This Teen Separated At The Border Is Finally Reuniting With Her Parents -- After 3 Months Apart
One recent afternoon in a small courtroom high above Olive Street in downtown Los Angeles, a group of teenagers sat before an immigration judge, awaiting their fates.
Among them was Sandy, a 16-year-old girl in blue jeans and pink sneakers, her dark hair pulled into a ponytail. When the judge called her name, she walked up, accompanied by a lawyer from an immigration nonprofit representing her.
Sandy was seeking voluntary departure to Guatemala. It was the country she left along with her father before they were stopped at Arizona's U.S.-Mexico border in May as they entered the country illegally seeking asylum. They were separated by federal agents.
In recent months, the government placed more than 2,600 migrant children in federal shelters after they and their parents were detained under the Trump administration's zero tolerance policy. The separations drew national and international outrage, and the president rolled back on the policy.
Earlier this summer, a federal judge ordered the government to reunite the children under 5 with their parents by July 10. Children ages 5 to 17 were to be returned to their parents by July 26.
The deadlines have not been fully met.
A month after the court deadlines, hundreds of children remain separated from their parents and in the care of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, the agency responsible for sheltering them. The process of reuniting these families has moved slowly. As of last Thursday, there were 528 kids who had yet to be returned to their parents.
The majority of these children - nearly 350 of them - are in the U.S. alone because their parents were deported without them. Sandy was one of these. Her father was deported and the girl was left behind. At the time of her court hearing, officials had placed her in a federal shelter in Fullerton.
WAITING AND WORRYING
In a small town in Guatemala's coffee-growing western highlands earlier this month, Sandy's mother and her father desperately awaited the return of their only child.
"We never thought they would take our daughter away," said Gloria Gomez, her mother, who spoke in Spanish with KPCC/LAist by phone. "I want them to return her to Guatemala as soon as possible."
She said her husband and daughter set out last spring for the U.S., accompanied by other local families. Gomez planned to eventually follow. She said life was difficult there, and they wanted for Sandy to live and study in the U.S.
The father and daughter made it to the border and asked agents there for asylum, she said.
"They asked for asylum, but they were told there wasn't any," Gomez said, "and that minors could not come in." Then they were separated, she said.
Gomez said her husband was threatened with six months in prison for entering the country illegally. Instead, within nine days, he was sent back to Guatemala without his daughter.
"My husband didn't know where they had taken her. Then she called me, and she told me she was somewhere in Los Angeles."
According to Gomez, officials said they would return her to Guatemala in 15 to 20 days. That didn't happen.
She said her husband, who was not up to speaking about their experience, returned home distraught without his daughter. "He still cries for her," Gomez said, and she feels helpless.
"My daughter is crying and we are so sad ... we are here all alone, and she is so far away."
DRAWN OUT REUNIFICATIONS
Federal officials have cited reasons for why hundreds of the migrant children have yet to be returned to their parents.
A court filing late last week listed several of them: Some children were separated from adults other than their parents; some parents declined reunification, an assertion that some parents have challenged, alleging they were coerced to agree; and a small number of children whose parents' background checks revealed crimes or other circumstances that federal officials said raised child safety concerns.
But the majority of cases are like Sandy's: their parents were sent back without them.
Once the children like Sandy were separated from their parents, they were designated an "unaccompanied minor," meaning they were treated like a minor who arrived without a parent or guardian, said Los Angeles immigration attorney Lindsay Toczylowski, whose firm represented Sandy pro bono.
"As an unaccompanied minor, you have the right to see a judge, and that is a really important protection for unaccompanied minors," explained Toczylowski, executive director of the legal firm Immigrant Defenders, which has taken up many of the separated children's cases.
Lawyers representing the children screen for kids, typically older teens, who wish to stay in the U.S. and seek asylum on their own, she said. Some families do reach this decision together, agreeing it's the best for child to remain here with relatives, she said.
But for kids like Sandy who want to return home, it's a complicated process. The unaccompanied minors must see a judge and get permission to depart the country, Toczylowski said.
This involves seeking what's called a voluntary departure, in which a person agrees to be repatriated voluntarily. And unlike a formal deportation, she said, it does not count as a strike against the individual eventually returning to the U.S. through some legal means.
Once the voluntary departure is granted, arrangements are made with consular officials in the home country to provide travel documents, such as a passport, Toczylowski said. The child is then flown home at the government's expense, typically escorted by an adult chaperone, and turned over to officials from their home government to be reunited with their parents.
During Sandy's recent court hearing in Los Angeles, Judge A. Ashley Tabaddor asked her several questions: had Sandy been in contact with her parents? Were they ready to receive her? To both, Sandy answered yes. And she swore under oath that she would leave.
The judge granted her voluntary departure. "Have a safe trip home," she told her.
A few days later, her mother said Sandy told her by phone that she would be coming home. At first, they were told it wouldn't be until September. But on Tuesday, her mother said she was told her daughter would return this week.
For a family separated more than three months, it was very good news.
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