This story was produced by\u00a0ProPublica, a Pulitzer Prize-winning nonprofit investigative newsroom. Mirza had a sense of foreboding soon after she crossed into the U.S. with her two children and their father, David. A Border Patrol agent ordered the family from Honduras and the rest of their group to divide into two lines: \u201cWomen to one side, men to the other.\u201d Mirza held 19-month-old Lia and joined the women\u2019s line. David took their 6-year-old son Sebastian and lined up with the men. An agent told them not to worry, everyone was going to the same place. A bus took them in two trips to a collection of tents and trailers where they would be processed. They arrived a few hours apart, held separately in a large waiting area. Mirza grew more anxious as she spotted David and Sebastian across the room. She motioned for Sebastian to bring her a bottle of water. \u201cPapi says to take care of yourself,\u201d he told her. The family did not come together again. And within days, an international border stood between them. David and Sebastian were sent to Mexico to wait before being allowed to make an asylum claim in a U.S. court. Mirza was fitted with an ankle bracelet, and she and Lia were sent to San Jose, California. In separate Border Patrol interviews, both Mirza and David said, they told agents they had come as a family of four. But they were never recorded that way in Border Patrol records. David\u2019s marital status was listed as \u201csingle\u201d \u2014 he and Mirza had been together for 12 years, but they had never formally married \u2014 while Mirza\u2019s was listed as \u201cunknown.\u201d Border Patrol policy is clear: Whenever possible, parents, married or not, should be kept together with their children. David said he pleaded with agents. \u201cPlease, find out for me in the system where my wife is. I came with my wife and you separated me from her.\u201d The agents weren\u2019t moved. \u201cYou\u2019re going to Juarez,\u201d David said one agent told him. \u201cDeal with it.\u201d Border Patrol has long been criticized for carelessness in migrant processing. But under the Trump administration, agents have vastly expanded powers to decide migrants\u2019 fates. In previous administrations, the government\u2019s options for asylum-seekers were to detain them in the U.S. or release them \u2014 and Border Patrol wasn\u2019t in charge of making that choice. The Trump administration has replaced that system, which it derisively called \u201ccatch and release.\u201d In September, then-Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan announced that \u201ccatch and release\u201d had fully ended; Mirza and Lia were among the last Central American asylum-seekers to be allowed to stay in the U.S. without being detained by ICE. The new strategy is what happened to David and Sebastian: Asylum-seekers are sent away from the U.S. as quickly as possible. Under a series of new programs, they can be sent to wait in Mexico, rapidly deported to their home country or sent to Guatemala to seek asylum there instead. The results are what a lawsuit filed in December against the rapid-deportation programs calls \u201clegal black holes,\u201d where Border Patrol agents have almost complete discretion to decide who goes where. Border Patrol agents \u201care not, in general, the right people to be making determinations in individual cases,\u201d Scott Shuchart, a former official with the Department of Homeland Security\u2019s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, told ProPublica. Letting agents determine who should be sent to what country \u201cis an awful lot of power to be given to people who aren\u2019t trained in how to use it.\u201d Outcomes can vary wildly even for migrants in similar situations. Parents arriving on different days have found themselves sent to different countries. One Mexican mother was rapidly deported, along with her children, while the father was detained in the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the agency that includes the Border Patrol, did not respond to requests to comment for this story. But a spokesperson did confirm some details of David and Mirza\u2019s apprehension. The spokesperson also confirmed that their records contain no flags of suspected fraud or any other concerns; David and Mirza were simply never labeled part of the same family. (ProPublica is not publishing their family names to protect relatives still in Honduras.) In a sense, David and Mirza\u2019s family is luckier than some: They were ultimately allowed to stay and seek asylum in the U.S., a chance migrants who\u2019ve entered more recently may never get. But the family\u2019s well-being was threatened by their four-month split across an international border. Furthermore, the separation set off a chain of consequences that threaten their chances of ultimately winning asylum. By the time El Paso, Texas-based lawyer Taylor Levy saw a Facebook message from a California attorney asking her to track down David and Sebastian, David\u2019s family had been apart for six weeks. Photos of Sebastian back in Honduras show a chubby, smiling boy. But when Levy met with him, she was alarmed by his condition. He was \u201cskin and bones,\u201d Levy remembered. And \u201che wouldn\u2019t make eye contact. He was almost catatonic.\u201d \u201cI\u2019ve worked with thousands of asylum-seeking families and hundreds of separated kids,\u201d Levy said. \u201cAnd he completely, completely just shocked me by how badly he was doing.\u201d On its face, the case of David and Mirza baffled Levy. The family crossed the border together and had fled the same violence and threats. But the more she thought about it, the clearer it became: Their predicament reflected the unaccountable, arbitrary system the Trump administration has created. \u201cThis wasn\u2019t just a mistake,\u201d Levy said. \u201cThis was gross negligence.\u201d David had hoped to make a life with Mirza in Honduras. \u201cI never longed to come to the United States, God knows,\u201d David told ProPublica. They had met as teenagers after David began taking farm jobs with Mirza\u2019s family, and they courted on walks to church, respecting Mirza\u2019s mother\u2019s wishes that they not date until Mirza finished school. In 2011, they moved in together. But then David faced threats from gang members. According to his sworn asylum declaration, which was confirmed by a relative to ProPublica, a male ex-classmate of Mirza\u2019s who was involved in a local gang made sexual advances toward David that David repeatedly rejected. David\u2019s stalker\u2019s first attack left a bullet lodged near his spine. The second riddled his leg with buckshot. David said he filed a police complaint, but nothing happened. (Honduras at the time had the highest homicide rate in the world, and 96% of murders went unsolved. The homicide rate has declined but is still among the world\u2019s highest.) The couple went into hiding while Mirza was pregnant with Sebastian. But threatening texts kept coming to Mirza\u2019s phone. One especially chilling text sent shortly before they fled Honduras promised to kill the whole family, \u201cfrom the largest hen to the smallest chick.\u201d When David\u2019s sister and uncle were killed not far from where David and Mirza lived, the couple sought refuge in a smaller town. David did yard work, and Mirza became pregnant again and gave birth to Lia. But they were petrified. David\u2019s grandmother reported a black van casing the neighborhood, and David watched a stranger on a motorcycle driving by their house. In January 2019, they decided they had to leave Honduras. David called his aunt Marlen in San Jose, California, whom he hadn\u2019t seen in a decade, asking her to take them in. \u201cI\u2019d like to get out of here,\u201d Marlen recalled her nephew saying, \u201cbecause if I stay, very shortly, they\u2019re going to kill me.\u201d It took months to save 5,000 Honduran dollars for travel costs. But as the couple planned their escape, the U.S. asylum system was changing. For decades, the Border Patrol\u2019s role in dealing with migrant families was to quickly pass them on to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, which handles detention. If a migrant expressed fear of returning to their home country, they were interviewed by an asylum officer who would decide if they had a credible case. Families passing the interview \u2014 as most did \u2014 would generally be released in the U.S. to await a hearing. But the Trump administration was determined to deter border crossings. In January 2019, it used an obscure legal provision to force Central American migrants who sought asylum to wait in Mexico before getting hearings in the U.S. That program (which has since expanded to other Latin American migrants) is known as the Migrant Protection Protocols, or MPP. In the fall, the administration launched two more programs for Mexican and Central American families, giving cursory review to their asylum claims so that they could be deported within 10 days. Toward year\u2019s end, the administration started sending some Honduran and Salvadoran migrants to Guatemala to seek asylum there, without offering them a chance to make a U.S. claim at all. With each initiative, the U.S. quietly rolled out a pilot program in one region, then expanded it. Gradual expansion has allowed the government to keep these programs out of the public eye, but it hasn\u2019t led it to exercise more care: There\u2019s increasing evidence of haphazard planning and implementation. Days before the Trump administration started sending Honduran and Salvadoran asylum-seekers to Guatemala, basic logistics were still unclear \u2014 such as where asylum-seekers would live. Even as the administration considers expanding rapid-deportation programs, the DHS\u2019 Office of Inspector General has launched an investigation into whether migrants are being treated fairly. Under MPP, the Mexican government decides how many migrants per day it will accept from the U.S., and U.S. officials decide who gets sent to Mexico. Regional Border Patrol and port offices are responsible for making those daily selections, and leave it up to agents. Guidance has been minimal. A January 2019 memo to CBP employees suggested that agents not send back to Mexico unaccompanied children, people with serious health conditions and other \u201cvulnerable populations.\u201d But it stressed that border agents had full discretion. In practice, pregnant women \u2014 even those about to give birth \u2014 are routinely sent to Mexico to wait. According to advocates on both sides of the border and migrants themselves, officers in El Paso often classify LGBT migrants as \u201cvulnerable\u201d and let them stay. Officers in Brownsville, Texas, do not. An internal DHS report from November 2019 revealed that the government hadn\u2019t even developed standardized forms for MPP. In its response, DHS agreed to \u201creinforce\u201d its existing guidance to clarify who qualified for the program. But it acknowledged that it had no standard procedures to determine selections, and it refused to commit to developing them. Advocates argue it\u2019s illegal to separate biological parents and children as a rule. \u201cAny time you\u2019re splitting up a family, the law requires you to have a compelling reason,\u201d said Lee Gelernt, the ACLU lawyer leading the lawsuit which ended widespread family separations in June 2018. But rulings address only taking children away from parents entirely, not separations like David and Mirza\u2019s, which split families but keep children with at least one parent. The government\u2019s processing guide instructs agents not to separate \u201cfamily units with juveniles\u201d \u2014 parents with children \u2014 but several current CBP employees told ProPublica that agents commonly ignore the guideline by separating men and women for transport and in detention facilities. According to Border Patrol sources, the mistake in David and Mirza\u2019s case likely occurred when Border Patrol agents failed to note their family status on intake forms. Agents should have reflected David and Mirza\u2019s accounts on the forms and checked their children\u2019s birth certificates to confirm parentage. David\u2019s account echoed complaints Levy had heard while working at Annunciation House, El Paso\u2019s largest migrant shelter. She said she\u2019s spoken to \u201cthousands of people just released from Border Patrol custody. And over and over again, we hear the same things \u2014 that (agents) don\u2019t listen to them.\u201d Mirza\u2019s lawyer Shouan Zhoobin Riahi, a pro bono attorney with the Bay Area nonprofit SIREN, said his clients so commonly tell him they\u2019ve been threatened or accused of lying that he doesn\u2019t even bother to file court complaints. Neither David nor Mirza filed a formal complaint with the Border Patrol. When David and Mirza came to the U.S. last summer, apprehensions of Central American families were at a peak. That week, 21,678 parents and children were taken in by Border Patrol. The agency faced a capacity crisis. Inattention to paperwork was common, according to multiple officials and attorneys for migrants. Yet the paperwork mattered more than ever. Under the old system, the Border Patrol would transfer asylum-seekers to ICE, giving them a \u201csecond chance\u201d to catch mistakes, said Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, a researcher with the American Immigration Council. Initial asylum interviews offered a third chance: Asylum officers had the power to unite families who\u2019d been carelessly separated. Under the new dispersal strategy \u2014 which has continued to expand even after intake numbers dropped \u2014 migrants only come into contact with one government agency: the Border Patrol. The day after David and Sebastian were sent to Juarez, Mirza and Lia were shuffled onto a bus out of the Border Patrol facility and dropped at an El Paso shelter. A volunteer asked Mirza for a U.S. contact. She named David\u2019s aunt Marlen, whom she had never met. The volunteer arranged for a bus ticket and Mirza carried Lia onto an intercity bus. She couldn\u2019t understand the bus announcements in English. When they arrived in San Jose, she worried that she\u2019d exited at the wrong stop. Marlen was late, stopping at a store to buy a car seat for Lia. By the time she arrived, Mirza sat on a bench sobbing. Mirza had been told to call a government hotline to learn about the status of her asylum case, but the hotline didn\u2019t give her information. She realized she needed help. She walked into the offices of SIREN, which offered legal services, and spilled out her story to pro bono attorney Riahi. Riahi sensed that Mirza could win asylum. The federal court that set precedent for San Francisco\u2019s immigration judges and asylum officers had defined asylum eligibility broadly, and Mirza\u2019s case, which would be considered there, fit well within a long-standing precedent. Meanwhile, David\u2019s case had been assigned to a judge in Texas who rejected almost all asylum claims. David was likely to be deported unless Riahi could get him included in Mirza\u2019s claim. The challenge was compounded by yet another government mistake. No official had ever filed Mirza\u2019s case with an immigration court. This allowed Mirza to apply for asylum proactively with an asylum officer, like migrants who enter the U.S. on visas \u2014 with slightly better chances than she would have before an immigration judge. But it meant Riahi couldn\u2019t simply ask a judge to combine David\u2019s case with Mirza\u2019s, because the cases were on different legal tracks. The best hope was that David could be included as a dependent on Mirza\u2019s application. They\u2019d have to be officially married first. So Riahi set about arranging a cross-border wedding. Riahi, overburdened with pro bono clients, didn\u2019t have time to go to Juarez. So he sent Levy a Facebook message. He didn\u2019t know the veteran Texas lawyer, although he had seen Levy\u2019s posts about problems with the MPP program. Levy was hesitant to take on another request from a far-flung lawyer. Riahi \u201cwas really, really worried and he really cared,\u201d she told ProPublica. \u201cTo be honest, it gets kind of exhausting, because everyone\u2019s really worried and everyone really cares.\u201d She decided to at least meet David and Sebastian in Juarez. David and Sebastian\u2019s world had become claustrophobically small. Leaving the shelter could mean getting mugged or kidnapped. With the exception of their first court hearing in El Paso \u2014 for which they\u2019d traversed Juarez in the dead of night to reach the international bridge by 4:30 a.m. \u2014 they\u2019d barely ventured out. Sebastian had contracted a throat infection just before their first court date, and it worsened when the two spent another night in the CBP hielera (the holding cells called \u201ciceboxes\u201d because they\u2019re kept so cold) before returning to Juarez. But the weight loss continued even after he recovered, leading David to suspect the boy was acutely depressed. For nearly three weeks, he rejected solid food. \u201cIt was just juice, juice, juice,\u201d David said. Speaking to Mirza on David\u2019s clandestine cellphone (purchased against shelter policies) didn\u2019t help. Sebastian lashed out at her: David and Mirza both recall him saying, \u201cYou\u2019re a bad person, Mami. You left us here in Mexico.\u201d Sometimes, he was so angry that he would not talk to her at all. When Levy took on his case, David felt lucky. According to one analysis, 96% of migrants waiting in Mexico for their U.S. cases have no legal representation. But Levy warned him that if he remained on his judge\u2019s docket, deportation was almost certain. The only clear way to get removed from the MPP program was to persuade an asylum officer that David would be persecuted in Mexico \u2014 a very high bar he had already tried and failed to meet. Levy realized this family couldn\u2019t rely on the process to bring them together. David and Mirza \u2014 and Levy and Riahi \u2014 would have to fight for it. Riahi had originally planned to bring Mirza to the U.S. side of the border in New Mexico, bring David to the Mexican side and have them stand in their respective countries while a pastor offered the vows. But they couldn\u2019t get a New Mexican marriage certificate unless both spouses appeared at the county office \u2014 an impossibility for David. Instead, Riahi and Levy planned a sort of caper: they\u2019d turn David\u2019s next U.S. court hearing in El Paso, on Aug. 21, into a secret wedding. Mirza flew to El Paso, carrying a wedding dress that she\u2019d bought at Ross with lace sleeves and a layered skirt, her ankle monitor a telling accessory. Levy took a single picture of the bride \u2014 cameras aren\u2019t allowed in immigration courtrooms, and they didn\u2019t want to push their luck \u2014 then entered the courtroom with Mirza and a Texas municipal judge to sign the marriage certificate. When Sebastian saw his mother, he cried out, \u201cMami, Mami.\u201d He fell asleep in her lap while the immigration judge conducted a brief scheduling hearing. Afterward, Levy requested five minutes to confer with her clients in a side room, where the municipal judge hurriedly performed the ceremony. Then David told Sebastian, \u201cYour Mami has to go now.\u201d \u201cNo, I\u2019m going with her,\u201d Sebastian cried. For two days afterward \u2014 through another unsuccessful plea with an asylum officer to get them out of Mexico, another hielera stay and another return to Juarez \u2014 the child was inconsolable. With the marriage now official, Mirza could file her asylum application and include David as her husband. But in the few weeks it took to submit the application, the Trump administration imposed another twist. Attorney General William Barr issued a ruling contradicting the federal court precedent Riahi had planned to rely on in Mirza\u2019s asylum case. Until a federal judge rules on Barr\u2019s edict, asylum officers now have two competing precedents \u2014 and Riahi fully expected they\u2019d defer to the new Barr ruling. Mirza\u2019s case had gone from an easy win to a likely protracted legal fight. Meanwhile, David and Sebastian were still stuck in Juarez. Under the shelter\u2019s rules, after two court hearings they had to find another place to stay, so David found a cramped apartment he and Sebastian could share with four other Honduran parents and sons. He couldn\u2019t work regularly because he couldn\u2019t abandon Sebastian. They relied on Mirza\u2019s earnings cleaning houses or loans from relatives to pay rent. After money ran low, David and Sebastian squeezed into an even smaller apartment: one room crammed with 10 other people, a few bunk beds and a fridge. (When four of them left Juarez to cross with smugglers into the US, David and Sebastian gained a little space, but their share of rent rose to the equivalent of $100 US a month.) The apartment had only six plates and six spoons, so everyone ate in shifts. Playing \u201coutside\u201d meant playing ball in a hallway littered with rubble and broken glass. Sebastian was beginning to put on weight and gain energy, but he was still shy around other children. When spoken to, he would either stay silent or cry. In mid-September, Levy brought in a counselor to assess Sebastian. \u201cWhile he was able to brighten his affect at times, particularly when recalling his mom and younger sibling, (Sebastian) still feels uncertain when asked about his mom,\u201d the evaluation said. \u201cHe disclosed, \u2018My mom left me and I don\u2019t know why.\u2019\u201d Mirza, too, was distraught. She joked that while Sebastian lost weight in Mexico, she was gaining it in the U.S. She cried often and slept little. Marlen took her to a psychiatrist, who diagnosed her with depression. In El Paso, Levy prepared a court motion to move David\u2019s court case to San Francisco, which would force the government to let him stay in the U.S. She gathered up the Honduran birth certificates; the wedding certificate; Sebastian\u2019s psychological evaluation; a copy of Mirza\u2019s antidepressant prescription. The night before a hearing on the motion, Levy appealed directly to Border Patrol lawyers. \u201cTo the best of our knowledge, the family unit crossed the border together and were erroneously separated by Border Patrol agents,\u201d she wrote in an email. \u201cPlease act expeditiously to remedy this erroneous separation.\u201d Two days later, after yet another court delay, Levy got an unexpected message from the Border Patrol. \u201cThe father and child are at El Paso Station 1, and are being converted out of MPP at this time.\u201d They had beensaved from returning to Mexico. But no further explanation was provided. \u201cI don\u2019t know if it\u2019s because of anything that we necessarily did,\u201d Riahi told ProPublica. \u201cTaylor kind of moved mountains out there in El Paso, but ultimately CBP decided to do it.\u201d David and Sebastian didn\u2019t fit into any of the categories outlined in the vague CBP policy about who should be sent back to Mexico and who should not. Discretion simply happened to work in their favor this time. But for families caught in the new programs \u2014 which don\u2019t include appearances before an immigration judge \u2014 the Border Patrol\u2019s initial determination and any errors that come with it are, as far as anyone can tell, permanent. \u201cIf a Honduran parent is separated from their child in error and then sent to Guatemala,\u201d Levy asked, \u201chow is anyone supposed to access that parent?\u201d After a five-day wait in a hielera, David and Sebastian were finally released in El Paso on Oct. 7. They stayed at the Annunciation House shelter for a week, waiting for their next court hearing there. But when Levy, David and Sebastian arrived in court, they faced yet another mix-up: The government had already transferred the case to San Francisco \u2014 without bothering to notify either Levy or the judge. The next morning, David and Sebastian finally boarded an airplane \u2014 their first \u2014 to reunite with Mirza and Lia at last. Moving David\u2019s case to San Francisco essentially froze his asylum timeline, making it impossible for him to get a work permit. His first hearing in front of a San Francisco judge is set for early March. The family had to move out of Marlen\u2019s house; the garage Marlen had furnished as their bedroom wasn\u2019t big enough to contain Lia\u2019s boundless energy, and Marlen\u2019s husband and teenage daughter had lost patience with the visitors. Mirza now worries how long they can afford their own apartment. Some things have improved. With each passing month, Sebastian gets more comfortable in first grade \u2014 he\u2019s made friends who help him with his homework now \u2014 and Lia gets more rambunctious. But it\u2019s far from clear that the family will be able to stay in the U.S. Their cases are still on two separate tracks. Mirza\u2019s asylum application remains in limbo. A December interview date was rescheduled, then postponed indefinitely. The attorney general\u2019s ruling makes it more likely her claim will be denied. Their lawyers are prepared to appeal both cases if they lose, but appeals take years. Mirza is certain they\u2019ll be killed if they return to Honduras, but they intend to leave if ordered to do so. As Mirza told ProPublica, \u201cWe have to follow the law.\u201d However uncertain the future, the family remains together. That was what they celebrated that afternoon in October, when David and Sebastian arrived at Marlen\u2019s home from the airport, with David holding their release orders and Sebastian carrying a toy light saber he\u2019d had to sneak past TSA. As the boy approached Marlen\u2019s door, Mirza stood in the doorway. He paused for a second, then ran to her. Lia sprinted into David\u2019s arms. They posed for family pictures, and more than once, they had to look for Sebastian, who wandered off on his own. Once he was safely deposited on Mirza\u2019s lap, though, he wouldn\u2019t let go.