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What family separation looks like for a 5-year-old in Michigan

Kate Wells

She looks small in the high-ceilinged lobby, her hair pulled back in a heart-shaped barrette, wearing a sundress and pink ruffled socks. She holds hands with her caseworker, gazing up silently at the security guards as they smile at her, beckoning her through the metal detectors and telling her how pretty she looks.

It’s hard to say how much she understands about where she is and why she’s here. She knows it has something to do with getting to see her mom again, her lawyer says. She’s five years old and for the last few months, her mom has been detained some 2,000 miles away in California.  

For months now, a resurgent trend in Michigan

The girl (we’re not naming her to protect her privacy) arrived in Michigan around March of this year, according to attorneys with the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center. Around that same time, MIRC’s supervising attorney, Ana Devereaux, says she started hearing a familiar story from new clients arriving in Michigan: They’d crossed into the U.S. at the southern border with their parents and families, but had then been separated from them.

Deveraux thought the Trump administration’s family separation policy had ended. Last summer, doing this had been all too common – but by October 2018, all of MIRC’s clients had reunited with their families. Now it has started back up again, Devereaux says, at a rate of up to five or six of these cases each week.

Credit Kate Wells
MIRC staff attorney Belinda Orozco after representing five-, nine- and 11-year-old girls in immigration court this morning.

“We’ve actually had to hire more attorneys to keep up with what’s going on,” says MIRC staff attorney Belinda Orozco. She’s representing the 5-year-old girl in Judge Jennifer Gorland’s courtroom at the Patrick V. McNamara Federal Building. Also on her client list this morning: a 9-year-old and an 11-year-old girl. One came to the U.S. with relatives, Orozco believes, while the other arrived with a family friend.

Both girls are here to tell the court they’re choosing “voluntary departure,” meaning they’ll be sent back to their families in Guatemala. The 11-year-old is called up first. She strides up to take a seat next to Orozco, with Judge Gorland at the front of the room. She slips on the court headphones so she can hear an interpreter, but it’s soon clear she doesn’t really need the help. She’s only been in the U.S. for a few months, but already her English is great.  

“Good morning,” Judge Gorland says warmly. “How old are you?”

“Eleven,” she replies.

“I like your pretty dress,” the judge says.

“Thank you,” the girl says.

“I know your favorite color is purple,” Judge Gorland says. This girl has been in her courtroom before, and this judge always rotates through the same kid-friendly questions: favorite colors, subjects in school, TV shows. “And your favorite TV show. Is it still Hotel Transylvania?”

No, the girl replies. “It’s Frozen.”

“Oh! I have a cat named Elsa,” the judge says. “I’m going to talk to your attorney now, OK?”

Orozco explains about the voluntary departure as the judge reads through a caseworker’s written recommendation. Her departure date will be in October, Judge Gorland says.

“Ordinarily, I’d be advising her about the consequences [of failing to leave by that date,]” she adds, but given her age, however, she’s going to skip it.

Now it’s the 9-year-old girl’s turn. She’s stone-faced, no signs of nerves other than burying her hands in the sleeves of her grey sweater. With a long ponytail and a pink leopard print skirt, she repeats the same conversation with Judge Gorland (turns out Frozen is a bit of a theme today). She, too, wishes to reunite with her family in Guatemala, Orozco says. Once again, a departure date is assigned; the judge wishes her safe travels.

The client's favorite color is pink

Then, it’s the 5-year-old’s turn. The courtroom security guard lifts her up over the partition separating the courtroom from the gallery, and puts her in the chair next to Orozco. Her feet don’t touch the floor. The judge and translator decide to skip the headphones this time, opting to talk with her directly.

“Hello,” the judge says. “I like your pink socks. They’re pretty.”

The girl is still for a long beat. Then, she leans towards the microphone. "Sí,” she agrees. Then the same questions: her favorite color is pink. She likes cartoons.

Orozco explains that the girl's mother was detained for the last several months in California. It’s not completely clear how or why they were separated, but Camila Trefftz, MIRC’s Unaccompanied Children Program coordinator, says they believe there were a couple problems. First, it looks like the government couldn’t find an interpreter for her mom, who speaks a regional dialect but no English or Spanish. They also know this is her adoptive mother, and while she traveled with documents establishing the legal adoption, it’s possible the mom didn't have her daughter’s birth certificate, so Customs and Border Patrol may have decided she didn’t have enough to establish parentage.  

Now the mom is out on bond, Orozco tells the court, and has a sponsor in Pennsylvania who can take them in while their case plays out. They’re asking for a temporary delay in the girl’s case while she reunites with her mom and moves to Pennsylvania. The judge grants it, and the court takes a break.

Credit Kate Wells
A picture of President Trump hangs in the lobby of the immigration court building.

Out in the packed lobby where other families and children are waiting for their own hearings, Orozco speaks briefly with the youngest girl’s caseworker. Orozco says good-bye to the 5-year-old, who takes her caseworker's hand again as she's shepherded to the bathroom before they get back on the road.

Even when you see them so briefly, you always try to make a connection with these kids, Orozco says. “[You] try to minimize or mitigate their anxiety, and we talk about their case. With the youngest [girl,] I just complimented her on her dress and things like that, and didn’t really talk about her case.

“With the older children, I will give them an update and what we think is the plan, and then ask them for their feedback. Most of the time they agree with what we’re saying, because the system is foreign and complicated. They just want to be able to either be reunified with their family, or to stay here.”

Orozco thinks the five-year-old is aware, at least, that coming to this big tall building this morning and meeting all these strangers is part of getting to see her mom again. “Yes. She knows that. She’s expressed that with Camila, with her caseworkers and her foster parents, that she wants to be back with her mother. She does have an opportunity to talk with her mom, while she was in custody.”

Many of the unaccompanied minors who arrive in Michigan are in the care of Bethany Christian Services, which receives federal grant money to place these kids in small group homes or, ideally, transitional foster care, until they can be reunited with family. (They’re also looking for more families to sign up to become transitional foster families, especially in areas like Holland and Lansing.)

Dona Abbott, vice president of Refugee and Immigrant Services, testified before Congress in February.

“While the president’s executive order halted the enforcement of the mass separation policy, the fact remains: [c]hildren are still being separated from their parents at the border,” she said. “While the reasons for separation are not often clear, it is evident that separations are occurring at elevated levels compared to past years. It is never OK to take children from their families for the purposes of immigration enforcement or to use children as the scapegoats of a broken federal system.”

Asked to clarify when and why a child would be separated at the border, the Customs and Border Patrol says it “may occur to ensure the safety of the child when the following factors are present … [such as the] parent or guardian presents a danger to the child; parent has a criminal history; parent has an outstanding criminal warrant; parent has a communicable disease; fraudulent claim of guardianship; and smuggling narcotics at the time of entry, or other criminal activity related to the entry resulting in the adult being criminally charged.”

Reporter's note: some typos have been fixed and a couple words added for clarity. 

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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