Migrant Mother Loses Custody of Sons Over Murky Gang Allegations

(Bloomberg) -- The day President Donald Trump ordered his administration to stop separating migrant children from parents caught illegally crossing the Mexican border, a Salvadoran woman named Raquel arrived in Texas with her two sons.

She had fled her country in fear of a police officer who had harassed her for years, she said in an interview. She hoped to claim asylum in the U.S. and make a better life for herself and her children.

Instead, Immigration and Customs Enforcement took them from her, despite Trump’s order. The agency asserted that she’s in MS-13, the violent gang whose members the president has called “animals,” and so a danger to her children. Raquel and her lawyers vehemently deny that she’s a gang member, and an immigration court concluded that she doesn’t pose a danger to the public; she was released from U.S. detention on bond while her asylum claim is processed.

Migrant Mother Loses Custody of Sons Over Murky Gang Allegations

“I left my country because I had suffered and here, also, I’m suffering," Raquel, 33, said in Spanish in the living room of the San Antonio home where she’s been staying since her release from an immigration detention center a week ago. At the request of her attorneys, Bloomberg News is identifying her only by her first name because she says local police in her hometown have threatened to kill her.

Raquel’s case demonstrates that though Trump has publicly retreated from the “zero tolerance” policy toward border crossings that led to about 3,000 migrant children being taken from their parents, immigrant families caught at the border still may be at risk of separation. Since Trump’s June 20 order to stop removing children from parents merely because they cross the border illegally, the government has resumed an earlier policy of taking custody of kids when authorities can’t confirm a familial relationship, a caregiver is referred for prosecution, or a child may be unsafe.

A parent documented as a member of MS-13 “might meet” one of those standards, ICE spokesman Matthew Bourke said.

No Criminal Record

ICE refused to provide any substantiation to Bloomberg or to Raquel’s lawyers, who work for the Texas nonprofit Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, known as RAICES, for its assertion that she is a gang member. Another ICE spokeswoman, Sarah Rodriguez, said it had received “information” on June 30 that Raquel “is a documented MS-13 gang member.” Pressed, Rodriguez said the information “came from an official source; you could cite it as a government database.”

She would not elaborate further. “That’s all I have for you,” she said.

One of Raquel’s lawyers, Kathrine Russell, provided a document from the El Salvador Ministry of Justice and Public Safety declaring that she has no criminal record. Raquel said she has no tattoos, common among MS-13 members and one question asked in asylum interviews to help determine gang affiliations.

“My only tattoo is this," Raquel said, lifting her left arm and twisting it to expose scars from more than 20 stitches that she said were the result of an assault by El Salvador police.

Migrant Mother Loses Custody of Sons Over Murky Gang Allegations

After a 97-minute interview on July 10, a U.S. asylum officer found in an initial screening that Raquel had a credible fear of persecution if she returned home, records show.

“How are you feeling today?” the asylum officer asked her, according to a transcript of the interview. “I’m a little sad because I’m not with my children,” she answered in Spanish.

ICE had already taken them.

ACLU Lawsuit

As the impact of Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy became evident in the spring and summer -- thousands of migrant children torn from their families and placed in detention centers run by the Department of Health and Human Services -- public outrage mounted. The American Civil Liberties Union sued the Trump administration in May, seeking to force the government to reunite families. A federal judge in San Diego, Dana Sabraw, sided with the ACLU and ordered the government to return separated children by the end of July.

Since then, Sabraw has supervised a hasty and improvised effort by the government to locate migrant parents -- some of whom were deported without their children -- and reassemble the families. As of August 9, the government had reunified 1,569 children with their parents or guardians and discharged 423 children into other circumstances, such as placing them with relatives.

But 559 children remained in the custody of HHS’s Office of Refugee Resettlement, including 386 whose parents are outside the U.S.

The process Sabraw’s ruling created doesn’t apply to Raquel because he excluded cases in which there is a government determination that a parent presents a danger to their child. “Everyone’s been reunited with their children except for me,” said Raquel, who decided to speak out because she hopes that media attention will help get her children back.

‘Never Been Separated’

“I’m the one who’s been with them the whole time since they were born. We’ve never been separated,” she said, weeping. “Who can be better with them than their own mother?”

The government hasn’t said how many children have been separated from adults caught crossing the border since Trump’s June 20 order. There are few public reports of the practice. The Texas Civil Rights Project, another nonprofit that assists migrants, announced Aug. 4 that it had won the reunification of a Guatemalan man and his daughter, who had been taken from him in early July because immigration authorities didn’t believe they were related. DNA tests proved his paternity, according to the nonprofit.

Raquel was put in touch with Bloomberg News by RAICES, one of the oldest and largest groups of its kind. It’s grown dramatically since Trump’s ”zero tolerance” policy began in May. In early June, two Bay Area tech workers started a Facebook fundraiser aiming to bring in $1,500 for the group. The effort went viral, resulting in more than $21 million flooding RAICES’ coffers from a single Facebook page.

The group has raised millions more through other sources, including celebrity promotions. Late night TV host Jimmy Fallon responded to an insult Trump tweeted about him by tweeting that he would give a donation to RAICES in the president’s name. The Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which awards the Golden Globe, has given the group $250,000.

Knock in the Night

The events that would send Raquel fleeing to the U.S. border began with a knock on her door in the night, she said. What follows is her account in an interview with Bloomberg News that is consistent with her testimony to the asylum officer.

A police officer that she says has “a history of abuses” demanded to be let into her home in the town of San Vincente that night three years ago. She refused, and he threatened to hit her. He left after she threatened to report him.

About a year later, the officer and two colleagues encountered Raquel in a store one evening. They ordered everyone else to leave and then the officer demanded to search her. She consented. But when she turned away from him, the officer hit her with the butt of his gun. She was pepper sprayed and dragged, she said, breaking her hand. She was taken to the police station, where they beat her more and poured gasoline on her, she said.

At about 2 a.m. the officers took her to the hospital, where she was treated for her injuries. Raquel filed a complaint with the local prosecutor’s office and hired an attorney, she said. Then she began receiving threats -- messages through WhatsApp and calls to her cell phone.

One message, she told the asylum officer, warned that because of her report to the prosecutor, “I was a river frog and they were going to kill me with my kids and it wouldn’t even matter.”

Russell, her attorney, said she did not have copies of the WhatsApp messages or Raquel’s medical records.

Detained in Texas

Raquel’s mother, father and siblings are all in the United States legally, she said, and she tried to follow them, applying for asylum after the police attacked her. But the process was slow and she lost patience, fearful of another attack.

Raquel and her sons left home in early June and traveled north, mostly by bus. They crossed the Rio Grande -- her youngest son struggling because he can’t swim -- and were apprehended by Customs and Border Patrol as they walked along a Texas road. They spent five days at the West Ursula Processing Center in McAllen, which detainees call “la hielera” -- the ice box. Then, still together, they were moved on June 25 to South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, one of three ICE facilities nationally where immigrant parents and their children are held together.

Migrant Mother Loses Custody of Sons Over Murky Gang Allegations

Five days later, ICE received what it claims was evidence of Raquel’s MS-13 membership. She was separated from her children the same day, given five minutes to say goodbye.

“No, no, don’t go,” her youngest son shouted as his brother tried to explain the situation, she said. ICE agents grabbed the children and pulled them down a hallway.

The only explanation Raquel could get at the time was that they were being taken because of her criminal record. That confused her, since she said the only time she’s ever been arrested was during the police officers’ attack, an incident that isn’t reflected in the El Salvador government document.

Wailing after her sons were ripped away, a social worker told her to stop crying or her head would start to hurt. “Why are you telling me this?” Raquel responded. “They just took my kids away.”

Abrazos in San Antonio

Raquel was transferred later that day to the South Texas Detention Facility, an hour southwest of San Antonio in Pearsall, and said she was assigned the same orange outfit worn by women accused of murder and other serious crimes. Mothers who had been separated from their children wore blue.

The first few times she tried to call her sons, no one picked up at the number the government had given her, she says.

RAICES’ lawyers won her release on bond last week. She walked into the detention center’s parking lot on a hot Texas night, praying that her sons would come bounding out of a car, she said. They didn’t.

Migrant Mother Loses Custody of Sons Over Murky Gang Allegations

Since then, Raquel has been able to see her older son three times, visiting him at the San Antonio shelter where he’s spent the past month. During one visit, he gave her a small stuffed monkey that he named Abrazos -- Spanish for hugs.

She traveled to Houston on Thursday to visit her younger son for the first time. In an earlier video call with Raquel’s mother, he seemed distant and sad.

“He thinks he’s being punished,” Raquel said. “He keeps saying, I’ll behave and I’ll go to school and I’ll be good.”

The best chance for the boys to reunite likely is that they’re given to Raquel’s mother in Los Angeles. Raquel has been warned that process could take months. Because she’s not covered under the ACLU’s lawsuit, the government must follow procedures under a law called the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which requires adults to be screened before children can be placed in their custody and home inspections. Sabraw waived those requirements for families covered by the ACLU’s suit.

Raquel said she hoped that telling her story would nudge authorities to take another look at her case and determine that her sons can be released to her.

“They belong with me,” she said. “I keep praying to God for them to be with me.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.