A Guatemalan Family Faces Endless Obstacles as They Struggle to Recover a 9-Year-Old Boy From U.S. Custody

As deadlines loom for the government to reunite migrant parents and children separated at the border, families are trying to navigate a chaotic bureaucracy.

Illustration: Nicole Xu for The Intercept

The couple walked into Emily Fanjoy’s office carrying a shopping bag full of receipts and scribbled paperwork. Fanjoy, a social service provider in the coastal Oregon city of Tillamook, knew the pair. She has worked with the couple off and on for a while, informally linking them up with local immigration and health services. The man has lived in the United States for more than 40 years; the woman has been here for about 26. They arrived after fleeing Guatemala amid one of the most brutal civil wars in Latin American history. They are legal U.S. residents, but experience has taught them to be cautious with authorities nonetheless.

The two originally gravitated to Fanjoy because, owing to a stint in the Peace Corps a decade ago that landed her in the couple’s corner of Guatemala for two years, Fanjoy is part of a small population of people able to speak the Mayan dialect of their native region. The walk-ins were normal, Fanjoy told The Intercept recently. It’s easier that way. “They never call me on the telephone if they can avoid it,” she said. “It’s too hard. They need to be able to be in person.”

But while their appearance may have been standard, the reason for the couple’s visit this past June 12 was not.

In a mix of Q’anjob’al, Spanish, and extremely limited English, the couple explained that the woman’s adult nephew and his 9-year-old son had disappeared crossing the border a month ago. Nobody had heard a thing from them. Then, one day, the nephew called. He was in U.S. immigration custody in the Otero County Processing Center in Chaparral, New Mexico. He was alone. More than a month after being apprehended, his aunt and uncle told Fanjoy, the man still had no idea what the U.S. government had done with his child.

The couple was frustrated with their nephew’s risky decision to cross the border, but for now, that was beside the point. A 9-year-old child in their family was lost in the system. They told Fanjoy that they wanted to step forward as sponsors for him. That, it turns out, is easier said than done.

More than a month after being apprehended, the man still had no idea what the U.S. government had done with his child.

Due to a series of intentional decisions by the Trump administration, some version of this story is playing out in an untold number of households across the U.S. and Latin America. From October through mid-June, the administration separated a minimum of 3,700 children from their parents, with a substantial increase in May, following the border-wide implementation of its “zero tolerance” strategy. The true number of separations over the last year could be somewhat higher, given the existence of a “zero tolerance” pilot program the administration launched in Texas last summer.

The administration’s decision to charge every single adult accused of crossing the border illegally with a crime – including asylum-seekers – has made thousands of kids “unaccompanied” in the view of the state. Despite the predictable outcome of this policy, creating a sudden influx of solo children, the government made no effort to bolster the system for reconnecting newly separated kids with their parents once their criminal cases were complete. (Typically, for the federal misdemeanor of illegal entry, border crossers are given time served.)

Border Patrol arrest data indicate several hundred parents were deported without their children in April alone, before “zero tolerance” kicked into high gear; others are being held in Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers around the country. Meanwhile, around 3,000 children are said to be in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, a component of the Department of Health and Human Services. For years, ORR has worked with private and nonprofit outfits to house kids who actually cross the border unaccompanied — not kids made unaccompanied by the government. These populations differ in key ways.

In years past, young people who have entered ORR custody have typically been older — teens and preteens mostly. Often, they would come with some sort of identification and a plan. That has not been the case for the children separated by the Trump administration. These children are much younger, some are preverbal, some have disabilities, and some are infants. They crossed the border dependent on the grown-ups in their lives, parents who had a plan for them. Now they are alone.

“Zero tolerance” has, predictably, triggered a series of legal challenges. At the heart of those fights is a longstanding Trump administration effort to expand the practice of holding families together in detention, and for longer. The administration argues that it has no other choice: It’s either family detention or family separation. Lawyers challenging the government’s efforts say that’s not at all the case. In a class-action lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, a federal judge in California late last month ordered a nationwide injunction calling on the agencies responsible for family separations to immediately begin reuniting parents and kids.

Under U.S. District Court Judge Dana Sabraw’s order, the administration had until July 10 — today — to reunite children under 5 years of age, and July 26 to reunite the others. On Monday, with the first of those deadlines fast approaching, it became clear that the government was in no position to fully comply with the judge’s order. Lawyers for the administration disclosed in court that it had only located 54 parents for 102 children under 5 years old currently in its custody. According to the New York Times, those children will be reunited with their parents today, in what the paper described as “a secretive operation that involves transporting children hundreds of miles to undisclosed locations around the country.” The fate of the rest remains unclear.

In the midst of this high-stakes legal maneuvering, families like the one that walked into Fanjoy’s office are adrift in an uncertain world. The aunt has submitted a declaration in a separate lawsuit, filed by attorneys general in 17 states and the District of Columbia, which challenges a sweeping range of practices associated with “zero tolerance.” The Intercept is withholding the names of the aunt and uncle in this particular case, out of concerns they expressed for their safety, and identifying their relatives by their initials – the father, AMJ, and 9-year-old, AMMP.

“It’s profoundly challenging for a person who can speak multiple languages and has a college degree.”

Navigating the system — or lack thereof — created in response to the government’s self-imposed family separation crisis would be difficult for anyone, Fanjoy said: “It’s profoundly challenging for a person who can speak multiple languages and has a college degree.” It does not take much to imagine how difficult the process would be for a rural Central American family, particularly one that predominantly speaks a rare indigenous language. The family’s experience, and Fanjoy’s experience trying to help secure their freedom, provides a snapshot of the chaos playing out in the immigration system right now. It has left Fanjoy with deep concerns about what the future holds.

“I don’t have any faith that this is going to be resolved in a way that is respectful of humans,” Fanjoy said.

Fanjoy’s work with the Guatemalan couple sprang from an impulse to help, and she has done it on her own time — she normally specializes in cases of intimate partner violence. Fanjoy, who hardly considers herself an immigration expert, determined the first step was to figure out where AMMP was being kept. She reached out to a cousin who is an immigration lawyer. It took a couple days to confirm but, using a 1-800 number the government has provided to the families it has separated, they established that AMMP was being held at a facility run by a private contractor, Southwest Key Programs, in Mesa, Arizona.

Fanjoy connected with an ORR caseworker by phone, who explained that for AMMP’s release from Southwest Key to a sponsor to be considered, the family would first need a notarized power of attorney form signed by one of the child’s parents. They were also told that the family would hear from Southwest Key within three days in order to facilitate the transfer of the requisite resettlement paperwork.

None of this would guarantee AMMP’s release to his aunt and uncle, of course. Sponsoring a child is an involved process. That has become increasingly true in recent months, with the government treating parents separated from their children through “zero tolerance” exactly as it would any other potential sponsor. Under a new agreement, HHS now collects biographic data and immigration history records from every adult living in a potential sponsor home and shares that information with ICE for review before a child may be released. Advocates worry that this policy will result in potential sponsors being scared off or unable to come forward for children, because the adults may themselves be undocumented or living with others who are; the Women’s Refugee Commission and the National Immigrant Justice Center have said that the new agreement indicates that “DHS and HHS see children as bait or suspects first, not children.”

With Fanjoy working the phones on the U.S. side of the border, the aunt and uncle contacted AMMP’s mother in Guatemala. The mother traveled to meet with a lawyer to sign the power of attorney paperwork. Because she cannot read, the mother signed the form with a thumbprint and faxed it to Fanjoy, so that she could then pass it on to Southwest Key. Days went by, however, and the call from Southwest Key never came. “We know that the child’s father, who’s incarcerated in New Mexico, has called ORR and said that he wanted to give power of attorney to the couple that I’m working with, and I have a notarized attorney letter from the mother in Guatemala,” Fanjoy told The Intercept in late June. “But I have nowhere to send that fax from the mother.”

Following up with ORR yielded little. The case managers took notes, she said, and could “tell me how many times I’ve called.” But she would speak to a different case manager each time, and those case managers did not provide direct contact information. Not only that, Fanjoy added, she said she was told early on that she could only call once every three days. Communications with Southwest Key were similarly frustrating. Neither HHS (the department overseeing ORR) nor Southwest Key would provide comment for this story.

Complaints regarding the call-in system ostensibly in place to reconnect families separated by the administration’s “zero tolerance” crackdown have become commonplace. Last month, in a statement to the press, the Texas Civil Rights Project, a legal collective that has interviewed hundreds of parents separated from their children, claimed that “when trying to locate these children, legal counsel found that government representatives often deliberately hung up on them after they disclosed that they were calling to inquire about the location of a parent separated from a child at the border.”


Emily Fanjoy in Tillamook, Oregon.

Photo: Courtesy of Emily Fanjoy

On the same day that the federal judge in the ACLU’s case issued the national injunction ordering reunifications to begin — June 26 — the aunt and uncle Fanjoy is working with sat down with an investigator from the Oregon attorney general’s office. The investigator’s boss, Ellen Rosenblum, is one of 17 state attorneys general currently suing the Trump administration over family separation practices. The couple told the investigator that ICE had recently told AMJ that if he signed paperwork authorizing his own deportation, he could be reunited with AMMP down the line. AMJ did not accept the offer.

“He didn’t want to leave without his son,” Fanjoy said.

With legal pressure mounting and the deadlines imposed by the injunction in the ACLU suit approaching, numerous stories have surfaced from along the border alleging that ICE officials are suggesting that parents sign paperwork consenting to their voluntary removal in order to be reunited with their kids — The Intercept reported on one such alleged incident last week, while NBC News obtained the paperwork in question. The Department of Homeland Security has strongly denied that the offers are in any way new or inappropriate.

While the attorney general’s investigator was in the room, Fanjoy made a call to ORR — her fifth in the weeks since the couple came in. She was placed on hold for 45 minutes. “Is this this long every time?” the investigator asked Fanjoy.

The following day, according to Fanjoy, she and the family received their first call from Southwest Key. The employee she spoke to asked who she was, why she was calling, and what she had to do with the child in Southwest Key’s custody. “They acted as though they had no information,” she said. Fanjoy explained that she was a social service provider working with the family. ORR, Fanjoy said, had told her that AMJ had called to say that he wanted to give power of attorney to the aunt and uncle. “The woman on the other line said she had no record of that,” she said.

“I have a note from the mother in Guatemala, prepared by a lawyer and notarized,” Fanjoy recalled telling her. The woman told her she had seen no such note.

“Exactly,” Fanjoy said. “Because we don’t have anywhere to send it. Where should I send this information to? We’ve been waiting for someone to call us.”

Fanjoy said the woman gave her a fax number. “Should I send it attention to anyone?” she asked. No, the woman told her, it should be fine. Fanjoy and the family promptly faxed the note.

If the government indeed planned to reunite AMJ and AMMP, there was no indication of when, where, or under what circumstances it might happen.

In conversations with the Southwest Key case manager that followed, Fanjoy and the family continued to press for the resettlement paperwork that would allow the process for AMMP’s sponsorship to begin. But in their last conversation, on July 2, the case manager indicated that it might not happen, citing an ever-shifting set of policies, Fanjoy said. “She said the official policy is: We’re reuniting children with parents if the parents are still in the United States.” Additionally, Fanjoy was told that if she wanted to continue working with the family, she would need to submit paperwork with DHS, establishing herself as an accredited representative.

If the government indeed planned to reunite AMJ and AMMP, there was no indication of when, where, or under what circumstances it might happen. In fact, when Fanjoy spoke with AMJ for the first time the following day, he told her that he was under the impression that AMMP’s sponsorship was proceeding, and that his son would be sent to the aunt and uncle. Fanjoy had hoped that speaking to AMJ might alleviate some of the confusion between the family and the bureaucracies they are attempting to navigate. That was not the case.

“It didn’t clarify anything,” Fanjoy said. In their conversation, AMJ said that he had not heard his son’s voice since the government separated them two months ago. The pair finally had their first conversation late last week.

This week will mark one month since the couple walked into Fanjoy’s office. Whether they are any closer to seeing their family members put back together or, at the very least, getting 9-year-old AMMP out of government custody, is as unclear as ever. Back in Guatemala, the boy’s mother worries. She had been able to communicate somewhat regularly with the boy, but late last month, according to Fanjoy, she was told that he had become sick. “She didn’t understand whether he was taken to the doctor or if he was hospitalized,” Fanjoy said. All she knew was that the calls had stopped coming.

“We have now created an entire group of young people that will carry this for the rest of their lives.”

In mid-June, Newsweek reported that more than 600 United Methodist clergy and church members wanted to see Attorney General Jeff Sessions charged with child abuse for his implementation of “zero tolerance” (Sessions, who issued the order that made “zero tolerance” a border-wide policy, is also a Sunday school teacher at Ashland Place United Methodist Church in Mobile, Alabama). Fanjoy read the article and, she said, felt it rang true. “I feel like that’s accurate,” she said. “But it’s not just him. It’s him and everyone that participated in this system.”

For Fanjoy, whose entire career is focused on the root causes and manifestations of trauma, often bound up in experiences of child abuse, the implications of what the Trump administration has created are particularly dire. “What I do in my day-to-day work is I talk to health care providers about adverse childhood experiences and the intersections that has with intimate partner and sexual violence,” she explained. “One of the biggest adverse experiences is separation from your parents or caregivers, and it’s by death, divorce, separation, or removal. And most of the time, when we talk about removal, we’re talking about the foster care system.” Through “zero tolerance,” the government systematically created adverse experiences for thousands of children, Fanjoy argued, and because there’s no functional system in place to bring those experiences to an end, they multiply by the day.

“We have now created an entire group of young people that will carry this for the rest of their lives,” she said. “It’s an absolute disaster that was intentionally created, and people’s lives are at stake.”

“It’s disgusting,” she added. “The whole thing is disgusting.”

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