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The girls, 8 and 11, were alone in a rented room in a dangerous Mexican city bordering Texas. Their father had been attacked and abandoned on the side of a road and they didn't know where he was.
For seven months the children had waited with their dad in Matamoros, across from Brownsville, to ask U.S. authorities for asylum. They had fled their home after death threats from local gang members and no help from police. They had also been victims of sexual assault.
But in March, after their father suddenly didn't return from his construction job, a neighbor took the children to the international bridge. He said they should present themselves to U.S. immigration authorities, who would reunite the girls with their mother in Houston.
"Mami," the eldest panicked in a brief call immigration agents made to the mother. "Daddy didn't come home."
The mother, at work in Houston, said she nearly fainted.
Before the coronavirus pandemic upended everything, the children likely would have spent a few weeks in the care of a U.S. shelter until they were released to their mother to pursue their asylum cases.
Instead, government officials placed the children in foster care through a federal shelter for two months. In mid-May, they suddenly notified their caseworkers that they intended to deport the sisters in a few days to El Salvador, where they have no place to go and fear the gang members who vowed to kill the family. At the last minute, the girls were released to their mother Thursday, pending an emergency federal appeal of their deportation.
As the nation remains focused on COVID-19, the U.S. government has aggressively begun to rush the deportations of some of the most vulnerable migrant children in its care to countries where they have been raped, beaten or had a parent killed, according to attorneys, court filings and congressional staff.
While the deportation of children to dangerous situations is not a new phenomenon for U.S. authorities, what has shocked even veteran immigration attorneys is that the government is trying to so quickly remove, arguably against federal law, those most imperiled — all during a global pandemic.
At least two children deported in recent weeks have been tracked down by international refugee agencies after U.S. counterparts asked them for help because the minors face such danger, including a 16-year-old Honduran girl who had been raped back home.
One boy is locked down in a relative's home in Honduras, and said in an interview that he fears going outside because of abuse related to his sexual orientation. His mother is stuck in Mexico after her asylum case at the Texas border was denied and the pandemic halted travel across the Americas.
Another teen was deported without his attorneys being notified and despite an immigration judge agreeing to reopen his case. At least seven more children are fighting deportation with last-minute federal court filings after their attorneys said the U.S. moved abruptly to put them on planes home.
"These cases are probably the tip of the iceberg," said Stephen Kang, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union who is monitoring the increasing reports.
The sudden spike of deporting children comes as President Donald Trump's administration has cited the global health crisis to largely shutter the border, including to almost all unaccompanied minors seeking asylum. Acting Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Mark Morgan told reporters last month that during the contagion even migrant children "pose an absolute, concrete public health risk to this country and everybody they come in contact with."
These deported children come on top of an additional 900 unaccompanied minors who under the emergency declaration have been turned back at the U.S. border in March and April, federal statistics show, often to danger.
Federal authorities have stalled the release of migrant children in the U.S. to relatives in some cases and in late-night moves are attempting to deport them with scant notice to their attorneys. In particular, the government seems to be focused on children who have crossed the border alone after U.S. authorities forced them and their parents to wait for months in Mexico in their bid for asylum.
Since March, the Department of Homeland Security has tried to quickly deport at least 15 such children, according to their lawyers, and removed at least six, including a 10-year-old. Another Guatemalan girl was set to be deported Monday, her attorney said.
All had been required to stay in Mexico under a controversial 2019 Trump administration program named the Migrant Protection Protocols, in which most had no access to lawyers. Roughly one in two such returned migrants were ordered deported without being able to attend their immigration court hearings in the U.S. As violence surged in Mexican border towns, and some parents were assaulted, kidnapped or even killed, children streamed into the U.S. alone.
The Office of Refugee Resettlement, in charge of unaccompanied migrant children, began tracking those whose parents remained in Mexico in October, and since then it has identified 571, including more than 300 who are 12 or younger. Of those, a spokeswoman said, the vast majority, 476, had been reunified with their relatives or a sponsor in the U.S. as of early May. Four had been deported by that date.
The agency had about 1,450 migrant children in its care as of May 15, which includes the minors previously stuck with their parents in Mexico and others who came to the border alone or with relatives who are not their parents. That historically low number is partly because only 58 children were referred to the agency's care after being allowed to cross the border in April. By comparison, more than 1,850 such children were permitted into the country in March.
The White House has long been trying to undo federal protections for immigrant families and children, who the administration contends are wrongly allowed to stay in the U.S. for years because of "loopholes" in federal law. The government, which tried separating immigrant parents from their children at the border before federal litigation halted the practice, is seeking changes to a settlement decree governing the care of migrant children, and expediting their cases in immigration courts.
"We are seeing a wholesale attack," said Jennifer Podkul, director of policy for Kids in Need of Defense, a national nonprofit advocating for migrant children. "They are using the pandemic as an excuse why they are expelling children."
April Grant, a spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said in a statement that children who enter the U.S. and have pending cases with their family under the Migrant Protection Protocols program will be given new cases as unaccompanied minors.
But if children already had been ordered removed under their family's case in that program they are subject to deportation when they cross the border again — even if they do so alone and under completely different circumstances.
"If the minor was ordered removed from the U.S. by an immigration judge as part of the family unit, prior to being encountered as an (unaccompanied child) then the minor is subject to the final order of removal," Grant said.
Attorneys in lawsuits across the country argue that is a violation of both a 2008 law intended to protect migrant children from trafficking and a 1997 federal settlement forcing the government to hold such minors in "safe" conditions and make "prompt" efforts to release them. The attorneys contend the government is breaking the law by not granting children entering the U.S. alone a new bid at asylum.
"The law is very clear that the children are unaccompanied, they entered unaccompanied, the government itself designated them as unaccompanied, so they are entitled to all these protections" of the 2008 law and 1997 settlement, said Asra Syed, a New York lawyer helping litigate the case of the Salvadoran sisters in Houston. "The only thing that makes it gray is not a question of the law, it is a question of how ICE is behaving."
"We're going to kill you and your family"
The ordeal of the Salvadoran girls in Houston began last year when their father, a 33-year-old aviation mechanic in that nation's capital city, used his savings to buy a handful of cars and rent them as taxis. Gang members forced him to pay a monthly extortion fee, which they steadily raised. The father, Mauricio, began struggling to meet the payments, said his wife, Maria, who asked that neither she nor her husband be fully identified because they fear retaliation from both the gang and the government.
In March 2019, Maria said gang members pointed a gun at her husband's head. He ran away, calling police, who arrested two of his assailants. That April, Mauricio and his wife briefly left the girls at home when the oldest phoned: "One of the cars is burning," Maria recalled her saying.
Mauricio alerted the police. Then the phone calls began: "We know where your wife works. We know where the girls are. If you don't work with us, we're going to kill you and your family."
In August 2019, armed men showed up at their house, threatening them again, so they filed another police complaint.
That September, Mauricio's wife flew to Houston on a tourist visa she already had and planned to stay with her brother. But she said Mauricio and the girls didn't have months to wait for a tourist visa application, so they left the next day on a bus to the Texas border. When Border Patrol agents apprehended them crossing illegally near Brownsville that month, they were placed in the Migrant Protection Protocols program and forced to wait in Matamoros for their U.S. immigration court dates.
Maria waitressed at a Colombian restaurant in Houston and sent them money so they could rent a room in the border town, to which the U.S. State Department has long warned against travel because of crime and kidnapping, classifying the state of Tamaulipas at the same danger level as war zones like Syria. Maria said she hired a Houston immigration lawyer to argue her family's case, paying him $6,000 and sending copies of police complaints they filed.
The family was far more fortunate than most of the 60,000 migrants forced to wait in Mexico under the program in the past year. Unable to afford rent, many stay in sprawling tent camps such as the one in Matamoros where children younger than 5 made up a quarter of its 2,500 residents, according to a tally by Human Rights First, an advocacy group.
Unlike the Salvadoran family, only about 4% of migrants waiting for their U.S. hearings in Mexico have been able to secure an attorney to represent them, according to Human Rights Watch, an international nonprofit. By comparison, those in the U.S. are seven times more likely to find a lawyer — crucial in winning asylum.
During Mauricio and his daughters' final hearing in January in the Brownsville immigration court, he told his wife that the lawyer poorly handled their asylum claim. The judge denied their case. That attorney declined to be interviewed.
Mauricio began working construction in Matamoros because Maria was trying to afford another lawyer to appeal their case.
In March, the father didn't return from work. The girls waited all night and the next evening they said their neighbor dropped them at the international bridge. Knowing that migrants in Matamoros are often targeted by cartels, the neighbor feared the worst for their father.
U.S. authorities took in the girls, designated them as unaccompanied minors and placed them in the care of a shelter in downtown Houston. Caseworkers with the Office of Refugee Resettlement processed Maria's application to receive her daughters, doing a home study of the apartment she shared with her brother to see if it met the government's requirements, she said, and taking her fingerprints.
Then the girls made a shocking disclosure to their caseworker, who relayed it to the mother: For years, they said, a relative had sexually assaulted them while Maria and Mauricio were at work. The man died in 2018, but the girls never revealed anything to their parents.
The mother's heart shattered.
"That was the worst day of my life," she said.
She also feared for her husband.
After he was left nearly for dead when leaving work that March evening, he eventually made it back to the room he had shared with his daughters. By then, they were already in the U.S.
He has since escaped Matamoros for a different Mexican city because it was unsafe, Maria said. She has not had steady contact with her husband because he no longer has a phone or reliable place to live, but they talk when they can through Facebook.
The mother doesn't know what they are going to do, but has focused on getting the girls back.
Maria underwent a mandatory course through the shelter triggered by her daughters' sexual assault allegations, and in May, said their case worker told her everything had been approved. She even asked the mother to set up medical appointments for the girls.
A few days before they were to be reunified, ICE officials suddenly announced that they planned to deport the sisters to El Salvador, said one of their pro bono lawyers, Elizabeth Sanchez Kennedy of YMCA International Services in Houston.
The ICE official told shelter staff that the girls have final removal orders from the hearing with their father in Brownsville.
The attorney submitted an appeal to reopen that case and start a new one for them as unaccompanied children. In a separate application for a temporary restraining order in a Houston federal court, she argued this was required under the law.
El Salvador's consulate general in Houston asked Maria where the girls could go if they were deported. The mother said the only family member left was related to the girls' sexual assault allegations, and that they would not be safe. The consulate told her that ICE officials said if needed the girls could be sent to foster care in El Salvador.
"We are seeing a pattern emerge"
Lawyers across the country said it seems to be a coordinated new effort to target children who can easily and quickly be deported, particularly those in the Migrant Protection Protocols program, even though they contend the minors qualify for special safeguards.
"We are seeing a pattern emerge where ICE is insisting on deporting unaccompanied immigrant children," Syed, another lawyer in the Houston case, wrote in an email. "But we haven't seen it happen to two such young children — our clients are only 8 and 11 — who have a parent in the U.S. ready to receive them, and no one in their home country to care for them. "
Children have been deported to serious harm, including the 16-year-old girl who fled Honduras with her mother after her testimony landed her father in prison for rape and now faces retaliation from her uncle, a convicted killer.
The girl and her mother waited in Matamoros for months, but in January their asylum cases were denied through a tent court hearing in Brownsville, her lawyers said. The migrant camp was dangerous, and she said cartel members tried to kidnap another girl.
She crossed into Texas alone and was sent to a federal shelter. Attorneys with the South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project, or ProBar, filed a motion to reopen her old deportation order and argued that denial to the Board of Immigration Appeals, which is pending.
In April, the teen was abruptly taken to an appointment with ICE agents, who requested she sign her deportation documents, her attorneys said. They filed a temporary restraining order in a Washington, D.C., federal court to halt her removal, arguing the government had wrongly denied her protections for migrant children required under the 2008 anti-trafficking law. She was owed an independent chance at asylum, they said, apart from her mother's case.
Government attorneys contended the law only required them to place such children in removal proceedings — not necessarily grant them new cases as unaccompanied minors. They noted the girl still had time to fight her deportation order from her mother's case.
The judge decided he didn't have the jurisdiction to block the girl's removal, and she was sent to Honduras last month. San Francisco attorney Stephen Blake, who argued the federal case, said he was communicating with senior lawyers at the Justice Department and that he felt a "very conscious decision was made by ICE" to deport the girl.
On her flight to Honduras was another child represented by the same attorneys from ProBAR. The boy told them he had fled an abusive father and gang members forcing him to join their ranks.
When he arrived in Ciudad Juárez across from El Paso last year, he and his mother were forced to await their case in Mexico. His mother returned to Honduras, but the boy feared the gang would target him. Juárez was dangerous, so the teen followed acquaintances to Monterrey, and was not able to return for his U.S. court date. A judge ordered him deported in absentia.
In January, he returned to Juárez, crossing alone and landing in a shelter where the ProBar attorneys began representing him. His lawyer, Julio Feliz, filed a motion to reopen his deportation case. On April 1, that was denied, but Feliz said he never received that notice. A few weeks later, the attorney filed supplementary evidence supporting that motion, and the immigration judge agreed to reopen the boy's case.
But ICE deported him that same day, Feliz said.
He did not find out the boy had been removed until he was in flight. The teen is now in hiding with a relative in Honduras.
"We're extremely concerned about both of these children's safety, and we wish we could have had the opportunity to have their cases heard properly," said Carly Salazar, ProBAR's legal director.
Claudia Cubas, a lawyer with the Capital Area Immigrants' Rights Coalition, a legal advocacy group in Washington, D.C., was one of the first attorneys to make these arguments in federal court after ICE tried to remove three Salvadoran children — ages 9, 14 and 16 — in March.
They had fled to Matamoros with their mother in 2019 after members of the MS-13 gang slashed their father to death with machetes, according to court documents, and terrorized their stepfather. A relative connected to the gang beat the mother so viciously her "bone was visible through her skin," according to a legal filing. Three relatives were killed by MS-13 in an attempt to discover the family's whereabouts.
The children's stepfather came to the U.S. last year and was allowed to pursue asylum from Maryland, Cubas said. But when the children arrived at the Texas border with their mother, the family was placed in the Migrant Protection Protocols program and made to wait in Matamoros.
One child was sexually assaulted in the camp, according to court documents. When their case was denied in January, the mother sent her children across the border alone to join their stepfather.
"I have lived my life," she told her lawyer.
The children were placed in foster care through a federal shelter and were set to be reunified with their stepfather. At the last minute, Cubas said the government halted their release to him when ICE suddenly in March tried to deport them. Federal litigation has paused their removal and allowed them to be freed to their father, but only while their legal case is argued.
"The government is removing very young children to no one," Cubas said. "But our courts are in a state of emergency. Our media is COVID-19 all the time. We don't even have congressional hearings right now in full force. There is less scrutiny."
Some lawyers fear the recent surge of such deportations is related to an April order in the landmark 1997 settlement agreement governing migrant children in detention. In response to concerns that they would be exposed to COVID-19, U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee in California found children should be quickly released from government facilities, which she called "hotbeds of contagion," unless their removal was "imminent."
The government around that time seemed to escalate its enforcement of prior deportation orders for children, said Holly Cooper, an immigration attorney with the University of California at Davis, who is involved in litigating the federal consent decree. She called the timing "uncanny."
Parents in the Matamoros migrant camp worry what will happen to the children they sent across alone, said Maria Corrales, a Honduran asylum-seeker. Her 12-year-old daughter is in a New York shelter after the family lost its immigration case at the border and the girl entered the U.S. by herself.
In the camp, Corrales said few parents still have their children with them because, by now, having lost their Migrant Protection Protocols cases or simply given up on the process, most have dispatched them across the border in desperation.
"We're all single parents here," Corrales sighed. "We have almost no children left."
Federal litigation has forced the temporary reunification of some migrant children with their relatives and halted their deportations — for now.
"These are only band-aids," said Sanchez Kennedy, who represents the Salvadoran girls in Houston.
Late Thursday, the government granted her a provisional stay to argue their immigration appeal. A federal judge simultaneously blocked ICE from deporting the girls until this Friday, when attorneys will argue for a longer halt on their removal.
While the litigation unfolds, the government late last week released the girls to their mother.
They gushed when they saw her, hugging desperately.
But the government could still deport them alone.
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