PHOENIX – A Guatemalan woman had walked, hitched rides and crossed a country to escape violence in Guatemala.
On Thursday, Beata Mariana de Jesus Mejia-Mejia sat in a Washington, D.C., courtroom waiting to hear whether she’d get her 7-year-old son back.
She didn’t speak English. So an interpreter next to her turned a steady flow of words between attorneys into Spanish.
This woman, who had filed a lawsuit in what is believed to be the first of its kind involving a parent and child separated under the so-called zero-tolerance immigration policy, had gotten used to not knowing what would happen next.
The Trump administration’s policy has separated at least 2,000 children from their parents or other adults. Mejia-Mejia would tell them about her son, Darwin, how he screamed and cried as agents took him away.
“Those government lawyers were going to have to look her in the face if they were going to try to defend such a despicable policy,” her attorney Mario Williams said.
The mother and the attorneys hoped to be among the first to put a child back in a parent's arms.
Williams had filed a restraining order Tuesday to force the government to give Mejia-Mejia her son back.
In a move that surprised the attorney with years of experience, the judge scheduled a hearing for two days later.
So Mejia-Mejia got on her first plane flight, a trip from Texas, where a judge had allowed her to stay with friends while she awaited a hearing on her asylum case.
She’d spent the last two days at a hotel outside Washington with the attorney who took her case for free and the owner of a company that helps bail migrants out of jail.
They had spent long hours preparing the 39-year-old mother to take the stand and tell her story.
May: Entering the U.S., losing her son
Mejia-Mejia crossed into the U.S. illegally on May 19 in San Luis, a town of about 25,000 people in the Southwestern corner of Arizona, across the border from San Luis Rio Colorado, Mexico.
“She said she didn’t know what the border looked like or a port of entry but she knew to look for the flag,” said Mike Donovan owner of Libre by Nexus, the immigration bond services business paying for Mejia-Mejia's case.
She spent two days with her son in a central processing center in San Luis, Donovan said. To seek asylum, she would have to show "credible fear" of being harmed if she returned to her home country and they arrested her.
"They fed her and her son for two days cold soup that came out of a hose – it's horrifying,” he said. “Two days later the men in green suits come and they take her and her son."
She tried to stop them. She pleaded in Spanish, held onto her boy. He screamed.
"They told her they don’t have to answer her questions, and that’s the last time she’s seen her son," Donovan said.
Mejia-Mejia was taken to the Eloy Detention Center. She didn't know where her son went. A guard was able to tell her that her son was in Phoenix, her lawsuit says.
Williams said she got to speak with her son once.
During the phone call, she could hear her son saying "Mama, Mama, Mama," the lawsuit says.
June: Looking for her son
On June 15, she was released on bond. She'd come across the number for the bond company Libre by Nexus by word of mouth, Donovan said.
A judge approved her staying with friends in Austin, Texas, while she waited for her hearing.
Mejia-Mejia only cared about one thing: Finding her son.
She called the number for Libre's immigration services, Nexus Derechos Humanos Attorneys.
She was assigned a civil-rights attorney and a immigration attorney. But she had no idea where her son was.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement does not comment on pending litigation, a spokeswoman said.
Williams gathered with group of seven lawyers and reviewed Mejia-Mejia's case.
“Mario calls me and he says, 'Mike, this case crystallizes everything that’s wrong with the Trump administration program, and we have to take this case and we have to take this fight,’ ” he said. “This woman is so brave because she’s willing to fight this so other people don’t have to.”
That, Donovan says, was the beginning of Mejia-Mejia's day in court.
June 21: Her day in court
Williams said the hearing was running about 10 minutes late when an attorney from the U.S. Justice Department approached him.
The attorney wanted to talk about releasing Darwin to his mother. The two stepped out.
The attorney for the Justice Department offered to return Darwin in a couple days, Williams said.
Williams said he told the attorney, "If you can do it in a couple days, do it today."
An agreement was brokered. They went back into the courtroom.
Williams told Mejia-Mejia: You're getting your son back today.
The translator changed the words to Spanish.
"She started crying ... and then she cried a lot," Williams said.
District Court Judge Paul Friedman took the bench and listened to the attorneys' agreement.
Williams said he told the attorneys he wanted a status report by Friday to be sure the government had reunited Mejia-Mejia with her 7-year-old son.
Officials with the U.S. Department of Justice did not immediately return a request for comment.
Finding a flight
They left the courtroom and went straight to a nearby Starbucks where they started looking for flights.
Nothing would get Darwin to D.C. and to his mom that same day.
They found a Southwest flight that would leave Phoenix a little after 6 p.m. and get in at 1:30 a.m.
But Williams said they continued to argue with officials with the Office of Refugee Resettlement and Southwest Key, the company that operates the shelter in Phoenix where Darwin was taken after he was separated from his mother.
Officials wanted Mejia-Mejia's fingerprints. That request came after wanting birth certificates and countless copies of other documents that most migrants don't have.
No, the government arrested her, you have her fingerprints, Donovan said.
Put Darwin on the Southwest flight, he said. No more excuses.
They tracked the plane. The flight was delayed. But the boy was on the plane – his first flight ever.
From the runway, the caseworker sent photos of her boy.
In one photo, Darwin is peeking out the window.
In another, he rests his head against the window, waiting.
A few hours later, the plane was on the ground, and Mejia-Mejia was waiting at the gate, a green-and-white blanket around her shoulders. Her attorney and others stood nearby, video cameras rolling.
After 2 a.m., Darwin stepped into the terminal. His eyes said he was unsure what was happening.
Mejia-Mejia set him in a waiting room chair and wrapped the blanket around her son.
Then she wrapped her arms around him and sobbed.
“Why did they do this to us?" she said to him in Spanish. "Why did they separate us?”
"I love you son, the only one I have," she said. "Thank God you're with me, my love."
Follow Dianna M. Náñez on Twitter: @DiannaNanez