The United States’ Disappeared

It turns out the aunt wasn’t in Honduras. She was living in rural North Carolina, where I reached her by phone. She told me she was the girl’s sponsor, that she had put together all the paperwork to reunify the family and take custody of both the girl and her brother all the way back in 2013. But she never got the kids. She didn’t know why. Then, one day, less than a year and a half later, she couldn’t get in contact with them anymore. No one answered the phone number she usually dialed to connect with the kids, which belonged, she thought, to their case worker or case manager. And she said she never got a call from that number again.

All these years, the girl didn’t know what had happened to her family. And the family didn’t know what had happened to their girl.

Now I could see why the girl might have chosen what’s known as voluntary departure. I could see how her expectation of being reunified with her family might have turned into anger and hopelessness. I could see her choosing freedom – any kind of freedom – after being held in custody for nearly half her life.

No one from ORR; no case manager or advocate or attorney had informed the family about the girl’s court date or her desire to self-deport. Her family found out from me, and I’d only found out about the hearing a day before it took place, some six weeks after I first spoke with her aunt.

Katharine Gordon, an immigration attorney who worked as a child advocate between 2015 and 2017, told me that while a birth parent would usually be told about a child’s decision to choose voluntary departure, there was little clarity about whether another family member serving as a sponsor, like the girl’s aunt, would typically be notified.

Fearful of traveling to immigration court and even more fearful of government agents, case workers and attorneys, the family hoped that my reporting would lead me to their girl. They had a message they wanted me to share if I got the chance: That they missed her. That they hoped they would see one another soon. And that she shouldn’t sign any deportation papers because they wanted her back – not back in their hometown in Honduras, but with them in North Carolina.

They were terrified about what would happen to her if she was sent back to Honduras.

The message might have been too late: Judge Zanfardino had just granted her deportation request. She’s required to leave soon. Maybe ICE will put her on a plane today, maybe they’ll do so next week.

But Judge Zanfardino ruled that she must leave, to a place she hardly even knows, no later than May 15.

Weeks before I attended the girl’s court hearing, my early conversations by phone with the aunt were bundled with emotion. Some of it was confusion. How could I, a stranger, have any information about the child she had raised? A lot of what I heard was sheer sorrow.

She told me about how Doña Amalia, the kids’ grandmother and matriarch of the family, has prayed daily during all of these long years, both for the children’s safety and for the family to find out what happened. She began to tell me why the family had left Honduras to begin with. It started with the story of Santos, one of her sons.

Like other family members, Santos crossed and recrossed multiple borders to get to the United States from Honduras, back when it was much easier to do so undetected in the late 1990s and early aughts. As a teenager and into his mid-20s, he worked painting houses in North Carolina and sent money to family back home in Honduras, across the same borders he’d crossed himself.

By 2005 Santos was in his late 20s and had found something much more lucrative than painting houses: dealing cocaine. The following year, he was sentenced to prison in North Carolina for drug trafficking. He was eventually deported to Honduras in early 2012. He had just turned 35 and was welcomed back home to their rural hillside community. He reconnected with the girl, whom he’d previously met when she was still a baby, and met his other cousin, the girl’s brother, for the first time.

By this time, the girl had grown into a spirited and inquisitive child who enjoyed helping others with whatever task they were working on. Family members describe her as deeply affectionate.

The aunt calls it one of the happiest times of her life: Her son was finally back home. Later that spring, they all got to spend Mother’s Day together.

He’d be dead a week later.

Honduras – a country smaller than the state of Louisiana – had the world’s highest rate of homicide in 2012. Santos was one of more than 7,000 people killed there that year when he was gunned down while driving his truck, the one he used for his burgeoning lumber business, hauling fresh cuts to market. His killers lit his vehicle on fire and bystanders dragged Santos’ body out.

As the family made plans to bury the body, they also started to map their escape. They had gotten threats of violence before. But they no longer felt simply like threats – now it seemed they could materialize into sexual assault or death without further warning.

Over the course of the next year, Doña Amalia, her two daughters, several grandchildren and a great-granddaughter, Dayani, all found their way to the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa. From there, Doña Amalia supervised the sale of the family’s cows and other family possessions. What they couldn’t sell they gave away.

The family used the money from the sale of the livestock to get to Mexico – some to Chiapas and others to Mexico City – a final stop before heading to the United States in small groups to claim asylum. They arrived at the U.S. border during the first year of President Barack Obama’s second term.

Doña Amalia and the aunt went a few months ahead of the rest of the family so that they could set up a home to welcome the others in rural North Carolina, where several family members already lived, most working in painting and construction. Santos himself had lived there, part of a growing community with ties to Honduras.

Doña Amalia and her daughter presented themselves to immigration officials at the border so they could claim asylum. They told officials they were fleeing violence, passed their initial screening, and were released by Customs and Border Protection ahead of an unscheduled immigration court date. Then they made their way to North Carolina and found a place to live.

The girl and the boy then arrived at the border with another aunt and cousin, and likewise told officials they were seeking asylum, according to documents the aunt in North Carolina was given when she filed to be the children’s sponsor.

Family members said the four were first placed in a holding cell. It wasn’t too cold, as some holding cells are, and everyone was given aluminum blankets to cover themselves if needed. Within a few hours, the girl and her brother were taken away. The aunt and her daughter stayed behind and were ultimately released.

Records indicate the children were moved to the custody of ORR and into the care of a contractor called Morrison Child & Family Services in Portland, Oregon, in November 2013. They were placed in a program called Micasa, which specialized in short-term foster care for unaccompanied minors under the age of 14. The girl was 10 and her brother was 8.

If the government can’t place children with a birth parent, it is ORR policy for shelter staff to find other relatives in the country who are fit to care for them. The family expected a short separation but was sure that the children would be with them within a few months, which government data show is about average.

ORR classifies minors into four tiers for reunification: Category 1 applies to children who have a parent or legal guardian, such as a stepparent, in the United States. Children in category 2 have immediate relatives such as an aunt, a grandparent or a cousin. Category 3 is for children with a sponsor who is a distant relative or an unrelated adult. Children with no sponsor are placed in category 4.

While ORR would not comment on how the children were formally categorized, their aunt in North Carolina seeking sponsorship would appear to put the boy in category 2, and the girl, because she is a stepchild, in either 2 or 3.

All sponsors have to prove they’re suitable in the eyes of ORR by agreeing to an extensive background check, and the children’s aunt was deeply engaged in that process.

She said every time a case worker or case manager made a new request, she fulfilled it: birth certificates from Honduras that required the help of people in the U.S. and Honduras, address confirmation for her new place in North Carolina, proof of her $11-an-hour wage for her construction job, with which she would financially support the children. The aunt had just arrived to a new country in the wake of the gruesome murder of her son, but said she did everything that was asked of her.

First through texts and later in person, family members provided me with some of these documents, along with other communications that confirm the federal government had identified the aunt as the children’s sponsor.

A fax dated Aug. 15, 2014, says that then-Morrison case manager Yesenia Avalos sent a security plan, which included guidelines for the children’s release and resources that would be available afterward. The document indicates the government was, at this time, anticipating the release of the children to the family. Morrison spokesperson Patricia DiNucci wouldn’t comment on the children’s cases or their time at Morrison and declined the opportunity to answer general questions about Morrison’s policies related to staff communication with sponsors.

“Please take the time to review and read the documents,” reads the cover page, in the aunt’s native language of Spanish.

The aunt said she reviewed the security plan with other family members, signed in agreement, and sent it back by fax. Three days later, Avalos sent over background check forms, which were also completed and signed by the family, and later shared with me.

The aunt said she was able to talk with the children from time to time throughout this first year, usually by video call. Over the course of those calls, while the children were living with their first foster family, the Honduran family began to see the girl change. She told them that the foster family’s rules were too strict and she longed to be back with the family she knew and loved.

Daisy Camacho-Thompson, an assistant professor of psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and one of the authors of a policy brief on the effects of family separation, said that 10-year-olds, on the cusp of adolescence, are especially vulnerable to stress.

“It is harmful to children to be separated from a caring adult at any point during development,” Camacho-Thompson said. “That said, because adolescence is a sensitive period in human development, trauma during this time can have long-term physical, psychological, and physiological effects, impacting cognitive and emotional development.”

She said that transitions – like migrating to a new country or even moving to a new school – are tough for kids. Family support can help cushion the impact, but family separation during periods of significant change can expose children to what researchers call “toxic stress” that can result in long-term negative effects. The longer a child is separated, Camacho-Thompson said, the worse the outcomes are for that child.

As the children were approaching a year in the refugee agency’s custody, their aunt held out hope that they’d be reunited. During this period, other children in the family who’d arrived at the border had already been processed through the system and released to other family members. The aunt believed that it was still just a matter of time.

But the siblings weren’t released. Instead, they were transferred to another foster care program.

The family is unsure of when it started, but around this time the girl began to tell them that she was cutting herself; her grandmother recalls that it was the tender skin on the inside of her arms. On the video calls, she told the family she hated life without them and wanted to end hers out of desperation. One time, she rammed her head into a wall, busting it open so badly she required a brief hospitalization. Her aunt and grandmother learned this from her, after the fact; they said they were never notified by ORR. And they said their child had never harmed herself before coming to the United States.

The girl wasn’t only hospitalized for self-injurious behavior. Doña Amalia and other family members recall that the girl had an operation that may have been a tonsillectomy, another procedure they learned about only afterward. The family said they weren’t informed about it by ORR or given the chance to opt the girl out. They said they likely wouldn’t have opposed the procedure, but said case workers who were in communication with the family never informed them or gave them options when it came to medical decisions.

Gordon, the immigration attorney, told me that’s not uncommon. “I wasn’t aware of any policy that required consent,” she told me.

With the girl’s situation deteriorating, in early 2015, the process fell apart. They stopped getting calls from anyone associated with the girl’s case. And their calls weren’t being answered. The family wouldn’t hear from the two children again – or hear anything about them – for five years.

They said they called and called the phone number that had previously connected them to the children. For months, there was no answer. Eventually, the line was disconnected. A few of the children’s records were lost as the family moved around North Carolina, and some were ruined in a flood in 2016. But several were carefully saved in two plastic bags, and in one I found a document with phone numbers related to the girl’s former case worker. One was out of service. Another had a new user who’s unrelated to the federal shelter system.

There are some circumstances in which the government will decide not to place children with their sponsors, such as when ORR discovers that a family member has a history of abuse or a criminal record. If that happened in this case, I’ve been unable to find a record of it. And the family was never told. They recalled no phone call, letter or any communication that explained why the government didn’t release the children to them.

It’s true that the girl isn’t related to her aunt and grandmother by blood. The girl’s mother gave birth to her before getting involved with Doña Amalia’s son, the boy’s father. But the girl was raised in Doña Amalia’s household in Honduras, just like her brother, and was part of the family. Even if this detail mattered to ORR – and the family says they were forthcoming about it – it could only have shifted the girl from category 2 to category 3. And the sponsorship process had appeared to be well underway until, suddenly, it wasn’t.

Every morning and every night, Doña Amalia prays for her two grandchildren. It’s the very first thing she does when she makes her way out of bed to put a pot on for coffee. And it’s the last thing she does before she lies down to rest at the end of the day. Everyone in the family pines for the children, but at 94, Doña Amalia is the one most worried she’ll never see them again.

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