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At Adult Detention Centers, 18-Year-Old Asylum-Seekers Advocate For Themselves


Now we're going to hear about a mother and daughter who arrived at the U.S. southern border from Honduras to ask for asylum. The mother persuaded an asylum officer to let her into the U.S. to pursue her case in court. Then her 18-year-old daughter tried to do the same but failed. As an increasing number of migrant parents and children arrive here seeking asylum, this could happen to more families. WNYC's Beth Fertig has this report.

BETH FERTIG, BYLINE: Ana Batiz and her teenage daughters arrived without papers at the Texas border last July. They were taken to a crowded processing center run by Customs and Border Protection. Late that night, border agents took the older daughter, Susan, out of the room. Susan's younger sister Kirad stayed with their mom.

KIRAD: (Through interpreter) The officer said that they would bring Susan back.

FERTIG: Susan told their mom not to worry.

KIRAD: (Through interpreter) And then they took her, and she never came back.

FERTIG: Kirad remembers something else.

KIRAD: (Through interpreter) They took away, like, 10 people that were all of the same age - that they were all 18.

FERTIG: Even though 18-year-olds are considered children under the Immigration and Nationality Act, Customs and Border Protection has a different policy. It places them in adult detention centers apart from families. This has been happening for years.

JOSHUA CHILDRESS: Once a person turns 18, they're considered their own person and no longer dependent, part of a family unit.

FERTIG: Joshua Childress is a former border agent. He left last year because he didn't agree with the Trump administration's immigration policies, including separating young children from parents, a policy the administration says it ended last summer. Once they were separated, Susan and her mom were eventually interviewed by different asylum officers. At this stage, migrants must show they have a credible fear of returning home.

FERTIG: Susan's mother Ana was an HIV activist.

ANA BATIZ: (Through interpreter) They asked me if I was afraid to go back to my country, and I said yes because I was subject to stigma and discrimination because I'm a person with HIV.

FERTIG: She and her other daughter, Kirad, were released the next day. Susan's credible fear interview happened three weeks later. She told her asylum officer she was persecuted for being black and for having HIV. She described one incident when the kids at school beat her knees so badly she was sent to the hospital. But Susan failed the test. Immigration lawyer Stan Weber reviewed the interview transcript. He said there could have been a language barrier.

STAN WEBER: If you have an 18-year-old child separated from their parent that there's problems understanding, and she's crying, and she has a very stigmatized condition - HIV positive - the officer, I think, blew it.

FERTIG: Weber acknowledges these are tough calls. He points out that Susan also told the asylum officer the police in Honduras once helped her, potentially undermining her claim of persecution. Ana says her daughter may have been 18, but she couldn't fully advocate for herself.

BATIZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FERTIG: In her view, someone's not really an adult until they're 21. Susan got caught between two policies. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services allows children under 21 to do the credible fear interview with their parents. But Customs and Border Protection considers those 18 and over adults, meaning they're taken away from their parents before the interview stage. Susan is back in Honduras now, staying with a family friend. Ana calls her from her lawyer's office in New York City, where a paralegal translates.

SUSAN: (Through interpreter) I do not feel safe.

CRISTINA VELEZ: Why not, Susan?

FERTIG: That's Ana's attorney, Cristina Velez.

VELEZ: What's happening?

SUSAN: (Through interpreter) Because some people are coming to my house to threaten me, people that I don't really know.

FERTIG: Susan is now 19. Her only chance to enter the U.S. legally is for her mom, Ana, to win her own asylum case, enabling Susan to join her.

For NPR News, I'm Beth Fertig in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.