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Toddler separated from father by U.S. officials after mother is killed in Tijuana

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Sergio Angel Martinez Lopez with his son, Sergio Angel Martinez Gaona.
(Provided by family)
San Diego Union-Tribune

After he lost his green card following a felony conviction and was deported to Mexico, Sergio Angel Martinez Lopez thought he would never come back to the U.S.

That changed this summer after his wife was killed in a spray of bullets in a drive-by shooting, according to news reports. Martinez decided to flee with their son, not quite 2.

When he asked for asylum in October at the San Ysidro Port of Entry, border officials told him that he would have to be separated from the younger Sergio but assured Martinez that his son would soon be united with Martinez’s mother in Jacksonville, Fla.

More than two months later, the toddler is still in the federal government’s custody in Texas, Martinez said.

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Locked inside Otay Mesa Detention Center, Martinez, 32, said he feels like he’s still being punished for the life he lived when he was younger, a lifestyle he said he left behind in the U.S.

“If they’d focused on why I came to ask for asylum, I don’t think they’d have the heart to separate me and the baby,” he said.

Martinez originally came to the U.S. from Tijuana with his family when he was in elementary school, moving to Jacksonville.

By his late teens, he was getting into trouble, with criminal charges related to drugs and alcohol. Then police found a gun in the car he was driving, according to immigration officials, court records and Martinez himself.

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Martinez maintains that the gun was his friend’s, but it didn’t matter. He served a prison sentence and was transferred to immigration custody and deported in September 2014.

He returned to his hometown of Tijuana and got a job at a call center. There he met Glenda Siboney Gaona Zamora and fell in love.

Martinez was living with Gaona and two children — one was hers from a previous relationship — in Sánchez Taboada, one of Tijuana’s most violent neighborhoods, when they became targets of threats because of an incident that began outside their home between police and a driver, Martinez said.

The incident escalated when police entered the home, searching for a gun that wasn’t there. Police eventually told the family to move for their own safety.

The couple hid in a hotel until they found a new place in El Refugio, a neighborhood in eastern Tijuana.

Martinez thought it was far enough away, but less than two weeks later, someone sprayed bullets at the family car while his wife was driving. Somehow, Martinez and the two children emerged unscathed, but Gaona was badly hurt.

He managed to get her to a hospital, where she died that afternoon.

Martinez went into hiding again, frequently switching hotels if he felt someone was watching him. He received a message with a photo of his bullet-ridden car warning him about what would come next.

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He decided to apply for asylum and waited in the six-week line at the San Ysidro Port of Entry to ask the U.S. for protection.

“I would’ve never went if I had known they would take my baby away,” Martinez said.

When asked why Martinez was separated from his child, Immigration and Customs Enforcement said its officers weren’t involved and deferred to Customs and Border Protection, which did not respond to a request for comment because of the ongoing government shutdown.

Though a San Diego federal judge has ordered the Trump administration to reunify families, court rulings so far have made exceptions for parents with serious criminal histories.

Immigration officials have separated parents from their children if the parents have enough of a criminal history that officials do not believe they can release them. Under a court ruling, children may not be held indefinitely in immigration custody. They must be released within 20 days.

With news of two children dying in immigration custody in recent weeks, Martinez is especially concerned. He calls every day to the facility in Texas that is housing his son to ask whether his mother’s application to sponsor the boy has been processed.

He’s had one video call with his son since they were separated, though he’s requested several more.

Martinez’s normally talkative and playful toddler didn’t say much as he looked at his father on the screen.

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“I could see in his face that he was mad at me,” Martinez said. “Me and him were really close even when his mom was alive.”

His son spent his second birthday in custody.

Unaccompanied children, and those who are separated from their parents at the border, end up in custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement until social workers can find and approve family members living in the U.S. to sponsor them.

The average amount of time a child spends in custody has almost doubled in the past two years, growing from 34 days two years ago to 60 days more recently, according to data from the Department of Health and Human Services.

Advocates have attributed at least some of this lag to a change in policy last year requiring all adults living in the potential sponsor’s home to submit fingerprints that may be shared with ICE, the agency responsible for deportations.

The Department of Health and Human Services ended that policy in mid-December, acknowledging that it had affected how long children stayed in custody.

Martinez’s mother, Maria Niskanen, is saving money to be able to take care of the younger Sergio when he is finally released.

Martinez’s younger brother, Anthony Niskanen, 25, said he helped her with the paperwork and said the entire household completed the fingerprinting process weeks ago. They don’t know how much longer it will take.

He has listened to his mother’s weekly video chats with the younger Sergio.

“I can tell that the baby is confused. He lost his mom, and now he lost his dad,” Niskanen said. “I think they’re taking care of him. I just don’t think he’s happy.”

For Martinez, the hardest part is not knowing what will happen next. He passed an interview with an asylum officer, the first step in the process to be able to stay in the U.S., but he hasn’t found an attorney to help him with the immigration court case.

What he wants more than anything is to be back with his son. He left two children behind in Jacksonville when he was deported.

“I already missed out on two kids’ lives,” Martinez said. “I can’t miss out on three of them.”

Morrissey writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.


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