(CNN)At a desert border crossing, more than two dozen parents lined up to seek asylum, determined to reunite with their kids after being deported without them.
“People were just getting really desperate because it had been eight or nine months since they’d seen their children. … A lot of them didn’t want to wait anymore,” said Erika Pinheiro, a lawyer who accompanied the parents as they arrived last Saturday at the Calexico Port of Entry, about 120 miles east of San Diego.
Just a few days later and thousands of miles away, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen sat in a Washington meeting room and painted a dramatically different picture.
“There was no parent who has been deported, to my knowledge, without multiple opportunities to take their children with them,” Nielsen said on Wednesday.
The two events highlighted a deep divide between the Trump administration’s defense of its now-reversed zero-tolerance policy and what advocates say is the devastating reality that separated families still face.
Here’s what we know so far about these migrants who recently arrived at the border, and what could happen next:
They say the government gave them an impossible choice
A court ordered a months-long effort to track down deported parents in response to a federal lawsuit by the ACLU. US officials admitted this week to deporting more than 470 parents without their kids. But they have maintained that only happened after parents consented.
Advocates have argued parents were misled and coerced into signing paperwork they didn’t understand.
And they’ve asked the government to bring back 52 deported parents to the United States.
Meanwhile, more than two dozen deported parents showed up at the border last Saturday.
“We got to a breaking point with these parents. … The government kept shifting the goalposts,” said Pinheiro, legal and policy director for Al Otro Lado. “These parents weren’t going to wait anymore.”
According to advocates, the parents were given an impossible choice: Should the government deport their children back into dangerous conditions, or should the parents waive their rights to be reunited?
Immigration lawyer: ‘Family separation never ended’
So, Al Otro Lado and other groups, including Families Belong Together and Together Rising, raised money, booked travel and supported the families as they pushed for another option.
“We said, ‘You don’t have to make that choice,’ ” Together Rising Vice President Amanda Doyle said in a video update from the border over the weekend. “‘We will bring you back to the border. We will stand with you as you exercise your right to seek asylum. And we will stand with you as you demand the return of your babies.'”
Advocates say they started speaking with deported parents in August. But it took months to coordinate the trip. And for weeks, the families waited in Tijuana for the right time to present themselves at the border.
Their children are scattered across the United States
The group that arrived over the weekend included 26 parents who were deported without their children and are trying to reunite with them, Pinheiro said. Another father couldn’t make the trek because of health issues and sent an older daughter in his place. The group also included two separated families that had been reunified but returned to the United States because they faced threats in their home countries.
Asked about what will happen to these parents and other family members traveling with them, US officials have been tight-lipped. They cited privacy restrictions and policies against commenting on ongoing litigation.
A US Customs and Border Protection spokesperson said 53 Central Americans had arrived at the pedestrian port of entry Saturday morning. Officers began processing them more than nine hours later because the port of entry “was at capacity and unable to intake and process any other immigration cases” when the migrants arrived.
Advocates say the separated children are 6 to 18 and scattered across the United States. Some remain in government custody, some have been released to other family members, and some are in foster care.
Pinheiro says most of the deported parents in the group never saw a judge or asylum officer.
“They were told that because they’d crossed the border illegally, they couldn’t seek asylum, and their kids would stay,” she said. “We’re trying to remedy both of those wrongs.”
Some parents could be detained for weeks
Most parents in this group remain detained almost a week after they arrived at the border, Al Otro Lado said. More than a dozen have been released from custody into the United States.
It’s common for asylum-seekers to be detained after they cross the border — for months or even more than a year — as their cases go through US courts.
Pinheiro said authorities have told her the parents must pass credible fear interviews, a key step in the asylum process, before they’ll consider releasing them. It can take several weeks for such interviews to be scheduled.
“We are urging the public and lawmakers to really pressure ICE to release these families as quickly as possible because they’ve already been through such a traumatic experience,” said Sandra Cordero, director of Families Belong Together. “It really speaks to where they’ve been, what they’ve gone through and their desire to reunify their families — to make their families whole again — that they’re putting themselves in this position.”
And as a result of the judge’s order, officials may have to comb through a massive trove of case files and pinpoint how many families were separated going back as far as July 1, 2017.
Government attorneys had argued that would be a burdensome undertaking and “blow the case into some other galaxy of a task.” In court filings, one official said analysts would have to comb through more than 47,000 files to even begin.
Advocates say they’re ready to help, no matter how long it takes.
“We know that there are many other families that were deported and that are still separated,” Cordero said. “And we’re working on finding them.”