Five year-old Carlos played on the floor with a couple of brightly colored toy trucks, making noises and chasing them with a younger boy while an older boy tried to sleep in a chair. They were in a waiting room at the city’s main immigration court at Federal Plaza. The boys are in government custody, staying with foster families or in shelters. Their caseworkers were seated nearby with knapsacks full of snacks and water.
It wasn’t clear why the other children were in immigration court that morning, but Carlos was among more than 900 kids who had been separated from their families at the southern border since last summer. The ACLU claims this is illegal. In June of 2018, President Donald Trump issued an executive order ending his “zero tolerance” policy of taking children from parents, and a federal judge in California ordered the government to reunite about 2,700 families. But the Trump administration claims it’s still allowed to separate children from parents who are dangerous or who have criminal records.
A third of the 911 children separated from parents since last year were sent to foster homes and shelters in New York according to Anthony Enriquez, director of the unaccompanied minors program of Catholic Charities Community Services in New York. His program provides legal services for all of these kids and he counted 308 who have come here since last summer, about 20 percent of whom are five or younger. He speculated that New York gets so many of these children because it has a lot of Spanish-speaking foster families through government-contracted shelters like Cayuga Centers, which placed Carlos with a local family in April after he was separated from his father in Texas.
The ACLU is now challenging these separations by seeking to make them more rare, and attorneys are trying to reunite the children with their parents. Carlos’s case demonstrates why it’s a heavy lift.
Carlos is represented by Anilu Chadwick, an attorney with Kids in Need of Defense (KIND). We don’t have permission to use the boy’s full name, which is why we’re referring to him by one of his middle names. Chadwick went to immigration court with him Thursday morning seeking voluntary departure, a way for him to return to Honduras with his family’s permission. She said a Texas immigration judge ordered his father’s deportation in May and he wants to take Carlos back to Honduras as soon as possible. She said most parents choose this option, even those who may have wanted asylum.
But it wasn’t so easy. Chadwick said Carlos needed to see an immigration judge, even though other children have been allowed to avoid that extra step. She said she fought to get a court date sooner than August 1st, but it wasn’t possible.
Nor did she know why Carlos had been separated from his father. She learned about the case in early July from Catholic Charities, which screens the unaccompanied children in New York for legal services. Then she had to track down the father by contacting ICE.
“I was told that there was probation violations,” she explained, saying it seemed like the father had been arrested for obstruction of justice in the U.S. before he last attempted to enter in April.
“But there wasn't a real clarity as to what the specific crime was and there wasn't a clarity as to whether the crimes committed actually demonstrated that the father presented any risk to his child.”
Chadwick has represented many other children who have been separated from their parents since last year, and said none of the parents had serious criminal records. She said some had been arrested for DUIs and for trespassing, and that she had to get a DNA test to prove one father’s paternity. In another case, she said the father was accused of a crime in a country he hadn’t ever visited.
“If this separation is justifiable in the eyes of the government, then the government should provide complete information” she added.
Chadwick said she only had brief phone calls with Carlos’s father, because he had to pay for the calls from his ICE detention center. He told her he wanted to go back to Honduras with his son and they spoke about the logistics. But she said the calls were so quick she never learned why he brought Carlos to the U.S. She said it seemed like they would be safe upon their return to Honduras, but added that KIND would stay in touch and provide extra assistance if necessary.
The immigration court hearing took about five minutes. A government lawyer, who arrived late and didn’t seem familiar with the case, didn’t present any objections to the request for voluntary departure. Carlos sat at a desk next to Chadwick, a court-appointed translator, and a child advocate from the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights, who works as a kind of intermediary. He drew in a coloring book the whole time. Judge Randa Zagzoug granted the request, wished him good luck and said she didn’t have the power to guarantee he’d be able to connect with his father before returning home. Those decisions are made by ICE. When children don’t return home with a parent, the government sends an adult to accompany them on the flight.
After the hearing was over, Chadwick took Carlos to the waiting room and told him in Spanish that he’d be going on an airplane back to Honduras. But she also said she didn’t know when he’d see his Papi. She asked him if he was nervous and he said no. They gave each other a high five. He seemed happy and raced down the hall with her before she said goodbye.
But Chadwick was disturbed that she couldn’t say exactly when he’d see his father, or go back home, and wondered why the government allows reunification if these families are returning to Honduras, but not to stay in the U.S. and seek asylum.
“I said that it may be possible that he sees his father before he returns to Honduras,” she explained. “But that it's not going to be immediate because I do not want him to have the expectation that tomorrow he'll be leaving the shelter to be reunited with his father. We unfortunately don't receive updates as to travel arrangements as attorneys for the children. We do not know when the child is going to be transported or how he is eventually going to be repatriated. It's a very complicated process which we do not have a lot of access to.”
Chadwick said Carlos was initially very withdrawn when she first met him in July. But she said he gradually he opened up, as they played with toys at her office. She worries about what’s next.
“He's about to undergo another separation,” she said, referring to the foster family he’s been living with since April. “So we're placing these children in impossible situations where how can we expect them to acclimate, adjust to constant changes in who their caregiver is?”
Chadwick said she has one case involving a young child whose father now doubts whether the government identified the right boy, because he couldn’t speak his indigenous language during their phone call.
The ACLU is asking the same judge who’s been hearing the case since last year to set clear limits on the conditions for separating children from parents. The government hasn’t yet submitted its response to that motion. But in the meantime, attorneys say the children keep coming to New York every week. Chadwick said there are currently about 120 and they’re often very young, just like Carlos.