Vet­eran try­ing to re­unite mi­grant fam­ily sep­a­rated by Re­main in Mex­ico pol­icy

A vet­eran is try­ing to re­unite a mi­grant fam­ily sep­a­rated by Re­main in Mex­ico pol­icy

Lodi News-Sentinel - - SPORTS - By Gus­tavo So­lis

SAN DIEGO — There was some­thing odd about the Ken­tucky woman who sat next to a young Hon­duran mother ask­ing for asy­lum in San Diego's im­mi­gra­tion court.

Judge Philip Law had never seen her be­fore. The woman wasn't an im­mi­gra­tion lawyer. She wasn't even re­lated to the sin­gle mother, Keyla.

So, the judge asked, who was she and what was she do­ing there?

"I'm Von­nette Mon­teith," she said. "I know the fam­ily and I'm here to help."

Mon­teith's long jour­ney from Louisville to that San Diego court­room be­gan last De­cem­ber, at St. Wil­liams Catholic Church.

After the ser­vice, a mem­ber of the con­gre­ga­tion stood up and asked for help. A Hon­duran refugee al­ready liv­ing in Louisville had more fam­ily at the south­west­ern border. Her fam­ily fled gang-con­trolled ter­ri­tory and hoped to find refuge in the United States.

The woman asked some­one to spon­sor the refugee's fam­ily so that they could all be to­gether in Ken­tucky.

Mon­teith, a for­mer Army Lieu­tenant colonel, doesn't speak Span­ish but she did have two spare rooms. So she of­fered to take them in. "I have a hard time say­ing no," she said. She spon­sored eight peo­ple in­clud­ing a fam­ily made up of Keyla's mother, step­fa­ther and two teenage step­broth­ers. They left Hon­duras after MS-13 killed the boys' grand­mother be­cause she in­ter­fered with their re­cruit­ment ef­forts.

When the group moved in, Mon­teith com­mu­ni­cated with them ex­clu­sively through trans­la­tion apps on her phone. She soon dis­cov­ered that she and the mother, Mirna, had a lot in com­mon.

Both were born just a few months apart in 1968. Their chil­dren were around the same age and both were re­li­gious.

Mon­teith no­ticed that Mirna prayed ev­ery day. She would of­ten pray — and cry — for her daugh­ter Keyla. She hadn't made it to Ken­tucky.

Keyla and her 4-year-old daugh­ter were the last of the fam­ily to leave Hon­duras. By the time she reached the south­west border in Fe­bru­ary, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion be­gan im­ple­ment­ing a new pol­icy called Mi­grant Pro­tec­tion Pro­to­cols, more com­monly known as Re­main in Mex­ico.

The pol­icy re­quires asy­lum seek­ers to live in Mex­ico while wait­ing for their im­mi­gra­tion court hear­ings. For Keyla, that means she's stuck in Mex­i­cali while her fam­ily is in Louisville.

"It's very sad what they are do­ing to us," she said. "It's hard to be away from my fam­ily. I miss them very much."

When Mon­teith found out about the fam­ily sep­a­ra­tion, she did ev­ery­thing she could to help.

First, she drove al­most 2,000 miles from Louisville to Mex­i­cali, where Keyla had pre­pared copies of im­por­tant le­gal doc­u­ments in­clud­ing po­lice re­ports of her hus­band's mur­der to prove her asy­lum case.

Keyla asked Mon­teith to help find an im­mi­gra­tion lawyer.

Asy­lum seek­ers en­rolled in Re­main in Mex­ico have strug­gled to find le­gal rep­re­sen­ta­tion. Data shows that less than 1.5% of mi­grants en­rolled in the pro­gram have lawyers.

Mi­grants who don't find at­tor­neys must rep­re­sent them­selves and are sig­nif­i­cantly more likely to lose their cases, data shows.

Keyla knew this, which is why she made find­ing a lawyer her top pri­or­ity.

So Mon­teith drove to Los An­ge­les, hop­ing to find non­prof­its will­ing to take Keyla's case. She called, emailed, tracked down law of­fices, but struck out.

"The thing that was so dis­ap­point­ing was that out of all of th­ese or­ga­ni­za­tions out there help­ing im­mi­grants, none of them called me back," she said. "I went to L.A. and walked all over and emailed, and emailed, and emailed. If I, who un­der­stands the lan­guage and knows how to call and email, can't get help, how are they get­ting help?"

She con­tin­ued the search in Ken­tucky and even­tu­ally con­vinced Mirna's lawyer to also rep­re­sent Keyla as well.

That lawyer, Kris­ten Bar­row, was hes­i­tant at first.

Re­main in Mex­ico cases are be­ing heard al­most ex­clu­sively in im­mi­gra­tion courts along the border. The Louisville-based at­tor­ney had never rep­re­sented some­one en­rolled in the pro­gram and was con­cerned about the lo­gis­tics and costs of rep­re­sent­ing a client 2,000 miles away in Mex­ico.

How would she find the time to meet with Keyla in Mex­i­cali? Would the law firm be able to af­ford the travel costs? What about the rest of her case load?

Mon­teith of­fered to serve as a vol­un­teer and even travel to Mex­ico and San Diego on her own dime.

"She is a mir­a­cle worker," Bar­row said. From Louisville, Bar­row filed a mo­tion in San Diego to be able rep­re­sent Keyla via phone. But she never got an an­swer.

Mon­teith de­cided to go to San Diego her­self and ask for a tele­phonic hear­ing in per­son. That's how she ended up in Judge Law's court­room ear­lier this month.

The day of the hear­ing, Bar­row called the clerk to ask if she was go­ing to be able to phone in. But she said the clerk told her that there was noth­ing he could do be­cause court was al­ready in ses­sion. So she waited by the phone and hoped that Mon­teith could speak with the judge.

In the court­room, Judge Law said he had ap­proved the mo­tion for the tele­phonic hear­ing. That ap­proval had never made it to Louisville though.

Mon­teith asked the judge to call Bar­row, which he did. From her law of­fice in Ken­tucky, she spoke to an im­mi­gra­tion judge in San Diego about an asy­lum case from Hon­duras.

It was a small and short-lived vic­tory. Bar­row's main plan was to ask the judge to move the case to Louisville's im­mi­gra­tion court and con­sol­i­date Keyla's case with her mother's.

How­ever, the judge de­nied the mo­tion be­cause the im­mi­gra­tion court in Louisville has been closed since Au­gust 15.

It turns out the el­e­va­tors in that build­ing are bro­ken, so the en­tire court is closed un­til some­one re­pairs it. Bar­row said the court is sched­uled to re­open some­time in Oc­to­ber.

"It's just re­ally, re­ally bad tim­ing," she said. Mean­while, Keyla was sent back to Mex­ico un­til her next hear­ing on Nov. 21.


Von­nette Mon­teith visit­ing Keyla, an Hon­duran mi­grant, and her 4-year-old daugh­ter in Mex­i­cali. The Cen­tral Amer­i­can asy­lum seek­ers are wait­ing in Mex­ico un­til their next im­mi­gra­tion court hear­ing in Novem­ber.

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