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After weeks of traveling through Mexico carrying her infant daughter, the 17-year-old thought she would soon be reunited with her parents and finally leave behind the threat of the men who had raped her in Guatemala.
Claudia had just been rescued by Border Patrol agents after the smuggler her parents had hired abandoned her in the Arizona desert. The teenager had survived a situation hundreds of immigrants lost in the desert don’t, but Claudia’s hopes were quickly dashed when she was informed that under a coronavirus pandemic policy, she would be quickly sent back to Guatemala without the chance to request asylum.
Claudia, who is being identified by a pseudonym to protect her identity, was interviewed by UNICEF in Guatemala about her experience and gave permission for the audio to be shared with BuzzFeed News.
"I was so close to being with my parents,” Claudia said in the interview. "I put my health and my daughter's health in God's hands. I just wanted to go with my parents. I took the risk to get to them.
What awaited the teenager back home was not only a country with no family and an empty home, but the men who had raped her and who, up until she left, had continued to harass her through threatening phone calls.
Previously, unaccompanied immigrant children like Claudia would have been allowed to seek protection in the US. But in March, the Trump administration effectively blocked immigrants like Claudia from staying in the country, citing a CDC order to stop the spread of COVID-19.
Since March, 110,107 immigrants have been quickly sent back to their home countries without so much as a court hearing under the new policy. Citing two federal lawsuits, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) declined to provide data on how many of those were unaccompanied immigrant children removed from the US under the pandemic policy.
From April to June, after the CDC order was issued, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) only sent 162 children to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), which would have typically taken custody of them. During those three months, border authorities reported encountering 3,427 unaccompanied children.
During most of March, the Trump administration was sending unaccompanied minors to ORR as it usually did. That month alone, DHS sent 1,852 to ORR.
The way immigrants, including unaccompanied children like Claudia, are being immediately removed from the US is called expulsion, speedy removals without due process. In order for someone to be formally deported from the US, they would first have to go through the immigration court system. However, the new Trump policy has cut immigrants off from that process.
Karla Vargas, senior attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project, has been working with expelled children and said the order puts especially vulnerable unaccompanied immigrant children, who could be sent back to dangerous people and conditions despite having a good asylum claim, at increased risk.
“These are children who arrive alone, many of them completely traumatized and fleeing horrific circumstances that people here in the US can’t even imagine,” Vargas told BuzzFeed News. “Then they get here asking for help and our government slammed the door in their face and is literally kicking them out.”
Under the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA), which establishes care, release, and due process rights for unaccompanied immigrant children, minors like Claudia are afforded certain benefits, like access to legal counsel while in government custody and the ability to make an asylum claim to an officer instead of a judge. Immigrant children who traveled to the US border alone would also be sent to ORR, which held the children while officials vetted sponsors, usually a family member or in some cases friends, who would take them in.
Now, unaccompanied children are detained at CBP processing centers for a short period of time and then sent to a hotel while they wait to be removed from the US, Vargas said.
“It is an absolute dead stop closure of any time of access to any immigration process,” Vargas said. “The children are apprehended, they are taken to black sites, and then they disappear and the burden falls on the parent to track them down. Parents who are wondering if their child is in the US, their home country, or even alive.”
The practice of government contractors working with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to hold unaccompanied children, and in some cases families, has been widely criticized for violating a longstanding court settlement that dictates how immigrant kids can be detained.
It’s unknown how many children have been held at hotels because the process makes it nearly impossible for anyone, even parents, to track these minors, Vargas said.
“I’ve spoken to parents who have been looking for their children for weeks,” Vargas said. “That’s an incredibly inhumane way to treat an individual, to treat families.”
Mark Morgan, acting commissioner of CBP, said the expulsions have been a “game changer” in reducing the introduction of COVID-19 in the US and have nothing to do with immigration enforcement. The border enforcement agency has been able to process and expel 91% of unauthorized immigrants under the order in less than two hours, Morgan said during an Aug. 6 press conference.
Sending the kids to ORR instead of ICE to be expelled defeats the purpose of the expulsion efforts, he added.
“If we introduce these individuals to ORR, we are defeating the entire purpose of Title 42,” Morgan said. “We are still introducing these individuals to the system and creating risk.”
The coronavirus has already managed to spread throughout ICE detention facilities. Of 22,580 people in ICE detention tested for COVID-19, 4,531 have tested positive as of Thursday. The coronavirus has also spread to ICE's family detention centers. At the Karnes County Family Residential Center in Texas, 73 parents and children have tested positive.
In June, when a federal judge ordered the release of immigrant children detained at ICE facilities for families, the order described the sites as being "on fire."
The increased risk of unaccompanied children entering the US, though, has been questioned by attorneys and advocates. ProPublica reported that ICE has agreed to test every child in its custody before sending them back to their home countries under the expulsion policy. But the comprehensive testing appears to undermine the rationale for expelling children — preventing the introduction of COVID-19 into the US, the investigative outlet said.
Cristobal Ramón, a senior policy analyst with the Bipartisan Policy Center's immigration project, said that while ICE facilities don’t have the best track record of stopping the spread of the virus, there is at least more government accountability than hotels.
“What can [government watchdog agencies] reasonably do to assess whether CBP or ICE is doing the work of ensuring the welfare of children in the middle of the pandemic?” Ramón told BuzzFeed News. “This is what happens when you have an immigration system that’s really only designed to deter border arrivals. This is not a system that’s designed to manage migration or minimize administrative and human rights concerns.”
Matthew Dyman, a spokesperson for CBP, said in a statement that the agency works closely with an unaccompanied minor's home country to send them back “quickly and safely.”
Some children may be exempt from the CDC order if for whatever reason they can’t be returned to the home country or if a border agent suspects trafficking or sees signs of illness. Those unaccompanied children will be processed like they had been before the March order was issued, Dyman said.
Claudia did not fall under any of those exemptions and after being rescued and taken to a CBP cell. She and her daughter, who celebrated her first birthday on the journey, were then taken to a hotel near an airport. They were there for three days and under the watchful eye of different adults, who were likely contractors hired by ICE to detain and transport immigrant children before expelling them.
At the hotel, Claudia still believed she was going to be sent with her parents.
In recent years her parents had immigrated to the US separately, first her father and then her mother and younger brother. Claudia stayed behind, with no other family except an aunt she doesn’t talk to and who didn’t live nearby, and continued to go to school.
One evening, after school had let out later than usual, Claudia walked past parents picking up their own children and started the five-minute walk to where she usually grabbed a taxi home. It was already dark, but Claudia had made the trek alone so many times. Suddenly, Claudia noticed that someone was following her and she quickened her pace, but a group of men caught up to her and raped her, she said in her interview with UNICEF.
Claudia got home late that night and walked into her room.
“I didn’t have anyone,” she told the UNICEF representative in their interview. “I didn’t have a sister. I didn’t have a mom. I had no one.”
Claudia spent days inside her room until she finally started going back to school. Then one day she got a call from a public phone. It was from her attackers.
“They asked me if I thought they had forgotten about me. They said they were watching who I was out with and what times I came home,” Claudia said. “They said if I said anything something would happen to me because they knew I was alone. Out of fear I didn’t say anything.”
After two months, Claudia realized she was pregnant from the rape and told her parents. Her parents were racked with guilt about leaving her behind because they thought the area was safe. After the baby was born, her dad sold his car and pulled together enough money to hire a smuggler to bring Claudia and her baby to the US.
After months of traveling through Mexico amid the coronavirus pandemic, Claudia and a group of other immigrants were walking through the Arizona desert. But Claudia stopped to change her daughter’s diaper, and by the time she was done, she and another woman who had stayed with her had lost sight of the others.
“We tried to catch up, but we couldn’t,” Claudia said. “We didn’t know where to go and everything looked the same.”
The women were able to call 911 for help, and in a matter of minutes, a helicopter and Border Patrol vehicles arrived.
After three days at the hotel, Claudia and her daughter were taken to the airport. It was then that she realized she was being sent back to Guatemala.
“I feel good, worried, sad, hopeless, a little bit of everything,” she said after returning. “I don’t know what’s going to happen to me.”