After the death of the girl’s grandfather, she and her uncle went from Guatemala to the border with Texas.
They were separated by border guards. According to her lawyer Miriam Henriquez, the 10-year-old girl ended up in a foster family, and her uncle was deported.
Such painful separations could have been avoided under a new Biden administration program that would allow children to quickly reunite with relatives, such as uncles and grandparents, at the border.
The girl, who was not named by her lawyer to protect her privacy, is now 14 and still in foster care in Southern California while her asylum case is pending.
Since arriving in the US in early 2019, she has learned Spanish and English, which she now speaks fluently in addition to her Maya dialect, and is doing well in school, according to Enriquez, a staff lawyer at the Immigrant Advocacy Law Center in Los Angeles. .
“Their separation was undoubtedly traumatic and difficult, especially given their tender age,” Enriquez said of the girl and another child from Guatemala who was also separated from his uncle at the border.
According to three sources not authorized to speak publicly, a new program called the Trusted Adult Relatives Program is being tested at a border patrol station in Texas.
A Department of Homeland Security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said several dozen children have been reunited with family members since the program began in May. Agency officials said the program uses existing procedures to bring families together effectively.
“I don’t think it’s in the best interests of the child to separate them from adults they trust, with whom they’ve traveled hundreds of miles,” the official said, adding that taxpayers won’t have to pay long-term immigration bills. guarded.
Sources say the child and non-parent relative are first separated while immigration officials check their relationship and that an adult is capable of caring for the child. If confirmed, they are reunited after about 10 days and then go through normal immigration procedures.
The official said any expansion of the program to other locations along the border is still being evaluated.
“This administration is determined to keep families together, not tear them apart, and if that really works, we’ll be looking to eventually apply it more widely,” the official said. “It’s too early to make that decision.”
The practice of separating children from non-parental family members at the border has been going on for more than a decade.
While parents were generally allowed to stay with their children, other relatives were separated unless they were the child’s legal guardians. They were then generally deported unless they supported a credible asylum claim.
Under the Title 42 policy, which began under President Trump in 2020 and continued under the Biden administration, adult migrant asylum seekers have been returned without consideration of their claims.
Children were expelled, too, until a federal court blocked the practice and the Biden administration allowed the children entry after the decision was suspended.
Children without relatives in the United States may be placed in foster care under the supervision of the federal Refugee Resettlement Authority.
They are allowed to remain in the country while their application for asylum or special immigrant minor status is pending, which is granted when children cannot be reunited with their parents due to abuse or neglect and it is not in their best interest to return home.
The government does not have reliable data on how many children were separated from non-parents at the border.
But Section 42 has likely led to more separations because more adults are being deported, immigration advocates say.
Since the beginning of 2021, the Immigrant Defense Legal Center has tracked nearly 300 children who have been separated from non-parent relatives at the border. According to the center, all adults were returned under Article 42.
In April, the Biden administration announced that it was winding down Section 42 policy, but a federal judge later blocked the work.
“It can stop the completely unnecessary trauma that keeps children from getting through their immigration cases,” Jennifer Nagda, political director of the Youth Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights, said of the new program. “They are so traumatized and upset after being separated from their sister, grandparents.”
Last year, as the number of unaccompanied children arriving at the border reached an all-time high and exceeded government resources, the Youth Center recommended an approach similar to the program the Biden administration eventually adopted.
Concerns about fraud have long been a barrier to keeping a family together. In the new program, officials use the same procedures as before to verify the relationship between a child and a family member.
For some migrant children, the relative they were traveling with was already their primary caregiver at home.
In 2019, a Human Rights Watch lawyer visiting an institution for unaccompanied children encountered a 14-year-old boy traveling from Guatemala with his 29-year-old sister.
The boy told lawyer Clara Long that his sister was like a mother to him because “she took care of me all my life.”
“On the third day, they pulled me out of the cage and said they would separate me from my sister, but they didn’t tell me where I was going,” the boy told Long, who recounted the conversation in Congressional testimony. “I don’t understand why we were separated. They didn’t give me a chance to say goodbye.”