A Texas immigration judge granted a mother from Venezuela who was attacked for protesting against the Maduro administration the ability to stay in the US — but not her three children. The decision has panicked immigrant advocates and lawyers who are worried the family will be separated.
The family had been waiting for months in Mexico while their US immigration case was adjudicated as part of the Trump administration's "Remain in Mexico" policy, which has sent back more than 60,000 immigrants and asylum-seekers to cities across the border.
Lissette, 46, who declined to use her full name out of fear, and her three children, an 8-year-old boy and twin 4-year-old sisters, applied for asylum at the border on July 19. But because the Trump administration issued a regulation banning asylum to non-Mexicans who entered the US through Mexico after July 16, they were ineligible for that type of protection.
Instead of granting her asylum, immigration Judge Eric J. Tijerina gave the mother a lesser form of protection, withholding of removal, which offers no path to permanent legal status but allows her to remain in the US. Had Lissette been eligible for asylum, her children would've automatically been awarded the same protection.
Tijerina found that Lissette was persecuted in Venezuela and would more likely than not be persecuted for her political opinions against President Nicolás Maduro, but determined her children were unlikely to be harmed based on their parent's views and as a result couldn't receive the same protection.
"Our biggest fear was the 8-year-old boy and twin 4-year-old girls would be sent back to Mexico alone," the family's attorney, Jorge Trevino, said.
Trevino feared the children would be separated from their mother by either being deported or sent back to Mexico alone because the Mexican government had agreed to only take back immigrants with future court dates scheduled, which Lissette no longer had. Tijerina said it was out of his hands and up to CBP on how to proceed, Trevino said.
"CBP was also very confused about what to do as well," Trevino said. The agency didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.
Immigrant advocates reached out to members of Congress for help on Friday, and the Immigrant Defenders Law Center tweeted about the potential separation as a way to apply public pressure to CBP.
CBP ultimately allowed the mother and three children to enter the US on Saturday morning to reunite with their father, who is a permanent legal resident. But the children have to check in with ICE in January and still have orders of removal from the country. In the meantime, Trevino is weighing other legal avenues for the children to remain in the US.
Lissette was actively protesting against the Maduro administration in Venezuela, driving students to demonstrations and wearing opposition shirts, Trevino told BuzzFeed News.
As a result, collectives — armed groups who Maduro called on to keep order and have been clamping down on dissenters — started to attack her. They shot bullets at her house and would throw rocks at her with threatening notes, including one that said she would soon bathe in the blood of her children.
Around Christmas 2018, a member of the collectives threw a bomb at her car — causing it to explode, Trevino said. Lissette, who was driving without her kids at the time, had to be dragged out of the flaming car and hidden.
More cases like this are likely to come up in court as immigrants fleeing political persecution with their children in tow are subject to the Trump administration's asylum restrictions.
Taylor Levy, an immigration attorney based in El Paso, Texas, said unlike asylum, which is now unavailable to most people who sought it after July 16, in withholding of removal cases each case must be decided on its own merits using a very high legal standard.
"Therefore — while what happened in this case was shocking in its absurdity and cruelty — it was not entirely surprising from a legal perspective," Levy told BuzzFeed News. "Similar cases are likely."
Taylor said the only reason this family was able to remain together in the US and receive a temporary reprieve from separation was because they were part of the tiny minority of families in the "Remain in Mexico" program with an attorney.
Lindsay Toczylowski, executive director of the Immigrant Defenders Law Center, said seeking asylum was a fundamental right that shouldn't be this hard for people to access, yet attorneys and advocates have to seek congressional intervention and rely on an army of attorneys to fight cases.
"It should terrify us all to know that this is what happened in a case where the family was lucky enough to access a lawyer, but who knows how many other families are being separated every day and their children being sent into danger while none of us are looking?” Toczylowski told BuzzFeed News.