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A 1-year-old girl brought into the United States near Calexico by her father has been separated from her family since November.
The girl’s mother, who requested asylum from Border Patrol agents days later and has since been released into the country, said she is being asked to pay thousands of dollars in order to reunite with her daughter. The girl’s father remains in custody.
The family’s case offers a reminder that families are still being separated at the border, and underscores the murkiness of the rules outlining when such separations can legally take place.
Sindy Ortiz Flores, Kevin Joel Ventura-Corrales and their three children were in Puebla, Mexico, traveling toward the U.S.-Mexico border, when they had a run-in with Mexican immigration officials. Ortiz Flores grabbed her two older children and ran, while Ventura-Corrales ran in a different direction, carrying 1-year-old Grethshell.
Ortiz Flores spent some time in Puebla after the incident looking for Ventura-Corrales and Grethshell, but after not being able to find any information about them, she and her two older children continued the journey north. She knew nothing of Ventura-Corrales and Grethshell until she reached Mexicali.
When she got to the border, she called her uncle in San Francisco to let him know she was about to cross.
“It was in that moment that I realized what happened,” Ortiz Flores said. Her uncle told her that Ventura-Corrales had crossed days earlier with Grethshell and that border officials had taken the child from him.
When Ortiz Flores turned herself in to Border Patrol agents to request asylum, she said she asked them about Grethshell. She said the agents were insulting and said her concerns weren’t their problem. She said while she was in a holding cell – a hielera or icebox, as migrants often refer to them because of their cold temperatures – two Guatemalan women said they had briefly cared for Grethshell in custody before the child was sent to a facility in Texas.
Ortiz Flores has been released and is living with her uncle in San Francisco, but has been unable to reunite with Grethshell. Ventura-Corrales remains in custody.
“They told me that I had to fill out a form,” Ortiz Flores said. “I filled it out. They told me that I had to send my birth certificate and her birth certificate. I sent them. They told to have my fingerprints taken. I did it. They told me I had to answer some questions. I did that. And from then they haven’t told me what I need to do to be able to get her back.”
Ortiz Flores said she was also told by her daughter’s case manager that she’ll have to pay around $2,000 to have her daughter transported to San Francisco from Texas – money she doesn’t have because she doesn’t have a work permit.
Grethshell’s case manager did not respond to a message left by Voice of San Diego, but according to the Health and Human Services website, this is standard practice.
Migrant children under 14 must be accompanied by a care provider when traveling.
“The sponsor is responsible for the unaccompanied alien child’s transportation costs and, if the care provider is escorting the child, for the care provider’s transportation or airfare,” the website reads. “Under no circumstances will [the Office of Refugee Resettlement] pay for the sponsor’s airfare.”
Criminal charges against Ventura-Corrales for illegal re-entry were dismissed last week, but he remains in detention because of an immigration hold, which means he is set to be transferred to Immigration and Customs Enforcement after his release from criminal custody.
Ventura-Corrales has lived in the United States before and had prior deportations. He had a misdemeanor conviction in 2013, said his attorney Eric Fish, which may be why he was separated from Grethshell.
David Kim, an assistant chief Border Patrol agent in the El Centro sector, confirmed that Ventura-Corrales had a criminal history, though he wouldn’t say what he’d been convicted of.
“It was what I consider a serious misdemeanor,” Kim said. “On our end, it was a consideration, but we were charging him with illegal re-entry. When that happens for the felony charge, of course the child isn’t going to accompany the parents.”
Kim said that Ventura-Corrales had four prior removals from the country – the most recent in 2016.
“I don’t like the term ‘separation’ in this case because it seems like we’re separating a mother and father and child for no reason or as a punishment, when it’s really a result of a criminal record, like what any other law enforcement agency would do.”
While the federal government largely stopped separating children from their parents at the border at the end of June, there are still instances in which separations occur. They include situations where the government deems that the child’s safety is in question, the child’s biological relationship with the parent is in question or if the parent is otherwise unable to continue caring for the child (for example, if they need to be hospitalized).
In December, data released by the Department of Homeland Security showed that since the end of June, 81 children had been separated from their parents at the border. In 31 of those cases, the parent had a criminal history. Others were hospitalized, had gang affiliations or extraditable warrants.
Even after District Judge Dana Sabraw ordered the reunification of thousands of children who had been separated from their parents before June, dozens of families were deemed ineligible. In many of those cases, criminal history played a role in their ineligibility. Their offenses ranged from driving while intoxicated, to assault to having outstanding warrants or being wanted in their home country.
In some cases, a parent’s criminal history may indeed be something that makes him or her unfit to care for a child. But some of the instances in which parents were deemed ineligible for reunification in the case Sabraw oversaw, like parents who had DUIs, underscore the murkiness in how the government is determining what sort of criminal record would merit separation. Sabraw has not imposed standards or guidelines for when a situation may warrant the separation.
Grethshell’s separation from Ventura-Corrales occurred after his apprehension by Border Patrol on Dec. 28, 2018, roughly 3.5 miles east of the Calexico, California West Port of Entry.
Ventura-Corrales and Ortiz Flores are from Honduras. Ortiz Flores said they fled the country because of gang threats. The father of Ortiz Flores’ older two children, who are 7 and 9, had been murdered, and since then she said she faced constant threats off death and violence from gang members.
Ortiz Flores was finally able to speak with Ventura-Corrales by phone while he was in custody in San Luis, Arizona. He described to her how Grethshell was taken from him.
She said he had told her Grethshell was crying as they took her.
“The way he described how she was taken from him, it was like they forced him to give her up,” Ortiz Flores said. “She is just a baby. He told me he begged them not to take her away because she was all he had and he was everything to her because they had come alone since Puebla. She felt so attached to him.”
Kim said that Grethshell also was taken to the hospital for pneumonia, which Ortiz Flores said she also was battling in Mexico, before being transferred out of Border Patrol custody.
“A lot of times when we are questioned about the family separation issue, I feel that it’s not explained that it’s not a family separation just to separate,” Kim said. “There’s underlying causation there, like a criminal record.”
But Ortiz Flores struggles to understand why the government took Grethshell away from Ventura-Corrales. She also struggles to understand why the government is making it so difficult for her to get her daughter back.
“I’m the mother and I proved that I’m the mother,” she said. “I don’t know why they’re taking so long to return her to me. This is going to psychologically damage her. She’s going to have this trauma. To this day, they still haven’t given her back to me.”