A single mother from Guatemala who’s being held in the Henderson Detention Center is among a group of people who still remain separated from their children as a result of the Trump administration’s now-defunct zero tolerance policy, and she’s fighting to see her daughter again before she’s deported.
She’s also evidence that Nevada’s role in family separation was larger than previously reported.
Olivia Aguilar-Bamaca spoke with The Nevada Independent by phone on Wednesday from the detention center, which contracts with the federal government to house immigration detainees. The single mother is scheduled for a hearing in federal court in Las Vegas on Friday, where she’s requesting a judge to order Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to reunite her with her 5-year-old daughter after four months apart so they can be deported together.
“It’s not easy being here and I ask God to help me to get out of this place,” she said in Spanish. “I think about my daughter and I think, ‘God, why?’ and I ask God, ‘Help me.’ Only he can give me the strength to keep going.”
Aguilar-Bamaca’s case represents the still-unfinished work of reuniting families who were separated during the weeks of the “zero tolerance” immigration policy — more than 500 children have still not been reunified with their parents. According to her lawyer, Brian Ramsey, it’s an example of someone who still remains separated for no readily apparent reason and most likely because of administrative confusion.
Ramsey said his client doesn’t have any red flags such as a failed background check, evidence that the child was trafficked or that the child is not biologically hers. A spokeswoman for ICE didn’t respond to a request for comment about why Aguilar-Bamaca was not reunited with her daughter by the court-ordered deadline of July 26.
Briefs filed in federal court between the parties as recently as Wednesday were not publicly accessible online.
The situation underscores that the number of separated family members who were detained in Nevada is much higher than was previously thought. About a month ago, Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto indicated her office knew of only one person affected by the family separation policy who was being held in the state, and while Sen. Dean Heller indicated on the Senate floor that more than one person affected by family separation, he did not offer further details.
But Ramsey says he represented 13 additional people caught up in “zero tolerance,” all of whom spent time at an ICE facility in Pahrump.
Aguilar-Bamaca is the only one of Ramsey’s 13 clients who has not yet been reunited with her child. Ramsey said he believes it has something to do with the fact that she did not pass the “credible fear interview” that establishes whether a person has a reasonable claim for asylum because of threats facing them in their home country.
In a 20-minute jailhouse interview in which she was at times tearful, Aguilar-Bamaca described how she and her daughter traveled by bus from their home country to a U.S. border crossing in Sonora.
“I decided to leave my country out of necessity. I’m a single mother. I don’t have anything in my country — no house, nothing. I work on my own to support my daughter,” she said, noting that she can only find odd jobs like washing clothes for people. “Back in Guatemala, there is no work. There’s a lot of violence. You can’t leave your house in peace.”
She said she wasn’t aware of the zero tolerance policy that had been enacted when she arrived at the border on May 11. She said officials at the crossing took down her information and her reason for coming, but limited what she could say and told her that she would be sent back to her country.
Later, she was told that her daughter would be taken away and sent elsewhere while her case played out.
“I thought that they were only going to take away my daughter for a week. But no,” she said. “I’ve been in one detention center or another for four months and it’s been four months without seeing my daughter.”
Authorities sent her to a place where she could bathe and change her daughter before they took the girl away.
“I gave her juice to drink in the bathroom, because her lips were dry and she was very hungry. So I gave her juice so that she’d have something in her stomach,” the mother said.
Aguilar-Bamaca said her daughter kept asking her where she’d be going, so she summoned up the courage and told her that she was going to a place where she’d be able to play with other young girls. The authorities wouldn’t tell the mother where the girl was going before taking her away.
“I was crying,” she said. “I said I wanted to see her one last time. When she left, they didn’t allow me [to follow her]. They told me to hush and that was how it was when they took my girl.”
It was a month before Aguilar-Bamaca finally learned where her daughter was — she had initially been taken to a shelter in New York before she later ended up with Aguilar-Bamaca’s brother in Florida. Aguilar-Bamaca herself did not pass the “credible fear interview” and remained in Pahrump while other detained parents were taken to Texas to be reunited with their children, Ramsey said.
Earlier this month, ICE transferred her to Arizona at night in preparation to deport her. Ramsey heard about the move from Aguilar-Bamaca’s brother, and filed an emergency motion to stop the process. It was granted, and she was sent to the Henderson Detention Center to await a hearing that’s now set for Friday.
Life in detention centers hasn’t been easy, she said. Her day starts early with a 6 a.m. breakfast of cereal and she gets two other meals later, but much of the time she finds herself in her cell.
“I’ve never been in jail,” she said.
When she does get a chance to call her daughter on the phone, she gets lots of questions she can’t answer — she doesn’t know when they’ll be reunited.
“I miss her a lot, and she misses me,” she said. “She asks me now that she’s with my brother, ‘Mama, where are you? Why did these people separate us? Where are you?’”
But while other immigrant parents have opted to leave their children in the U.S., either with relatives or foster families, to give them better opportunities, Aguilar-Bamaca doesn’t want to go down that road.
“She’s the only child I have. She’s my life, and I can’t leave her in this country,” Aguilar-Bamaca said. “I pray to God that he gives me the opportunity to stay in this country with my daughter, but if that’s not God’s will, I’ll take my daughter with me.”
Anatomy of a family separation case
Immigrants who arrive at the border without documentation are classified as “arriving aliens,” which means they can be sent back to their country with little more than an order of deportation signed by an ICE agent. No court proceedings are needed; they’re eligible for “expedited removal.”
But if an immigrant shows up at a border checkpoint and indicates that they have a fear of returning to their country, the law requires they be given a “credible fear interview” to establish whether they have a reasonable fear of conditions back home and should be allowed to seek asylum. If they “pass” the interview, they’re reclassified as “other arriving aliens” and assigned to removal proceedings, during which they can seek asylum.
Before “zero tolerance,” most of those credible fear interviews were conducted in border detention centers. This spring, the Trump administration implemented the zero tolerance policy, which calls for every border crosser to be prosecuted even if they’re seeking asylum — a change that drastically increased the use of detention and led to families being separated so as not to keep children behind bars too long.
Ramsey said that more recently, people were moved quickly to other detention centers such as the one in Pahrump, and could seek credible fear interviews from there.
Ramsey said Aguilar-Bamaca sought the interviews from officers with U.S. Customs and Immigration Services (USCIS), but he said some of his 13 clients in Pahrump received them sooner than others. After an interview and later a judge’s review, it was determined that she was ineligible to seek asylum.
Trump ended zero tolerance on June 20. A court order a week later directed the Trump administration to reunite families by July 26, and 2,126 children who were affected were either reunified with their parent(s) or discharged to a sponsor.
Another court order specifies that the administration should not deport people until they are reunified with their children or a “waiver of reunification” is verified. Reunified families are then given a 10-day “cooling off” period so they can make an informed decision about whether they want the parents to be deported with or without their children.
As of Aug. 23, there were 528 children who were still in the care of the Office of Refugee Resettlement who had not been reunited with their parents for one reason or another. Ramsey said he doesn’t have a clear answer as to why Aguilar-Bamaca’s daughter is among that number.