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Lawyers, Advocates Comb Guatemala For Missing Families


When the U.S. government separated migrant families at the Southwest border, more than 350 parents were deported without their children. Many of the children remain in shelters in the U.S. Three-fourths of the parents were sent home to Guatemala. Now that a federal judge has ordered the parents and children to be reunited, a posse of lawyers and immigrant advocates has fanned out across Guatemala looking for missing families. NPR's John Burnett normally covers immigration out of Texas, but he's with us on the line now from Guatemala City. John, thanks so much for joining us.


MARTIN: So what are you learning about the hunt for these separated families?

BURNETT: Well, it's a challenge. Most Guatemalans who come to the U.S. illegally have marginal lives. In many cases, they live a life of subsistence. Their houses are way out in the countryside in these remote hard-to-reach areas. To give you an idea, Michel, producer Marisa Penaloza and I spent two days in the mountains of Huehuetenango province up north near the border with Mexico. And we drove on these tortuous unpaved roads, dodging sheep herds. And after three hours, we finally arrive at the village of Mixlaj tucked in a beautiful valley. We asked a local man if he'd heard about any families who'd returned from the U.S. without their kids. And he says, oh, yes, there's a father whose daughter is still in the U.S. He lives on the other side of that mountain. It was another three hours of walking just to reach him.

MARTIN: Oh, boy. So how is this army of lawyers and advocates going about finding the parents?

BURNETT: OK. So first, they try the parents' cellphones. The U.S. government has given all those numbers they have to the ACLU. An ACLU lawyer told me a couple weeks ago they had 120 names and phone numbers. They tried all of them and about 45 parents picked up. So if they don't answer the phone, you have to use shoe leather and gasoline and go out to find them. If they find them, then they ask them, would you like your child to be flown back to Guatemala and join you, or would you like them to stay in the States to live with a relative?

There's also a law firm in New York involved in the searches. And it is reaching out to Guatemalan nonprofits that have connections in these out-of-the-way places. This is Gustavo Juarez with one of those groups called the Association of Returned Guatemalans.

GUSTAVO JUAREZ: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: So Juarez says they were contacted by this law firm to help find the families. And in 78 hours, they were able to locate four parents through this network of contacts they have out in the provinces.

MARTIN: Now, I understand that this group was able to put you in contact with one of the Guatemalan parents whose son is still in a U.S. shelter.

BURNETT: Right. His name is Juan Valiente Velazquez. He's from the isolated village of San Jose Las Flores. They were able to reach him by cellphone. He brought his son to the U.S. without papers in May. They crossed the border south Texas. His son is Derickson, has now been away for more than three months. He turned 8 in his shelter contracted to Health and Human Services. And the father told us he has no idea when his boy will come home.


BURNETT: He says, "when I stepped foot in the United States, I told my son, I feel happy because we're safe now. They won't harm us. And it was the opposite. They took him away from me."

VELAZQUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: With tears rolling down his cheeks, the father says his wife misses Derickson so much, she's become physically ill. "A great country like the United States should not make mothers, fathers and children suffer like they are," he said. He speaks to his son three times a week. And I want to add that the U.S. government says it is trying to expedite the paperwork and fly these stranded children back to their parents in Central America as quickly as possible.

MARTIN: So - but what does he want for his son?

BURNETT: Well, Valiente wants his boy home. And he also wants a second chance to go to the U.S. because he's asking for asylum. This father didn't leave Guatemala to escape poverty. He's actually pretty prosperous. He spent 14 years in the U.S. working in agriculture in Southern states. He made good money and came home in 2007 because his mother was sick. So he went back to his village, bought a piece of land, started building a big house. A criminal gang noticed he had money. And they told him, if you don't pay us $30,000, we're going to cut your son's head off. So what does he do? He takes his son, flees back to the U.S., immediately gets caught by the Border Patrol, who take his son away, and the father plans to ask for asylum.

MARTIN: Well, if he left fleeing for his life, why did he agree to let the government send him back?

BURNETT: Well, Valiente says they scared him into voluntary departure. The ACLU complains this is what happened to most of the adults who agreed to be removed from the U.S. without their kids. Valiente says immigration agents told him if he asked for asylum, he'd be in prison for six to 18 months without seeing his son. And if he went home, they would be reunited. But it's been more than three months since he's seen Derickson, and he's heartsick. And he's afraid the extortionists at home are going to hurt him if he doesn't pay up.

MARTIN: That is NPR's John Burnett in Guatemala. John Burnett, thanks so much for talking with us.

BURNETT: My pleasure, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.