No Relief in Sight for Parents of Thousands of Migrant Children Still in Custody
Posted June 21, 2018 9:15 p.m. EDT
AURORA, Colo. — Micaela Samol Gonzalez, dressed in blue detention scrubs, made her way to the front of a windowless courtroom in Colorado on Thursday and faced the judge. After she gave her name and arranged a future court date for her immigration case, the judge asked whether she had any questions.
She had just one.
“My question is regarding my son,” Gonzalez, whose boy was taken away by immigration authorities shortly after she was accused of crossing the border illegally on a journey from Guatemala, said in Spanish. “I’ve been given a number to contact him but nobody’s replying to me, and I’m wondering if he’s doing well.”
A day after President Donald Trump signed an executive order scrapping his administration’s practice of separating immigrant parents and children at the border, there was no relief for Gonzalez and hundreds of other parents who were little closer to reuniting with the more than 2,300 children who have been taken from them under the administration’s “zero tolerance” border enforcement policy.
Parents said they still did not know how to track down their children, and struggled to find out any information through a 1-800 hotline set up by the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement. Others who had located their children said they were still separated by thousands of miles and a bureaucratic maze they did not know how to navigate.
The one thing they wanted was their children. But parents and lawyers said those reunions still seemed achingly distant and uncertain.
Administration officials have said children were taken only from parents who had violated the law by crossing the border without proper documents. Brian Marriott, senior director of communications for the Department of Health and Human Services, said after the new executive order was signed that the agency was “working toward” reunifying families, though he could not say how quickly that would happen.
As Gonzalez listened to the judge over a pair of translation headphones, a court officer gave her a photocopied fact sheet titled, in Spanish, “Are you detained and separated from your children?” She said she had not seen her son since May 25, when they were separated at the border. She thought he was in New York. She knew nothing for sure.
“I called but nobody answered,” she said. “I tried before. I will keep trying.”
Even outside the walls of a detention facility, some parents could only guess when they would see their children again.
Angelica, a 31-year-old asylum applicant from Guatemala who feared repercussions if she disclosed her last name, said she had not seen her 8-year-old daughter since the two were separated at an immigration detention facility in Arizona in early May. They had been apprehended by immigration officers somewhere in the desert.
After her arrest, Angelica was flown to Las Vegas and transferred to a detention facility in Aurora, Colo. She spent more than a month there before being released on a $1,500 bond this week. She is now staying with a friend who is helping her financially and trying to help her navigate the immigration system.
On Thursday, she said she was finally able to talk to her daughter for 15 minutes and learned she was in a facility on the southern border. She did not know what city. She did not know the name of the facility.
All she knew, she said, was what a social worker there had told her: She would be allowed to call her daughter twice a week, on Tuesday and Thursday — “no mas.” She would need to fill out lots of paperwork. She should not attempt to visit. And she should not expect to reunite with her daughter for a month. Maybe two.
“It feels like an eternity to know I won’t be able to see my daughter and I can’t hold her,” she said in a telephone interview, speaking through an interpreter. “I feel like I’m going to die. I feel powerless.” Angelica said her daughter had been sick and sad in detention. She came down with a cough and fever. A boy hit her and left a large bruise on her face. Recently, she got pink eye and was isolated so she would not infect other children. She feels alone, her mother said.
“She’s sad,” she said. “She wants to come home. She doesn’t know if she’s going to see me again. She just wants to come home with her mom.”
When they video-chatted Thursday, she said that she told her daughter that she would buy her a backpack and take her to school, and that they would have a real celebration for her eighth birthday, which had passed while she was in custody.
She said she was determined to navigate the immigration system successfully. Her situation in Guatemala had reached the point that she felt sure that she and her daughter would be killed if they were returned.
“I want a chance at another life,” she said. “But I don’t want another life without my daughter.”
Some parents have already been deported, and are trying to phone immigration authorities from abroad for information about when and how they can recover their children.
Elsa Johana Ortiz Enriquez, who was deported to Guatemala without her son in early June, was despondent in a series of text messages from Guatemala City on Thursday.
Her son, Anthony Tobar Ortiz, 8, was taken away by the Border Patrol after they illegally entered the United States in southern Texas last month. Nearly a month later, she has no idea when she will see him again.
“I feel very bad because the days are passing and nothing is clear,” said Ortiz, 25. “I know nothing of Anthony.”
She said that during phone calls, the case manager at the facility near Houston where her son is housed has not made clear what will happen next.
“All I know is that no one knows what will happen with the children who were separated,” she said.
Across the country, immigration lawyers said they were slogging through confusion, bureaucracy and secrecy as they tried to locate children.
Many were tapping private social media networks to find social workers who might know their clients’ children. They were asking colleagues in other cities to search immigration court dockets for the name of a child’s parent. Some were preparing legal complaints to try to force the release of children being held by the government.
“No one knows what’s happening with these children,” said Laura Lunn, the managing attorney of the detention program at the Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network. “There’s no concept where their child is.” The group said that about 50 women who were separated from their children have arrived recently at a 1,500-person immigration detention and processing center in an industrial neighborhood east of Denver.
Lunn represents three Guatemalan women who were each separated from their children. One has been held for two monthsand has no idea where her son is. Another knows her son is in New York, but has not spoken to him. The third knows her 6-year-old son is being held in Arizona, and was able to call him on his birthday.
“He just said, ‘Mom why aren’t you with me?’” Lunn said, recounting their conversation. “She said, ‘Oh mijo, I am with you. I’m just not there right now. We’re just going to have to wait a little while longer.’”
Even when parents are freed from detention on bonds, as happened with Angelica, lawyers say there is no road map and scant guidance from the federal government about how to reunite with their children.
Astrid Lockwood, an immigration lawyer with The Federal Practice Group, flew to Denver and was able to secure a $1,500 bond to release her client, a Salvadoran woman who turned herself in to immigration officials after crossing the border in late May with her 7-year-old son.
The woman could be freed as early as Friday, but that is just the beginning of the saga of trying to reunite the family, Lockwood said.
The woman is in Denver, where she knows no one. Her family is in Maryland. And her son is being held in Miami.
The family only knows this much because the boy gave the authorities the phone number of his Maryland relatives. Many of the children are taught to memorize critical phone numbers and repeat them if they are detained, Lockwood said. She said she and the family are working to file paperwork that would allow the boy to be released to relatives, but said the next steps are murky and even immigration lawyers have little guidance from the government.
“I asked, what is the process now?” Lockwood said. “I was told to go look at a website. I jumped into a dirty pool. I have no idea what’s in the bottom, or how to get to the other side.”