The scramble began on May 6: Two sisters from El Salvador, ages 8 and 11, in U.S. government custody had just been approved for reunification with their Houston-based mom, when ICE stepped in and moved to deport them.
That same day, in McAllen, Texas, a teenage girl from Guatemala completed a sworn asylum declaration, claiming she would be persecuted because of her race, indigenous identity and refusal to join a gang if returned to her home country. Hours later, ICE picked her up.
The sisters and the teenage girl have three things in common. They all previously sought asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border alongside parents. They were sent to Mexico under the Migrant Protection Protocols, or MPP, program. And they reentered the U.S. a second time — without their parents.
Minors are not supposed to be returned to Mexico under MPP if unaccompanied by their parents or legal guardians, so some families have allowed their children to seek asylum in the U.S. alone. Between October 2019 and this month, at least 577 unaccompanied migrant children in the care of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, or ORR, have reported having their parents in Mexico, according to the agency.
Under a landmark court settlement, the U.S. government is obligated to make “prompt and continuous efforts” to unite unaccompanied migrant children with relatives or other sponsors in the U.S. while their immigration cases proceed.
But the government argues that children who have already been ordered removed with their families under the Remain in Mexico policy should be deported — even if they last entered the U.S. unaccompanied. Attorneys for the minors, however, say they should be treated like other unaccompanied migrant children.
Both the sisters and the teen girl have been fighting their case in court. A federal judge barred the government from immediately deporting the Salvadoran sisters, and they were released to their mother in Houston, according to attorneys. Their deportation proceedings are ongoing. Their father, with whom they were originally sent to Mexico, remains in Matamoros, Mexico.