AP investigation of 2-year-old separated from mother at border exposes systemwide exploitation
A new investigation by the Associated Press, as reported by KHOU in Houston, is further revealing the extent of the burden faced by parents who are at risk of being deported by the United States. After being separated from her parents after they were arrested crossing the Texas border under the Obama administration, 2-year-old Alexa Ramos was legally adopted by an American family.
What ensued was a costly and lengthy legal battle, which took 5 years and over $1 million in pro-bono legal work to finally reunite the child with her parents.
Under the Obama administration’s rules, fleeing domestic abuse was considered grounds for asylum. However, after being arrested by US Customs and Border Protection agents, Ramos was told that she could not be allowed to keep her daughter because she was a criminal, according to records in El Salvador. Alexa’s mother, Aracelli Ramos Bonilla, fled El Salvador and an abusive relationship which left her with a noticeable dent in her forehead to come to the United States. Ironically, the same information that helped Ramos prove her abuse was used against her when fighting for her child in a Michigan court by the U S. Justice Department.
Three days after Ramos’s arrest, the US government deemed Alexa an “unaccompanied minor,” which put the toddler in the same system with teenagers who come to the United States alone. This meant the 2-year-old would be called to testify at a “date to be set, at a time to be set,” according to the subpoena issued to Alexa Ramos. Though undoubtedly an intelligent toddler, she could only say some Spanish words for colors, a few numbers, and her favorite foods.
After being separated from her daughter, Ramos could not find a lawyer to take her case pro-bono, and found herself on a plane bound back to El Salvador. Ramos told the AP that when signing a waiver acknowledging she was leaving Alexa in the United States, “The agent put his hand on mine, he held my hand, he forced me to sign.”
At this time, it was unusual for parents to be deported while their children remained in the United States. However, this practice later became commonplace under the Trump administration. By April 2016, Alexa had been given over to the care of Bethany Christian Services, one of the largest adoption agencies in the country. The Michigan based agency has enjoyed support from local donors including current Education Secretary Betsy Devos. In fact, one member of Devos’ family worked for Bethany and another served on its board.
Originally, Bethany placed Alexa in the home of Sherri and Kory Barr, who initially agreed not to file for custody of the child because she was still the responsibility of the Office of Refugee Resettlement. Eight months later, citing a fear for her safety, the couple did so anyway.
Following a pair of viral videos that Aracelli made in El Salvador, word reached officials in El Salvador and the consulate in Chicago. Pressure eventually lead the US Justice Department to argue in court that “The Barrs obtained their temporary guardianship order in violation of federal law.” Justice department lawyers also pointed out the judge’s role in breaking federal law by not contacting either Alexa or her mother about the legal proceedings.
Alexa was ultimately reunited with Ramos in El Salvador, but the two had to re-establish a bond due to Alexa’s loss of understanding Spanish and not having seen her birth mother in over three years. The Barrs worry about Alexa’s safety in El Salvador, but Ramos is focused on ending the zero-tolerance policies that separated them in the first place.
In an interview, Ramos tells the world her concerns about the immigration system: “If they give our children up for adoption without our permission, that isn’t justice… They are our children, not theirs.”