Under Trump policy, U.S. plays custody keep-away with migrant children

A U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer.
(Gregory Bull / Associated Press)

The 16-year-old girl sat alone in the hotel room, under guard, unable to leave, unable to call anyone. She didn’t know where she was, or even what state she was in; all she knew was that she was going to be deported in a few hours to Guatemala, the country she’d fled.

Unknown to her, as she sat Friday in a hotel in Alexandria, La., lawyers across the country and siblings in the United States who’d applied to sponsor her had launched frantic efforts to stop the teenager’s removal from the U.S.

Less than an hour before the girl’s scheduled deportation, two things happened, according to A’Kiesha Soliman, the lawyer who originally represented her as she was held in a government-contracted shelter in El Paso. Soliman and other lawyers described the case to The Times on condition of maintaining the girl’s anonymity as a minor:

A judge in Louisiana denied the request by the teen’s lawyers to put a hold on her deportation, rejecting their argument that the government had violated her rights and subjected her to “significantly heightened risk” of contracting the coronavirus.

Almost simultaneously, the Guatemalan government put a brief moratorium on deportations from the U.S., forcing the Trump administration to cancel the Friday flight.


Without explanation, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials then transferred the teen from Louisiana back to Texas, where she’d crossed the border in March.

On Saturday, when her lawyers were finally able to locate and reach her, she couldn’t tell them where she was, and security wouldn’t provide the name of the hotel, Soliman said.

“This child has been moved from city to city and hotel to hotel,” Soliman said. “And each time has resulted in communication being completely cut off with her legal counsel.”

Under the cover of the coronavirus, Trump officials are targeting unaccompanied migrant minors for deportation even as lawyers fight to force their release to relatives in the U.S. who’ve applied to sponsor them, advocates across the country say.

The Guatemalan girl’s case illustrates how the system often leaves children alone to bear the brunt of the unpredictable swings of fate in their cases.

Though the roughly 1,600 migrant children in the government’s custody have special protections under U.S. law and a long-standing court settlement, officials often yank children back and forth through the immigration detention system — now rife with the virus — in pursuit of the administration’s goal of barring them from staying in the United States.

Mark Weber, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services, which houses the Office of Refugee Resettlement, or ORR, which Congress charged with the care and placement of unaccompanied migrant minors, said the agency doesn’t comment on individual cases “because of privacy and safety issues.”

He noted that decisions on deportation are up to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. “ORR does not determine who is removed or deported,” Weber said in a statement.

ICE, which both detains and deports migrants, did not provide comment.

The girl’s 22-year-old brother, who’d applied to sponsor her, says he feels helpless. Santos, who asked to be identified only by his first name because he is undocumented, has lived in North Carolina for three years since fleeing gang violence in their hometown of Chiquimula in southeastern Guatemala, he said.

“I didn’t know what to do,” he said Sunday of hearing his sister would be deported instead of released to live with him.

“We’re very afraid for her to go back alone,” he said, speaking in a mix of English and Spanish. “It’s very difficult for us and for her, especially for her.”

* * * * *

By the time Soliman and her legal team found the teen in a shelter in El Paso in April, ICE had already put her on the manifest for a deportation flight. It was a Friday, and the flight was scheduled for Monday.

The teen was being held in Texas by the refugee resettlement agency. The 16-year-old had crossed the border by herself in March, not realizing she already had a removal order waiting for her, according to her lawyers.

In early May, officials at the refugee agency blocked the detained teen from speaking to a reporter, despite the permission of the teen, her parent and her legal representatives, a move legal experts say violated her rights.

The “individual risk posed to the minor seems to far outweigh the benefit” of an interview, the agency said.

The teen and her mother fled Guatemala last year to seek asylum in the U.S. But under a controversial policy known as “Remain in Mexico,” officials sent them back to Mexico to await a court hearing, rather than allow them to join family in the U.S. while they waited, as was the practice with prior administrations.

The girl’s mother ultimately went back to Guatemala, like thousands of those forced into Mexico by what the administration calls its Migrant Protection Protocols.

Some 65,000 migrants have been subject to the policy. At least 1,114 have been kidnapped, raped or assaulted in Mexico, including 265 kidnappings or attempted kidnappings of children, according to Human Rights First, which has been tracking the incidents since the administration first began implementing its policy in California in January 2019.

With U.S. asylum hearings for those in Mexico now paused indefinitely amid the pandemic, and only roughly 1% of asylum seekers subject to the policy ultimately winning protection, many parents, like the teen’s mother, have decided to send their children across the border alone, believing they’d have a better chance.

Advocates argue that unaccompanied minors are entitled to receive immigration hearings under U.S. law, regardless of whether they’d entered the country before. Administration lawyers, however, argue that these minors already had hearings with their parents under Migrant Protection Protocols and were ordered removed back to their home countries.

In the Guatemalan girl’s case, ICE initially agreed to hold off on her deportation in April while a Texas judge considered her lawyers’ application to reopen her case, according to Soliman.

But in early May, shortly after the refugee resettlement agency rejected the request to interview the girl, she was transferred, without notice, out of El Paso to McAllen, Texas, where her lawyers could no longer directly represent her, and into ICE custody.

Then, just as other lawyers in McAllen asked a court to block her deportation, she was transferred again — to Louisiana.

Because of the coronavirus, neither Soliman nor any of the girl’s team of lawyers in Texas or Louisiana was ever able to meet her in person.

“We haven’t been able to build a personal relationship with her,” Soliman said just days before the teen was transferred out of El Paso. “We’re fighting really hard for her. At the shelter, they’re working for the government that’s trying to deport her.”

* * * * *

Late Thursday, Allyson Page, a lawyer with Immigration Services and Legal Advocacy, a legal services organization in Louisiana, got an email looking for help with the case of a Guatemalan girl about to be deported.

Page scrambled to pull together the relevant documents and file emergency petitions, getting ahold of court clerks long after business hours and letting them know that within hours, a teen, waiting in a hotel room, would be removed from the country.

“I don’t have a way of communicating with her,” Page said Friday, just hours before the flight. “I don’t think anyone does.”

Although Page lost in court, the Guatemalan government’s order stopping deportation flights on Friday temporarily gave the girl a reprieve.

Monday, however, the Guatemalans allowed flights to resume. By then, the 16-year-old had taken three flights in less than two weeks and stayed in a string of strange hotel rooms across the southern United States amid a pandemic in which public health officials recommend limiting travel and sheltering in place.

On Monday afternoon, a plane of eight unaccompanied minors, including the teenage girl, left San Antonio and arrived in the Guatemalan capital, officials there confirmed. Guatemalan migration authorities could not immediately say whether ICE had tested them for COVID-19 prior to boarding.

Santos was not able to speak with his sister before she was deported.

He said he wanted to tell her, “I miss you a lot.”

In one of her last video meetings before she was handed over to ICE, Soliman said the teen smiled only once, when asked her plans for the future.

“She wants to be a doctor,” Soliman recounted. “And if not, a police officer, and if not, a lawyer.”

Soliman doesn’t know who, if anyone, would be there to greet her when she stepped off the plane in Guatemala City.