Like many Hondurans seeking to escape violence at home, Alayda Velasquez joined the exodus from her country last month, taking along her 15-year-old daughter. They hoped to be reunited with her husband in Mississippi.
Friends had told her that traveling with a minor would make it easier for her to enter the United States and avoid detention. But as thousands of families have found out to their shock and horror, the Trump administration’s ‘zero-tolerance’ policy has closed that immigration loophole.
Velasquez, 38, was separated from her daughter, Kisna, on May 12 th, a day after crossing the border at an official port of entry in Arizona. “We slept a night together on the floor in the hielera (ice box),” she said, referring to the slang for the Border Patrol’s temporary holding rooms, which are notoriously cold.
“The next day they took her away and I haven’t seen her since,” she told Univison News in a phone interview from her home in Guayape, a town in the central Honduran province of Olancho, one of the most lawless areas of the country and with one of the highest migration rates.
After three days in the ice box, Velasquez says she was transferred to the Santa Cruz County detention center in Nogales, Arizona. “They never told me what they had done with my daughter, or where they took her,” she said. “I begged them, and wrote written requests for information, but they told me nothing.”
Velasquez is one of at least seven cases of people deported to Honduras without their children in recent weeks, according to sources familiar with the processing of deportees in Honduras who spoke to Univision. Similar cases have been reported in Guatemala.
On Monday, the Honduran Foreign Minister wrote a letter to the Trump administration complaining about “the inhuman manner” in which some of its citizens were being treated, citing the separation of families in U.S. detention.
The letter addressed to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said “the situation that is happening is alarming, as children and their parents were being separately prosecuted without legal representation “in a country unrecognizable to them.”
It went on: “the Honduran government laments the implications of these actions and within the framework of respect for human rights, due process and the guarantee of the greater interests of the child.” It also requested that the Trump administration modify its procedures accordingly for the sake of “the physical and mental well-being” of the minors.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the 'zero tolerance' policy officially in early May, calling for the prosecution of nearly all of those who are found to have entered the United States illegally. Previously, most border-crossers who were caught faced deportation but not criminal charges, and were not separated from their children.
After a public outcry, President Donald Trump signed an executive order on Wednesday to halt the policy of separating children from their parents when they are detained illegally crossing the U.S. border.
Trump’s executive order will continue his 'zero tolerance' policy of criminally prosecuting all adults caught crossing the border illegally, but will now seek to keep families together instead of separating them while their legal cases are heard by the courts.
U.S. authorities say that parents are not supposed to be deported without their children, but immigration lawyers say that has happened in several cases.
In a statement, DHS said it has “ a process established to ensure that family members know the location of their children and have regular communication after separation to ensure that those adults who are subject to removal are reunited with their children for the purposes of removal.”
It added: “The United States government knows the location of all children in its custody and is working to reunite them with their families.” In cases where children were left behind it was because “many parents have elected to be removed without their children,” it stated.
A government hotline has been set up to help parents locate their children, though the system is overloaded and calls often go unanswered. It only operates on week days between 8 am and 8 pm.
If children are separated, the parents can request to have a family member who is living in the U.S. take custody of the child, or the child can be flown home. But this is a complicated bureaucratic process and usually takes time.
A spokesman for Health and Human Services said that the department does not discuss individual cases of minors in its facilities.
Taking it to extremes
“They have told us that they are not deporting parents without their children unless they get the express permission that their children will be relocated with family in the U.S.,” said one dismayed government official familiar with the deportation process. “But they are taking it to extremes, even if that involves hoodwinking semi-literate people who have never read a legal document before,” he added.
Velasquez was deported June 13 th on a U.S. government chartered flight to Honduras, in shackles. She said she was deported after signing documents on the understanding that she would be reunited with her daughter.
Since returning, she has been able to speak briefly to Kisna, who is in a detention center for undocumented children in Phoenix. “She is doing OK, but she desperately wants to be with me,” she said.
Velasquez is now hoping Kisna will be released to the custody of her husband, Wilfredo Avila, 47, an undocumented immigrant who left Honduras five years ago and is currently a roofer in Biloxi, Mississippi.
She is now back home with her two other daughters, aged 20 and 16. “As a mother, I worry about the criminals, and there are no jobs here for honest people. We want the best for our children, to feed them properly. Sometimes there’s not enough, so we depend on my husband to send us money, whatever he can,” she said.
The daughter of a peasant farmer, Velasquez lost both her parents to illness, and only received a 6 th grade education. “I want a better life for my children,” she said.
Her eight-day journey by bus across Guatemala and Mexico to the U.S. border was uneventful, she explained. But she said she had no idea that the policy of keeping parents and children together had changed when she presented herself to U.S. immigration officials at the border crossing post.
Her husband, Avila, said he entered the country illegally in May 2013, near Piedras Negras, Texas. He said he is expecting to be reunited with Kisna soon and has submitted consular documents to prove he is the father. "I go around with my head split in two, thinking about her and about work. It's hard to concentrate," he said.
He said he is aware that by claiming her he risks being deported too. "I just want to be with her. It's OK if they deport me, if they do not want people like us here. Anyway, I don't want to live here the rest of my life."
"They told me to sign"
Karla Cruz was also deported to Honduras without her six-year-old U.S.-born daughter, Zury, who remains in foster care in Massachusetts. Cruz told Univision that she was detained at a Miami airport in December 2016. She was on her way to visit her daughter, who was being cared for by friends in the Boston area where she was receiving treatment for epilepsy.
Cruz, who had traveled to the United States numerous times without trouble on a tourist visa, says she was held in immigration detention in South Florida for 16 months. She applied for asylum alleging spousal abuse, including rape and kidnapping. Her application for asylum was rejected by a judge who deemed it not credible.
She also signed voluntary deportation papers thinking she would be reunited with her daughter before they were sent home jointly. “They told me to sign and they tricked me. I nearly went crazy in that detention center,” she said.
Cruz explained she cannot afford a lawyer. “God is my best lawyer,” she said.
She says her daughter is in Framingham, Mass., and appears to be well looked after. They speak regularly by phone. “She wants to be with me and her brothers and sister in Honduras,” she said.
Univision left a phone message for the family looking after Zury but had not received an answer before publication of this article.