By Sally Beauvais
Last month, U.S. attorney general Jeff Sessions doubled-down on the Trump administration’s efforts to prosecute all cases of illegal entry into the U.S. These criminal prosecutions are now the reason why hundreds of kids and parents are being separated at the southwest border. As these parents await federal court in criminal detention facilities, their children are placed in shelters across the country.
In one case in West Texas, three Guatemalan women are facing potential deportation and they aren’t sure if or when they’ll be reunited with their kids.
By Sally Beauvais, Marfa Public Radio
In a small federal courtroom in Alpine, Texas, three Guatemalan women sit side-by-side in handcuffs and orange jumpsuits. They’re young — in their mid-twenties. And immigration officials separated them from their children at the border about 90 miles south nearly a month ago.
“There is no guarantee that those kids will be reunited with them,” says public defender Chris Carlin, who represented the women in court.
The morning of the trial, Carlin and his team were finally able to locate the women’s sons. Two of them are 9-years-old, and one is 8. They’re at a shelter in Manhattan that’s contracted by the division of Health and Human Services that’s responsible for sheltering undocumented kids.
In emailed statements, Border Patrol officials say families separated at the border will be reunited during the deportation process. But Carlin has his doubts.
“There is nothing in the immigration files of those women to show that they actually came to the U.S. with a child.”
He’s worried the kids’ paper trail won’t be sufficient to link them to their mothers. Carlin also says the women don’t have legal addresses in Guatemala, and they could be hard to locate if deported without their kids.
The fact that they crossed with children had little bearing on the trial in Alpine. It was a criminal trial, only meant to determine whether the women crossed into the U.S. illegally, which is a federal misdemeanor they were eventually found guilty of.
“A petty misdemeanor is the federal equivalent of a parking ticket, and the consequences of a parking ticket should not be that you lose your child.”
The number of families and unaccompanied minors crossing the southwest border in the Big Bend Sector aren’t as high as in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, or Yuma, Arizona. But they may come as a surprise given the region’s remote, dangerous territory.
From October 2017 through May of this year, 835 unaccompanied children and 543 families were apprehended in the Big Bend sector.
Sources with the local border patrol say they arrest the vast majority of families near the official port of entry in the town of Presidio, not out in the more remote, less detectable parts of the region.
Presidio Mayor John Ferguson has seen it.
“They cross in groups, and you’re always going to have some adults and children,” says Ferguson.
He says running into people out in the open who’ve crossed is a regular part of life in Presidio right now. “If you come upon them, they’re usually just kind of alongside the outlying areas of town, but almost like they’re waiting for Border Patrol to come and take them.”
El Paso-based immigration attorney Melissa Lopez says there’s confusion among her clients about what will happen to them when they arrive in the United States.
Some try to take the legal route, and file for asylum at official entry points. Others think they have a better chance of staying in the U.S. if they are picked up by immigration officials near the border. Most she says are seeking asylum.
“You know we’ve repeatedly heard mothers say if their children remain in Central America, they face near certain death. And while coming to the US can be very dangerous, if their children make it, they have a chance for a future.”
Back in the Alpine courtroom, after hearing one woman’s testimony of fleeing violence in Guatemala. the judge says he can’t imagine how difficult the women’s lives are and there’s nothing he can say to make them better.
The women are now in the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. It’s unclear when they’ll be reunited with their children.