At a sparkling mid-century office building in the heart of Phoenix's financial district, an unusual scene continues to play out.
A van pulls up multiple times each day and out climb several pairs of parents and children, each clutching their belongings in duffel bags or clear plastics bags stamped with the words Department of Homeland Security on the side.
Their arrival at the office building marks the last agonizing chapter as well as the start of an uncertain future for hundreds of asylum-seeking families separated at the border and now being quietly reunited in Phoenix before a fast-approaching, court-ordered deadline.
Looking scared and confused, the families are escorted inside the building, then seated in a cavernous lobby under stained-glass windows streaming sunlight high above. Some of the children clutch stuffed animals close to their chests, departing gifts from the shelters they left behind.
A woman introduces herself as a staff member of Lutheran Social Services of the Southwest and quickly tries to put the families at ease.
"I want to assure you we are here to help you. We don't work for the government. We don't work for immigration," she tells them. "We are part of the church and we are here to help you."
The families are then told they will receive help processing their documents, given food and water, allowed to make phone calls to relatives, and, finally, help booking commercial flights to wherever they are going, all free of charge.
"We aren't going to ask you for anything," the woman tells them, "only that you arrive safely."
One father, rising from his seat with his daughter, looks dumbfounded. Then says, "Thank you. Very kind."
The kindness families are receiving at the offices of Lutheran Social Services of the Southwest stands in in stark contrast to the treatment they experienced at the border, where in April and May some 3,000 children were taken from parents and then sent to shelters all over the U.S. under the Trump administration's zero-tolerance policy.
Ongoing efforts to reunite
Through Friday afternoon, the agency had assisted in the reunification of more than 100 children with their parents, according to Stephanie Petrilli, the agency's communications director.
About 85 percent of families reunited so far in Phoenix are from Guatemala, and the remainder are from Honduras and El Salvador, three countries in Central America plagued by high rates of poverty and violence tied to gangs and narco-trafficking.
The Trump administration halted the practice of separating children from parents at the border on June 20 amid withering political pressure and a global outcry.
A federal judge in San Diego then set July 26 as the final deadline for the Trump administration to reunite all children separated from their parents at the border.
As of Friday morning, 450 out of 1,606 children between the ages of 5 and 17 approved for reunification had been reunited nationally, the Trump administration said.
Connie Phillips, president and CEO of Lutheran Social Services of the Southwest, said her agency has been asked to help with the family reunifications because of its experience working with similar populations through its immigration and refugee program. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials have told her agency to expect to receive 300 families by Thursday's deadline.
The first family arrived on Monday, and more families have arrived in groups of 12 to 16 every day since, some arriving as early as 6 a.m. and others past 8 p.m., she said.
All of the parents arrive wearing a GPS monitoring device placed around their ankles as part of their release by ICE officials. Parents are also given papers instructing them to report to the nearest ICE office when they arrive at their final destination.
After being cared for at the agency's offices, the families are taken to a hotel to spend the night or directly to the airport to board their flights, Phillips said.
ICE officials give the agency about a 20-minute notice before a group of families arrives.
Families are first being reunited at the offices of Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Phoenix, with parents being brought in from a large immigration detention center in Eloy, one hour south of Phoenix, and children flown in from shelters in Florida, Texas, Illinois, Michigan, Virginia, New York, and other states, advocates said.
The cost of airfare and other transportation for the families to travel from Phoenix to other cities is being covered by FWD.us, Phillips said. FWD.us is an advocacy group created by tech companies to push for immigration reforms.
The Arizona Republic interviewed four separate parents reunited with their children in Phoenix — two at the Lutheran Social Services offices in Phoenix, and two more as they traveled from Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport to Dallas-Fort Worth, where they would connect to other flights taking them to friends or relatives in the U.S.
They described emotional scenes when they were reunited at the ICE offices in Phoenix after being separated for two months, as well as ill-treatment while being detained by U.S. Customs and Border Protection and ICE officials.
"It was a moment that ended many sleepless lights," said 36-year-old Luis Ortiz, who was reunited with his 15-year-old daughter, Heizel. "I couldn't sleep worrying about my daughter."
Wearing a black polo shirt, Ortiz held back tears as he described being separated from his daughter as "like being tortured."
Heizel said she cried for a week after they were separated, "but then I adapted."
"It was hard because, really, my dad is everything to me," said Heizel, wearing a pink T-shirt.
The family is from Guatajiagua, a municipality in El Salvador that Ortiz described as the most dangerous city in his country. Ortiz said they fled for the U.S. because his daughter feared for her life after being pressured by gang members to become their "girlfriend."
After being robbed of his money, clothing, and cellphone in Mexico, Ortiz said he and his daughter crossed the border near San Luis, Arizona, where they were apprehended by the U.S. Border Patrol and taken to a processing center.
He said his daughter was taken away the next day, and he spent 11 days there before being transferred to the Eloy Detention Center, while his daughter was taken to a shelter in Miami, Florida, more than 2,360 miles away.
During the nearly two months they were separated, Ortiz said he was allowed to talk to his daughter just twice by phone.
Inside the Eloy Detention Center, Ortiz said he signed a document agreeing to be deported after ICE officers told him that was the only way he could get his daughter back.
An ICE spokeswoman said the agency could not comment on specific allegations without receiving the names and immigration numbers of those making the complaints.
'I didn't want to leave'
Maria Elizabeth Gomez Matias, a 33-year-old mother, crossed her arms across her chest and broke down in sobs while describing the moment she was reunited with her 14-year-old son, Nestor.
She was also shocked when she saw he was wearing a brace that ran the entire length of his left leg after fracturing his knee playing soccer at the shelter where he was held in Virginia.
Contrary to media reports of separated children describing poor treatment inside shelters where they were held, Nestor said he enjoyed the experience so much, "I didn't want to leave."
Wearing a blue soccer jersey with the words "Jesus Christ Lives" written on the front in Spanish, Nestor said not only did he gain weight from the good food, he was taken on frequent excursions to the beach, carnivals and to the movies while living at the shelter.
He became quiet, however, when asked how he coped emotionally at the shelter separated from his mother.
"I don't really have words to describe it," Nestor said, hanging his head.
During the first of three phone calls he was allowed to talk to his mother at the detention center in Eloy, she began to cry.
Nestor said it was too much to bear.
He recalled handing the phone to the social worker, and telling her, "I don't want to talk to my mom. I can't listen to her crying."
His mother, Gomez Matias, said she and Nestor were separated for more than two months after crossing the border illegally near San Luis on May 13.
She said she made it through each day by praying to God.
She said ill-treatment by immigration and border officers added to her suffering.
At the Border Patrol processing center in San Luis, she said officers yelled at parents who had been separated, "Why did you come to this country? No one invited you here."
At the detention center in Eloy, she said ICE officers also threatened to give her son away to an American family unless she signed documents agreeing to be deported.
In a written statement, CBP officials said the agency "as a matter of policy" does not comment on pending litigation.
"However, lack of comment should not be construed as agreement or stipulation with any of the allegations," the statement said. "CBP takes all allegations seriously, and investigates all formal complaints.”
Headed to other states
Almost all of the families reunited in Phoenix so far are now headed to other states, among them Texas, Washington, Rhode Island, Georgia, Oregon, Alabama, Florida and Tennessee. Only one as of Friday is staying in Phoenix.
On Friday, Jacinto Quib and his 13-year-old daughter, Glendi, boarded a flight at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport headed for Texas.
It was their first time flying on a plane.
Workers from Lutheran Social Services escorted them to the gate in Phoenix.
But when they arrived at the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, they relied on the kindness of strangers to navigate the vast airport to make their connection to another city in Texas.
Sitting at the airport in Dallas, Quib said he and Glendi in May embarked on a 10-day bus trip from their home in northern Guatemala, leaving Glendi’s mother and seven children.
After being separated from her father at the border, Glendi Maribel Quib, 13, was sent to the Southwest Key’s Casa Antigua shelter in south Texas.
Glendi said she lived with more than 250 girls who were also separated from their parents. Quib, meanwhile, was held 1,200 miles away at the detention center in Eloy, where he estimated there were 300 fathers just like him separated from their children.
On Wednesday, the distance between Glendi and Jacinto shrunk from miles to feet as they reunited at an ICE facility in Phoenix. After a judge ruled that parents will not have to pay for reunification costs, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services covered the cost of Glendi’s flight to Arizona.
In Guatemala, Quib worked as a farm laborer growing corn and coffee. He said they came to the United States for Glendi to have access to an education.
“We left out of necessity,” Glendi said in Spanish. “We didn’t have anything: no belongings, and we don’t have food.”
In Guatemala, about 60 percent of the population lives below the national poverty line, and for indigenous individuals, the proportion is even higher. Further, in many rural areas, much of the population does not own land, or not enough land to grow their own food needs.
At Southwest Key, Glendi said she was treated well. She was given clothes, attended school classes and was fed pizza, hamburgers, pupusas and eggs. When she became sick, she was taken to a hospital, she said.
She lamented that she was not told about her legal rights or when she would see her dad again.
“They didn’t tell me anything, and they didn’t tell me when we would reunite,” Glendi said.
That changed on Tuesday night when she learned she would be reunited with her dad. At Casa Antigua in San Benito, Texas, she said that only a fraction of the 256 girls, aged 10 to 17, have left the facility to reunite with their families.
“Only two girls left before I did,” Glendi said. “We left Wednesday, four girls. Still there are a lot (left).”
'Not the America I know'
Some of the children reunited with parents in Phoenix came from Grand Rapids, Michigan, where they were held in a foster-care program run by Bethany Christian Services, a nonprofit, faith-based group.
Chris Palusky, the president and CEO, said he was outraged when his program began receiving children in May who had been taken from their parents at the border.
"It's never okay for kids to be taken from their parents because they want to apply for asylum," he said.
He said he observed children traumatized from their experiences fleeing violence in their home countries, traveling to the U.S. and being separated from their parents.
During the day, the program provided separated children counseling, he said.
"I've seen kids crying and you see the blank faces."
Palusky, and another staff member, accompanied two children on a flight from Grand Rapids to Phoenix, a boy between 12 and 14 and a girl under 7.
Palusky said as he drove into the sally port at the ICE offices in Phoenix with the two children, the boy caught a glimpse of his father inside the building through a window.
"That's my dad," the boy said excitedly.
Before turning the boy over to ICE officers, Palusky said he apologized to the boy for the way he and his father were treated by the U.S. government.
"This is not the America I know," Palusky said he told the boy. "I am sad and I am sorry that you have been separated."
Palusky said the boy turned to him and said, "We know you love us."
Josh Susong of The Arizona Republic and Alan Gomez of USA TODAY NETWORK contributed to this article.