart-shaped balloons he planned to give each parent.
As Sewell and Byron waited, a man recognized the boy and stopped. He had sat beside Xol on the plane and the proud dad had shown him photos.
“He told me all about you,” the man told Sewell. “Thank you so much for you what you did for him.”
Byron spent nearly a year in various shelters before going to live with Matthew and Holly Sewell and their two children, Desmond and Windy, in their Texas home in April. Over the last nine months, the boy has frequently spoken with his parents and younger brothers back in Guatemala.
Sewell flew with Byron from Texas to Los Angeles on Wednesday morning so the two could be present for Xol’s arrival. In his luggage, the boy packed a picture he’d drawn of himself and his father underneath a heart.
“I love you, Dad,” he wrote in Spanish. “I miss you, Dad.”
He also brought his father’s belt and wallet that he’d been given after the separation. The boy had filled the black and tan wallet with $100, some of which he’d made by selling lemonade.
Sewell kept a protective arm around Byron as she reassured him over and over that his father would be out soon. The boy’s stomach hurt from the nerves.
“They’re doing the ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] check,” Sewell said.
“Ice skating?” the boy asked, not understanding. He had just gone ice skating last weekend.
“No, it’s the immigration officials,” she explained.
Soon, a cheer rang up through the crowd as they spotted the parents making their way through at last.
“Oh, my God,” Sewell said, as she spotted Byron’s dad.
When Xol finally reached his son, he sank to one knee and gripped him tight, burying his tear-stained face into the boy’s neck. Along with his longer hair, Byron was taller than he remembered. Xol held him tight for several minutes before pulling back to look at him.
“When I saw him, he was small like this,” Xol said, holding a hand up to show how many inches his boy had grown since their separation.
Nearly two years ago, Xol arrived at the border with his son, then 7 years old, to ask for asylum. According to Xol, immigration officials told him that if he continued with his asylum claim, he would be held for two years and separated from Byron.
The father said he decided to sign a form that he believed would allow him to leave the country with his son. Sabraw found Xol’s removal to be unlawful because he had not withdrawn his asylum claim voluntarily.
The little boy told reporters he felt good after the reunion.
“I really miss my family,” Byron said. “I finally get to see my dad.”
As the boy and his father reunited, Ricardo de Anda, the family’s attorney, pulled Sewell into a hug.
“We did it,” De Anda said.
Across the airport, Esvin Fernando Arredondo reunited with his wife, Cleivi Jerez, and their three daughters, ages 17, 13 and 7. Their youngest daughter, Alison, held a blue poster that read “Welcome Daddy.”
Arredondo was separated from his daughter Andrea in May 2018. The government deported Arredondo even after Sabraw ordered that families be reunited and issued a temporary restraining order that forbade officials from removing parents separated from their children, according to the judge’s ruling.
“It’s something so hard,” Arredondo said about the separation. “Like someone pulled something from your body.”
Everywhere Arredondo went, Alison clung to him, her face red from crying. She didn’t want to be apart from him again. Tears dropped down his cheeks as he kissed the top of her head.
“Estás feliz?” he asked the young girl, who was dressed in a pink Disney sweater and sparkly shoes. “Are you happy?”
“Yes,” she said in Spanish.
Now, he said, it was about making up for the time he’d lost.
Seven other parents who arrived on the flight will reunite with their children either this weekend or in the next few weeks. Many of their kids are scattered across the country, from Virginia to Texas.
One mother wasn’t sure when she would see her teenage son again. He is still in government custody, but she has faith their reunion will be soon.
During their separation, she grew so stressed that her face became paralyzed for a few days, according to court documents. She felt “overwhelmed by depression.”
Following nearly six months of separation from her son, she abandoned her asylum claim after being told they would remain separated for five more months. Sabraw found her removal to be unlawful.
It felt, the 34-year-old said, like she’d left a weight back in Guatemala that she’d been carrying around since their separation.
“So close,” she said. “Getting closer every minute.”
Byron will return to Texas on Thursday night and then reunite with his father for good in early February.
In a video chat with Sewell’s daughter, Windy, before heading to the airport, Byron tried to console the 5-year-old, to whom he has grown close.
“I miss you; I don’t want to leave you, Windy,” the boy said. “But I want to see my dad.”