Family separations: the parents fighting in court to get their children back


Five parents separated from their kids four of whom were deported joined together in a lawsuit to appeal their convictions

Elba Luz Domínguez’s voice cracks over the phone line from El Salvador. The memory of wading the river up to her waist between Mexico and the US with her daughter, then promptly being shackled by US border patrol and her daughter taken away, brings her to tears. Worse, despite fleeing appalling violence, after months in detention she was deported back home – without her child.

Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy requiring the arrest of anyone caught crossing the border without authorization led to traumatic family separations and widespread political uproar. But it had not even been announced when Domínguez and Joselin, 16, were separated last fall.

As she waited by the river, Domínguez recalls a US agent saying: “You’re going to jail and she’s going to a shelter.”

Domínguez, 49, suffers from diabetes, and the shock of arrest spiked her blood sugar and distorted her heartbeat, she said in a recent interview.

So the mother and daughter were first taken to the hospital in El Paso.

But then Domínguez was jailed awaiting trial while Joselin was taken away to a shelter for migrant children. That was October 2017, and Domínguez hasn’t seen her daughter since. They had been fleeing violence that left Joselin’s young dance troupe partner murdered, and threats that followed the girl from school to school.


Will separated families be reunited?

More than 2,300 children were separated from their parents under the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policy. Although the policy has been halted after international opposition, there are concerns that promised reunions won’t happen any time soon, if at all.

The Department of Homeland Security says the “government knows the location of all children in its custody and is working to reunite them with their families”. But attorneys with the Texas Civil Rights Project, which represents hundreds of separated families, said it has “grave concerns about the government’s ability to track parents and children who have been caught up in this crisis”.

Connecting families presents an enormous challenge because once they are detained at the border, children and parents enter two separate systems: for parents, the US Department of Homeland Security and criminal prosecution; meanwhile, children are given “unaccompanied alien child” status and transferred to the US Department of Health and Human Services. With no clear process in place, it’s possible some families will never be reunited. By Lauren Gambino and Olivia Solon

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On 7 February, Domínguez was deported back to El Salvador. And after months in a shelter and Joselin was eventually sent to Houston, Texas, to live with her father – whom she had not seen since she was less than two years old.

Domínguez had hoped she and Joselin would travel north together and trace another of her daughters, who lives in South Dakota.

Now she is one of five parents from Central America who were separated from their offspring and, after being randomly tried simultaneously in court, have joined together in a lawsuit appealing their misdemeanor convictions as unconstitutional. Four of the five have been deported and were obliged to leave their children behind in the US.

Tried as criminals

At their joint criminal trial in El Paso last December, the five parents had protested their innocence. First they told magistrate judge Miguel Torres their lives would be on the line if they were deported. Then they demanded the judge tell them the whereabouts of the five children, aged between eight and 16, who had been separated from them upon crossing the border, and exhorted him to reunite them – all to no avail.

A Honduran child and her mother wait along the border bridge after being denied entry from Mexico into the US on 25 June, in Brownsville, Texas. Photograph: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Before convicting the five parents and sending them to immigration detention prior to the deportation process, Torres said: “I lament it more than you that I am unable to give you any information regarding the whereabouts or wellbeing of your children.

“I can see it on your faces, and I can hear it in your voices that you’re concerned.”

The federal public defender representing the five parents in the trial and the ongoing case, Sergio García, told the Guardian he may have to go all the way to the supreme court to overturn the adults’ convictions.

Fleeing murderous gangs

One of the five parents, Maynor Claudino, 39, came to the US from Honduras last year with his son Henry, 11.

In 2016, gang members murdered Claudino’s uncle when he challenged them for stealing his cattle, decapitating and castrating him, Claudino told the Guardian.

“I recovered my uncle’s body from the mountain. Then I had to walk behind his coffin. My cousin and I were both threatened and I was afraid they would recruit my son,” he said. His wife and daughter moved to another city and his cousin is in hiding.

The father and son crossed into the US last September, after traveling thousands of miles through Mexico. “We only had our clothing. We had no money, nothing,” he said. “We slept rough on the street, and I never slept because I was worried about my son.”

Claudino aimed to work as a driver and allow his son to study in Los Angeles, where they have relatives. When they forded the river between Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, and El Paso, Claudino tried to tell the US officials who intercepted them that turning back would mean death.

“The border patrol agent cut me off and would not let me talk. He told me the United States is as dangerous as Honduras – [that] gangs will recruit my son and make him sell drugs here,” Claudino recalls. The son wept as his father was handcuffed and they were separated.

Deported alone

Claudino was deported in early January, having not seen his son Henry since late October.

“They took my son from me,” he said. He spoke to the Guardian by phone from Honduras, where he, too, is now in hiding and must move around constantly.

“The Mara [Salvatrucha, AKA MS-13] governs Honduras. They are strong. They are well-armed. I am terrified. I cannot stay in one place,” he said.

Henry was left behind at a Texas shelter. A social worker contacted Claudino’s brother Enrique and his wife Lucía, in Los Angeles, and the couple agreed to take their nephew into their home. “We first spoke to our nephew when they deported Maynor,” said Lucía.

But before Henry could be released to his relatives in California, the shelter asked Enrique and Lucía to pay $1,200 to cover a round-trip plane ticket for the social worker and a single for the child. “I had to deposit the money in a bank account. The first time I saw the child was at the airport,” Enrique said.

“It’s just like he fell here,” Lucía said. “Can you imagine at that age how it is to live with people you don’t know? He longs for his father, but they did not even let them see each other before deportation. It’s unjust,” Lucía said.

Back in Honduras, Claudino said he’s been told his once bubbly son is now withdrawn. “He doesn’t talk much. I know he’s traumatized,” he said.

A group of immigrants from Honduras and Guatemala seeking asylum stand in line at the bus station after being processed and released by US customs agents on 21 June, in McAllen, Texas. Photograph: Eric Gay/AP

Separating children from parents charged with a misdemeanor offense also drew criticism from Torres. “They have parental rights, even for somebody charged with the most serious crime under the Texas penal code,” Torres said, according to court documents.

Threat of adoption

While Dominguéz was awaiting deportation, she says that a social worker told her that if she was not handed over to a relative in the US, Joselin would be put up for adoption.

“If you don’t sign so family can take her from the shelter then she’ll be put up for adoption after you are deported,” she recalled the social worker saying.

“My only option was to give my daughter to her father in Houston. But it’s years since we have spoken,” she said.

Health issues

Conditions in immigration detention exacerbated Domínguez’s diabetes, she said.

Health issues were also a dealbreaker for a third adult of the five who are appealing their convictions, Natividad Zavala, 63. She arrived from Honduras with her eight-year-old grandson, Alexander, last fall, intending to take the boy to his mother, who lives in New York. “They arrested me at the border and I haven’t seen him since,” she said.

A social worker told her she had contacted Alexander’s mother, so Zavala hopes that the mother and son are together now, although she doesn’t know for sure.

Zavala’s health deteriorated so badly that she agreed to be deported back to Honduras in February, without further news of her grandson, she said.

The fourth person in the case, Jose-Francis Yanes Mancia, entered the US with his son José Samuel and was deported back to Honduras in February 2018, also without his son. He and relatives contacted by the Guardian declined to be interviewed and it was not possible to establish the whereabouts of José Samuel.

The only person who avoided deportation was the fifth appellant, Blanca Nieve, who fled El Salvador after her husband was murdered.As earlier reported, after separation from her then 13-year-old son and lengthy detention, they were reunited in New Orleans and she is going through the asylum process.

For the public defender, García, the deportations are the equivalent of terminating the parental-child relationship, a violation of the US constitution, he believes.

“What did my clients do?” García asked rhetorically. “Flee for their lives with their children. Federal law says asylum seekers can cross the border anywhere.”

Domínguez said of her daughter, Joselin: “I feel satisfied I got her away from violence.” Then she sighed heavily and hinted that she may have to risk broaching the border again. “I never wanted separation from her. I think the only way to be together again is to cross the river.”

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