Longtime Rio Grande Valley immigration lawyer Carlos Garcia now ends many of his days at the office by driving to the Port Isabel detention center. He’s there to offer pro bono advice to parents desperate to reunite with children who were taken from them at the US-Mexico border.
Thursday night he had good news after meeting with a mother from Honduras who was fleeing gang violence and requested asylum when she was arrested on June 17 and separated from her 6-year-old son. “She talked to him by phone for the first time,” Garcia recalled. The boy had been asleep when he was taken, and he believed his mother had abandoned him. “She told him, ‘I would never abandon you and I will do everything possible to see you very soon.’’’
But even if Garcia’s client is reunited with her son, that reunion may prove short-lived. Like other migrant parents, she could face a harrowing decision of whether to be deported with him to the danger they sought to escape, or separate again so he can pursue his own asylum case.
Under the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy, Garcia’s client was charged with illegally crossing the border and separated from her child. After an executive order halted the separations on June 20, a federal judge ordered the government to reunite the families within 30 days. As this process plays out, she and thousands of other parents have applied for asylum. But Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently narrowed eligibility for survivors of gang and domestic violence, and many will likely be ordered deported. When that happens, they must decide whether to bring their children back to the danger they faced in their home countries, or leave them behind to navigate a legal labyrinth to a safer life in the United States.
“Is it better to be with your mom or dad if they’re deported, or is it better to be in the United States?” Garcia said of the choice. “I don’t know the answer to that.”
Under past administrations, asylum-seeking families detained at the border generally had one consolidated case as they made their way through immigration court. But when children started being separated from their parents in May, each member of the family became a separate case that proceeded on a different track and timeline.
Parents who are convicted in federal criminal court of crossing the border are being processed as “criminal aliens,” then detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Most will be deported unless an asylum officer determines they have a “credible fear” of persecution under the newly narrowed guidelines. With terrified parents focused on reuniting with their children, many interviews are going poorly.
“The majority of parents I talk to are so distraught that they are getting negative reviews,” Garcia explained. “There are a lot of good asylum cases that won’t have the opportunity to be heard,” so the only way for many of these parents to be reunified with their children may be “on the way out.”