A 16-year-old boy whose journey from Honduras to the United States ended in a federal court fight didn’t comprehend the sweeping legal and political significance of his case, nor did he understand why he was placed under guard in an El Paso, Texas, hotel room.
He had left Honduras after witnessing a murder, which led to gang members threatening him. So his goals in the US were simple. “I was hoping to be safe again. I wanted to be with my father,” he said in an interview with BuzzFeed News.
In a Washington, DC, federal court, where he was known by his initials “J.B.B.C,” he became the first to successfully challenge the Trump administration’s unprecedented policy to practically close off the southern border to asylum-seekers, including unaccompanied children like him, during the coronavirus pandemic.
His plight offers a window into the collision between kids in desperate circumstances and a historic political fight over the very nature of how the US sees immigration. Each child with a pseudonym has a story.
J.B.B.C. thought US authorities would give him a chance to start over and reunite with his father, who had also fled Honduras, when he arrived at the southern border in early June.
Instead, J.B.B.C. was thrust into a system put into place by an under-the-radar government policy. Since March, the Department of Homeland Security has turned back immigrants at the southern border by using an order issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that bars the entry of those who cross into the US without authorization.
Previously, unaccompanied children were sent to government-run shelters as they attempted to pursue their asylum cases. In recent weeks, the order limiting entry to asylum-seekers was extended indefinitely and applies to both adults and children.
J.B.B.C. experienced firsthand the infrastructure to carry out these quick returns, including the use of hotels and contractors to oversee the children sent back to their home countries.
As the court case over his future was waged, J.B.B.C. spent most of his day inside a hotel room in El Paso that was guarded by ICE contractors who switched out intermittently. Sometimes he would stay in his bed alone, but often he would spend time with the contractors playing cards, talking about food, and watching movies like Bad Boys.
He was allowed to go outside for 20 minutes a day, he said.
“I felt locked up. I felt alone and isolated,” he said. “I didn’t know what time of day it was. I didn’t know what day it was. I felt utterly disconnected from society. I just felt anxiety and depression.”
Legal advocates representing him described the process as a “shadow immigration system” that’s patently unlawful.
“It is bad enough that the government is holding young children in secret in hotels, but the fundamental travesty is that they are sending these children back from the danger they fled without giving them the opportunity to seek asylum,” said Lee Gelernt, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union who fought J.B.B.C.’s case in federal court.
The Associated Press reported this week that the government had used hotels frequently in recent months to remove children under the policy.
As of last week, more than 30 unaccompanied children like J.B.B.C. were in Texas hotels under the supervision of the federal contractors, according to a filing by a court-appointed monitor in a separate case overseeing the care of detained juveniles.
The monitor said the hotels should no longer be used for unaccompanied children due to a lack of oversight. ICE officials have said they have long used hotels and that their contractor ensures the children are safe.
J.B.B.C. talked to his dad most days, but only on speakerphone and in front of the contractors, so they couldn’t talk freely.
“My father was trying to encourage me to keep my spirits up, but he wasn’t fooling me,” he said. “I could tell he was extremely sad.”
Administration officials argue that the policy is necessary to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in the US and has been a key tool for agents at the southern border.
“Strong border enforcement is not just about the rule of law, national security, and public safety. It is now a matter of public health,” Mark Morgan, the acting commissioner of Customs and Border Protection (CBP), said in a statement. “In the age of COVID-19 and other infectious diseases, any individual arriving at our borders — with or without symptoms — is a potential risk to frontline personnel, doctors and nurses, and the American people.”
Previously, unaccompanied children from Central America picked up by Border Patrol agents would be sent to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, where they would be housed in shelters as they officially started applying for asylum and waited to be reunited with family members in the US.
But those referrals have dropped precipitously since the issuance of the CDC order. Instead, unaccompanied children at the border are turned back and expelled by DHS officials under the coronavirus order.
The ORR referral process was created by the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, which was signed by then-president George W. Bush in 2008. Under the law, CBP officials are generally required to refer the children within 72 hours to the US refugee agency.
J.B.B.C. was able to connect with attorneys in the US while initially detained by DHS in early June because his father was already in the country and alerted them that his son had been picked up at the border.
“My heart sank when we received the call. I knew I was running against the clock and had to maneuver my way around yet another made-up program created by the administration,” said Linda Corchado, director of legal services with the Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center.
The boy was then shuttled between hotels in Arizona and Texas with plans to return him to Honduras, but ACLU attorneys filed a federal lawsuit on June 10 seeking to block his removal, arguing the policy violated the federal law that governs the processing of unaccompanied minors.
After the filing, the government agreed to keep J.B.B.C. in the country before initial arguments in the case.
“I didn’t know what was going on,” he said.
Two weeks later, US District Judge Carl Nichols, who was appointed by President Donald Trump, issued an order blocking his removal. While the ruling did not void the policy altogether, it was seen as a blow to the administration. Since then, the administration has said it was no longer seeking to use the CDC order to remove him from the country, Gelernt said.
“I found from my lawyer that I had won. Throughout the entire time, I had accepted there was a 50% chance I would stay or leave. I was just excited that I would have the opportunity to hug my father and to see him,” he said.
While J.B.B.C. can now pursue an asylum case to remain in the US, the legal victory also gave him a chance to finally reunite with his father.
After J.B.B.C. waited for several weeks, government officials released him to his dad in a Texas parking lot on July 13.
“He hugged me. He told me to be calm. He told me I had been saved,” he said. “I finally felt safe.”
Gelernt said that J.B.B.C.’s case, along with several others subsequently, was a rare situation in which attorneys could fight to keep an unaccompanied child from being immediately sent back to their home country. He worries about the others.
“Unfortunately,” he said, “hundreds of other children are being summarily expelled in secret because no one can locate them before the government deports them.”