PHOENIX (AP) — Maria is the only living relative of a 6-year-old girl who was raised as if she were her own daughter. After a gang murdered all of his relatives, he brought his niece to the United States to apply for asylum. However, the government took the girl and sent her to a shelter more than 3,200 kilometers (2,000 miles) away because she is not the biological mother. The case highlights the current government practice of separating families when the adult is not a parent or the legal guardian of the child with which they are traveling. This means that aunts, grandmothers and older siblings are separated when they arrive in the United States and often sent to far-off places.
In the case of Maria, 23, she was handed over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) by the border authorities after she showed up at an official border crossing in March to apply for asylum. The Associated Press does not reveal Maria’s surname at the express request because he fears for her safety. Maria had raised her niece since the youngest was a baby after the mother was killed, according to activists. The girl is in a shelter for immigrant minors in New York, and the two briefly talk on the phone about once a week.
Gang members in Guatemala murdered the woman’s parents, sister and partner.
Maria’s lawyer, Suzannah Maclay, said her client was denied a credible fear interview, the first step in applying for asylum. ICE also rejected three requests to be released while its immigration process is resolved, which is on appeal, Maclay said.ICE may release immigrants at discretion while their cases are being aired in court, but declined to leave in freedom to Guatemala. In a statement, ICE stated that Maria is being held «pending the outcome of her appeal» against a judge’s deportation order on September 4. Maclay noted that the agency has not indicated why he did not release Maria.
Democratic lawmakers and activists are pressuring the agency to release the Guatemalan woman and hope to draw attention to the case.
«At the age of 17, Mary became the only person to care for her sister’s daughter, who has been raised as her own ever since. Maria is the only mother she has (the girl) ever met,» said lawmaker Kelly Butler, who held a press conference Thursday to draw attention to the case. Last year, the government separated 5,400 children from their parents on the southern border to try to contain legal and illegal immigration. The practice was condemned globally and ceased in most cases, but border authorities continue to separate families if a minor travels with a relative other than a parent, or if the parent has a criminal history, for mild whatever they are. The government noted that it is required to do this practice to protect minors from adults posing as their parents or unfit parents.