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One-Year-Old Reunited With Father In San Diego After Months In Problematic Child Shelter

Jose Demar Fuentes is reunited with his sons, July 11, 2018.
Malona P. Badelt
Jose Demar Fuentes is reunited with his sons, July 11, 2018.
One-Year-Old Reunited With Father In San Diego After Months In Problematic Child Shelter
One-Year-Old Reunited With Father In San Diego After Months In Problematic Child Shelter GUEST: Jean Guerrero, fronteras reporter, KPBS

Our top story on Midday edition although the Government has missed the deadline set by a federal court in San Diego to reunify all migrant children under age 5 with their parents. Some reunifications of very young migrant children are underway here in San Diego. A father who had not seen his 1 year old son in eight months tearfully hugged his little boy. Loaded up by. Jose Fuentes and his son were separated before the zero tolerance policy officially went into effect. PBS was the first to report on that family separation. Joining me now is PBS frontiers reporter Jean Guerrero. Jean welcome. Thanks Maureen. Tell us about Jose de mara Fuentes and his 1 year old son Mateo. They were separated by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents after Fuentes asked for asylum at the San Jacinto port of entry. Where did this reunion that we just heard. Where did that take place that took place here in San Diego last night. The family came down from Los Angeles to meet Jose after he was released from the detention center on parole with an ankle bracelet and you could hear Mateo crying because he didn't he didn't recognize his father had been so long since he had seen him that the other boy the 4 year old was very excited and kind of in disbelief. Now Fuentes was actually coming to the U.S. from El Salvador with his wife and their other son. As you just mentioned as part of a caravan of asylum seekers last November what happened when they reached the border. Right. So the family came together through Mexico on the top of the infamous chain La Bestia but they ended up splitting up because the baby was showing signs of dehydration and exhaustion and they wanted to get him somewhere safe as soon as possible said the father Jose went to the San Ysidro port of entry with the baby and asked for asylum. However Immigration Customs Enforcement ended up taking the baby from him and sending the baby to a shelter in Texas saying that he didn't have sufficient proof that he was the father. However he said that he had brought the boy's original birth certificate as well as his own Salvadoran I.D. and turned those documents in to Customs and Border Protection. And I actually saw copies of those documents and when I interviewed him in detention he he told me a little bit about that. No you haven't. And he's going to come to a strange country that isn't mine to present myself as a child without documents. It turns out that the shelter where they sent the baby boy is run by this nonprofit called International Educational Services which according to reveal investigation a few weeks ago was closed due to more than a thousand deficiencies including inappropriate sexual contact and harsh punishment for the children and the boys is clearly still suffering some kind of disturbance. I mean his mother tells me that he's been he's just been crying all the time and very fearful of strangers. The family separation was only ever supposed to apply to people detained for crossing the border illegally. But Jose Fuentes apparently did not do that exactly. His case raises a lot of questions about the intent I guess behind the family separations because he turned himself in at the port of entry and asked for asylum. The legal way and there are hundreds of others like him who did this and were separated from their children before the zero tolerance and that's actually how the ACLU lawsuits came about. They filed it on behalf of people who had been separated after presenting themselves legally. And that's when the federal judge ended up ordering the reunification not only for people after their tolerance but people separated before as well. Even though the Fuentes case does not stem from the official zero tolerance policy this reunification took place because of last week's ruling in federal court in San Diego. Is that right. We actually don't have confirmation of that. The ACLU won't confirm if the boy's name was on the list of 102 children under the age of five. But the attorney on the case from the nonprofit Lothrop Lollo said that she sent the baby's information to the litigators in the case and that it wasn't enough until she was able to cite the court ordered deadline. That's her repeated requests for release on parole were finally accepted. One thing that is worth noting is that the class members for the ACLU lawsuit it's defined as children who are currently in in the custody custody of the government and this baby had already been released from the custody of the government. So technically he doesn't qualify and in the membership of the lawsuit but it is interesting and it is noteworthy that the government had denied the father the family's request for reunification until the court ordered deadline and until the attorney was able to cite that court order deadline it seems to suggest that that that the government is a lot more open now to reunifying families and releasing people on parole. Jane from your reporting does there seem to be an increasing level of confusion over how immigration asylum cases will be handled. Moving forward yes. So what we're seeing is that not family members cases are being separated in immigration court even if the family members were never physically separated. So that means that if a. For example if a father comes across with his five year old daughter like one case that I that I spoke to a couple of days ago and are released on parole together and are never separated they may still have their cases separated in court which means that the child will will have to appear in front of the judge by herself. And I spoke to one five year old girl who had to do that here in San Diego. And she just started crying when she was trying to. She had the headphones on and was listening to the translator try to explain what the judge was saying and she just started sobbing because she didn't understand what was happening. And that's something that attorneys in San Diego have told me that they're seeing more and more of under the Trump administration especially over the past month which is creating a lot of inefficiencies and stress that that wasn't being seen before. What's the next court appearance the government has to make on its efforts to reunite migrant children with their parents. The federal judge asked for all of the players to meet on Friday to discuss any failed when reunification is for children under the age of five. He asked for any children who are under the age of five who have not been reunified with their parents in time for the deadline. He wanted documentation of that and they're going to review that on Friday. I've been speaking with previous Fronteras reporter Jean Guerrero. Jeanne thanks. Thank you.

UPDATED: 1:15 p.m., July 11, 2018

A Salvadoran man and his toddler son were reunited in San Diego on Tuesday night, eight months after they were separated by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.

One-year-old Mateo Fuentes didn’t immediately recognize his father, who was released on parole with a GPS-tracking ankle bracelet. The child cried out when Jose Demar Fuentes tearfully embraced him.

“It’s your father,” the boy’s mother said in Spanish, trying to soothe Mateo. “It’s your father, my love.”

Fuentes, 31, had been incarcerated in a private Otay Mesa detention facility after he asked for asylum at the San Ysidro Port of Entry in November. His son, who was pulled from his arms, spent more than two months in a tender-age facility near Brownsville, Texas, called IES Hidalgo, that has since been closed for alleged abuses.

The family's pro bono attorneys at Al Otro Lado had filed repeated requests for Fuentes’ release on parole, arguing that he was not a flight risk or a danger society. ICE denied the first of those requests and never responded to the others until after the attorneys cited a court-ordered deadline for the family reunification involving immigrant children under the age of five, said attorney Erika Pinheiro.

“ICE just didn’t have any justification for the separation or his continued detention,” Pinheiro said. “His family suffered extreme and irreparable harm due to the actions of the agency.”

A month after Mateo was released from the shelter, the nonprofit International Educational Services was shut down for “more than 100 deficiencies at its nine operations, including inappropriate sexual contact between staff and children, harsh punishment and lapses in medical care,” according to a Reveal investigation into various shelters.

Mateo’s mother, Olivia Caceres, told KPBS that when she recovered her son from the facility after weeks of back-and-forth with the government, she took off his clothes to bathe him and found that he was covered in dirt and lice. She said she had to wash him several times to get the grime off. The lice took several days to remove.

“Every time I passed the comb through his hair, there was more lice,” she said.

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

Jose Demar Fuentes and his family are shown in this photo, July 11, 2018.
Olivia Caceres
Jose Demar Fuentes and his family are shown in this photo, July 11, 2018.

KPBS visited Caceres and her sons in a house in Los Angeles, where they were staying with sponsors, in February. Mateo repeatedly cried and clung to his mother.

“He’s been really fearful,” she said. “When he sees strangers, he thinks they’re going to take him. He just grabs me.”

Caceres entered the U.S. with Mateo’s brother, Andree, now age 5, about a month after Fuentes and Mateo asked for asylum at the San Ysidro Port of Entry. The family had traveled across Mexico together, fleeing violence in El Salvador. They split up when Mateo began to show signs of dehydration. Caceres said the couple was in a rush to get their youngest son somewhere safe.

Instead, the U.S. government took the boy from Fuentes and sent him to the problematic shelter. KPBS reached out to the Department of Health and Human Services repeatedly for comment, but the agency never responded. Caceres remembers that it took weeks to convince the government to release the toddler to her.

“I felt like a stranger trying to adopt my own son,” she said during the February interview.

RELATED: Asylum-Seeking Mother Crosses Border After Immigration Officials Separated Baby From Father

Meanwhile, Fuentes sat in detention and beseeched Immigration and Customs Enforcement to release him on parole, in vain. He wrote a letter to two immigration officials, including Joseph Greene, assistant field director for Immigration and Customs Enforcement in San Diego.

“When you get home, embrace and kiss your son, your nephew, or your grandson,” Fuentes, who has a degree in journalism, wrote in neat black ink. “Because I, for the moment, do not have the privilege of showering my sons with all the love I feel for them.”

Fuentes gave KPBS an interview from the detention center, and broke into tears multiple times when discussing his sons. Fuentes said he grew up without a father, and that there was nothing more important to him than being a present and involved parent.

In his letter to Greene, who declined requests for an interview, Fuentes wrote: “Being separated from my sons makes me feel useless, because I don’t know if when I get out of here they will still remember me or if I will still be the father I never had … it’s hard to be detained without having committed any crime ... only when the law is just will America be great again.”

Jose Demar Fuentes carries his son Mateo near the San Ysidro Port of Entry, Nov. 12, 2017.
PUEBLO SIN FRONTERAS
Jose Demar Fuentes carries his son Mateo near the San Ysidro Port of Entry, Nov. 12, 2017.

Fuentes’ case raises questions about the Trump administration’s family separation practice. Officials have repeatedly said the immigration crackdown is about law and order, and that only people who crossed the border illegally would be separated from their parents. But Fuentes never broke any laws. He presented himself legally at the port of entry and asked for asylum.

Pinheiro said she is going to file a motion to consolidate Fuentes’ case with his family’s in Los Angeles.

Between 2,000 and 3,000 immigrant children have been separated from their parents, including about 100 who are under age of five. Only a few dozen were reunified by the court-ordered deadline for the youngest children. On Tuesday, a federal judge in San Diego reminded government attorneys that his deadlines are not "aspirational goals."

U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw said he expected his deadline for reuniting the youngest children to be met, and said failure to do so needed to be documented and discussed on Friday in court.

One-Year-Old Reunited With Father In San Diego After Months In Problematic Child Shelter
One-Year-Old Reunited With Father In San Diego After Months In Problematic Child Shelter
Mateo Fuentes was reunited with his Salvadoran asylum-seeking father, Jose Demar Fuentes, just in time for a court-ordered reunification deadline for children under age five.