Los Angeles, United States, Sep 3 – Under oath before a US immigration judge, 14-year-old Sandy quietly asks the authorities to send her back to her native Guatemala, which she had left only months earlier.
In a barely audible voice, she affirmed to a judge in Los Angeles her decision to opt for “voluntary departure.”
She is one of 445 childrens who as of last Thursday were still in US custody, the bitter fruit of US President Donald Trump’s policy of “zero tolerance” of illegal immigration.
Sandy entered Arizona on May 17, 2018, at the height of US enforcement of the policy that ultimately lead to more than 2,600 children being separated from their families. Of those, 2,157 have now been reunited with their families.
“Have you been deported before?” the judge asks Sandy. “No, only my father” — with whom she apparently crossed the border from Mexico.
Lindsay Toczylowski, executive director of the Immigrant Defenders law center, told AFP that if a minor “is not afraid to return, voluntary departure is an option.”
The government says it has seen a rise in the number of children asking to leave the country voluntarily to rejoin their parents. A report released on Thursday detailed 15 cases so far, adding that the government would “facilitate and pay for” return transportation.
The decision to return is not one taken lightly. Fear is a fundamental factor, especially since many of the migrants were fleeing violence in their Central American countries.
That was the case with Pedro, a 34-year-old Honduran who asked that his real name not be used for reasons of security.
He was separated from his daughter at the border and deported back to Honduras, where he lives in fear of violence. The last thing he wants is for his child to be sent home.
– ‘There’s nothing good here’ –
Pedro was a government official in Honduras and says he decided to head to the United States with his daughter after two gang-related attacks.
“I fled and brought the girl with me,” he told AFP by telephone, adding that she was also threatened.
“I really did not want to travel to the United States. I had been told that the road was ugly — and hard.”
But he felt he had no choice. They made their way across the Rio Grande into Texas, where they surrendered to immigration authorities and sought asylum. Pedro says he was made to sign a paper in English that he did not understand.
“I told the officer, ‘If it’s to deport me, I don’t want to sign because life is too difficult back there. I don’t want to go back.
“He laughed and told me it was not to deport me.”
His story was like many others: He was separated from his daughter and deported, while she was sent to a shelter. That was more than two months ago.
“I’m very worried,” he said.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other rights groups have contacted the deported relatives of 322 children still in the United States, according to the official report. It said the families of 167 children chose not to be reunited.
When Pedro was called, he made clear that it was better, for his daughter’s safety, that she not return.
“There’s nothing good here,” he said.
– ‘Ripped apart’ from family –
When separated from their parents, the children become “unaccompanied minors” in the US system and are processed as such.
The advantage of that status is that they cannot be deported before seeing a judge.
They have the option of requesting asylum, applying for a juvenile visa or leaving voluntarily. In the latter instance, their file remains clean, allowing them in future to apply for a visa from abroad.
That was Sandy’s case. She was part of a recent surge in “children who came with their parents,” said Joanna Fluckey, a lawyer with the NGO KIND (Kids in Need of Defense).
“No one anticipated that they would be ripped apart from their loved ones,” she added.
Sometimes, added Toczylowski, these children “don’t understand the danger they may have been in” in their home country.
“So a lot of times … it may be up to the parent in the home country to continue to try and make the decision that is safe for their child, and convince their child to, you know, maybe stay and fight” for a better life in the US.
If such a child has no relative or family friend in the US to care for him, he or she enters a foster parent program until the age of 18.
Judge Ashley Tabaddor, who for nine years has dealt with cases of “unaccompanied minors,” told AFP that voluntary departures are not common in her court.
But the current group of children is hardly typical.
When it separates a family, Tabaddor said, “Our government is creating an unaccompanied child.”
It was Tabaddor, who is president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, who heard Sandy’s case, granting the government 120 days to prepare for the girl’s return.
“Have a safe trip home,” the judge said as the teenager left the courtroom.