The six-year-old girl on the other end of the line tells Alexa she fears they will never be together again. In another 15-minute phone call, she questions if Alexa still loves her. She asks Alexa to pick her up from the family she’s staying with in New York. Alexa hears the girl say the words in Spanish: “You are my mom, I want to be with you.”
Alexa wishes she could go get her. But Alexa’s locked up 2,400 miles away, at an immigration detention center in Arizona.
Alexa, 23, and her six-year-old niece arrived at the US border from Guatemala in early 2019, after gang members murdered much of their family and Alexa was left as the sole caretaker of the little girl. It’s been more than seven months since US officials on the Arizona border separated them. It’s the longest they have ever been apart. Now they are in the hands of a system that won’t make it easy for them to reunite.
The public outcry over forced family separations at the border last year has faded from the headlines, yet migrant families continue to be separated today. A federal judge in San Diego ordered the Trump administration in the summer of 2018 to reunite families and stop separating most parents and children. But the court order does not apply to non-parents, and the administration keeps separating people like Alexa – aunts, grandparents or older siblings who commonly step in as guardians without formal paperwork – from the children they’re traveling with, without any procedure to reunite them. (The government also continues splitting up some children from their parents, citing reasons such as the parents’ criminal history.)
Figures obtained on Thursday by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) through litigation reveal the federal government separated at least 1,556 more children from their parents than it had previously disclosed, bringing the number of known cases to more than 5,460. “The family separation practice was worse than we thought in the past and is still ongoing,” says Lee Gelernt, the deputy director of the ACLU’s Immigrant Rights Project. The overall tally would be larger still if it included families like Alexa and her niece, but no one has tracked the number of children separated from non-parent adult relatives.
Anthony Enriquez, who oversees legal services for thousands of unaccompanied child migrants in New York for Catholic Charities Community Services, says his staff estimate that for every 10 children they see who were separated from a parent, there could be up to four additional children separated from a different adult relative.
“When we talk about family separation, we are not just talking about DNA families,” Enriquez says. “Immigration officials are still separating families to willfully cause harm to both children and adults for the purpose of deterring future immigration and coercing people who are here now to accept deportation.”
There are days when Alexa says she would rather die, “so I won’t have to suffer any more”. Her memories come at night, amid the screams of other detainees who plead to be released or beg for cigarettes. She wakes up feeling like someone is hunting her. She knows she’s seen too much death.
When we talk about family separation, we are not just talking about DNA familiesAnthony Enriquez
Alexa, who did not want her real name or niece’s name disclosed for fear of reprisal, told her story over a series of phone calls from the Eloy detention center, located 64 miles (103km) from Phoenix, Arizona. During a brief visit at the center, she spoke softly, without ever erasing her welcoming smile. A white rosary peeked out from underneath her dark green uniform.
When Alexa thinks about her family she bows her head to cry. She says she was a teenager when gang members beat her mother to death in front of her in Guatemala over a longstanding land dispute. Two years later, in 2013, the gang returned and murdered her father and sister in the family’s rural home. Alexa managed to flee and looked for help. When she returned home with the police, she found her dead sister’s eight-month-old baby near death, choking in a pool of blood, her little legs bound. The baby was in shock and could not cry.
Alexa, then 17, suddenly found herself the sole caregiver of her niece. “Every time she cried, I cried with her,” she says. “We grew up together.”
She worked cleaning jobs so she could buy the baby milk, she says. She went on to have a son of her own, but he fell ill and died suddenly at 22 months. In 2018, the gang that killed her family fatally shot her partner outside the couple’s home. The gang shot at Alexa, too, and she fled with the girl, who was five by then.
The federal prosecutor’s office in Guatemala told Alexa they couldn’t help her because the men were too dangerous and advised her to leave the country, she recalls. After she made it to Mexico’s northern border in early 2019, she resolved to apply for political asylum in the US, ruling out living in Mexico because of gangs and violence there. She didn’t know that she could be separated from the girl when she started her journey. “The United States is the only country that can protect you,” she says.
American volunteers at her migrant shelter in Mexico helped her obtain copies of the child’s birth certificate and family death certificates, which prove her relatives were murdered. The volunteers also gave her a letter to carry, which stated she didn’t agree to be separated from the child.
She assured the girl they would stay together, that in the US, everything would be better. But when they got to the Lukeville, Arizona, port of entry and she asked for asylum, she was told they would be split up and the girl would be sent to New York. It would take Alexa days before she understood that was a state thousands of miles away.
“The girl was clinging to me,” Alexa recalls, adding that a female customs officer ripped her from her arms nonetheless. Alexa remembers the girl’s cries and the officer telling her to shut up. “You can’t do this without my permission,” Alexa recalls saying. “‘Of course, I can,’ she told me.”
Children who arrive at the border without a parent or legal guardian – even if they come with an adult relative – are considered “unaccompanied” and are sent to child shelters, according to a US Customs and Border Protection spokesperson. These protocols “ensure the safety of the child”, the spokesperson wrote in an e-mail. The government requires legal guardians to show adoption papers or a court order, neither of which Alexa has.
But some advocates say the government should broaden its definition of legal guardian to include longstanding adult caregivers. Michelle Brané, director of migrant rights and justice at the Women’s Refugee Commission, is disappointed the government has so far refused to take that step. “Because really the whole point of all of this is to do what’s in the best interests of the child,” Brané says.
Once separated, there’s no real mechanism for reuniting children with the adult relatives who raised them, says attorney Catherine Weiss, the chair of the pro bono practice at Lowenstein Sandler, which represents immigrant children in both individual cases and class actions. “It is regularly the case that the adult who crossed with that child will be removed while the child remains.”
In fact, Brané says when these caregivers are separated from children at the border, it’s not even “necessarily noted in the file anywhere that this separation occurred or who the adult is that brought the child in”.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration has issued legal guidance that makes it harder for Central Americans fleeing violence to qualify for asylum. And under Trump, immigrants who ask for asylum at ports of entry are typically forced to remain in detention until their cases are resolved.
Alexa spent 15 days without any news of what had happened to her child, until a psychologist at the detention center helped arrange for a phone call. The girl had been placed with a temporary foster family in New York City.
Volunteers Alexa had met at the shelter in Mexico learned of her situation and rallied to help. They found her pro bono attorneys and requested the girl’s case be overseen by an independent child advocate, a service available to some unaccompanied immigrant children in government custody. The child advocate got federal officials to allow Alexa and her niece to call twice a week.
For many other families like Alexa’s, phone calls with children don’t happen at all, says Weiss, the attorney. “If that person is not the biological parent or legal guardian, there is no guarantee of communication.”
An immigration judge has found Alexa’s case credible and acknowledged she suffered harm, but denied her case met the complex legal standard for asylum. Her attorney Suzannah Maclay has filed an intent to appeal but says the case could take over two years to reach a resolution, given the current backlog in cases and the Trump administration’s constant changes to the immigration system. There is a chance, however, Alexa could be released from detention sooner through other legal motions.
Like other separated caregivers, she’s now facing dueling priorities: enduring detention long enough to defend herself from deportation back to danger, and reuniting with her child as quickly as possible – even when there is no clear path to do so.
In detention, most days resemble one another. She sleeps as much as she can. Her uniform makes her feel like a criminal. The food is always the same – “potatoes, potatoes and more potatoes”. She is often sick to her stomach, and sometimes it is hard to distinguish whether it is the food or the anxiety of not knowing what will happen next.
Sometimes she is hopeful. She has heard from the child advocate maybe the girl can be transferred to Arizona and they can have brief reunions in the detention visitor room. She is learning to read in English and Spanish, so she can understand her legal documents rather than just stare at them.
Increasingly, though, she thinks it’s better to be deported than keep fighting in detention. Her heart aches for her child, and it’s hard to accept that the girl she raised as a daughter now lives with strangers. “Without her I feel like everything is over,” she says.
I’ve been locked up for a long time without having done anything, my only mistake was to ask for asylumAlexa
“I am desperate and depressed,” she says. “I’ve been locked up for a long time without having done anything, my only mistake was to ask for asylum.”
But if she were to return to Guatemala, she knows she wouldn’t be safe. “They are looking for me to kill me,” she says. And she fears an American family will adopt the little girl if she were to return, though legal advocates say that rarely happens.
It’s more likely if Alexa were to be deported, the child’s advocate would arrange for the girl to also return to Guatemala – even though it could take months for her to follow. Alexa would probably have to board a plane alone, trusting the government and advocates to ensure her child would one day join her.
In the meantime, Alexa looks forward to those days when she talks to her girl. Sometimes they make small talk about the dolls the girl plays with, or the school she attends. Other times, she tells Alexa she has a magic wand that will make the distance between them disappear. There’s not a call when the girl doesn’t ask how much longer they will have to wait to be together. Alexa has to say it’s all in the hands of a judge.
It’s tough to explain to a six-year-old she protected all her life that she’s now powerless. She’s all the family Alexa has. “And I’m not willing to lose her,” she says.