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After weeks of traveling through Mexico with her young daughter, the 17-year-old thought she would be back with her parents soon and finally leave the threat of the men who raped her in Guatemala.
Claudia had just been rescued by border guards after the smuggler her parents hired abandoned her in the Arizona desert. The teenager had survived a situation hundreds of immigrants had not lost in the desert, but Claudia’s hopes were quickly dashed when she was told that, in the context of a coronavirus pandemic, she would be quickly sent back to Guatemala without being able to have to apply for asylum.
Claudia, identified under a pseudonym to protect her identity, was interviewed by UNICEF in Guatemala about her experience and gave permission to share the audio with BuzzFeed News.
“I was so close to being with my parents,” said Claudia in an interview. “I have placed my health and that of my daughter in God’s hands. I just wanted to go with my parents. I took the risk to get to them.
What awaited the teenager at home was not only a country without families and an empty home, but also the men who raped her and who continued to harass her with threatening phone calls until she left.
Previously, unaccompanied children with a migrant background like Claudia were allowed to seek protection in the USA. But in March, the Trump administration effectively blocked immigrants like Claudia from staying in the country, citing a CDC order to stop the spread of COVID-19.
Since March, 110,107 immigrants have been quickly sent back to their home countries without a trial under the new directive. Citing two federal lawsuits, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) declined to provide data on how many of these children were unaccompanied migrant children displaced from the United States as part of the pandemic policy.
From April to June, after the CDC order was issued, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) only sent 162 children to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), which would normally have taken custody of them. During those three months, border authorities reported 3,427 unaccompanied children.
For most of March, the Trump administration sent unaccompanied minors to ORR as usual. This month alone, the DHS sent 1,852 to ORR.
The way immigrants, including unaccompanied children like Claudia, are immediately removed from the US is known as expulsion, quick moves with no proper process. In order for someone to be officially deported from the US, they must first go through the immigration court system. However, the new Trump policy cut immigrants off from this process.
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Boys rest under mylar blankets at a Texas Border Patrol facility in 2019.
Working with expelled children, Karla Vargas, senior attorney for the Texas Civil Rights Project, has stated that the order puts particularly vulnerable unaccompanied migrant children who could be sent back to dangerous people and conditions despite a good asylum application.
“These are children who arrive alone, many of them completely traumatized and fleeing dire circumstances that people here in the US cannot even imagine,” Vargas told BuzzFeed News. “Then you come over here and ask for help. Our government slammed the door in the face and literally threw you out.”
Under the Re-Authorization of the Protection of Victims of Human Trafficking Act (TVPRA), which sets out the care, release and due process for unaccompanied immigrant children, minors like Claudia receive certain benefits, such as access and opportunity to legal counsel in state custody To apply for asylum entitled to an officer instead of a judge. Immigrant children who had traveled to the U.S. border alone were also sent to ORR, where the children were held while officials screened godparents, usually a family member or, in some cases, friends who took them in.
Now unaccompanied children are being held in CBP processing centers for short periods and then taken to a hotel while they wait to be removed from the US, Vargas said.
“It is an absolute dead end for anyone to enter an immigration process,” said Vargas. “The children are arrested, taken to black places, then disappear and the parents have to track them down. Parents wondering if their child is alive in the US, in their home country, or at all. “
The practice of government contractors working with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to hold unaccompanied children, and in some cases families, has been widely criticized for violating a long-standing judicial rule that dictates how immigrant children can be detained .
It is unknown how many children have been detained in hotels as the process makes it nearly impossible to track down these minors, Vargas said.
“I’ve spoken to parents who have been looking for their children for weeks,” said Vargas. “It’s an incredibly inhuman way of treating people, treating families.”
Mark Morgan, acting commissioner for CBP, said the expulsions were a “game changer” in reducing the introduction of COVID-19 in the US and had nothing to do with enforcement of immigration laws. The Border Guard was able to process and evict 91% of the unauthorized immigrants under the command in less than two hours, Morgan said during a news conference on Aug. 6.
Sending the children to ORR instead of ICE to be expelled defeats the purpose of the expulsion effort, he added.
“If we put these people in ORR, we will lose the entire purpose of Title 42,” Morgan said. “We are still introducing these people into the system and creating risks.”
The coronavirus has already managed to spread in the ICE prisons. Of 22,580 people in ICE custody who were tested for COVID-19, 4,531 tested positive on Thursday. The coronavirus has also spread in the family prisons of ICE. At the Karnes County Family Residential Center in Texas, 73 parents and children tested positive.
When a federal judge ordered the release of immigrant children in June who were detained in ICE family facilities, the ordinance described the locations as “on fire”.
However, the increased risk of unaccompanied children entering the US has been questioned by lawyers and attorneys. ProPublica reported that ICE has agreed to test every child in their care before being sent back to their home countries under the deportation policy. However, the extensive testing appears to undermine the reasons for the deportation of children – which is preventing the introduction of COVID-19 in the US, the investigating agency said.
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Cristobal Ramón, senior policy analyst with the Bipartisan Policy Center’s immigration project, said that while ICE facilities may not have the best track record of containing the spread of the virus, they do have at least more government accountability than hotels.
“What can [government watchdog agencies] To assess whether CBP or ICE are ensuring children’s well-being in the middle of the pandemic? “Ramón told BuzzFeed News. “This is what happens when you have an immigration system that really only serves to deter border crossers. This is not a system designed to manage migration or minimize administrative and human rights concerns. “
Matthew Dyman, a spokesman for CBP, said in a statement that the agency is working closely with an unaccompanied minor’s home country to return them “quickly and safely”.
Some children may be exempt from the CDC regulation if for some reason they cannot be returned to their home country, or if a border guard suspects human trafficking or sees signs of illness. These unaccompanied children will be treated as they were before the March Order was issued, Dyman said.
Claudia did not fall under any of these exceptions and was rescued and placed in a CBP cell. She and her daughter, who were celebrating their first birthday on the trip, were then taken to a hotel near an airport. They were there for three days and under the watchful eye of various adults who were likely contractors hired by ICE to arrest and transport immigrant children before they were expelled.
At the hotel, Claudia still believed that she would be sent with her parents.
Her parents had immigrated to the United States separately in recent years, first her father and then her mother and younger brother. Claudia stayed behind, with no other family except for an aunt she doesn’t speak to and who didn’t live nearby, and went on to school.
One evening after school left later than usual, Claudia passed parents picking up their own children and began the five-minute walk to where she usually took a taxi home. It was already dark, but Claudia had so often done the hike alone. Suddenly Claudia noticed someone was following her and she accelerated her pace, but a group of men caught up with her and raped her, she said in her interview with UNICEF.
Claudia came home late at night and went to her room.
“I had no one,” she told the UNICEF representative in her interview. “I didn’t have a sister. I didn’t have a mother. I didn’t have anyone. “
Claudia spent days in her room until she finally went back to school. Then one day she got a call from a public phone. It was from their attackers.
“They asked me if I thought they had forgotten me. They said they were watching who I was out with and when I came home, ”said Claudia. “They said that if I said something, something would happen to me because they knew I was alone. I didn’t say anything out of fear. “
After two months, Claudia realized that she was pregnant because of the rape and told her parents. Her parents were guilty of leaving her behind because they thought the area was safe. After the baby was born, her father sold his car and raised enough money to hire a smuggler to take Claudia and her baby to the United States.
After months of traveling through Mexico amid the coronavirus pandemic, Claudia and a group of other immigrants walked through the Arizona desert. But Claudia stopped to change her daughter’s diaper, and when she was done she and another woman who had stayed with her had lost sight of the others.
“We tried to catch up, but we couldn’t,” said Claudia. “We didn’t know where to go and everything looked the same.”
The women were able to call 911 for help and within minutes a helicopter and border patrol vehicles arrived.
After three days in the hotel, Claudia and her daughter were taken to the airport. At that moment she realized that she was being sent back to Guatemala.
“I feel good, worried, sad, hopeless, a little bit of everything,” she said after her return. “I don’t know what’s going to happen to me.”