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10 Years Old, Tearful and Confused After a Sudden Deportation

Since the coronavirus broke out, the Trump administration has deported hundreds of migrant children alone — in some cases, without notifying their families.

Sandra Rodríguez with her son Gerson, 10.
Sandra Rodríguez with her son Gerson, 10.Credit…via Sandra Rodriguez

By Caitlin Dickerson | May 20, 2020Updated 3:13 p.m. ET

The last time Sandra Rodríguez saw her son Gerson, she bent down to look him in the eye. “Be good,” she said, instructing him to behave when he encountered Border Patrol agents on the other side of the river in the United States, and when he was reunited with his uncle in Houston.

The 10-year-old nodded, giving his mother one last squinty smile. Tears caught in his dimples, she recalled, as he climbed into a raft and pushed out across the Rio Grande toward Texas from Mexico, guided by a stranger who was also trying to reach the United States.

Ms. Rodríguez expected that Gerson would be held by the Border Patrol for a few days and then transferred to a government shelter for migrant children, from which her brother in Houston would eventually be able to claim him. But Gerson seemed to disappear on the other side of the river. For six frantic days, she heard nothing about her son — no word that he had been taken into custody, no contact with the uncle in Houston.

Finally, she received a panicked phone call from a cousin in Honduras who said that Gerson was with her. The little boy was crying and disoriented, his relatives said; he seemed confused about how he had ended up back in the dangerous place he had fled.

Hundreds of migrant children and teenagers have been swiftly deported by American authorities amid the coronavirus pandemic without the opportunity to speak to a social worker or plea for asylum from the violence in their home countries — a reversal of years of established practice for dealing with young foreigners who arrive in the United States.

The deportations represent an extraordinary shift in policy that has been unfolding in recent weeks on the southwestern border, under which safeguards that have for decades been granted to migrant children by both Democratic and Republican administrations appear to have been abandoned.

Historically, young migrants who showed up at the border without adult guardians were provided with shelter, education, medical care and a lengthy administrative process that allowed them to make a case for staying in the United States. Those who were eventually deported were sent home only after arrangements had been made to assure they had a safe place to return to.

That process appears to have been abruptly thrown out under President Trump’s latest border decrees. Some young migrants have been deported within hours of setting foot on American soil. Others have been rousted from their beds in the middle of the night in U.S. government shelters and put on planes out of the country without any notification to their families.

The Trump administration is justifying the new practices under a 1944 law that grants the president broad power to block foreigners from entering the country in order to prevent the “serious threat” of a dangerous disease. But immigration officials in recent weeks have also been abruptly expelling migrant children and teenagers who were already in the United States when the pandemic-related order came down in late March.

Since the decree was put in effect, hundreds of young migrants have been deported, including some who had asylum appeals pending in the court system.

Some of the young people have been flown back to Central America, while others have been pushed back into Mexico, where thousands of migrants are living in filthy tent camps and overrun shelters.

In March and April, the most recent period for which data was available, 915 young migrants were expelled shortly after reaching the American border, and 60 were shipped home from the interior of the country.

During the same period, at least 166 young migrants were allowed into the United States and afforded the safeguards that were once customary. But in another unusual departure, Customs and Border Protection has refused to disclose how the government was determining which legal standards to apply to which children.

“We just can’t put it out there,” said Matthew Dyman, a public affairs specialist with the agency, citing concerns that human smugglers would exploit the information to traffic more people into the country if they knew how the laws were being applied.

On Tuesday, the Trump administration extended the stepped-up border security that allows for young migrants to be expelled at the border, saying the policy would remain in place indefinitely and be reviewed every 30 days.

Chad F. Wolf, the acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, said the policy had been “one of the most critical tools the department has used to prevent the further spread of the virus and to protect the American people, D.H.S. front-line officers and those in their care and custody from Covid-19.”

An agency spokesman said its policies for deporting children from within the interior of the country had not changed.

Amid Mr. Trump’s efforts to block migrants from seeking refuge in the United States, the administration has been scrutinized especially for its treatment of the most vulnerable among them — children.

Beginning in 2017, the government traumatized thousands of children by separating them from their parents at the border. Administration officials have also left young migrants to languish in filthy Border Patrol holding cells with no adult supervision and argued in court that the children were not legally entitled to toothbrushes or soap.

Democratic members of Congress argue that the swift deportations taking place now violate the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, a 20-year-old federal law that lays out standards for the treatment of foreign children who arrive at the American border without an adult guardian.

In a letter last month to Mr. Wolf, Democratic members of the Senate Judiciary Committee said the moves had “no known precedent or clear legal rationale.”

Immigrant advocates say their pleas for help ensuring that the children have somewhere safe to go when they land have been ignored. Since the coronavirus was first discovered in the United States in January, 239 unaccompanied minors have been returned to Guatemala, and 183 have been returned to Honduras, according to government figures.

“The fact that nobody knows who these kids are and there are hundreds of them is really terrifying,” said Jennifer Nagda, policy director of the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights. “There’s no telling if they’ve been returned to smugglers or into harm’s way.”

Some minors have been deported overnight despite an Immigration and Customs Enforcement policy that says they should be repatriated only during daylight hours.

Before daybreak one morning late last month, Pedro Buezo Romero, 16, was taken from his bed in a shelter in New York and told to pack a suitcase so he could be taken to a court appearance in Florida.

Instead, the teenager ended up on four flights over two days. He was able to sleep for a few hours in a hotel room in Miami shared by three adult employees of a private security company hired to transport him and two other migrant teenagers.

Only before boarding his final flight to Honduras from Texas did the adults reveal to Pedro that he was being deported. When he arrived in Honduras, he had to borrow the cellphone of an immigration official to ask his cousin for a place to stay.

Pedro’s mother has not been seen since the shelter in Mexico where they had been staying together was ransacked by gang members. He and his mother were separated during the ordeal, after which Pedro decided to cross the border alone.

While Pedro was in transit, his lawyers had worked frantically to try to locate him but did not receive any response from the federal government. “There were two or three days we had no idea where he was,” said Katty Vera de Fisher, a supervising migration counselor for Catholic Charities of New York.

Pedro Buezo Romero with his mother. Pedro said he was even more vulnerable now than he was when he decided to leave for the United States.
Pedro Buezo Romero with his mother. Pedro said he was even more vulnerable now than he was when he decided to leave for the United States.Credit…via Pedro Buezo Romero

Some of the children who have been expelled from the United States were previously ordered deported. But historically, even children with prior deportation orders have been given new opportunities to request asylum if they entered the United States again. Now, that appears to have changed.

Lawyers representing children threatened with deportation say they are having to engage in 11th-hour legal maneuvers to try to prevent deportations from happening.

Last week, Hannah Flamm, an immigration lawyer in New York, had only hours to try to stop the repatriation of a 14-year-old client after learning the girl had been booked by ICE on a 3 a.m. flight to Honduras.

The girl’s family had not been notified of her imminent arrival. Ms. Flamm managed to secure an emergency stay of the deportation at 11:47 p.m., at which point the girl was allowed to go back to sleep in the shelter where she was staying.

Ricardo Rodríguez Galo, the uncle of the 10-year-old boy who was deported this month, said he was shocked to learn that Gerson had been sent back to Honduras alone.

Mr. Rodríguez said he worried about the boy’s safety in Honduras, where his sister’s former partner had beaten the boy and his mother and withheld food from them. Mr. Rodríguez also wondered about the judgment of American authorities who chose to put a child on a plane without notifying any of his family members, including those who had been waiting in the United States to take the boy into their home.

“I’m not going to tell you that we were going to shower him with riches,” Mr. Rodríguez said. “We’re poor, but we were going to fight to support him. We were going to welcome him like he deserved.”

Kirk Semple contributed reporting.

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CORONAVIRUS A doctor didn’t see her kids for weeks after husband said she posed coronavirus threat

A growing number of medical workers have been temporarily separated from their children after former partners raised concerns about exposure to the virus.

Dr. Sangeetha Setty after working COVID-19 patients at an urgent care clinic in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.

Dr. Sangeetha Setty after working a shift at an urgent care clinic in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.Saul Martinez / for NBC NewsApril 26, 2020, 3:50 AM CDTBy Mike Hixenbaugh

After her shift at a Florida urgent care clinic on April 3, Dr. Sangeetha Setty pulled up to the gate outside her soon-to-be ex-husband’s neighborhood and texted to let him know she had arrived. It was her evening to pick up their 6- and 8-year-old children.

But their father, Dr. Karthikeyan Sai, refused to bring them out. In a series of messages, he told Setty that he was worried that, because of her work as a physician, she would expose the children to the coronavirus. He also accused her of letting them play with neighborhood children the last time she had them, putting them at additional risk.

“Stay calm and go back, and let’s keep the kids safe,” Sai wrote. “You can have them once this subsides.”

Setty protested, and after 45 minutes of waiting, she called the police. Two deputies from the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office arrived. Setty showed them a copy of her joint-custody agreement, which requires that she and her husband split time with the children. She pointed out that Sai, a physician himself, sometimes works at hospitals and therefore also faces a risk of coronavirus exposure.

The deputies spoke briefly with Sai, but he refused to release the children, according to a police report. He told the deputies that “the children will get the virus” if he allowed their mother to take them.

“I’m sorry,” one of the officers told Setty, advising her to argue her case in court. “There’s nothing we can do.”

She cried as she drove away.

“I was heartbroken,” Setty said in an interview. “It’s difficult to explain the pain that you feel as a mother when you’re cut off from your children and you cannot even explain to them why it’s happening.”

In a statement, Sai’s lawyer, James Cunha, said Sai attempted to work out an arrangement with Setty to minimize their children’s risk of exposure, but she refused. Cunha said Sai was concerned not only about the health of his children, but also the safety of his parents, who are at higher risk of serious illness from the coronavirus.

Cunha wrote that Sai’s parents are elderly and live with him, and he was concerned that Setty “would use the children to spread the virus” to them.

As parents across the country grapple with how best to protect their children from the coronavirus, a growing number of medical workers have been temporarily separated from their children after former spouses raised concerns about their exposure to the virus, according to news reports and interviews with families and lawyers. These parents say they should not be punished for doing their jobs and treating patients who are sick with COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Former spouses argue that their children’s safety must come first, as well as the health of vulnerable family members.

At a time when most family courts are closed and are scheduling video hearings only for the most urgent matters, judges in some states lack clear guidance from higher courts on how to determine what’s in a child’s best interest in the midst of a pandemic. These decisions are complicated by the fact that there’s still much to be learned about whether the coronavirus poses a threat to most children, though initial data suggests that serious illness in pediatric patients is exceedingly rare.

“It’s really uncharted territory,” said Rebekah Frye, a family lawyer in San Jose, California. “This is the first time we’ve ever had to go through something like this. It’s the first time we haven’t had access to our courts when we’ve needed them for situations that parents would normally feel are emergencies.”

In a case this month, Frye represented Dawn Polich, a respiratory therapist who fought to keep joint custody of her 10-year-old daughter after her ex-husband filed a motion arguing that her work at a hospital put the child in danger. During a court hearing, Frye argued that Polich, like most medical workers, was taking extensive precautions to prevent bringing the virus home from work, and that in these difficult times, the last thing the state should do is cut off a child from her mother.

A week later, Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Thomas Kuhnle sided with Polich. On April 15, he ordered that she and her ex-husband continue to honor their custody arrangement, despite the pandemic.

Earlier in the month, a judge in Miami reached a different conclusion in a similar case, temporarily suspending the custody rights of Dr. Theresa Greene, an emergency room physician, until the pandemic subsided. Circuit Judge Bernard Shapiro approved an emergency motion filed by the doctor’s ex-husband, Eric Greene, who had argued that his former spouse’s work treating coronavirus patients would endanger their 4-year-old daughter.

“The suspension is solely related to the outbreak of COVID-19,” Shapiro wrote.

Last week, however, a Miami appeals court issued a stay of Shapiro’s order, allowing Theresa Greene to maintain joint custody while the court considered her appeal. In an interview with WTVJ-TV, Greene said she was outraged at the judge’s initial decision.

“I was just shocked that the judge would take this stance without talking to medical experts and knowing the facts and take it so lightly, take my child from me and not think of the effect on her, her mental and psychological well being,” Greene said.

The American Medical Association and the American College of Emergency Physicians have each come out in support of physicians who’ve had their custody rights challenged due to the coronavirus, arguing that doctors should be allowed to stay with their families so long as they are taking proper precautions to prevent spreading the virus.

Dr. Kristin Moffitt, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Boston Children’s Hospital, said she understands why many parents are scared for their children’s safety. This month, a 5-year-old girl in Detroit died from rare complications of COVID-19, making national headlines.

But, Moffitt said, decisions should be driven by data, not anecdotes. All of the data to date suggests that young children are not at serious risk of dying or being hospitalized with COVID-19, Moffitt said. Unlike the flu, which is most dangerous for the very old and the very young, Moffitt said the coronavirus does not appear to pose the same risks to children, though they could still transmit it to older family members.

Dr. Setty outside the clinic where she works.
Setty outside the clinic where she works.Saul Martinez / for NBC News

“What’s so difficult with this pandemic is that there’s so much more we don’t know about it than what we do know, and that will change over time,” Moffitt said. “But in the absence of really clear data, it certainly is hard to resist the urge to sort of fill in those gaps with worst-case scenarios and a judgment that may not be totally data driven.”

Susan Myres, president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, said that, rather than going to court, divorced parents should first attempt to find common-sense solutions to make everyone feel comfortable that a child is safe during the pandemic. They should set ground rules for social contacts and hygiene standards, Myres said, and make sure both parents stick to the plan.

“The No. 1 interest in any of these cases is what is best for these children,” Myres said. “And it is not just their physical health from contagions, but their psychological health. Is it important for these children to have time with their medical care provider parents? Generally speaking, the answer is going to be ‘Yes.’”

After her husband refused to let her take their two children on April 3, Setty called her lawyer and asked her to file a motion. But with the courts closed, the lawyer said there was no guarantee a judge would schedule a hearing anytime soon.

For the next 19 days, Setty was separated from her children, unsure when she would see them. Over that time, she said she only spoke to them twice, once briefly by phone, and once by video chat. The pace of work at her urgent care had slowed significantly, in part because of the governor’s lockdown order, and in part because — despite her husband’s concerns — the clinic wasn’t even treating suspected COVID-19 patients, but instead was screening them for symptoms and sending them elsewhere for testing.

That left Setty plenty of time to think, and worry.

Finally, on April 14, her lawyer filed an emergency motion asking the judge to find Sai in contempt of court for violating their custody agreement and to order the children returned. A week later, Judge Dina Keever-Agrama scheduled a video hearing.

The lawyers argued about who had the children’s best interests at heart. Sai’s lawyer didn’t mention his earlier concerns about Setty’s work at an urgent care, but instead argued that she had been ignoring social distancing guidelines and had refused to answer Sai’s questions about whether she had been having any symptoms of COVID-19. Setty’s lawyer argued that Sai was wrong to withhold the children from their mother, regardless of his concerns.

Keever-Agrama scolded both parents for seeming to put their personal squabbles ahead of what was best for their children, but ultimately, she concluded that the coronavirus wasn’t an excuse to break a custody agreement.

“I don’t understand why you are not following a court order,” Keever-Agrama said, according to a recording of the hearing Setty made and shared with NBC News. “I understand there’s a pandemic and we’re in uncharted waters. However, parenting doesn’t change. Parenting should always be, ‘How can we comply with the court order and serve the best interests of our children?’ That’s the bottom line here.”

The judge ordered that Setty be allowed to pick up her children later that evening, and Setty quickly started making plans. She would cook their favorite Indian dish, she said. Maybe they would watch a movie, or set up a tent in the backyard and look at the stars.

“I don’t know what we’ll do,” Setty said, her voice breaking, before the kids arrived. “I have so many plans for them now that they are coming back to me.”

Setty with her children at her home in Wellington, Fla.Saul Martinez / for NBC News

Image: Mike HixenbaughMike Hixenbaugh

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