One mother had waited four months to wrap her arms around her little boy. Another had waited three months to see her little girl again.
When the reunions finally happened on Tuesday in Phoenix, the mothers were met with cries of rejection from their children.
“He didn’t recognise me,” said Ms Mirce Alba Lopez, 31, of her three-year-old son, Ederson, her eyes welling up with tears. “My joy turned temporarily to sadness.”
For Ms Milka Pablo, 35, it was no different. Her three-year-old daughter, Darly, screamed and tried to wiggle free from her mother’s embrace.
“I want Miss. I want Miss,” Darly cried, calling for the social worker at the shelter where she had been living since mother and daughter were separated by federal agents at the south-western border.
The tearful reunions – ordered by a court in California – came as the government said that it would release hundreds of migrant families wearing ankle bracelet monitors into the United States, effectively returning to the “catch and release” policy that President Donald Trump promised to eliminate.
Faced with a pair of court orders restricting immigration detentions, federal officials said that they could not hold all of the migrant families who had been apprehended. They said their hands were tied by duelling requirements to release children from detention after 20 days and also to keep them with their parents or other adult relatives.
Trump administration officials also said they had stopped referring migrant adults who enter the US with children for prosecution.
“Parents with children under the age of five are being reunited with their children and then released and enrolled into an alternative detention programme,” said Mr Matthew Albence, Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s executive associate director of enforcement and removal operations. He said that means the migrants will be given ankle bracelets “and released into the community”.
Government officials said they were struggling to meet Tuesday’s court-ordered deadline to reunite 102 migrant children under five with their parents; only about one-third were expected to be reunited by then.
The reunions that did happen were chaotic. Parents were warned that pickup and drop-off times could change throughout the day.
The Justice Department has maintained that its “zero-tolerance” immigration policy – which focuses on prosecuting all adults who illegally enter the US but not necessarily detaining them – is still intact.
The department has also said that it is prosecuting all of the cases it receives from immigration agents.
Ms Katie Waldman, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, called the return to catch and release unfortunate and said that it would serve “as a pull factor for increased future illegal immigration”.
A total of about 80,000 migrants wearing tracking devices live in the US, including migrants who were released from detention before the zero-tolerance policy was enacted in April.