Fever­ish search for kids in US

Bu­reau­cracy sti­fling re­unions

Pretoria News Weekend - - NEWS - MOR­GAN LEE AND JULIE WAT­SON

IN AN un­marked brick build­ing a few streets from the Mex­i­can bor­der with the US, im­mi­grant par­ents clutched fold­ers of birth cer­tifi­cates and asy­lum pa­per­work and sat on fold­ing chairs, wait­ing to use a sin­gle, shared tele­phone.

They rushed to the tele­phone as their names were called with word that a rel­a­tive or gov­ern­ment worker was on the line, per­haps with news about their chil­dren.

For days and weeks now, some of the hun­dreds of par­ents sep­a­rated from their chil­dren at the Mex­ico-US bor­der by the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion have been bat­tling one of the world’s most com­plex im­mi­gra­tion sys­tems to find their young­sters and get them back.

For many, it has been a lop­sided bat­tle, and a frus­trat­ing and heart­break­ing one. Most do not speak English. Many know noth­ing about their chil­dren’s where­abouts.

And some say their calls to the gov­ern­ment’s 1-800 in­for­ma­tion hot­line have gone unan­swered.

Now, at least, they have the le­gal sys­tem on their side, since a fed­eral judge in Cal­i­for­nia or­dered the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion on Tues­day night to re­unite the more than 2 000 chil­dren with their par­ents in 30 days, or 14 days in the case of those un­der 5.

But huge lo­gis­ti­cal chal­lenges re­main, and whether the US gov­ern­ment can man­age to clear away the red tape, con­fu­sion and seem­ing lack of co-or­di­na­tion and make the dead­line re­mains to be seen.

The Jus­tice Department and the Department of Health and Hu­man Ser­vices, which is in charge of the chil­dren, gave no im­me­di­ate de­tails on how they in­tended to re­spond to the rul­ing. An­thony Romero, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union, be­lieves the dead­line is re­al­is­tic. “It’s a ques­tion of po­lit­i­cal will, not re­sources,” he said.

Among the com­pli­cat­ing fac­tors: chil­dren have been sent to shel­ters all over the US, thou­sands of kilo­me­tres from the bor­der. And per­haps hun­dreds of par­ents have al­ready been de­ported from the US with­out their chil­dren. A woman in Gu­atemala who was de­ported with­out her 8-year-old son had to find a US lawyer from her home on the out­skirts of Gu­atemala City to help her get An­thony back.

Elsa Jo­hana Or­tiz ap­plauded the fed­eral judge’s rul­ing but added, “as long as he’s not with me, I will not be at peace”.

In El Paso, 36 par­ents re­leased last Sun­day from a US de­ten­tion cen­tre started a fever­ish search for their chil­dren, us­ing the tele­phone at a shel­ter run by An­nun­ci­a­tion House. Some of those at An­nun­ci­a­tion House rushed to catch buses bound for New York, Dal­las and the west coast to live with fam­ily mem­bers in the hope that es­tab­lish­ing res­i­dency will make it eas­ier to get their chil­dren back.

Digna Perez of El Sal­vador said she was sep­a­rated from her 9-year-old son and 6-year-old daugh­ter at the bor­der on May 29.

She spoke with them on Mon­day by tele­phone and was alarmed to hear lethar­gic, dis­tracted re­sponses from her nor­mally talk­a­tive son.

“It was like I was forc­ing the words out of him,” she said. “He wasn’t like that be­fore.”

She planned to travel to Hous­ton to stay with fam­ily friends in an at­tempt to re­claim her chil­dren by show­ing there was a suit­able home wait­ing for them.

An­other asy­lum-seeker at An­nun­ci­a­tion House, Wil­son Romero, hoped to be re­united with his 5-year-old daugh­ter Nataly in Cal­i­for­nia – at the home of his mother, a re­cent im­mi­grant her­self.

The 26-year-old fa­ther was sep­a­rated from her by US au­thor­i­ties in El Paso in May.

In Hon­duras, he worked at a tex­tile fac­tory mak­ing lo­gos for US brands on the out­skirts of San Pe­dro Sula, one of Latin Amer­ica’s most vi­o­lent ci­ties. He said he left his home­land so his daugh­ter would have a chance at a ca­reer some­day. Now he just wants to see her again.

“I pray to God it is soon,” said Romero, who has a tat­too of his daugh­ter’s name on his right arm.

For many im­mi­grants, the bu­reau­cracy has be­come in­creas­ingly frus­trat­ing as they try to find their chil­dren. Some have had to send for birth cer­tifi­cates and IDs from Hon­duras and are wait­ing for them to ar­rive in the mail. Some par­ents who are try­ing to get their chil­dren placed with friends or rel­a­tives in the US are be­ing asked to pro­vide fin­ger­prints of rel­a­tives along with util­ity bills and lease in­for­ma­tion, which many newly ar­rived im­mi­grants don’t have, said Jesse Bless, an at­tor­ney from Jeff Gold­man Im­mi­gra­tion in Bos­ton, who is rep­re­sent­ing Lidia Karine Souza.

Souza, 27, turned her­self and her son, Diogo, into US au­thor­i­ties at the Texas bor­der and re­quested asy­lum, ar­gu­ing her life was in dan­ger in her na­tive Brazil.

US of­fi­cials de­tained her in Texas and took her son on May 30 with­out telling her where he would be. When she was re­leased on June 9, she said, a de­tained mother who had also been sep­a­rated from her child told her to check a Chicago shel­ter, and there she found Diogo.

She filed a law­suit against the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion.

An emer­gency hear­ing is sched­uled for Thurs­day.

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