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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, 2...

Photo by Katie Schoolov

Above: 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.

Reported by Katie Schoolov

“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.

We're sorry. This audio clip is no longer available. A transcript has been made available.


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