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Asylum-Seeking Mother Reunited With Her Baby After US Kept Them Apart For Weeks

Mateo Fuentes laughs under the watch of his mother in Los Angeles, Feb. 14, 2018.
Katie Schoolov
Mateo Fuentes laughs under the watch of his mother in Los Angeles, Feb. 14, 2018.

One-year-old Mateo Fuentes spent months without his mother or father in an unfamiliar country, the United States, after his family fled violence in El Salvador and asked for asylum at the San Ysidro Port of Entry.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials took Mateo from his father, Jose Demar Fuentes, and sent the boy to a refugee shelter in Texas, nearly 1500 miles away. They locked up Fuentes in a private detention facility in Otay Mesa, where he remains.

After weeks of back-and-forth with the U.S. government, Mateo's mother, Olivia Caceres, was reunited with her child this month.

“I felt like a stranger trying to adopt my own son," she said.

RELATED: Father Seeking Asylum In U.S. Struggles To Reunite With 1-Year-Old Taken By Immigration Officials

Caceres had entered the U.S. with their other son, Andree, more than a month after Fuentes crossed the border with Mateo. The couple said they split up in northern Mexico because Mateo was sick and they were in a rush to get him somewhere safe.

Now, Caceres is staying with her two sons at the house of an aunt and uncle in Los Angeles. While KPBS was visiting, Mateo repeatedly toddled over to his mother to cuddle with her and cry.

Asylum-Seeking Mother Reunited With Her Baby After US Kept Apart For Weeks

“He’s been really fearful, when he sees strangers, he thinks they’re going to take him, he doesn’t want them to speak to him or to come close to him, he just grabs me," she said.

When the government separated Mateo from his father, the boy could not yet speak except to say words like "mama" and "papa." He spent weeks in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, as well as in foster care.

In a statement, Immigration and Customs Enforcement said the agency separated Mateo from Fuentes because Fuentes could not prove he was the boy's father.

"Historically, some criminal smuggling organizations have paired non-relative children and adults with each other to minimize the chance of being detained," the agency said.

But Fuentes said he had the boy's original birth certificate and his own Salvadorian identification card. The agency would not confirm or deny whether it had received these documents.

The move came months after then-Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said the administration was considering a plan to separate families in its custody as a way to deter more people from coming to the U.S.

The American Academy of Pediatrics and other child welfare organizations said this practice of separating families can cause long-term mental health damage to the already-traumatized children.

On Monday, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit against the U.S. government for separating an asylum-seeking mother and her seven-year-old daughter. In December, women rights groups and immigrant advocates filed a complaint against the Department of Homeland Security, citing dozens of similar cases and saying the practice "defies countless international and domestic laws on child welfare, human rights and refugees."

More than 75 members of Congress have asked Homeland Security to clarify its policies when it comes to the separation of families in its custody, saying the practice is “unconscionable.”

Olivia said the practice of separating families does not deter people from coming to the U.S.

“You’re not going to stay in your country to be killed. A lot of people know they’re separating families, but people are always going to keep coming because it’s a fight for your life. For the lives of your children," she said.

She said all the practice does is traumatize children. During the interview, four-year-old Andree repeatedly asked his mother to pull up video news reports of his father in detention on her cell phone.

"Please!" he said.

"No, the reports make you cry," Caceres said.

"I won't cry," Andree said. "Please!"

Under the Obama administration, asylum-seeking families were often released on parole. But the Trump administration has leaned more towards keeping them detained, especially men.

“It’s a really cruel strategy. Everyone suffers. The family who’s helping you, us, the children," Caceres said.

Caceres was released with an ankle bracelet that tracks her location. She must shower with it, sleep with it and change its battery every six hours.

She can’t stray far from home. She can’t work legally for months. And she doesn’t have Fuentes to help with the children.

Caceres' lawyer, Erika Pinheiro, said she always tells potential clients these days that it’s likely they’re going to be separated from their children if they try to seek asylum in the U.S. She says it never deters them.

“We have to be able to understand the lengths that you go to save a family member’s life, to give your child a better life. I think most of us would do anything to save our child’s life if we really thought our children would be killed.”

While KPBS was visiting, Fuentes called Caceres to talk to his sons from the Otay Mesa detention center. Ordinarily, Fuentes would be eligible for a bond hearing after six months in immigration detention. But on Tuesday, the Supreme Court reversed a Ninth Circuit ruling that gave immigrants and asylum seekers that right. So the decision is not final and could come back to the high court. But for now, this means Fuentes could remain in detention indefinitely.

RELATED: Supreme Court Ruling Means Immigrants Could Continue To Be Detained Indefinitely

"Hello, son," Fuentes said. "How are you?"

"Fine ... I saw the news reports without crying," Andree told his father.

“That’s what I like, for you not to cry," Fuentes said.

Caceres took the phone from Andree and placed it against the baby’s ear.

“It’s papa, my love," she said. "Papa."

Mateo curled up with the phone, listening to his father's voice.

Asylum-Seeking Mother Reunited With Her Baby After US Kept Apart For Weeks
Asylum-Seeking Mother Reunited With Her Baby After US Kept Apart For Weeks GUEST:Jean Guerrero, Fronteras reporter, KPBS News

>>> This is KPBS Midday Edition I am Maureen Cavanaugh. More than 75 members of Congress has asked home and's -- Homeland security to clarify its policies on the separations of families. Some say the practice is unconscionable. The ACLU filed a federal lawsuit against the government. KPBS reporter gene Guerrero has the story of one asylum seeking family separated in San Diego. A mother's journey to be reunited with her one-year-old son. >> Reporter: Mateo Fuentes spent months without his mom and dad after their family spent desk across the border. He was taken from his father November sending him to a refugee shelter 1500 miles away. Mateo Fuentes's mom Olivia Caceres got a visit with him. They are staying at a house had an aunt and uncle who are helping him. It took Olivia Caceres weeks of back-and-forth of the U.S. government to get him back. >> I felt like a stranger trying to adopt my own son. >> Reporter: Olivia Caceres, her partner Jose Demar Fuentes, and there two sons Otay Mesa, and it Mateo Fuentes traveled on the roof of a Mexican train. As they near the U.S., they decided to spread out. José would cross the border immediately with Mateo Fuentes. Olivia crosses later with Otay Mesa . They say he was sick and wanted to get him someplace safe. When José asked for asylum, immigration officials took Mateo and put him in the custody of the office settlement in Texas. They locked José up in a private detention facility in Otay Mesa where he remains. >> I feel powerless not being with them and not being able to hug them. Kiss them. Play with them. >> Reporter: Month earlier former Homeland security Secretary John Kelly said the administration was considering separating Central American families at the border as a policy to deter more from coming. Recently 33 senators pointed the finger at the new secretary Nielsen think she quote failed to repudiate this practice. Olivia says the practice is in vain. >> You are not going to stay in your country to be killed. A lot of people know they are self birding families. -- Separating families. You will always keep coming because it is a fight for your life and the lives of your children. And she says all that separating family accomplishes is traumatizing children. >> He has been really fearful when he sees strangers. He thinks they are going to take him. He describes me. >> Reporter: Olivia says it is especially hard on Andre. He constantly asked to see the news reports of his father Detention. >> Until the Obama administration, asylum seeking families are often released on parole. With the Trump administration they lean towards keeping them detained especially men. >> It is a cruel strategy. Everyone suffers. The family who is helping you, us, the children. >> Reporter: In a statement, immigration and customs form it says they separate children for the safety of children. Sometimes smuggling organizations pair nine parent children with adults. Olivia is paired with the bracelet that track the location. She must shower with it, sleep with it, change the battery every six hours. >> It irritates my skin. >> Reporter: She is not allowed to stray far from home. She cannot work illegally for months. She does not have José to help with the children. Olivia's lawyer Erica said she always tells potential clients the states that it is likely they will be separated from the children if they seek asylum in the U.S. She says this never deters them. >> We have to understand the lengths you go to to save the family members life to give your child a better life. I think most of us would do anything to save our child's life if we thought our children would be killed. >> Reporter: José calls Olivia every day to talk to his sons. >> I watch him to the phone without crying. >> That's what I like for you not to cry. >> Reporter: Olivia Polices the phone will against her youngest son's ear. >>> Joining me now is KPBS reporter gene Correll. How long has Matteo's mother Olivia been in this country? Why wasn't she traveling with Matteo and his father ? >> Olivia arrived at the port of entry at the end of December. She came with their other son four-year-old Andre. She told me and José said the same thing that they decided to split up in northern Mexico very much when they were almost to the United States that they did not have enough money for bus tickets for all four. They were worried about Mateo because at the time Matteo was very dehydrated and really weak and could hardly move. They were concerned about his safety and wanted to get him safe as soon as possible. That's why decided to split up. Olivia's plan was the cross with Andre shortly afterward. When she found out the baby had been taken away from José, she stayed in Tijuana for a while to try to see what was going to happen, to see if they would be able to be reunited on their own. Eventually when she saw the was not happening, she crossed. She was like where's my child. >>> Why didn't Mateo's father had documentation a Mateo? >> That is a detail in Dispute. José and the human rights organization that was helping him come across Mexico, they both say that José presented himself at the port of entry with the boys original birth so desk a certificate as well as his Asaba Dorian Identification. They made copies of the documents before crossing which I saw. Because they wanted to make sure that they had documentation of these. I asked Immigration's and customs enforcement as well as customs and border protection whether or not they received the documents. They declined to confirm or deny whether they had received them. They only said that the documentation that he had supplied was not enough to prove that he was the father. >>> Isn't there merit to the Department of Homeland Security policy of requiring documentation from adults traveling with children especially one would assume in traveling with small children. >> Immigration and customs enforcement says they required these documents because historically criminals have paired small children with nonrelative adults as a way of trying to get across more easily to get across undetected. They are doing this they say for the safety of the children. They need to make sure that these kids that are being brought across are actually related to the individuals. So the immigration and customs enforcement is doing it for the safety of the children. >>> How different is the Trump administration policy in dealing with families seeking asylum from the previous administration? >> The Obama administration tended to keep families together when they express a credible fear of returning to their country. The major change with the Trump administration is that because it is leaning towards a policy of keeping people detained, there are not enough family detention centers in the United States were all of these people can be detained together. They end up being separated because they are going to keep the father over here in the child they have to send it to the office of refugee resettlement custody to be in a children shelter. The Obama administration would often let these families out on parole where they had a notice to appear in court. >>> You have heard from child psychologist about the effects of taking children who are already fleeing violent countries from their parents. Tell us about that. >> The American Academy of pediatrics and several other child welfare organization sent a letter to the Department of Homeland Security a few months ago expressing concern about this practice of separating family saying just that. When you separate children from their parents, especially when they are coming from places where presumably they were experiencing traumatic things, that you are going to compound those traumas. You are potentially going to cause long-term damage to the mental health of the children who are already under great amounts of stress. >>> Just this week, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the U.S. government for separating asylum seeking mother and her daughter. What is the legal basis for a lawsuit like that? >> I spoke with one of the attorneys behind that lawsuit. He explains that their main argument is this practice of separating children from their parents and it violates due process laws under the constitution. In particular, in this case, the woman was never notified as to why she was being separated from her child. They decided to move forward with this lawsuit specifically related to one woman and her seven-year-old daughter and not fight dozens of other cases that they are aware of because they were concerned about the traumatic effects that this is having on the seven-year-old girl. They told me their hope is that eventually they will bring other cases into the suit and it will become a class action lawsuit meant to stop the practice of separating families altogether. >>> Back to the case that you reported on, Jean, how long will Jose Demar Fuentes detention last? >> Immigrants who are detained have a right to a bond hearing after six months. José came across in mid-November. That would be happening in mid-May. He will have a chance to be released in mid-May. The Supreme Court just ruled today that the Ninth Circuit's decision to allow these bond hearings, they reversed that decision and said that they don't have a right to these bond hearings. Immigrants can be detained indefinitely. At this point, we don't know how long José will be staying in Detention. He is already applied for a request to be released on parole. It was denied. Currently they are appealing that decision. Given the Supreme Court ruling it is uncertain what will happen. >>> I have been speaking with KPBS reporter Jane Guerrero, Jane, think a lot -- thanks a lot. >> Thank you.