REYNOSA, Mexico — As Border Patrol agents started separating Miguel from his then-12-year-old son, the indigenous Guatemalan man begged that they instead be kept together.
“That’s not an option,” Miguel said an agent told him. “Your son can’t go where we’re taking you. We’re taking him to a safe place.”
Miguel could only watch as agents marched his son, Francisco, out of sight. Neither of them cried, though tears form around Miguel’s eyes every time he recounts the moment in late August.
“Take care of yourself, son, because I don’t know what’s going to happen to me,” Miguel told him before he was taken away.
It's the last time they spoke.
Miguel, who agreed to speak to BuzzFeed News on the condition that only his first name be used, and his son are now caught in the middle of the government’s continued separation of families at the border and a Trump administration policy, known as Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), that has sent thousands of immigrants to wait in Mexico while their US cases are completed.
BuzzFeed News spoke to Miguel to highlight how the ongoing practice of separating families, sometimes based on incomplete or misleading information, leaves an unknown number of desperate parents and guardians at a loss to know how to get their children back while holed up in dangerous locations in Mexico.
The family separations increase the hurdles immigrants and asylum-seekers already face when they’re sent back to Mexico, as parents, most likely without the help of an attorney, try to prepare their cases while also figuring out how to reunite with their children from the other side of the border.
“Both MPP and family separations are inflicting enormous damage on families and in particular children, but when the government combines the two, it’s particularly brutal,” said Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU's national Immigrants' Rights Project.
The Trump administration has sent back more than 60,000 immigrants and asylum-seekers to Mexico under its Migrant Protection Protocols, unofficially known as “Remain in Mexico,” to some of the country’s most dangerous cities along the border. Meanwhile, immigration authorities have separated at least 1,134 families at the border for reasons they say are justified.
It’s unknown how many parents sent back through the MPP policy have also been separated from their children or if immigration authorities are tracking those cases. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) declined to comment. But it’s clear that Miguel isn’t the only one.
A complaint filed by the Women’s Refugee Commission in August with two DHS watchdog agencies detailed 20 cases where families were separated by CBP at the border and at least some members were sent back to Mexico under MPP. The children, considered unaccompanied minors, are sent to the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). The complaint asked DHS’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties and Office of Inspector General to investigate the cases, as well as whether there was any pattern or practice of separating families under MPP as a way to deter immigrants from coming to the border.
In one of the 20 cases, another indigenous Guatemalan father who speaks little Spanish was forcibly separated from his son because Border Patrol agents believed the birth certificate was fake, but the man received no information on how to contact his son or where he was. In another instance, a 24-year-old woman from El Salvador was separated from her younger siblings whom she had been raising after their mother was murdered three years previously. Despite her custody of the 14- and 11-year-olds being recognized by the Salvadoran government, the children were sent to ORR and she to Tijuana without being able to say goodbye, the complaint stated.
In Miguel’s case, Border Patrol agents told him they were separating them because his record was “stained.” In 2012, Miguel said he was accused of and jailed for about four days for aggravated robbery in Guatemala, but a judge found the accusation was baseless and he was immediately released.
A court document reviewed by BuzzFeed News corroborates Miguel’s statements and says his case was closed due to lack of merit. According to Guatemalan national police records, Miguel has no other criminal history.
“I told them, ‘I’m not a thief; my hands are clean. Anything I was accused of is a lie,’” Miguel told BuzzFeed News. “It didn’t matter in the end.”
The information DHS uses to justify family separations due to criminal history can be incorrect, unreliable, and wrong, said Ursela Ojeda, a migrant rights and justice policy adviser at the Women's Refugee Commission, yet immigration agents continued to rely on it.
“It’s cruel,” Ojeda told BuzzFeed News. “It could also have nothing to do with the ability of a parent to parent their child, and yet you have a child in ORR custody and a parent thousands of miles away.”
It’s been over a year since President Donald Trump signed an executive order to stop family separations at the border and a federal judge ordered the administration to reunite immigrant parents and their children. Still, the US continues to separate parents in cases where authorities believe they are a danger to the kids, have a criminal history or outstanding warrant, gang affiliation, have presented a fake claim of being the child’s guardian, or have a communicable disease.
As a result of a federal case brought forward by the ACLU challenging the government’s separation of families at the border, DHS was ordered by US District Judge Dana Sabraw to provide lawyers with a list of the separations that have continued and the reasons why.
According to the latest numbers provided by DHS, as of Nov. 16, in about 800 of the 1,134 families separated after Sabraw’s order, criminal history is cited as one of the reasons.
But Gelernt, of the ACLU and lead attorney on the class-action family separations case, said it was illegal for border agents to separate parents from their children for crimes they didn’t commit.
“We are seeing numerous cases where there’s no actual conviction, but nonetheless, they’re separated,” Gelernt said. “It appears as though the government believes if there’s an allegation in another country, they don’t need an actual conviction, but we absolutely believe it’s unlawful.”
A former DHS adviser under the Obama administration who reviewed the reports submitted in federal court said most explanations for separating parents from children due to criminal history were incomplete, lacked specificity, and often concerned charges but no convictions. Still, they have resulted in hundreds of families being separated.
In an affidavit, Lloyd Easterling, Border Patrol division chief for the Rio Grande Valley sector, said the data they get from foreign governments often include limited information on the disposition of criminal charges or details on the crime.
In court filings, attorneys for the government have maintained that border agents make sound separation decisions, despite having to make these decisions in a short amount of time based on the limited information. Border agents also consider the severity of a parent’s criminal history, lawyers said.
“The government has made reasonable separation decisions that account for the immigration-enforcement context in which this case arises as well as for the family integrity interests identified by this court,” government attorneys said in a September court filing.
Lisa Koop, associate director of legal services at the National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC), said her organization has been working with mothers in Laredo, Texas, who were separated from their children using unreliable and murky records to accuse them of crimes they didn't commit. Unlike Miguel and the other cases detailed by the Women’s Refugee Commission, these women were being detained in the US and not in the “Remain in Mexico” program, but their experiences show how minor interactions with authorities in their home countries can lead to family separations.
In some instances, women were arrested or detained for being at a location, like a restaurant, where police arrested gang members and suspected the mothers were also involved. They were released hours later but now have a criminal history on their records even though it’s not a conviction, Koop said.
Some immigrants aren't told what the allegations leading to separations are, how to fight them, or where the accusations are coming from, a scenario Koop can only describe as "Kafkaesque."
Lawyers have been able to clear a mother's name with the government in some cases and reunite them with their children, but it's rare. The odds that someone in Miguel’s position will be able to fight a separation from Mexico without an attorney is close to zero, Koop said.
“Separating parents from children and then putting them in MPP is just this whole other layer of cruelty,” Koop said. “An additional layer of cruelty that makes access to protection and due process completely unavailable to families.”
Miguel spends most of his days behind the white concrete walls of a shelter in the Mexican city of Reynosa. Like many of the people at the shelter, he’s too scared to venture outside because cartels in the area have made a lucrative business out of kidnapping immigrants sent back by the US and demanding ransom from their families. His son is nearly five hours away in San Antonio, at a transitional and long-term foster care center for immigrant children in government custody.
Without an attorney, Miguel, who doesn’t know how to read or write, has to gather evidence for his case, fill out his asylum application, and get supporting documents translated into English by a certified translator.
In the words of one lawyer, the policy of sending immigrants back to Mexico has marooned them in dangerous border cities with little access to attorneys or information on the process.
The days drag on inside the shelter and most of Miguel’s thoughts are filled with how he’s going to get to his son and whether he made a mistake in coming to the border with him. He’s a skinny, quiet man whose native tongue is the indigenous K'iche', though he’s able to speak some Spanish. He stares at the US asylum application with wide and uncertain eyes.
He grew up in the western highlands of Guatemala, a region where people rely heavily on the food they can grow on their lands. It’s also an area heavily affected by climate change, leading to some of the highest malnutrition rates in the Western Hemisphere. If there wasn’t enough to harvest, you didn’t eat, said Miguel, who sustained his wife and five children by growing corn.
Miguel’s problems back in the western highlands of Guatemala started in 2011 when a gang started asking him to pay a monthly extortion fee of nearly $375 at the time — an unimaginable amount for Miguel, who was never able to afford to pay them anything.
Eventually, Miguel was kidnapped and held in a house. Neighbors who saw the gang take him into the house called his family members who showed up and successfully negotiated his release hours later. His freedom came with a warning: If he couldn’t pay, his son could work for the gang, or they would disappear Miguel like thousands of others in Central America.
“I didn’t want my son working with them. I didn’t raise him to be a bad person,” Miguel said.
For a few months the gang left him alone, but then in 2012, a group with Guatemala’s National Civil Police entered his home and accused him of stealing a machine. Miguel doesn’t know what type of machine but believes it was an amp. One of the men in the gang who had been extorting him was also at his house and wearing the police force’s black uniform. Miguel doesn’t know if he was actually a part of the National Civil Police.
After the officers ransacked his house, Miguel was taken to jail and accused of aggravated robbery — an accusation a judge later dismissed for lack of evidence, but a charge Miguel believes led to him being separated from his son.
After his release, Miguel and his family moved two hours away to Totonicapán, a city in western central Guatemala. For years, he made a living sowing traditional dresses indigenous women wore and selling cotton candy, but always hiding and fearful he’d be found. In 2018, Miguel said he was walking through a park in Totonicapán when he ran into one of the men who used to extort him.
“So this is where you’ve been?” the man told Miguel, who kept walking as if he didn’t notice. “We’ll be looking for you.”
Miguel spent the rest of the year and most of 2019 hiding in the city until a friend told him the gang was still looking for him. He didn’t want to push his luck.
“They’ve been bothering me for more than seven years, even though I tried to hide from them,” Miguel said.
Ultimately, Miguel decided it would be better to go to the US with his son.
In September, despite his limited writing and reading abilities, Miguel sent a letter to the director of Guatemala's National Civil Police asking that his record be expunged because it's coming up as a conviction. He hasn’t heard back.
When he went to his first hearing in mid-November inside newly installed tent courts the administration built in Brownsville, Texas, to hear MPP cases, Miguel’s hopes of seeing his son were dashed. He walked out, defeated, into the city of Matamoros on the other side of the border. But as he passed the street food vendors, two plainly clothed men motioned for him to walk over. Miguel noticed they had guns at their sides and ran. A taxi driver who watched the scene unfold took mercy and told Miguel to get into his car before driving him to the shelter in Reynosa for free.
As the oldest boy, his son Francisco had been his almost daily companion, Miguel said. An employee at the holding facility his son is currently in recently sent a picture of the now-13-year-old boy. He’s standing in a classroom, hands at his sides, wearing a new blue flannel shirt, black jeans, and the beginning of a smile. The last time Miguel saw his son, Francisco was wearing a well-worn yellow sweater and gray pants — they’ve never had much money to spend on clothes.
“He looks a little different,” Miguel said as he studied the image. “I’m a little happier now because I can see he’s OK, but the sadness never stops.” ●