By   Debbie Nathan    Published in The Intercept    June 21 2018, 6:00 a.m.

A GUATEMALAN WOMAN whose child was taken from her last month by immigration authorities in Texas after coming to the U.S. seeking asylum was released after 38 days in detention last week. Immediately after being freed, she went to the federally funded facility that was managing her 5-year-old son’s care and recovered him.

Immigrants rights activists and attorneys say this may be the first such family — at least in Texas — to be separated and then reunited since Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced on May 7 that migrant parents and their children at the border would be split up and the children put into government holding centers and foster care. On June 19, a Border Patrol spokesperson told reporters that 2,342 children were taken from their parents between May 5 and June 9 as a result of the “zero tolerance” “prosecution initiative.” There is poor coordination between Customs and Border Patrol, which takes the children, and the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which puts them into shelters and foster care. As a result, many parents and children don’t know one another’s whereabouts. Mothers and fathers are being deported while their sons and daughters remain in the U.S. The Guatemalan woman and her child were luckier.

The Intercept learned of their case on May 12, four days after they were separated. We have given the mother the pseudonym Delia to protect her from U.S. government retaliation. She crossed into the U.S. at Brownsville, Texas, on May 7 and was separated from her son the next morning. More than six weeks later — last Friday — The Intercept was present when she was freed, days after an asylum officer ruled that she demonstrated “credible fear” of returning to Guatemala.

When I first interviewed Delia on May 13, she was locked in a detention center in Laredo, Texas. She’d been bussed there three days after crossing the Rio Grande with her child on an inner tube. She was detained on the bank of the river by Border Patrol agents. Hours later, her child was taken from her, screaming.

During our interview, Delia wept constantly and seemed dazed from the shock of losing her son. She knew where he was — San Antonio — because a family member had been notified, but she had not been able to speak with him.

Delia said she’d fled Guatemala with the boy because her partner, the child’s father, had been beating her, cutting her, and threatening to kill her and their son. She was looking for help in the U.S. and never imagined that her claim of domestic violence would be laughed at and mocked by the Border Patrol agents who processed her, or that she and her son would be separated amid the sound of his panicked screams. She said the Laredo detention center held several women besides her who had also been criminally charged for illegal entry and separated from their kids.

Delia’s 5-year-old son. Still: Verónica G. Cárdenas for The Intercept

TO LEARN WHAT relief might or might not be available to detainees such as Delia, The Intercept contacted attorneys and staff members of organizations in Texas who are loosely organized and advocate together for immigrants and asylum-seekers.

Many have for years been offering free and low-cost immigration legal services. Others have sued the government for violating immigrants’ rights under the Constitution and immigration law. By late May, they had gone into high gear in response to Sessions’s new family separation policy.

The groups and individuals range from nonprofit legal services organizations, solo practitioners, and lawyers in small firms, to activist groups and huge corporate law firms. In south Texas, these partners include the Alamo office of the Texas Civil Rights Project, Laredo solo practitioner Ricardo de Anda, and the global white-shoe law firm Jones Day. Austin first responders include the University of Texas School of Law Immigration Clinic, Austin Region Justice for Our Neighbors, the two-lawyer office of Kate Lincoln-Goldfinch and her associate Cori Hash, and the Hutto Visitation Program of Grassroots Leadership. Tahirih Justice Center, a center for immigrant women’s rights in Houston, acted quickly to gather information to inform separated parents of how to find their children; the Houston Immigration Legal Services Collective is working to coordinate representation. RAICES Texas, in San Antonio, did the same and mounted a social media campaign to raise funds to bond parents out of detention — by this week, their appeal on Facebook had gone viral and raised almost $20 million.

Virginia Raymond, legal director of Austin Region Justice for Our Neighbors, has on and off been doing immigration-rights activism and practicing immigration law for over 30 years. For the past five years, she has been a denizen of immigration courts, where she represents immigrants trying to remain in the U.S. Many are seeking asylum.

Raymond volunteered to speak with Delia after she was transferred from Laredo to the T. Don Hutto Residential Center, about 40 miles from her home in Austin. It is now a women immigrant detention center run by the private prison company CoreCivic, and holds some 3,000 detainees. Hutto used to be a medium-security state prison. The remnants of that history remain evident: the visiting room, for instance, allows people to sit together on sofas, but visible from the sofas is a long bank where inmates used to sit on one side and their visitors on another, divided by glass. There are still guards everywhere, visitors must pass through an X-ray machine, and the residents wear institutional clothing.

The T. Don Hutto Residential Center.
Still: Verónica G. Cárdenas for The Intercept

Raymond drove to Hutto on Sunday, May 27. Delia did not know she was coming: “When the staff said, ‘Your lawyer is here,’ I said, ‘What lawyer?’” But she spoke with Raymond, and the day after this exploratory visit, she had a pro bono attorney.

Listening to Delia’s account of why she left Guatemala, Raymond concluded that she had a strong domestic violence asylum claim. She explained to Delia what would happen when she was interviewed by an asylum officer. During this exchange, which is called a “credible fear” interview, the migrant answers questions about why she is afraid to return to her country. When interviewees pass, they are often released from detention, typically by posting bond. They may then live in the U.S. while awaiting a trial before an immigration judge who will decide if they merit asylum. The wait is long. Immigration courts currently are so backlogged that it takes an average of almost two years for a case to be resolved.

Raymond was optimistic that Delia would pass her credible fear interview. But neither the attorney nor her client knew when it would occur.

On June 6, Raymond happened to be at Hutto to meet another woman who’d lost her child. In the visiting room, she learned by chance from a staffer that Delia was sitting in a “courtroom,” as the staffer called it. There is no courtroom at Hutto, Raymond said, but there is a space about the size of a small home bathroom, where credible fear interviews are held. Shocked that she had not been notified so she could represent her client, Raymond rushed into the little room. Delia was there and about to be questioned by a disembodied voice on a telephone — an asylum officer from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service. USCIS is the federal agency that conducts and adjudicates credible fear hearings.

With Raymond at Delia’s side, the questions began. They were standard at first, such as “What is your name?” and “Your birthday?” When the USCIS agent asked, “Do you have any children?” Delia answered that she had one. Then the hearing officer asked, “So your child is still living in Guatemala?”

Delia looked at Raymond, confused. Raymond was flummoxed. “Even three months ago, that would have been a reasonable question,” she says. “But not now.”

“No,” Delia answered the officer. “He was taken from me.”

“What?” said the officer.

“They took him at the border.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know,” said Delia.

“Who took him?”

“I don’t know.”

“It became clear,” Raymond says, “that as late as June 6, the asylum officer had no idea that children were being separated from their parents at the border. Was he not reading newspapers or watching TV? It boggled my mind that he didn’t know.” As Delia’s attorney, Raymond was able to explain to the officer the new “zero tolerance” policy and Sessions’s May 7 announcement — made the same day Delia was apprehended — that children would be taken from their parents.

Over the phone, she heard the officer shuffling papers. He told Raymond he was consulting a memo dated June 1. “Oh! I see now,” he said. Then he apologized to Delia about her little boy being taken: “I’m sorry this happened to you. It’s not right.”

Raymond left the hearing feeling shaken. It was bad enough that the Office of Refugee Resettlement and Immigration and Customs Enforcement weren’t communicating when children were taken from parents. But it seemed that USCIS was also disconnected. What if Raymond had not been at the credible fear interview to explain current events — major immigration events — to the immigration official? Delia had obtained Raymond’s pro bono counsel practically by chance. What about all the parents, in all the detention centers, with all their children gone, who had no lawyers?

Undocumented migrants gather to hear information as they await asylum hearings outside of the port of entry on June 20, 2018, in Tijuana, Mexico. Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

FIVE DAYS LATER, on June 11, Jeff Sessions announced that he was exercising his authority as attorney general to cancel domestic violence as a valid reason to grant asylum. Domestic violence, Sessions said, is a private problem, having nothing to do with state action or inaction.

Raymond says that Sessions’s decision is a blanket statement of general policy, whereas asylum claims are adjudicated individually. She believes that lawyers can still prevail in domestic violence claims on a case-by-case basis, because such claims have always required proof that an asylum seeker belongs to a particular social group, is persecuted because of her membership in that group, and that the government in her home country is unwilling or unable to protect her. The difference now, Raymond says, is that “lawyers will need to more carefully and precisely identify the asylum seeker’s particular social group. Asylum seekers who are representing themselves, with humble education and unfamiliarity with U.S. law, are not likely to be able to successfully articulate their claims.” Without lawyers, Raymond says, these women will be harmed by the Sessions decision.

That was Raymond’s fear for the future. For the present, she was worried that Sessions’ ruling could endanger Delia’s credible-fear determination.

Raymond and her client did not learn until the afternoon of June 14 that Delia’s claim had been approved on June 10, just one day before the Sessions ruling. Her bond had been set at $1,500. On Friday morning, while her husband hurried to the bank to withdraw funds from their own account, Raymond corresponded with the child’s case worker, making arrangements for Delia to be reunited that day with her son. Then she drove to Hutto.

While she waited for paperwork to be processed, the staff dealt with Delia.  “Clean your bed because you’re going today, right now,” she remembers them saying. Delia started jumping up and down, and the women incarcerated with her applauded. They knew she would soon be reunited with her son, she said. They had “seen me crying every day and night.”

Delia had spent about six weeks in regulation shower shoes and clothes that looked like cheap medical scrubs. Now she walked out of the detention center in street clothes. Soon she was in Raymond’s car, with Raymond and her husband, this reporter, and a videographer, driving to pick up Delia’s son.

We drove two hours  to BCFS Health and Human Services, a non-profit in San Antonio with a contract from the Office of Refugee Resettlement to shelter and manage care for children who have been taken from their parents at the border. On the way, Delia used Raymond’s cellphone to excitedly call her parents in Guatemala. “The storm is passed and I’m free!” she told them. “Free!” “Tell the village to light fireworks!” She hung up and started sobbing. She said she badly needed an embrace. “In detention, they would not let any of us even touch each others’ hands, much less hug.”

The BCFS building is located on a grassy street in northwest San Antonio and looks blockish but benign — with its pleasant but locked outdoor playground and smoked-glass windows, the facility has the air of a pediatric oncology hospital. BCFS used to stand for Baptist Child and Family Services; it was founded in 1944 and used to be small orphanage. Today it is a global enterprise that contracts with the federal government to provide temporary shelter and emergency services after disasters such as hurricanes, earthquakes, and — lately — removals of migrant children from their parents. It is the second-largest operation for this purpose in the country after Southwest Key, whose Brownsville, Texas, facility has lately become infamous as an overcrowded warehouse for migrant children. In 2016, the last year for which its tax records are publicly available, BCFS received almost $288 million in government funding. It cares for more than 4,000 immigrant children nationally, including over 1,000 in San Antonio.

The BCFS building in northwest San Antonio, Texas. Still: Verónica G. Cárdenas for The Intercept

It appears that BCFS will soon be expanding. Its Facebook page advertises for jobs in Texas as “Disaster Case Managers” to work with “youth separated from their families” — English-Spanish speaking applicants preferred. Another ad calls the need for such employees “urgent.”

The Intercept called BCFS Health and Human Services and asked to speak with a representative about the organization’s work and facilities for migrant children separated from their parents. We were given a phone number for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Families and Children in Washington, D.C. HHS did not respond to a request for comment.

With Raymond and her husband, Delia walked through BCFS’s doors into an air-conditioned reception area. The videographer and I waited outside. Minutes later, the child emerged in his mother’s arms. He is small for his age. He wore a crisp, white polo shirt. He smelled like soap and shampoo, and someone had combed styling gel into his hair. He looked blank, startled by the adults surrounding him, including his mother. Then he settled into Delia’s embrace and everyone piled back in the car. The plan was for mother and son to spend the night at Raymond’s home in Austin while she scheduled them for a weekend flight to another part of the U.S., where Delia’s family and friends were waiting.

During the ride back to Austin, her son soon became smiley and animated. “They gave me a toothbrush! And toothpaste!” “We drew pictures.” “We went to a fair and there was a big roller coaster!” “Hey look, an airplane!”

But then, as he twined into his mother’s neck. “I cried some, but I tried to be strong,” he said. “The girl who took care of me, she could hug me. But no one else could. The children couldn’t touch each other at all. They told us we had to have espacio personal.”

Back at Raymond’s house, Delia and her son stayed up half the night bonding again: chatting, cuddling, giggling, and kissing. On Saturday night, the boy screamed in his sleep. Delia stroked and hugged him awake, and asked what he’d been dreaming about. He said he didn’t know. On Sunday, Raymond put the two of them on a plane. By Monday, she was at work on other cases.

Late yesterday, on June 20, Trump signed an executive order aimed at ending child separations and directing immigration authorities to detain parents and children together indefinitely. The order conflicts with the 1997 Flores settlement, a federal consent decree prohibiting the detention of children for more than 20 days and will likely face multiple court challenges. The order did not address how the U.S. government plans to reunite the thousands of families it has already separated.

Correction: June 21, 2018
Because of a typo, this article previously stated that BCFS manages the care of more than 7,000 immigrant children. It has been updated to the correct figure, which is more than 4,000 immigrant children.