A Honduran woman who has been living in Baltimore for 14 years is seeking permission to take in a young granddaughter who has been separated from her mother at the Southwest Border, she said Thursday.
Carmen, who agreed to speak to The Baltimore Sun on the condition that she be identified only by her middle name, said her daughter and granddaughter are seeking asylum to escape gang violence in their Central American country.
She said 27-year-old Lilian and 6-year-old Genesis were detained this month in Laredo, Texas, and are being held in separate facilities.
“I asked God not to separate them, but it was impossible,” Carmen, 40, said in Spanish in the living room of her Highlandtown rowhouse.
She said she has been living in the United States illegally since 2004 and fears for her safety. But the undocumented immigrant has applied to the federal government to sponsor Genesis — to take her in while Lilian’s asylum application progresses.
At least nine families in Maryland have relatives who have been split up at the border since the Trump Administration implemented a “zero-tolerance” policy in early May of prosecuting immigrants who enter the country illegally, according to the Esperanza Center.
Officials at the immigrant resource center in East Baltimore, a program of Catholic Charities, said they expect to help more relatives in the coming weeks who are trying to sponsor young children who were separated from their families after crossing the border.
Center director Valerie Twanmoh said a woman arrived at the center Thursday morning asking for help connecting with her husband and son, who she said were separated at the border 10 days earlier.
Helany J. Sinkler, a family reunification program manager at the center, called the separations “a Maryland issue.”
“This is very local,” she said. “There are children that are going to be going into our schools come fall who have gone through family separation and endured trauma. Are we going to be prepared?”
More than 2,300 children have been separated from their parents at the border since Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the zero-tolerance policy. Dozens have been brought to Maryland, where they have been sent to foster homes or are being held in dormitories in Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties.
Amid mounting opposition to the separations, President Donald Trump reversed the policy Wednesday with an executive order that he said would keep children detained with their parents. It remains unclear what will happen to the children who already have been separated from their parents.
Critics say the order is inadequate. Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh said Thursday he would join in a multistate lawsuit against the Trump administration alleging that separating families violates the due process rights of parents to be together with their children.
Carmen said she has spoken by telephone with her daughter. She said Lilian and Genesis crossed the border illegally this month and were taken together to a detention center with other undocumented families.
An official from the center took the adults away to complete paperwork, Carmen said. When the parents returned, she said, they found their children had been taken away.
“I never thought they would rip my daughter away from me,” Lilian said, according to Carmen. When Lilian saw that her daughter was gone, Carmen said, she began shouting at the official: “Why did you take my daughter? Where is she?”
About 900 unaccompanied immigrant children were released to sponsors in Maryland between October 2017 and April 2018, according to the Office of Refugee Resettlement.
Sinkler said about 90 percent of the sponsor applicants she’s met are in the country illegally. The Office of Refugee Resettlement, an arm of the Department of Health and Human Services, records the citizenship status of sponsor applicants, but the information is not used to disqualify potential sponsors.
But Carmen remains nervous about the process, which requires every adult in the household to have their fingerprints recorded by the Office of Refugee Resettlement — information that, under a recent agreement, will be shared with immigration services.
Carmen said Lilian, who worked at a bank in Honduras, is now being held at the T. Don Hutto Residential Center, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facility in Taylor, Texas. She said it was six days before Lilian was able to speak to Genesis on the phone, and the calls are expensive.
Carmen said Genesis calls her every Monday and Friday, but she has had trouble determining where in Texas she is being held.
Carmen said Lilian told her she plans to call less because the conversations upset her.
“The separation has been hard,” Carmen said, tears forming in her eyes. “It makes me very sad to hear her cry. She had never been separated from her daughter before.”
Genesis’ stay in the shelter has not gone smoothly, Carmen said. She said her granddaughter told her she had been hit by another small child and is now wearing a cast.
No one called Carmen when that happened, she said.
Neither the Department of Health and Human Services nor ICE responded to requests for comment.
“I worry about what this is going to do to” Genesis, Carmen said.
Esperanza Center employees said they have twice filed reports about children who were put on the phone with the wrong adult. Carmen said she once picked up the phone and found herself speaking with a little girl she did not know.
Sen. Chris Van Hollen said Thursday he had successfully added language to an appropriations bill that would make it easier for lawmakers to access information about immigrants detained by federal agencies.
The amendment to a homeland security appropriations bill would advise ICE to provide every detainee in custody with a copy of a privacy waiver form.
To Carmen, the zero-tolerance policy has criminalized her daughter’s attempt to find a better life in America, away from the violence that she said plagues Honduras.
“It’s difficult to stay in a country where you can’t live, where there’s danger, where you run risks of being murdered,” she said. “That’s why they prefer to suffer on the journey here than to stay and die in their countries or live in poverty.”
Carmen planned for Lilian and Genesis to live with her and her husband in their home. Now she’s just waiting for her granddaughter’s next phone call on Friday, and hoping to be approved as a sponsor.
“I get filled with emotion when I think about having them here,” Carmen said. “There’s a family here waiting for them.”