NBC News reported last year that children who were separated from their parents when crossing the border could end up in adoption services.
Araceli Ramos Bonilla has not seen her 2-year-old daughter, Alexa, for 10 weeks. When she was arrested while crossing the border into Texas ten weeks ago, U.S. immigration authorities took her daughter and told Ramos she would never see her again. A foster family was initially successful in their attempt to win custody of Alexa.
Ramos’s story reveals what could happen to the many children taken from their families at the border after the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy went into effect. The policy ended in June, but now hundreds of children are still in detention, shelters, or foster care.
Although federal officials say that they are reuniting families, an Associated Press investigation found that there are holes in the system which allow state court judges to give custody of migrant children to American families. It is not required that the child’s parents be notified.
Alexa’s case began under the Obama administration in November 2015. She was separated from her mother for 15 months. Her legal standing, like that of other migrant children, is incredibly fragile under the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement.
In a rural courthouse near Lake Michigan, a judge took only 28 minutes to decide that Sherri and Kory Barr should be granted temporary guardianship of Alexa. Neither Alexa’s mother nor Alexa’s immigration attorney were notified of the proceedings. The Barrs, on the other hand, were convinced that Alexa’s mother was a bad mother and that Alexa would be abused if she was reunited with her.
Kory Barr told the judge, “My wife and I are sick over this.”
The federal system said that state courts should never have allowed the foster parents to get this far into the process. Yet, each of the state court systems runs adoption and wardship proceedings differently.
In Missouri, a Guatemalan baby was permanently adopted by an American couple. The baby’s mother had been picked up in an immigration raid. What followed was a seven year legal battle that ended with the termination of the mother’s parental rights in 2014.
The Office of Refugee Resettlement and Bethany Christian Services, the agency which placed Alexa with her foster parents, said that foster parents are told that they are not allowed to adopt migrant children. Yet, Bethany admitted that since the 1980s, nine of the 500 migrant children assigned to the foster program have been adopted by families in America. The children were adopted once the agency determined that it would not be safe or possible to go back to their biological families.
"We never want families to be separated," Bethany CEO Chris Palusky said. "That's what we're about, is bringing families together."
Alexa’s mother, Ramos, fled El Salvador after the abuse from her partner became so bad she feared for her life. She applied for a U.S. Visa but got nowhere. She finally paid a smuggler to help her escape. On her month long journey, she carried only Alexa, a change of clothes, diapers, cookies, juice, and water.
Ramos was arrested by border agents during her crossing.
"They told me I would never see her again," Ramos remembered.
Ramos begged the agents to give Alexa to some of her friends in Texas, but her calls went unanswered. Alexa was initially placed with a Spanish-speaking foster family in San Antonio, Texas. Ramos was placed in a detention center.
Ramos spoke with an asylum officer two months after her arrival and explained her situation. She was informed that she had “demonstrated a credible fear of persecution or torture,” according to the asylum supervisor.
When Ramos was assigned to Oakdale Immigration Court in Louisiana, she called the list of pro bono lawyers she was given, but none were available. Her chance at asylum slipped away, and she was to be deported.
Although the federal government offers all deported parents the chance to take their children with them back to their origin countries, "Ramos said that she was ordered to sign a waiver to leave Alexa behind."
“The agent put his hand on mine, he held my hand, he forced me to sign," she said.
Alexa was transferred to the care of Bethany Christian Services in April 2016. The agency is one of the largest adoption agencies in the nation.
As the agency started to receive more Central American children, Bethany social workers were encouraged to recruit foster families from Christian Reformed Church and other local churches.
"All of a sudden when we had these younger kids to place, everyone was really excited about that," said Sarah Zuidema, a former Bethany supervisor. "They just felt that if these kids could know Jesus, everything would be OK."
Among these local families were the Barr’s, Alexa’s foster parents. When Alexa was placed in their home, the Barr’s signed a form promising they would not try to seek custody of Alexa. Yet, eight months later, they did just that.
In the end, Alexa’s immigration attorney, the Department of Homeland Security, and the U.S. immigration courts agreed that it was time Alexa be reunited with her mother.
The Barrs, who still believed Alexa’s mother was abusive, went to court to block her departure. "The Office of Refugee Resettlement is planning to put Alexa on a plane back to her abuser," the couple said in a handwritten application seeking guardianship. Alexa's mother, they wrote, "has not owned her crimes, not been rehabilitated."
A federal immigration judge granted an emergency motion to delay Alexa’s departure.
Ramos used Facebook to spread her message and her story. Outrage at her situation and sympathy followed suit.
As pressure mounted, the Justice Department weighed in. "The Barrs obtained their temporary guardianship order in violation of federal law," U.S. prosecutors said.
The Barrs' attorney and the Michigan judge also violated federal law by seeking and granting guardianship, and failed to inform Ramos or Alexa's lawyers about the proceedings.
When Alexa landed in El Salvador in February 2017, she barely recognized her mother. Instead, she asked when she could go home to her foster parents and sisters. Alexa had lost all of her Spanish language skills and spoke only English. Ramos spoke almost no English herself. Alexa was confused and depressed.
Alexa slowly began to relearn her native language and her relationship with her mother. Ramos still struggles with the memories of the separation but holds no resentments toward the Barrs.
"I do not feel resentment for them because they also love her and because the family is going through a bad time," Ramos said. "We all deserve an opportunity."
"No one wins in this one," Sherri Barr said.