Originally Published in The New Yorker.
January 30, 2019
Illustration by Rachel Levit Ruiz
Last October, Sindy, a twenty-three-year-old mother, woke up to a normal day in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. She lived with her husband, Kevin, their seventeen-month-old daughter, Grethshell, and two elementary-school-aged children from Sindy’s previous relationship. That morning, she made breakfast for Kevin and saw him off to his job as a house painter. But, as Sindy washed the dishes, gangsters arrived at her home and threatened her life—a common occurrence in Tegucigalpa, the capital of a country with one of the highest murder rates in the world.
Sindy called Kevin at work in a panic, and they decided that she should pack their things and leave home. “Come quick,” he told her. “We’ll figure out our next steps.” She stuffed her children’s backpacks full of clothes and grabbed Grethshell’s favorite toy: a doll that had been a birthday gift from Kevin. “I left behind my two little dogs, Whitey and Stuey,” Sindy told me. The hardest part, she said, was “to tell my kids they couldn’t go to school anymore, they couldn’t see their friends anymore, that everything in their lives was going to change.”
The couple decided to head for San Francisco, where Sindy has an uncle. They took a bus through Guatemala, then traversed Mexico by rail. In Puebla, as they prepared to board a gritty train known as La Bestia with other migrants, Mexican authorities surrounded the group, beating and chasing them. In the chaos, Kevin hopped on the train, clutching Grethshell to his chest, and thinking that Sindy had already boarded. In fact, Sindy remained on the ground with the two older children, looking for her husband and toddler. For days, she and the children wandered around Puebla, searching for signs of their whereabouts. Finally, she realized that they must have continued north and started after them. As she walked, she asked fellow-migrants, “Have you seen a man with a little girl named Grethshell?”
On January 1st, Sindy reached Calexico, a city on California’s southern border, and approached U.S. Border Patrol agents. She told a tall male agent that she and her children had fled Honduras and feared that it was too dangerous to return. “I don’t care if one of your kids dies,” he said, according to Sindy. “You should have gone to Canada.” She told him that she had been separated from her husband and toddler and asked if he had seen the pair pass through Border Patrol’s custody, or if he could help her locate them. “You’re a bad mother,” he replied, according to Sindy. (“Those are terrible things to say, and we don’t condone that type of behavior,” David Kim, the assistant chief patrol agent for U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s El Centro sector, told me, of Sindy’s account. “However, I’m not aware of any complaints that were lodged or filed from her.”)
Sindy and her two children were sent to a cold cell, sometimes called a hielera, or icebox. Several Guatemalan migrant women in the cell told Sindy that they had seen her little girl—they had called her by her middle name, Juliet, which was easier for them to pronounce—a few days earlier and had helped to care for her. Kevin had arrived with Grethshell on December 28th, to seek asylum; he was quickly charged with illegal reëntry because of prior deportations from some years ago. Six months earlier, the Trump Administration had pledged to stop most family separations at the border. But in Kevin’s case they took Grethshell, wailing, from his arms—to where, they didn’t say. (“This isn’t just a case of ‘Let’s separate a family for no reason,’ ” Kim, from C.B.P., told me. “A child is never going to accompany an adult when they are being charged with a crime.”)
A few days later, Sindy and her older children were released and went to live with her uncle in San Francisco. (Her own removal proceedings are pending, and she hopes to seek asylum.) From there, she ramped up her search and discovered that Grethshell had been transferred from California to Texas and placed in a federally contracted shelter for “unaccompanied” children, run by a nonprofit organization called B.C.F.S., in San Antonio. The girl, she’d been told, was in the care of a foster mother. Sindy checked every box for Grethshell’s return: she offered proof of identity, gave her fingerprints, and answered interview questions. “There’s not one piece of paper I haven’t filled out,” she told me.
But, according to Sindy, when she called the shelter, she hit a new obstacle. A person told her that she would have to pay the cost of her daughter’s return: in this case, two plane tickets to San Francisco—one for Grethshell and the other for a government guardian to fly with her. “How much is it going to cost to get her back?” Sindy asked. The person couldn’t be sure but estimated up to three thousand dollars. “But I don’t have the money!” she replied. (On Monday, a spokeswoman for B.C.F.S. denied that Sindy will have to pay for her child’s transportation.) Sindy felt caught in a paradox. “When they let me out of detention, they said I can’t work legally, and that if I did they would deport me,” she said. She didn’t know how she would get her daughter back.
Last June, amid public outcry, President Trump signed an executive order putting an ostensible end to the practice of taking children from their parents at the border. “I didn’t like the sight or the feeling of families being separated,” he said at the time. But advocates say that the practice has continued in quieter, more insidious forms. Many recent separations involve parents who have past deportations or misdemeanors, as was the case with Kevin. Other cases involve children who arrived with relatives or guardians who are not their biological parents. Last October, I documented the case of a five-year-old girl named Helen who was separated from her grandmother at the southern border, then sent to a B.C.F.S. shelter; in custody, officials told her to sign complicated legal paperwork giving up her right to go before an immigration judge. After a long fight to win Helen’s release, her grandmother, Noehmi, told me, “I fear there are still other children suffering. Other families are feeling this anguish, this struggle, and they need us to act.”
Grethshell’s case proves Noehmi right. The details, which I’ve pieced together through interviews, public records, and private correspondence—and through footage that Sindy shared with me, which shows an anguished video conference between her and her toddler—shed light on the many bureaucratic hurdles that parents face when they seek to be reunited with their confiscated children. One such obstacle is a practice that immigration-reform advocates describe as separation for ransom, by which parents are asked to pay for the cost of their children’s return. This practice is sanctioned by official policy; according to the Web site of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (O.R.R.), parents or other legal sponsors of a separated child are “responsible for the unaccompanied alien child’s transportation costs and, if the care provider is escorting the child, for the care provider’s transportation or airfare.” In July, the Times documented several cases in which migrant families were asked to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars in fees or transportation costs to secure the return of their children, describing the process as “an exhausting, intimidating—and sometimes expensive—thicket of requirements.” Six months after Trump’s executive order, advocates say that the thicket hasn’t cleared.
“This is an issue we’ve been dealing with for the past few months,” Blake Vera, the bond coördinator for raices, a Texas-based nonprofit organization that advocates for immigrants, told me. Asylum seekers often have no source of income to pay for transportation expenses, which can leave their children languishing in detention for weeks or months. The steps for reunification are opaque, disorganized, and full of misinformation, Vera says, leaving parents vulnerable to scams. “These families get contacted by some random number with a person telling them they have to give them their credit-card information in order to get reunited with their own child,” he told me. “That’s just completely inappropriate.”
Vera told me that, one day earlier this month, he spent an hour on the phone trying to find a B.C.F.S. worker who was willing to discuss a case of an indigenous Guatemalan child whose family lacked the money for her transportation fee. Two weeks ago, on a call about the same case, Vera said that a B.C.F.S. employee reassured him, “If the family expresses financial hardship, we won’t keep their child hostage—they just need to communicate that.” This perplexed Vera; from the start, he told me, “The family had been saying over and over, ‘We don’t have the money.’ ” On Monday, a spokeswoman from B.C.F.S. also told me that the organization does not charge transportation costs to parents who can’t afford it and that it had recently requested a hardship waiver from O.R.R. for the Guatemalan family, which had been approved. “B.C.F.S. works with the parent on this,” she said. “The child is flown at no charge to the parent.” But, according to Vera, who says that raices has worked on multiple cases in which O.R.R. shelters asked migrant parents to pay for transportation, many parents are never told about the possibility of receiving a fee waiver.
I first learned of Grethshell’s case through Eric Fish, a trial attorney at the Federal Defenders of San Diego who is representing Kevin. Kevin’s felony charge for illegal reëntry came with a silver lining: he had access to a public defender, which his wife and kids did not. (Asylum seekers—even unaccompanied children—have no right to free legal representation in immigration court.) Fish learned that Kevin’s daughter had been seized and attempted to locate the girl, which produced conflicting results. On January 17th, a federal prosecutor forwarded Sindy’s uncle’s address to Fish and suggested that Grethshell had been resettled there. “This is the physical location of his child in San Fran,” the prosecutor wrote. But an investigator working in Fish’s office soon reached Sindy, who told him that Grethshell had not been returned and that, to get her back, she needed thousands of dollars—money she didn’t have.
Fish got in touch with raices, and the organization offered to help pay the flight costs for the toddler, which felt to Fish like progress. But, when he reached out to B.C.F.S. about the case, he had trouble getting the personal information about the toddler and chaperone, which was required to purchase the tickets. raices thought that Sindy, with an advocate, had a good chance of receiving a “waiver for hardship” to defray the costs.
Each day, new hurdles popped up. On Thursday, Fish called me, dumbfounded. He’d just been told that, to return Grethshell, the government requires a form that he hadn’t heard mentioned before: a “letter of designation” from Kevin, stating that he wants Grethshell returned to her mother. Given that Kevin had just been transferred to detention, in Arizona, this feat would prove difficult. “I will have to move mountains to get this form signed,” Fish wrote to B.C.F.S. staff. His team worked hard to get the new form signed by Kevin and handed it over to B.C.F.S. on Monday. But, later that day, Fish learned that this would not suffice for O.R.R.’s approval: the form needed to be notarized—a very difficult service to access while in detention.
Fish has succeeded, at least, in getting Kevin’s criminal charges dropped, though Kevin remains in detention and faces deportation. He hopes to win asylum, but he can’t easily afford a lawyer for his immigration case. Sindy fears that her husband will be killed if he gets sent back to Honduras; he’s her beloved, and the family’s breadwinner. “But at least my husband is a grown man,” she said. “My little girl is defenseless.”
When I spoke to the B.C.F.S. spokeswoman on Monday, she told me that Sindy would be not be required to pay for her child’s transportation. “We looked into the situation, and there is no charge,” she said. Instead, the case was being held up, she said, because of O.R.R.’s requirement for the notarized form. “If they need the signature, they need the signature,” she said. “We can’t change the law.” Around two hours later, she told me that B.C.F.S. has requested that O.R.R. waive the notary requirement. Following our inquiry, they had moved to expedite Grethshell’s return. On Tuesday evening, as this piece neared publication, Sindy was told that her daughter would soon be put on a flight to San Francisco.
Last week, I reached Sindy by phone at her uncle’s house in San Francisco, and she described her toddler to me, gushing about her eating habits. “She’ll eat anything,” she said—rice, beans, fruit. “The only thing she doesn’t like is milk from a bottle. She only likes to breast-feed.” This isn’t an option for Grethshell right now; she has been in government custody for a month and has been staying with a foster family. “I don’t know if they’ve done my daughter psychological harm,” Sindy said. “They say they haven’t—that she’s a little girl, and she has no memories.” (In fact, last year, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a statement opposing family separation because of its psychological effects. “Highly stressful experiences, like family separation, can cause irreparable harm, disrupting a child’s brain architecture and affecting his or her short- and long-term health,” the statement reads. “This type of prolonged exposure to serious stress—known as toxic stress—can carry lifelong consequences for children.”) She worries about her daughter. “I’m the only one who knows how to take care of Grethshell—I’m her mother!” she said. “I imagine that she is living in terror.”
Sindy hopes that she’ll get to hold her child soon. Since mid-January, she has been allowed to speak to her daughter once a week, by video conference. On their first call, Sindy mostly cried, and Grethshell did, too. When Sindy got another chance, last week, she worked to keep her cool. She filmed the whole exchange and provided me with the footage, which—in an eerie scene—captures the emotional toll of a child’s prolonged separation from her parents.
In the video, Grethshell sits beneath a large TV, which flashes ads for Disney movies. B.C.F.S. posters hang on the walls above brightly colored children’s toys. Seeing Grethshell in her pink-wrapped pigtails, Sindy coos and coaxes, trying to connect with her child. “Hi, my love, it’s mommy calling,” she says.
On hearing her mother’s voice, Grethshell begins to wail, and a woman picks her up to comfort her. (The woman keeps her back turned so that Sindy can’t see her face, and never speaks, but Sindy is under the impression that the woman is Grethshell’s new foster mother.) Grethshell dodges her mother’s eyes and won’t smile. Sindy wondered if the girl felt betrayed, abandoned. “How serious you look, Grethshell, my love,” Sindy says.
At one point, Sindy brings her older children on the phone to say hello. “Where is the baby? Where is the baby?” her nine-year-old asks, adding, “Mom, I miss Grethshell.”
Again, Sindy tries to break through. “How beautiful you are, my daughter,” she says. Finally, she asks a shelter worker, who is monitoring the call from offscreen, “She’s resentful, right?”
“Well, I think now she’s a little better,” the worker replies. She offers Sindy a strange consolation: Grethshell has developed an affinity for her new foster mother. “She’s very close to the woman from the house,” the worker says. (This news devastated Sindy. “She’s in a house with a family, and that worries me,” she told me. “If they’re going to give her to another family, why don’t they give her to me?”)
Near the end of the video, Sindy starts calling her daughter by a pet name. “Where is mami’s precious chichi?” she says. “My precious chichi, you’ll soon be with me. You’ll see.”