Torn Apart by Zero Tolerance, Kept Apart by Red Tape
Posted June 24, 2018 6:18 p.m. EDT
Updated June 24, 2018 6:24 p.m. EDT
Mother and son last spoke on the child’s 9th birthday, a week ago. This was no celebratory call.
Lidia Karina Souza had been released from immigration detention nearly two weeks earlier. But she could not tell Diogo, who was separated from her shortly after they reached the United States, when they would see each other again.
“Don’t cry. You are going to get a Nintendo, a birthday party. Don’t worry,” Souza, who is from Brazil, told her son. The telephone conversation was recorded and later provided to The New York Times.
They had parted ways at the southwest border on May 30. Souza was locked up. Diogo was flown to Chicago, where he was placed in a shelter. Souza was released on June 9 and allowed to join relatives in Hyannis, Massachusetts, but it is still not clear when her son will rejoin her.
“I am going to do everything to get you out of there,” she told him on the call. “It’s so many papers they need.”
President Donald Trump has officially ended the policy of separating families when parents are being prosecuted under the “zero tolerance” border enforcement program that took effect in May. But frustrating stories like that of the Souza family are playing out across the country, as parents of more than 2,300 children who were separated after their arrival in the United States now face lengthy bureaucratic delays in recovering them.
While some of the children have been reunited with their parents in recent days, interviews with immigration lawyers and government officials suggest that most of the children are likely to remain parked in group facilities or foster homes for some time to come.
“There was clearly no plan for reuniting the families,” said Karen Hoffmann, an immigration attorney at Aldea-The People’s Justice Center in Reading, Pennsylvania, who is suing the government to reunite three migrants with their children.
Part of the problem is that in many cases, parents and children are being detained thousands of miles apart, and the parents do not know exactly where their children are. Though federal agencies have registered each child with an identification number and set up hotlines for parents, immigrant advocates say that many parents have trouble getting through or are not given answers when they call.
Late Saturday, the departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services announced that they had a “well-coordinated” process for reuniting families. As of June 20, their statement said, there were 2,053 separated minors in government custody. It said that another 522 children who had not yet been sent by the Border Patrol to a shelter or a foster family were returned to their parents at the border.
“A parent who is ordered removed from the U.S. may request that his or her minor child accompany them,” the statement said. “It should be noted that in the past, many parents have elected to be removed without their children.”
If a parent is released from detention, authorities say, he or she will be reunited with a separated child once the parent fulfills requirements set by the government. But as Souza’s case illustrates, the red tape can cause lengthy delays. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., called on the Trump administration Sunday to appoint a “czar” to be in charge of coordinating federal agencies to quickly reunite families.
“You don’t need to be a foreign relations expert to know that the situation created by zero tolerance has left many people with zero confidence that the administration will be able to quickly reunite the kids,” Schumer said at a news conference.
Noting that three different Cabinet departments had a role in the situation, Schumer said, “No one is really in charge if there are three people in charge.”
Shortly before the government officially announced the zero tolerance policy, it issued a memorandum setting stringent new rules for vetting parents, relatives and other potential sponsors who wish to get children from government custody.
For one thing, the memo said that Health and Human Services must obtain the “citizenship, immigration status, criminal history and immigration history” of the potential sponsor. It also said that the department must collect the names, dates of birth, addresses, fingerprints and identification documents of the potential sponsor and “all adult members in the potential sponsor’s household,” and provide that information to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agency that oversees deportation.
Previously, Health and Human Services did not share such information with ICE; other members of the household were not typically screened as part of the process; and parents did not have to be fingerprinted to get their children back.
“We have cases of Brazilian minors who remain in a shelter because of the new demands, which ended up intimidating relatives who wanted to bring them home,” said Luisa Lopes, director of consular affairs for Brazilians abroad. Lopes said she is aware of 49 Brazilian children who were separated from their parents.
Souza, 27, and her son turned themselves in to the Border Patrol on May 29, declaring that they had a fear of returning to their home country and wished to obtain asylum in the United States. The following day, an agent used Google Translate, she said, to explain to her — as Diogo erupted in tears — that because she had not presented herself at an official port of entry, she had entered the United States illegally; therefore she would go to jail, and he would go to a shelter. The son saw his mother being handcuffed.
“I told him, I’m not going to jail,” she recalled in an interview conducted in Portuguese. “I am going to a place with other mothers. You are going to a place for children.”
Souza appeared soon after in federal court in El Paso, where she pleaded guilty to illegal entry, a misdemeanor, and was sentenced to time served. Three detention centers and 10 days later, she was allowed to join a relative in Massachusetts, having passed an interview meant to ascertain whether she had a credible reason to fear returning to Brazil.
Before authorities dropped her off in Dallas for her flight to Boston, they handed her a toll-free number she could call to locate Diogo.
She tried the number when she reached Massachusetts, but she could not get through to anyone.
“I was devastated, desperate, crazed,” she said.
Souza, an evangelical Christian, said she sought strength in prayer.
She also searched on Facebook for a Brazilian woman she had met in detention whose child had also been removed from her. The woman, who is now in Pennsylvania, told Souza that her daughter had been at a shelter in Chicago called Casa Guadalupe and had befriended a Brazilian boy there named Diogo. She gave Souza the number.
Mother and son spoke for the first time in more than two weeks. She learned that Diogo had contracted chickenpox and, as a result, was isolated from other children. He sobbed, pleading for his mother to come get him.
Since then, they have been allowed to speak to each other by phone twice a week, for 10 minutes at a time.
“It has been 16 days, but don’t worry,” Souza told her son over one call that was recorded. “It’s coming to an end. Be well. Stay with Jesus. With God on our side, it will all work out.”
To get her son back, Souza learned, she would have to provide the shelter, which is run by Heartland Alliance, with a mountain of documents. Assisted by a lawyer, Souza filled out a 36-page packet and submitted documents attesting to her relationship to Diogo. But “every day, they wanted something else,” Souza in an interview Saturday.
For example, the adults in the family with whom she lives in Hyannis also had to submit five pages of personal information for a background check.
On another call, Diogo urged his mother to hurry his release. With his voice breaking, the boy begged, “Ai, Mom, get the papers done fast.”
“It isn’t up to me,” she tried to explain. “I am doing everything, but it’s a lot of paperwork to handle.”
But more days passed, and more requirements had to be met.
The last straw, she said, was the fingerprint request last week. A case worker notified Souza that she and two other adults in the household would have to visit a designated location in their area to be fingerprinted — on July 6. Her request to get back her son would then take 22 days to be approved, she was told.
“They said she can only get the child in August,” said Jesse Bless, her lawyer. “That is completely unacceptable. What kind of process for reunification is this?”
“It was zero tolerance, zero planning, zero thought,” said Bless, a senior counsel at Jeff Goldman Immigration, based in Boston, who has taken Souza’s case pro bono.
He expressed outrage to shelter managers, telling them that Souza had already been fingerprinted at the border. In response, a Health and Human Services official emailed Bless, saying: “Policy and Procedures recently changed and requires all household members and sponsor’s to fingerprint. I can assure you that while at Heartland, Diogo is not isolated.
“Case Managers at Heartland truly care about our children and are working diligently to ensure all of our minors are safely released.”
Bless said that after he threatened to sue the shelter, “they agreed to a more expedited, but undefined schedule.” Unsatisfied, he said Sunday that he intended to travel to Chicago to press the matter further.
Meanwhile, Souza is next scheduled to speak with her son Wednesday.
Her last words to him on his tear-filled birthday were: “Don’t cry. I want you to be OK. Please be strong. OK, son? Stay with Jesus, my son. Tchau. I love you.”
“I love you too,” the boy responded.