A month earlier, the Trump Administration had announced, amid public outcry over its systemic separation of migrant families at the border, that it would halt the practice. But, at a packed processing hub, Christian was taken from Noehmi and placed in a cage with toddlers. Noehmi remained in a cold holding cell, clutching Helen. Soon, she recalled, a plainclothes official arrived and informed her that she and Helen would be separated. “No!” Noehmi cried. “The girl is under my care! Please!”
Noehmi said that the official told her, “Don’t make things too difficult,” and pulled Helen from her arms. “The girl will stay here,” he said, “and you’ll be deported.”
…At the time of her apprehension, in fact, Helen checked a box on a line that read, “I do request an immigration judge,” asserting her legal right to have her custody reviewed. But, in early August, an unknown official handed Helen a legal document, a “Request for a Flores Bond Hearing” …which was filled out with assistance from officials. There is a checked box next to a line that says, “I withdraw my previous request for a Flores bond hearing.” Beneath that line, the five-year-old signed her name in wobbly letters.
…“Well, where is Helen, the five-year-old?”
The judge, Delgado recalled, seemed startled. Both he and the government prosecutor had no idea that Helen existed, let alone where she was being held.
…Now stage three has commenced—one in which separations are done quietly, LUPE’s Tania Chavez asserts, and in which reunifications can be mysteriously stymied. …An uncounted number of separated children in shelters and foster care fall outside the lawsuit’s current purview—including many like Helen, who arrived with a grandparent or other guardian, rather than with a parent. Many such children have been misclassified, in government paperwork, as “unaccompanied minors,” due to a sloppy process that the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General recently critiqued. …Through misclassification, many kids have largely disappeared from public view, and from official statistics.
…The completion of Noehmi’s background check was delayed for unexplained reasons.
On August 17th, Helen was transferred to a foster home in San Antonio. “I feared, did they give Helen away?” Noehmi told me; she worried about the prospect of adoption.
…On September 7th, LUPE was told that Helen would finally be released, nearly two months after she was taken from Noehmi. …“Then she wasn’t released.” ….LUPE’s team adjusted the petition to address a greater number of O.R.R. officials, each of whom received a personal e-mail every time a person signed. …Then, that Monday, Noehmi and Jeny got a phone call: they should be at their local airport at 6:20 p.m.
..The shelter sent a small black backpack that Helen had left behind. It held Helen’s legal paperwork, including the document that the five-year-old had been told to sign, withdrawing her request to see a judge.