17-year-old Cindy hadn’t seen her mother in a decade. Last month, she took a chance and traveled Honduras until she reached the US border from Mexico for the chance to reunite with her mother, who lives in New York City.
Cindy, who is only identified by first name for security reasons, spent three days in a hospital bed across the country in California as she battled Covid-19. Although she spent several weeks in US immigration centers before falling ill, her mother did not learn of her daughter’s hospitalization until Cindy was able to borrow a phone from a doctor there. hospital.
“There are backlogs and communication delays that are really unacceptable,” said immigration lawyer Kate Goldfinch, who is helping Cindy’s mother, Maria Ana, find her daughter. Goldfinch is chairman of the board of the non-profit organization Vecina, which helps immigrant parents find their children.
Maria Ana, who is only identified by first name as a precaution to protect her daughter’s identity, said she feared she would never see Cindy again after learning she had been hospitalized for Covid-19 . After weeks of angst and uncertainty, Maria Ana spent most of her nights painting the room she had arranged for Cindy, “just waiting for my daughter,” she says.
But Wednesday night, Maria Ana flew to San Diego to find her daughter who had just recovered from Covid-19.
The emotional mother and daughter reunion took place at the San Diego airport. Cindy shed tears of relief as Maria Ana hugged her and whispered, “No one else is going to hurt you.”
Families and immigration advocates are pushing the government to connect children and teens with their American families faster. More than 80% of unaccompanied minors in federal custody have parents living in the United States, people to whom the children can be released, and about 40% have parents in the United States, Goldfinch said.
“So we think it would be pretty quick and simple to hand a child over to their own parents. But because of the chaos of the system, reuniting these kids with their parents is really frustrating and delayed,” Goldfinch said, “the more frustrating, of course, for children and their parents. “
Goldfinch said no one at the Department of Health and Human Services, or HHS, or anyone in any of the agency’s offices informed their client that Cindy was taken to the hospital while she was away. under his care.
“I don’t know why my daughter has to suffer this way, because it’s not fair. It’s something very sad for me,” Maria Ana said in Spanish.
“I’ve been through a lot already,” said Cindy, who spoke to NBC News with permission from her mother. “But I hope it’s all worth it.”
After crossing the border, Cindy spent two weeks in a Texas detention center in the custody of the Customs and Border Protection, or CBP. Each night, Cindy said she would share two mattresses with about eight other girls. She could only shower every five days in one of the eight showers that the facility was to serve for 700 girls.
“It was really bad,” Cindy said.
In response, CBP said in a statement that “tackling the flow of unaccompanied children across our southwest border is a high priority.” As part of these efforts, the agency continues “to quickly and efficiently transfer unaccompanied minors after their arrest to HHS, as required by US law and as clearly in the best interests of the children,” a- he declared.
Cindy was later transferred to the San Diego Convention Center, where HHS houses hundreds of unaccompanied children. She said the conditions there were “a thousand times better”, adding that the staff periodically monitored her and asked her how she was feeling.
During some of these recordings, Cindy said she suffered from coughs, headaches and fever. A few days later, her symptoms worsened, and staff at the San Diego facility took her to the hospital in an ambulance. Cindy estimates that 100 other girls at the facility tested positive for Covid-19 around this time. As of Monday, 203 children at the San Diego Convention Center had tested positive for the coronavirus, according to an HHS spokesperson.
Cindy is one of some 13,350 unaccompanied children living in the care and custody of the Refugee Resettlement Office at HHS. Over the past year, at least 3,715 unaccompanied children have been diagnosed with Covid-19, according to figures from the HHS Children and Families Administration.
Currently, 528 unaccompanied children who have tested positive for Covid-19 remain in medical isolation. As of March 25, none of the minors who had tested positive had required hospitalization, according to the Office of Refugee Resettlement. Cindy’s case is more recent.
The Refugee Resettlement Office declined to answer specific questions about Cindy’s case, citing “a matter of policy, in order to protect the privacy and safety of unaccompanied children in our care.” However, a spokesperson for the office said in a statement that its “first priority is to ensure that unaccompanied children are safe, healthy and united with their family members or other appropriate sponsors as well. quickly and safely as possible “.
An arduous process
But the reunification process can be arduous for families, Goldfinch said. It all starts with making sure the child is officially in U.S. custody.
For nearly two weeks, Goldfinch and his team called a hotline to find out where Cindy was. On Friday, she submitted the required reunification dossier for the agency to hand over Cindy to her mother. And on Saturday, Cindy had been hospitalized with Covid-19.
“So by that time my law firm had had repeated communications with the agency, and we were asking them for information on a daily basis,” Goldfinch said. “They should have had us registered in their system as representatives, and they should have had Maria Ana’s information as well.”
Maria Ana said she was sure she was not the only mother to have gone through these hardships as she tried to find their children in a complex immigration system.
“There are thousands of mothers looking for their children and no one tells them anything and sometimes it’s a lack of communication,” said Maria Ana. “We are afraid to speak up and lose our children, but I didn’t give up. People were telling me to wait, but no, I don’t wait. Why would I wait? girl.”
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