Migrant Caregivers Separated From Children At Border, Sent Back to Mexico
In a journey that has become increasingly common, a great-aunt, her grandnieces and a grandnephew traveled thousands of miles from Guatemala to the United States this spring, hoping to get asylum.
The older woman had cared for these kids, now all teenagers, for more than a decade while their mother tried to build a life in Los Angeles, sending money back to them. Now, they all wanted to be together again.
But the great-aunt and teens were split up once they got to the Texas-Mexico border, even though the older woman thought she had everything in order.
"I brought a letter from their father, and each one brought a birth certificate," she said in Spanish through an interpreter. "And that's where they separated us. We gave the officer our names, and he essentially said that the children were traveling alone, unaccompanied."
The woman was surprised and horrified. She says she didn't see the teenagers for several days, until immigration officials brought them back to her. But that was only to say goodbye. The teens went to a shelter in the U.S., while she was sent back to Mexico.
Amid the surge of migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border are thousands of extended family members with children in tow, hoping to give them a better life in America. But what many of those aunts, sisters and grandmothers don't know is that they may never join those children in the U.S.
"I don't know what's going to happen," the Guatemalan woman said, fighting back tears. She asked that her name not be used because she doesn't want to jeopardize her asylum case.
Still, she is gratified that the kids were reunited with their mother in LA after spending a month at a children's shelter. "Right now, it gives me comfort to know they're with their mother. What happens to me is less important," she said.
Advocates say children and caregivers are being torn apart across the southern border — with older family members being routinely sent back to Mexico, while the children they've brought are taken into U.S. custody.
The younger ones are placed in shelters for "unaccompanied" children run by the Department of Health and Human Services, which will try to place them with relatives who are already living in the U.S.
The caregivers are often returned to Mexico, a country where they fear for their safety and have no way to support themselves. They can fight for asylum, but they have little chance of success — and limited contact with the children they've raised, sometimes from infancy.
"You're in a place where you can't communicate. It was really hard," said Nomehí, a migrant from Honduras who also didn't want to give her full name.
Nomehí was separated from her younger brother at the border. Their mother is in Virginia and has been trying to support her family from afar. Nomehí, who is 24, says she has been raising her 15-year-old brother for years. He has been reunited with their mother, while she feels stuck at a migrant shelter in Mexico.
"Part of me feels relieved because he's already there," she said through an interpreter. "But part of me is struggling because I also wanted to be with my mom."
Nomehí says she hasn't seen her mother since the age of 10.
The Remain in Mexico program — officially known as the Migrant Protection Protocols — began earlier this year. Since then, more than 15,000 migrants have been sent back, according to Mexico, most of them to Ciudad Juárez and Tijuana.
The Trump administration says these asylum-seekers are gaming the system by getting into the U.S. with a frivolous asylum claim and then skipping immigration court hearings and disappearing into the country. Many of them will ultimately lose their cases — 2 out of 3 are denied, on average.
Homeland Security officials say Remain in Mexico is discouraging migrants from even trying to cross.
"These initiatives are making an impact and we are now anticipating a significant reduction in border crossing numbers for June," acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan told reporters last week.
McAleenan said border crossings in June are on pace to drop nearly 25 percent compared with the month before, when a record number of migrant families and children crossed the border. More than 144,000 migrants were taken into custody after crossing the border in May.
The Department of Homeland Security did not respond to questions about the separation of children and their relatives.
It's not a brand-new policy to separate migrant children from family members who are not their parents or legal guardians. The policy, which was in place during the Obama administration as well, is intended to prevent child trafficking.
But immigration lawyers say these relatives are overwhelmingly the children's real guardians, even if they don't have the legal paperwork to prove it. And now they're stranded in Mexico, with little or no money and no way to support themselves.
Taylor Levy, an immigration lawyer in El Paso, wants to help these migrants in Mexico to know their rights, but first she has to locate them.
"The vast majority of people being sent back are not staying in the shelters," she said. "They don't have access to cellphones. We can't find them no matter how many nonprofits we contact. We simply cannot find these people."
Levy also needs to find them because she needs their help reuniting the children from whom they were separated with their relatives in the U.S. The kids don't always know where they're trying to go.
"The little children don't know who to call. They don't know the phone numbers; they don't have them memorized," Levy said. "Maybe the teenagers do. But a lot of the little children don't. And they're inconsolable."
Advocates say the Remain in Mexico policy also is separating LGBTQ families.
"I feel like they are dividing us," said Alejandrina, a migrant from Honduras who also didn't want to give her full name because she is afraid. "I don't think it's fair," she said through an interpreter.
Alejandrina says she was attacked in her home country because she is openly gay. When she was 14, a cousin cut her with a machete after she came out to her family, she says. She still has visible scars on her arm and body.
Alejandrina and her partner decided to leave Honduras this year, when a member of her partner's family threatened both of them with violence. Alejandrina fled in a hurry. Her partner followed later with their son, who is 6.
While her partner and son were allowed into the U.S. — they are now living in Louisiana — Alejandrina was sent back to Mexico. She says the whole process seems arbitrary.
"The system is complicated," Alejandrina said. "Sometimes people are allowed to get in and others not. I didn't even get a chance to speak, to make my case and tell them why I'm migrating. We all have the right to that opportunity."
In one sense, Alejandrina is lucky: She has found a lawyer, something few migrants in Ciudad Juárez can say. And Alejandrina's lawyer thinks she and her partner have strong asylum cases — partly because they can back up each other's claims.
But it won't be easy to build those cases when they're separated by 1,000 miles and an international border.
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