When Brayan was 9 years old, in 2016, his mother was brutally raped and murdered in Honduras. Her body was found in a septic tank. When Brayan saw her in the coffin, she was so disfigured that he couldn’t recognize her. She had been seven months pregnant. That’s when his nightmares began, his fear of the dark. His mother’s boyfriend had abused her and was arrested in the killing, but he claimed it was a gang killing and was set free. He threatened Brayan and his father, José, so José vowed to bring Brayan to safety in the United States. The opportunity to travel there safely arrived this year.
During Holy Week in late March, Brayan and his father joined a caravan of hundreds of Central American migrants fleeing through Mexico to the United States. When they arrived at the California border in May,Brayan’s father — seeking to follow the letter of the law — heeded the advice of immigration advocates and presented himself and his son for asylum. Border Patrol officers refused to even glance at the notarized letters from lawyers making his case, José said. He was jailed for 20 days, asked to sign papers in English he did not understand and was deported to Honduras. Brayan was flown to a shelter for children in Maryland.
Brayan is now one of the more than 2,000 children — a conservative estimate — who have been separated from their families as part of the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance crackdown on undocumented immigration. On June 26, a federal district judge in San Diego ordered that those families must be reunited within 30 or fewer days — even though a Justice Department lawyer acknowledged there was no formal procedure to reunite families.
Brayan’s story, pieced together from interviews with him, his father and his grandmother — whose last names are being withheld because they are undocumented — shows just how hard the government is making the reunification process, and why every step of the zero-tolerance policy is needlessly traumatizing for thousands of children and their families.
Brayan’s grandmother, Rosa, is a 48-year-old undocumented immigrant doing everything in her power to become his sponsor and bring him to her Florida home. But navigating the bureaucracy has been a nightmare.
A social worker at the Maryland shelter — the name of which is being withheld to protect Brayan — told Rosa that Brayan needed his own bedroom if she is to receive custody of him. So she gave up a one-bedroom apartment that she had rented for $400 a month and moved 25 minutes away to a two-bedroom apartment that costs $1,200 a month, she told me. She needed to present a lease, which is difficult for undocumented renters, and undergo a background check. She also needed proof of income, another roadblock for many undocumented workers. To afford the higher rent, she began working longer hours and on weekends. The social worker first told her she didn’t make enough money, then said she wouldn’t be around enough for Brayan if she worked such long hours.
Rosa also has an 8-year-old daughter with her former partner, which the social worker said could be used as grounds to deny her custody of Brayan. So she got a notarized letter from the girl’s father saying he would take full financial responsibility for the girl. Then the social worker left the case for a month, only to be reassigned to it recently.
“I started to feel that I couldn’t do it, that it was impossible,” Rosa told me. “I cried every day. I couldn’t sleep. I just stared at the clock and imagined my grandson rotting in there.” She has been asked to submit the name of an alternate caregiver who is an American citizen in case she is deported. “I’m not afraid to be deported,” she told me. “They can send me back to Honduras however many times they want, and I’ll come back just as many times for my grandchild.”
Officials with the shelter said it has strict rules on reuniting children with relatives to make sure they are not released to human traffickers, which was a concern in 2014 with unaccompanied minors. But many if not most of the children who have been placed in shelters by the Trump administration did not arrive unaccompanied; they were forcibly separated from parents who have since been jailed or deported. And for those, like Brayan, who do have relatives in the United States, odds are those relatives are low-income, undocumented and do not have access to legal representation.
“Undocumented children with representation are five times more likely to be successful in their cases, but the financial hardship these cases pose are often out of reach for low-income and undocumented families,” Jennifer K. Falcon, communications director for the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services said. (The group, known as Raices, has agreed to give Brayan’s grandmother legal assistance.)
In a recent phone call, Brayan described the living conditions at his shelter. He has a room of his own with a bed, dresser and radio. He said that many of the children shut themselves in their rooms to cry after their twice-a-week phone calls with their parents. Meals consist of cornflakes for breakfast and ham sandwiches for lunch and dinner. When I called Brayan, I could hear children crying in the background. Brayan sounded tired, perhaps because he is depressed or exhausted from crying. He said all the children were given a pill each day “so they wouldn’t get sick.” His grandmother said she was worried the pills were sedatives because he had been anxious about sleeping alone since his mother’s death, but he seemed to be sleeping well at the shelter. Shelter officials denied giving the children drugs.
Brayan also said that he and the other children are required to sweep and mop floors and cleanbathrooms. The shelter pays them “an allowance” of $7 a week — money they use to buy snacks to supplement meals that leave them hungry. Brayan told me he has taken it upon himself to comfort the youngest newcomers, telling them their parents wouldn’t like to see them cry. “The kids here are sad; they cry a lot,” he told me. “I tell them we’re getting out soon. I ask God that I get out of here and am reunited with my grandma soon.”
The question is whether the government will allow that, and when. Brayan’s father told me he wants his son to live with his grandmother — and even had a lawyer draw up a letter attesting as much before they left Honduras. But there are no assurances the government will agree. Being a poor person of color is a strong mark against you in the foster care system.
Tina Lee, an anthropologist who has described the child welfare system as “parallel to policing and incarceration,” told me that even American citizens who are relatives ofchildren in foster care have a hard time getting custody because of discrimination against poor people and people of color. That means, she said, that “it is surely equally or doubly hard for undocumented family members.”
Even more disturbing, the Department of Health and Human Services, which is in charge of the children, and the Department of Homeland Security have agreed to share data, including that of all the undocumented relatives who seek custody of the children. This almost certainly places those relatives in danger of deportation. Rosa says she will not be intimidated, but surely others will be. The Women’s Refugee Commission and National Immigrant Justice Center said it was clear “D.H.S. and H.H.S. see children as bait or suspects first, not children.”
José described how in Honduras he’d walk home from work and begin to smile to himself as he anticipated seeing Brayan at the door, waiting to hurl himself at his father for a hug. He replays this image over and over in his head. He had dreamed of a new life with his son. Now separated by borders, he hopes his son will have a shot at a promising life with his grandmother. But the thought that he might not see him again is painful.
“Brayan is sad. He’s in despair,” José said. “And I feel guilty. I threw my son away.” I tell him that he didn’t, that Brayan was taken from him. “I feel like crying, but what good is crying?” he replied. “So even though I am not religious, I pray. If only I could see him at the door now, it would make me so happy.”
Karla Cornejo Villavicencio is an Emerson Fellow and a graduate student at Yale University.
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