A rumpled New York lawyer in khakis and a pin-stripe shirt is standing incongruously in the shaded plaza central of Chimaltenango, Guatemala, with a cellphone glued to his cheek. Lee Gelernt — a senior lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union — is a long way from the San Diego federal courthouse where he’s been wrestling with the U.S. government for much of the summer.
This week, he came here to join the daunting search for the deported parents.
“I can’t remember a time when we had to go out in the field and find our class members all over the world. This is a highly unusual situation,” he says, as Mayan shoeshine boys and peanut vendors watch curiously. “I never expected to be in Guatemala looking for parents.”
The ACLU and Guatemalan immigrant advocates are fanning out across the country to find dozens of parents who were deported from the U.S. without their children. The challenge is huge. The searchers face long distances, tortuous geography, and often no cellphone signals. Meanwhile, many of the children remain thousands of miles away in U.S. custody.
In June, Gelernt and his colleagues convinced Federal Judge Dana Sabraw to order the government to reunite all 2,654 kids who were separated from adults who crossed the southwest border illegally. This week, U.S. Health and Human Services said it has discharged 2,181 of the children to parents or family members.
But 304 parents have already been deported and remain outside of the U.S., their children left behind. The majority — three-fourths — are in Guatemala.
This posse of lawyers and advocates is now scouring the volcanic highlands of this most populous Central American republic. When they reach a parent, they explain to them their rights and present them with a wrenching choice.
“They are facing a profound decision of whether to have their child be brought back to them in this country, or leave their child in the U.S. for the child to independently pursue asylum,” Gelernt says, “and that’s a decision I would not wish on any parent.”
So far, most of the deported parents in Guatemala have been reachable by cellphone. The ACLU got the numbers from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) which processed and deported the parents.
Moreover, ICE has flown several dozen children home, and the pace is picking up.
But 80 parents have not been found. The hunt is imperative. Judge Sabraw warned, “For every parent who is not located there will be a permanently orphaned child.”
Lesly Tayes is a Guatemalan human rights lawyer with Justice in Motion, one of several advocacy groups that is working with the ACLU to find and contact deported parents. “Their communities are far away and hard to reach. Some don’t even have roads, only trails. It’s very time consuming,” she says. “There’s no phone signal in some of these remote villages so we can’t call the families ahead.”
“They have no idea they can get their kids back,” she continues. “They haven’t talked with a public official or a social worker.”
To get the word out, Tayes has been doing interviews on nationwide radio and TV stations, and putting up posters alerting separated families to call in for free legal advice.
As hard as it is to believe, some of the parents whose children are thousands of miles away don’t want to be found.
“A stranger comes knocking on the door asking for their whole story — it’s difficult,” Tayes says ruefully. “They are afraid because they owe money (for their journey north). Often they are under (extortion) threat. They are very poor and every case is different. It’s a complex situation.”
Some of the parents who have been contacted, want a second chance at asylum in the U.S.
Lee Gelernt says he’s in intense negotiations with the federal government about letting some deported parents return. ICE officials maintain that all the adults agreed to leave voluntarily. But Gelernt says some parents never got an asylum hearing.
“We believe they were coerced or misled or outright confused about what they were signing and what they were giving up,” he says.
One of those parents is Juan Valiente Velazquez. He says he and his then 7-year-old son, Derickson, left their village of San Jose Las Flores in May, fleeing an extortion threat. The border patrol arrested him at the Rio Grande in Texas and took away his son. Then Valiente was found guilty of illegal entry.
Valiente said he signed voluntary departure papers because agents threatened him he could be in jail for a year and a half, separated from his son, if he insisted on asking for asylum.
“I told ICE, ‘I don’t want to go back to my country. All I want is to have refuge in the United States.’ But I didn’t get that opportunity. They told me, ‘You’ve already been to court. You have to go back now.'”
Valiente wants to try once again to apply for asylum in the United States. He says he lives in fear because his family is being extorted by thugs who have threatened to behead him if he doesn’t pay them $30,000. In spite of this, he and his wife are adamant — they want their son Derickson home in Guatemala as soon as possible. The father says his son has been in a youth shelter in New York for more than three months and there’s still no return date. And the parents are in agony.
Derickson calls home three times a week from the New York shelter. He recently left a message on his dad’s cell phone: “Mami, Papi, I love you very much. I’m sending you lots of hugs and kisses. Good night and many kisses.”