A 1-year-old Salvadoran boy whom immigration authorities separated from his father in November after his father asked for asylum at the US–Mexico border has been released from federal custody and reunited with his mother.
Mateo and his father, Jose Demar Fuentes, 30, were part of a caravan of Central American immigrants who traveled through Mexico to seek asylum at the border. Fuentes said he was separated from Mateo following pressure and threats from immigration agents. US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) said the two were separated because they couldn't prove they were related.
Fuentes’s partner, Olivia Caceres, was initially asked to submit a DNA test confirming she was his mother, but her lawyer successfully argued against it with federal authorities. The toddler was released to her after submitting documents proving their relationship.
Caceres had presented herself for asylum at the border Dec. 28 and was released to join family in California. Fuentes remains in ICE custody and likely won't have a hearing for months.
Ashley Houghton, tactical campaign manager with Amnesty International USA, which is campaigning for the family, said separating the family sets a bad precedent.
"They're essentially punishing families who make the choice to approach the US border fleeing violence," Houghton told BuzzFeed News. "This case could become the new normal for asylum-seeking families approaching the border."
It's especially troubling because the Department of Homeland Security was reportedly considering separating women and children who crossed the border as a way to deter families from coming to the US, Houghton said.
"For this to become policy would weaken us as a people," Houghton said. "It weakens our legal system, it weakens our ability to connect with our neighbors and really divides us as people only because they made the decision to choose the United States as a place to claim asylum."
Adults in immigration custody can wait up to six months for a hearing to determine if they should be released on bond. But a long-standing 1997 court settlement mandates that children should be placed in the least restrictive setting possible while their claims are processed, which means most, but not all, children are released.
In 2015, a federal judge ordered that mothers and children held in immigration centers be released from detention in order to comply with the settlement.
In a statement, Caceres said she was thankful she was able to be reunited with her son.
"I am very grateful for all the support you gave to my Mateo and the fight continues as we say against the unfair and inhuman separation of families," Caceres said. "This battle will be complete when Jose is free."
Caceres said she reunited with her son at Los Angeles International Airport on Thursday. At first, Mateo was hesitant and nervous.
"I was crying and I kept telling him 'My love, mom is here," Caceres told BuzzFeed News. "He looked lost, like he didn't understand but then he started laughing and playing with his brother."
Caceres thinks it will be a while before Mateo returns to his normal self after spending 85 days in federal custody. For now, she has to be within his sights or he starts to cry. She's also upset because he came back with lice and what appears to be an eye infection.
"I don't even want to imagine how they were treating him if they returned him to me like this," Caceres said. "More than anything I'm glad he's with me, now we just have to worry about his dad."
Shortly after father and son were separated, Lauren Mack, an ICE spokesperson, said Fuentes didn't have a passport, birth certificate, or any other type of identifying documents to prove he was Mateo's dad. Mateo was also too young to answer any of the officers' questions.
However, Al Otro Lado, a pro bono immigration legal services group, said Fuentes crossed the border with his Salvadoran photo ID and Mateo’s original birth certificate in hand.
BuzzFeed News reviewed a copy of Mateo's birth certificate provided by organizers of a group that helps Central Americans reach the US border, Pueblo Sin Fronteras ("People Without Borders" in English). The birth certificate lists Fuentes as the father.
On Friday, Mack told BuzzFeed News that Fuentes's request to be released from custody was denied because ICE considered him a flight risk.
Mack referred questions to US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) when asked why Fuentes wasn't given a DNA test at the border back in November to prove he was Mateo's father.
"It’s my understanding that the time it takes for DNA results is long and CBP has time constraints for holding someone following their entry processing," Mack said.
Caceres did not submit a DNA sample in order to prove she was Mateo's mother. An earlier version of this article said she had.
On Friday, Mack told BuzzFeed News that Fuentes' request to be released from custody was denied because ICE considered him a flight risk.