In late 2017, a Guatemalan mother and her teenage son were apprehended at the U.S. border in Presidio, Texas. She was among the first wave of migrant parents being separated from their children in what went on to become the Trump administration’s Zero Tolerance policy, aimed at discouraging families from crossing the border.
Leticia, who doesn’t want us using her full name (which is common with asylum-seekers worried about jeopardizing their cases), was ultimately deported back to Guatemala without her son. He remained in the U.S. and was eventually sent to live with a foster family in Texas.
“I’ve been worried and I’m really going to be worried until the moment I’m able to lay eyes on him,” she said in Spanish.
Leticia will finally see her son within a couple of weeks in New York. She spoke with Gothamist/WNYC Thursday after arriving at Los Angeles International Airport, where she was about to board a flight to New York City. She's among nine Central American parents allowed back into the country this week after the ACLU won a lawsuit claiming the parents were deported without their full consent.
“These are nine who not only were separated from their children, not only were deported without their children, but were coerced or misled into giving up their own asylum rights,” said Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU Immigrant Rights Project.
“We are thrilled they are coming back and are going to reunite,” he added. “Unfortunately there are hundreds and hundreds of other parents who were deported without their children.”
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Nearly 3,000 children were taken during the 2018 Zero Tolerance policy, precipitating a wave of litigation. Gelernt said 471 were deported without their children. The ACLU tracked all of them down and found 18 who wanted to come back and had strong asylum claims. A California judge eventually ruled that 11 could return to the U.S., and these nine were the first. They arrived in LA Wednesday night.
Gelernt said the government has acknowledged another 1,556 children were separated from parents before Zero Tolerance started, and the ACLU is now working with other groups to find these parents.
“We anticipate that the good majority of those 1,556 will have been deported,” he said. “Many, many of them will have been deported without their children.”
The ACLU’s court filing describes Leticia as having suffered severe sexual abuse in Guatemala. It also said she and her son were both threatened with death. After they were separated by the U.S. government, it said “she began to suffer episodes of facial paralysis” while in detention. She eventually passed a credible fear interview, the first step to apply for asylum, but withdrew her application after she was told she would have to wait nearly a year for her hearing and would remain separated from her son.
Leticia, 34, said her son is now 17 and being apart from him made her feel empty. He’s her only child and she said they are very close. They stayed in touch by talking once a week, but she had no way of knowing if he was really doing okay. “He needs his mother,” she explained, adding that she plans to give him a big hug once they see each other again.
Leticia’s lawyer, Conchita Cruz, said she expects her client to be reunited with her son within two weeks. Cruz said Leticia has to go to New York first, where she plans to settle with a family that’s volunteered to host her and her son while she pursues her asylum case. Then she can file to regain custody of her child. He is with a foster family through an agency under contract with the federal government.
“We’re excited to keep working with Leticia,” said Cruz, co-executive director of the Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project. “She has not given up hope and never stopped fighting for the opportunity to reunite with her son and to fight for asylum and to fight for justice for her family.”
The ACLU is seeking damages on behalf of all families who were separated at the border. About 1,000 more children were separated from parents after the Zero Tolerance policy ended in 2018, because the government thought the parents were either dangerous or had criminal records. The California judge who’s been presiding over all these cases recently ruled the Trump administration had not acted illegally in most of those more recent separations.