Hilda Hernandez, an asylum-seeker from Honduras, said she fled extortionist gangs in Veracruz, Mexico, and dodged drug cartels in Piedras Negras.
She thought she was finally safe earlier this month as she crossed the international bridge into Eagle Pass, Texas, with her 3-year-old granddaughter, Shayra, to request asylum from U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials.
But that’s when her nightmare truly began, she said.
Officials there separated Shayra from Hernandez, though she said she gave them documents showing she was the young girl’s main caregiver. Hernandez, 42, was released pending her immigration hearing and traveled to Florida to stay with a relative. Shayra, who turned 3 in December, remains in federal custody in a children’s shelter in San Antonio.
“I did everything the right way. I did everything legally,” she said through tears. “You feel so helpless. I just want my little girl back.”
No tracking of nonparental separations
Nonparents – grandparents, aunts, older siblings – are routinely separated from migrant youth at the border, despite federal efforts to keep families together, according to immigrant advocates.
The families are separated under a U.S. law designed to shield asylum-seeking minors from child traffickers and other threats, but the policy often ends up breaking up families and traumatizing children, said Jennifer Podkul, of Kids in Need of Defense, an advocacy group.
“The intent is child protection,” she said. “But the result is a lot of needless separation.”
The Biden administration has said it is a priority to keep families together at the border, and has taken steps to reunite many of the estimated 3,900 families separated under “Zero Tolerance,” the border policy that separated children from their parents under former president Donald Trump. It created a multi-agency task force to track down and reunite families.
But much of that effort is aimed at reuniting parents with their children and does not address the grandmothers and aunts who routinely arrive at the border with younger relatives, said Casey Revkin, executive director of Each Step Home, a non-profit that helps detained migrant children and their families at the Texas-Mexico border.
In the past four weeks, her group has assisted two grandmothers and one aunt who were separated from the minors they were traveling with, despite the family members showing documents proving they were the main caregivers, she said.
Title 42, the federal rule that allows border agents to expel asylum-seekers to Mexico without due process to prevent the spread of COVID-19, has made things even more difficult for the families, Revkin said. Under the policy, parents and their children are expelled to Mexico together but nonparental guardians are separated and expelled, while the children they traveled with are transferred to a U.S. facility, making it much harder to reunite them later, she said.
“These children have fled unspeakable dangers and traveled thousands of miles with these grandparents,” Revkin said. “To be separated again at the border is just tragic.”
Under U.S. law, children at the border must be separated from an adult unless that adult is a parent or legal guardian. The children are then transferred to the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, often in a group housing facility, rekindling images of children warehoused in border facilities under the Trump administration.
In most cases, determining if a child is in danger with a relative falls to border agents overwhelmed with high numbers of border crossers and not equipped or trained to determine child welfare, advocates said.
Federal officials track the number of children separated at the border from parents but no such numbers exist for nonparental separations, according to a spokesman at the U.S Department of Homeland Security. U.S. Customs and Border Protection would not comment further, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees migrant children in federal custody, did not reply to requests for comment and data for this story.
Last year, Yeni fled her home in El Salvador when she was threatened by gang violence, she said. She headed to the U.S.-Mexico border with her 5-year-old niece, Maria. The plan was to reunite with Maria’s mother, Julissa, already living in Massachusetts.
Yeni and Maria traveled in buses and stayed in filthy apartments across Mexico before crossing the Rio Grande with a smuggler and turning themselves over to U.S. Border Patrol agents in Texas in December, expecting to be able to apply for asylum together.
There, she said they were initially placed in the same shelter, then separated. Yeni was released pending her immigration court hearing but Maria remained in federal custody. Days stretched into more than a week. Her mother, Julissa, got periodic video calls from the shelter and had to soothe her crying daughter.
As they neared Christmas, Maria begged her mother to tell Santa Claus to take her home.
“It was heartbreaking,” Julissa said. “I was desperate.”
On Dec. 28, 12 days after being separated, Maria was released and flew to Massachusetts with a social worker. Like other migrants, Yeni and Julissa asked that their last names not be published for fear of retribution.
Maria initially had nightmares and still periodically makes her mom promise she won’t have to go back “to that place,” Julissa said.
“When they left El Salvador, I never imagined that she would have to go through that. I never thought once she would be separated from her aunt,” she said. “It’s traumatic for the children and for the parents it’s an indescribable pain.”
Trusted Adult Relative program
Last year, the Biden administration launched an initiative known as the Trusted Adult Relative program that places federal social workers on the border to more quickly vet and reunite separated nonparental families. Though a good first step, that pilot program is currently only in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley and limited in scope, advocates said.
The government could expand the program and surge more social workers to the border, shortening the time families are separated, much as it did with recent influxes of Afghan and Ukrainian families that arrived in the U.S. following conflicts in those countries, advocates said.
Changing the policy would entail overhauling the country’s immigration system, which the U.S. government has struggled to do for decades, said Julia Gelatt, senior policy analyst with the Migration Policy Institute.
“It’s a difficult question,” Gelatt said. “Of course, you don’t want children to be in the hands of traffickers. But it’s really hard to assess a bunch of things really quickly. It’s hard to asses what’s a safe and healthy relationship and what’s not.”
Grandmother, granddaughter still separated
Hernandez had been the main caregiver for Shayra since the child was born, she said. Her mother, 17 at the time, relinquished custody to her. So, when Hernandez was threatened by gangs while living in Veracruz, Mexico, she fled with Shayra to seek asylum in the United States.
“I wanted what was best for her,” Hernandez said.
At the border in Piedras Negras, Hernandez waited for more than a month for her turn to cross the bridge and seek asylum. On Jan. 11, she presented U.S. border officials with a certified document from the child welfare agency in the city where she lived in Veracruz, showing she had guardianship and granting her permission to take Shayra to the United States with her, as well as photos of her at Shayra’s baptism and first birthday.
Still, the two were separated. Hernandez said officials wrenched Shayra away, as she cried out “¡Mamalita!” – her name for her grandmother, a mix of “Mama” and “Abuelita” – and clung to her grandmother.
Hernandez was released on humanitarian parole and went to stay with her mother in Bradenton, Florida. Shayra remains in a federal children’s shelter in San Antonio.
On Tuesday, Hernandez saw Shayra for the first time since their separation on a video call from the shelter. The young girl had a scratch across her face, which workers at the center said was self-inflicted.
“She’s suffering, I know she is,” Hernandez said through sobs. “Please I just need them to return her to me.”
Follow Jervis on Twitter: @MrRJervis.