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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.

Credit: Malona P. Badelt

Above: Jose Demar Fuentes is reunited with his sons, July 11, 2018.

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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

Photo credit: 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.

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.

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.


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