After her grandfather died, the girl and her uncle traveled from Guatemala to the Texas border.
They were separated by Border Patrol agents. According to her attorney, Miriam Enriquez, the girl, then 10, ended up in foster care while her uncle was deported.
Such traumatic separations could be avoided thanks to a new Biden administration program that allows children to be reunited with relatives like uncles and grandparents at the border.
The girl, who the attorney did not identify in order to protect her privacy, is now 14 and remains in foster care in Southern California while her asylum case is heard. According to Enriquez, a staff attorney with the Immigrant Defenders Law Center in Los Angeles, she has learned Spanish and English, which she now speaks fluently in addition to her Mayan dialect, and is doing well in school since arriving in the United States in early 2019.
“Their separations were undeniably traumatic and difficult, especially given their tender age,” Enriquez said of the girl and another Indigenous Guatemalan child who was also separated from his uncle at the border.
According to three unnamed sources, the new effort, known as the Trusted Adult Relative Program, is being tested at a Border Patrol station in Texas.
Since the program’s inception in May, a few dozen children have been reunited with family members, according to a Department of Homeland Security official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
“I don’t think it’s in the best interests of the child to separate them from trusted adults with whom they’ve traveled hundreds of miles,” the official said, adding that taxpayers would not be on the hook for lengthy stays in immigration detention.
According to the sources, a child and a non-parental relative are initially separated while immigration officials verify their relationship and that the adult is capable of caring for the child. If they are approved, they will be reunited within 10 days and will then go through regular immigration proceedings.
Other relatives were separated from their children unless they were the child’s legal guardian, while parents were generally allowed to stay with their children. Unless they could establish a credible asylum claim, they were usually deported.
Adult migrants claiming asylum have been turned back under the Title 42 policy, which began under President Trump and continued through the Biden administration.
Children were also expelled until a federal court halted the practice and the Biden administration permitted children to enter after the ruling was stayed.
Children who have no relatives in the United States may end up in foster care, which is overseen by the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement. They are permitted to remain in the country while their claims for asylum or Special Immigrant Juvenile Status are decided, which is granted when children are unable to reunite with their parents due to abuse or neglect and it is not in their best interests to return home.
The government lacks reliable data on the number of children separated from non-parental family members at the border.
However, immigrant advocates believe that Title 42 has resulted in more separations because more adults are being deported.
Immigrant Defenders Law Center has tracked nearly 300 children separated from non-parental relatives at the border since the beginning of 2021. According to the center, all of the adults were turned back under Title 42.
The Biden administration announced in April that it would phase out the Title 42 policy, but a federal judge later blocked the effort.
The Young Center recommended an approach similar to the program that the Biden administration eventually adopted last year, as the number of unaccompanied children arriving at the border reached record levels and overwhelmed government resources.
Concerns about fraud have long hampered efforts to keep families together. Officials in the new program use the same procedures as before to verify the relationship between the child and the family member.
Some migrant children were traveling with a relative who was already their primary caregiver back home.
In 2019, a Human Rights Watch attorney touring a facility for unaccompanied children met a 14-year-old boy who had come from Guatemala with his 29-year-old sister.