“The Race to Dismantle Trump’s Immigration Policies,” by Sarah Stillman, was published in the February 8, 2021 print edition of The New Yorker. The narrative follows Maria, a client of The Door’s Legal Services Center, and her attorney Hannah Flamm, who leads our Detained Minors Project:
“Maria was sitting in her room sketching a pink hibiscus, one evening last May, when she heard footsteps coming down the hallway. A fourteen-year-old asylum seeker from Honduras, she was living at Abbott House, a child-welfare agency in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York, that cares for unaccompanied migrant children. The law required that, as a minor, Maria have the chance to be released to a cousin in Miami, but the reunion had repeatedly been delayed. For the past three months, she had spent her evenings watching Disney sitcoms and learning English-language sentences. (“The little girl tripped over the crack in the pavement.”) That night, at about 8 p.m., a staffer told her that she had a phone call from her lawyer, Hannah Flamm, who works with a nonprofit called the Door. Maria hustled to the administrator’s office, wearing her pajamas and a mask. Flamm told her, “If immigration agents come for you tonight, I want you to know that you don’t have to talk to them, O.K.?”
Flamm had just got a tip that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement planned to execute a warrant for Maria’s removal, and to put her on a 3 a.m. flight to Texas, and then to Honduras. The news struck Flamm as bizarre, and likely illegal. As an unaccompanied child seeking asylum, Maria had the right to make her case to an asylum officer, and, if necessary, to get a full hearing before an immigration judge. Moreover, ice had said that most immigration raids would be placed on pause during the pandemic lockdown. Flamm couldn’t believe that agents would seek to deport a child in the middle of the night, during a global crisis, without informing her attorney or her family. She told Maria that she was on her way to Abbott House and cautioned her that she was not obliged to sign any documents until she arrived.
Maria had fled Honduras in 2019, after her father was killed, and her teenage sister was kidnapped and tortured by gunmen, including a Honduran policeman. (Maria and her family members requested the use of pseudonyms to protect their safety.) At the southern border, Maria and her mother, Gabriela, claimed asylum, but were redirected to a new program called the Migrant Protection Protocols, and made to await their hearing in a dangerous Mexican border town. After a few months, they lost the case. Gabriela, in anguish, sent Maria back to the border on her own, hoping that, as an unaccompanied minor, she would be given protections. During the past few years, Maria, once outgoing, had become withdrawn. “It’s like she’s locked inside herself,” Gabriela told me. At Abbott House, where Maria was given a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder, a therapist taught her meditation techniques, and how to differentiate among Minor Problems, Medium Problems, and Big Problems. As she walked back to her room, Maria spotted a Big Problem: an ice agent holding a manila envelope with her photograph taped to the front, and a child’s suitcase.
Flamm, on her way to Abbott House, made urgent calls to colleagues, trying to figure out what was going on. She reached an attorney from the A.C.L.U. of Pennsylvania, who told her that, two days earlier, ice had tried to send his teen-age client back to Guatemala on a 3 a.m. flight. The Justice Action Center, a nonprofit based in Los Angeles, had recently filed a lawsuit, with other groups, on behalf of three siblings who had been similarly targeted for removal. Esther Sung, a lawyer on the case, found evidence that, amid the pandemic, ice had sought to round up and deport asylum-seeking kids, some as young as eight, in government shelters around the country, “without having a real plan for what would happen to the children, and into whose custody they would be placed, once they were removed.” It seemed as though ICE had quietly decided to target children who had lost cases with their families at the border, through the Migrant Protection Protocols, and then sought asylum on their own. (ice did not respond to requests for comment.)