Wilder, a smiley, pudgy Salvadoran boy, missing his two front teeth, was the youngest defendant on the juvenile docket that day. But that wasn’t all that made him special. He was one of the last children left in government custody who had been affected by the administration’s widely criticized zero-tolerance policy, and who were still awaiting reunification with parents detained in the United States.
The policy, which was announced with great fanfare in April and was scuttled two months later in the face of bipartisan opposition, required immigration authorities to file criminal charges against anyone caught crossing the border illegally and separate them from the children they brought with them.
Over 2,600 immigrant children — including more than 100 who were under the age of 5 — were separated from their parents before a federal judge ordered the administration to end the policy and reunite the families affected. Most have been reunited with parents or other relatives. Around 120 children remain in federal custody because their parents had already been deported. Some 30 cases involve children whose parents have criminal histories. As immigration authorities and advocates scrambled to put the broken families back together, courtrooms like Martinez’s often felt more like family court.