Migrant Caregivers Separated From Children At Border, Sent Back to Mexico

Jul 5, 2019
Originally published on July 6, 2019 6:13 am

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.

Mexican national guard and Federal Police officers are stationed at the U.S.-Mexico border to prevent migrants from crossing into the U.S.
Paul Ratje for NPR

"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, a 24-year-old migrant from Honduras, was separated from her 15-year-old brother at the time they crossed the border. He has been reunited with their mother, while she feels stuck at a migrant shelter in Mexico.
Paul Ratje for NPR

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.

Taylor Levy (right), immigration attorney in El Paso, waits for migrants in the Migrant Protection Protocols program to arrive so she can give them a "Know Your Rights" presentation before their asylum court hearings at the Paso del Norte International Bridge in Ciudad Juárez.
Paul Ratje for NPR

"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 says that when she was 14, a cousin cut her arm and body with a machete after she came out to her family. She and her partner decided to leave Honduras this year. Alejandrina's partner and son were allowed into the U.S. but Alejandrina was sent back to Mexico.
Paul Ratje for NPR

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.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NOEL KING, HOST:

In the surge of migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border, there are thousands of families traveling with children. They're hoping to give the kids a better life in America. But what many of those aunts and sisters and grandmothers don't know is that they may never join those children in the U.S.

NPR's Joel Rose reports on how family separation is happening under the Trump administration's policy that's called Remain in Mexico.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: More than 6,000 migrants have been sent back to Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, just across the border from El Paso, Texas, to wait for their day in U.S. immigration court. Many of them wind up in migrant shelters, places like El Buen Pastor.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROSE: It's a compound of one-story cinder block buildings, ringed by barbed wire. A radio plays in the courtyard as an older woman from Guatemala hangs laundry out to dry in the midday sun.

The woman doesn't want to use her name because she doesn't want to jeopardize her asylum case. She crossed the U.S.-Mexico border in April with two grand-nieces and a grand-nephew that she'd raised for more than a decade.

She had hoped they would all join the children's mother, who was trying to build a life in Los Angeles. When they got to the border, the older woman thought she had everything in order.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through interpreter) I brought a letter from their father, and each one brought a birth certificate. And that's where they separated us. We gave the officers our names, and he essentially said that the children were traveling alone, unaccompanied.

ROSE: She was surprised and horrified. She didn't see the kids for several days, until immigration officials brought them back to her. But that was only to say goodbye. The children went to a shelter in the U.S. while she was sent back to Mexico.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through interpreter) I don't know what's going to happen.

ROSE: Still, she's gratified that the kids were reunited with their mom in LA after spending a month at a child shelter.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through interpreter) Right now it gives me comfort to know that they're with their mother. What happens to me is less important.

ROSE: Advocates say children and caregivers are being torn apart across the southern border, where grandparents, siblings and other relatives have been sent back to Mexico while the children they've brought thousands of miles are taken into U.S. custody.

The kids will be placed in shelters for, quote, "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.

But the caregivers who came with those children are left in Mexico to fight for asylum, where they have little chance of success and little to no contact with the children they've raised, sometimes from infancy.

NOEMI: (Through interpreter) I felt bad. You're in a place where you can't communicate. It was really hard.

ROSE: This is Noemi (ph), who also didn't want to give her full name. She was separated from her younger brother at the border. They traveled together from Honduras. Their mother is in Virginia, supporting the family. Noemi, who is 24, says she's been raising her 15-year-old brother for years. He's now been reunited with their mother, while she is stuck in Mexico.

NOEMI: (Through interpreter) Part of me feels relieved because he's already there. But part of me is struggling because I also wanted to be with my mom.

ROSE: When was the last time you saw her?

NOEMI: (Through interpreter) I was 10 years old.

ROSE: The Remain in Mexico policy, officially known as the Migrant Protection Protocols, began earlier this year. More than 15,000 migrants have been returned, according to Mexico, mostly to Juarez and Tijuana.

Many of these asylum-seekers will ultimately lose their cases. Two out of 3 are denied, on average. The Trump administration says they're 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. Administration officials say Remain in Mexico is discouraging migrants from even trying to cross.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KEVIN MCALEENAN: The time to address the fundamental drivers of this crisis is now.

ROSE: That's acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan speaking to reporters last week. He says border crossings in June are on pace to drop compared with the month before, when a record number of migrant families and children crossed the border.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MCALEENAN: These initiatives are making an impact, and we are now anticipating a significant reduction in border crossing numbers for June.

ROSE: DHS did not respond to questions about the separation of children and their relatives. It's not a brand-new policy to separate children from family members who are not their parents or legal guardians. It happened under President Obama, as well. The policy is intended to prevent child trafficking. But immigration lawyers say these migrants are the real guardians, even if they don't have the paperwork to prove it. And now they're stranded in Mexico with little or no money and no way to support themselves.

TAYLOR LEVY: The vast majority of people being sent back are not staying in the shelters. 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.

ROSE: Taylor Levy is an immigration lawyer in El Paso. We spoke on the International Bridge in Juarez. Levy tries to help these migrants in Mexico. And sometimes, she needs their help to reunite migrant children with their relatives in the U.S. because the kids don't always know where they're trying to go.

LEVY: The little children don't know who to call. They don't know the phone numbers. They don't have them memorized. Maybe the teenagers do, but a lot of the little children don't. And they're inconsolable.

ALEJANDRINA: (Through interpreter) I don't think it's fair. I feel like they are dividing us.

ROSE: Alejandrina (ph) fled to the U.S. from Honduras, where she says she was attacked because she's openly gay. She doesn't want to use her full name because she's still afraid. She has visible scars on her arm and body from when a cousin attacked her with a machete after she came out to her family.

ALEJANDRINA: (Through interpreter) When I was 14, I got this because I called myself gay. First, he hit me on the head, then the hand.

ROSE: 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 left in a hurry. Her partner followed later with their son, who is 6. They were allowed into the U.S., but Alejandrina was sent back to Mexico. She says the whole process seems arbitrary.

ALEJANDRINA: (Through interpreter) The system is complicated. 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.

ROSE: In one sense, Alejandrina is lucky. She's found a lawyer, something few migrants in Juarez can say. 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 a thousand miles and an international border.

Joel Rose, NPR News, Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHALE FALL'S "EL LLANTO EN LLAMAS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.