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Guatemalan Asylum Seekers Reunited In Kansas City Face Uncertain Battle To Stay Here

Andrea Tudhope
KCUR 89.3
Hundreds of people gathered in June in midtown Kansas City to protest family separation at U.S. borders. That policy has ended, but families who were separated could be dealing with the fallout for years.

This story was updated at 2:40 p.m. June 28 with a statement from U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Maria remembers the fear she felt last month at the moment she found out her son, daughter and 6-year-old grandson were planning on coming to the United States.

"They called me from the border," she said in Spanish. "I panicked because I know how dangerous that is."

Maria crossed it years ago, seeking asylum from domestic violence in Guatemala. (She doesn’t want to jeopardize her asylum case, so KCUR agreed to use a pseudonym instead of her real name.) At the time, the U.S. did not prosecute asylum seekers who entered the country without legal permission.

That changed in April under the Trump administration — and Maria's family was separated at the border for a week. President Trump has since signed an executive order ending the family separation practice, and though Maria's family has mostly been reunited in the Kansas City area, they face a long road ahead if they want to stay.

The crossing

Maria told her daughter to cross the international bridge in Reynosa, Mexico, that leads to a U.S. port of entry in Hidalgo, Texas. Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen has said asylum seekers who enter the country that way would not be separated.

But that’s not what they did.  

Under the recommendation of the smuggler who brought them to the border, Maria’s family walked across the Rio Grande into the U.S., then about half a soccer field (164 feet) to a federal customs and border protection office, to seek asylum.

Officials separated all three, leaving the 6-year-old alone.

"He says they took him to a cage," Maria said.

Multiple media outlets have published pictures of the detention facilities, where immigrant children are shown living inside barbed-wire enclosures.

Asked about its protocol for separating families at the border, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection office emailed this statement to KCUR:

"U.S. Customs and Border Protection has taken immediate steps to implement the President’s Executive Order, Affording Congress the Opportunity to Address Family Separation. Family unity will be maintained for families apprehended crossing the border illegally, and they will be transferred together to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.  CBP will continue to refer for prosecution adults who cross the border illegally.

"Additionally, as was the case prior to implementation of the zero tolerance policy on May 5, family units may be separated due to humanitarian, health and safety, or criminal history in addition to illegally crossing the border."

Maria’s daughter and grandson were reunited after six days, and arrived together in Kansas City days ago. Her son, who is 16, has still not been released.

Lingering effects of separation

Several hurdles battles lie ahead, one being psychological.

Maria said her grandson told her the guards threatened him.

"They told him that he was going to live with other families and that he would never see his mother again. They told him he would have new parents," she recounted.

He told her he didn’t eat or sleep. At night, she said he told her, he would curl up with a 13-year-old boy from Mexico because the facility was so cold.

Researchers say that kind of early childhood trauma increases the long-term risk a whole range of mental health disorders. And for kids like Maria’s grandson, whose family was fleeing violence, the effects could be double, according to Dylan Gee, an assistant professor of psychology at Yale University.

"The experience of multiple traumas increases risk for disorders like post traumatic stress disorder so children who have already experienced a harrowing journey on the way to the U.S. may be more at risk,” Gee said.

Maria wants to have her grandson see a therapist to assess what effect his time in the detention center may have had.

Meanwhile, she’s waiting for her 16-year-old to be released after more than a month in temporary detention. Gee said the separation could affect him a little differently, perhaps “a more internalizing response, fears, withdrawal, nightmares.”

“Others may show more what we call externalizing behaviors, aggression, acting out, defiance,” Gee added.

Winning asylum harder than ever

While psychological effects could linger for years, there’s a short-term concern, too: a legal battle. Asylum cases for victims of domestic and gang-related violence, like Maria, are some of the most difficult to prove, said Leawood-based attorney Kelly Hewitt, who represents Maria.

“It’s a multi-year process and most people lose, unfortunately,” Hewitt said, noting that less than a third of asylum cases in the Kansas City area are successful.

The chances got even slimmer earlier this month, when Attorney General Jeff Sessions said domestic and gang-related violence should no longer be grounds for asylum. Abuse cases are a key tool that immigration attorneys use to argue for asylum for clients from Central America, where gang violence is rampant.  

And Maria's family is fleeing both: She said her children’s husband is abusive and there’s no secure place to live. She also said young boys there are often given a choice — join a gang or die.

Hewitt thinks she can still fight for Maria’s family, but it will take a lot longer.

“We always think toward appeal, but at this point we have to plan that our cases are more likely to be denied,” Hewitt said.

At the moment, Maria said she is happy to have her daughter and grandson near her, and to be in regular communication with her son. The federal Office of Refugee Resettlement will have to determine whether her home is a suitable place for him to go, which could take another month.

Lisa Rodriguez is a reporter and the afternoon newscaster for KCUR 89.3. Follow her on Twitter @larodrig.

Slow news days are a thing of the past. As KCUR’s news director, I want to cut through the noise, provide context to the headlines, and give you news you can use in your daily life – information that will empower you to make informed decisions about your neighborhood, your city and the region. Email me at lisa@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @larodrig.
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