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25 July 2018updated 29 Jun 2021 11:13am

Abilio’s story: the nine-year-old separated from his father at the US border

More than 2,500 children were separated from their parents between April and June by the Trump administration.

By Sophie McBain

Before Cesar could be reunited with Abilio, his nine-year-old son, who had been torn from him at the US-Mexico border more than seven weeks earlier, the 31-year-old baker from the state of Minas Gerais in south-eastern Brazil had to sign a form produced by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

It was mid-July, but the form was dated 12 October 2018, and it was in English, a language he does not speak, so a translator explained it to him at an ICE office in Chicago. It offered him two choices: he could request to be reunited with his son in order to be deported, or he could request to be deported without his son, so that the nine-year-old could pursue his own asylum application.

Cesar, who requested I use pseudonyms because he fears for his family’s safety, owes $8,000 to a loanshark affiliated with a large organised crime group in Brazil. He fears, should he return home without paying his debt, that he and his son may be killed or forced into indentured servitude.

He understands the gang’s violence all too well. When he was a teenager, its members attacked him with hot knives because he refused to join the group and they believed he was an informant. He still bears the scars on his back.

But Cesar was desperate, too. Since saying goodbye to his son in late May, he had lost more than two stone in weight through stress and sadness. A psychologist who assessed his son, Abilio, reported that he too was suffering from “severe anxiety and depression due to the separation”, and was self-harming.

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Cesar chose to be deported with his son, despite the grave danger they faced.

The pair were reunited in Chicago on 13 July after 50 days apart. Then they were sent straight to Berks, a family detention centre in Pennsylvania, with a well-documented history of rights abuses.

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Karen Hoffmann, a lawyer with the non-profit group Aldea that filed a lawsuit demanding the father and son be reunified, described the decision to place the father and son in family detention as “arbitrary, cruel and unnecessarily punitive”.

“The boy needs individual therapy. The psychologist said he should not be in detention, he needs intensive therapy because of all the trauma he’s been through,” she said. Other families under similar circumstances have been released upon reunification, often with ankle monitoring devices.

More than 2,500 children were separated from their parents at the US border between April and June this year, under Donald Trump’s hastily implemented and cruel “zero tolerance” policy. While their parents were charged with illegal border crossing and jailed, the children were treated as though they had entered the US unaccompanied, and placed in detention centres and foster homes throughout the country.

In June, a judge ordered an end to the family separation policy and for parents and children to be reunited by 26 July, with children under five reunited by 10 July. But the US government has already missed the first deadline and is on track to miss the second: on Monday the ACLU, a human rights group, reported that 879 children had been reunited with their parents. The government separated families without developing a plan to reunite them, and lawyers now acting on behalf of migrants describe administrative chaos.

The way in which families are reunited matters, too. Cesar’s story points to a broader trend for parents to be pressurised into waiving their right to have their asylum claim considered. They are led to believe this may be their only way of seeing their children again. Other parents have been pressurised into waiving their children’s protection from long-term detention under a law known as the Flores agreement.

Many parents do not have legal representation, and are navigating a hostile and confusing immigration system alone. They may not know where their children are, what their legal rights are, or how to begin ensuring their family is reunited. According to the US Justice Department, 463 parents separated from their children at the border have already been deported and may have lost their right to reunification.

Cesar is comparatively fortunate. His family in Brazil contacted the lawyers for Aldea when they found out about the separation, and they have been fighting his case and helping him with other practical challenges, like giving him phone credit so that he could call his family from ICE detention, something he had been unable to do before.

On 20 July, Cesar called me from Berks detention centre, and I spoke to him through an interpreter. He and Abilio had been in detention at Berks for a week. Both had been detained at various facilities since 23 May, when they were apprehended while crossing the border.

“We’re better, we’re together,” he said when I asked how he was – for now, being with Abilio mattered more than anything. When they were first reunited, they could not stop hugging one another.

Cesar told me he’d always thought of America as a place where children are well-treated and where they have rights, but the past two months had shattered that illusion. He said he was “a family man”, his wife and children are his world, and in Brazil his life revolved around his home and his church. His wife and youngest son, who is three years old, remain in Brazil.

He hoped by going to America he could do what he believes he was placed on this earth to do, which is to provide for his children. The plan had been for him to travel to the US with Abilio first, teaming up with another father and son who were also fleeing gang debt in order to travel together. Once in America, he planned to establish himself as a carpenter before sending for the rest of his family. He was so confident in his plan that his three-year-old son was sleeping when Cesar and Abilio left for the US, and he decided not to wake him.

Cesar planned to enter the US at the official border-crossing. The US is obligated under international law to allow entry to people who say they are seeking asylum from violence and persecution, but the border guards told him the US border was closed. Cesar took the advice of a Mexican man who told him he could enter the country elsewhere and would be fine, but instead he was detained after crossing. He and Abilio spent two days in detention together, close to the border.

“It was not a good place,” Cesar said in a court filing. “The kids slept on the floor with their dads. There were children of both sexes mixed together. There were girls as old as 14. They had no bathroom privacy. I can’t imagine what their fathers must have felt like.” None of the guards spoke Portuguese so they tried to communicate via Google Translate, and often made “no sense”.

“I said I was afraid to go back to Brazil but nobody listened to me,” he said.

On 25 May an officer told Cesar that Abilio would be separated from him. He did not say where Abilio would be taken, but said they would be apart for no longer than five days. Abilio had never been away from his father before, not even overnight. Cesar did not want to worry Abilio, so he gave his son a hug and promised him they’d see each other in “three days, five at most”.

The father and son did not see each other for 50 days. On top of the sadness and anxiety over their separation, Cesar was tormented by the thought that he had lied to his son.

Without Abilio, Cesar attended a hearing at a criminal court with more than 20 adults, many of them parents who had been separated from their children. He did not have a lawyer and pleaded guilty to the charge of illegally entering the United States, believing it would be the quickest way to see Abilio. Afterwards, he was transferred to ICE detention in New Mexico.

Abilio, meanwhile, was transferred to the Heartland International Children’s Rescue Centre in Chicago. On 26 June a lawyer from Aldea interviewed him there, while he drew pictures with crayons of the plane he had taken to Mexico with his father, and the car they had travelled in for two days to reach the border.

“What I want most is my brother and mother,” he told the lawyer, according to court documents. “I only talk to my mum two times a week, for ten minutes. I want to talk to my mother so much that I made a calendar of the days I can talk to her.” He asked the lawyer when children who are separated from their parents will be reunited. “I want to talk to my dad when I am sad. I want to be back with my dad. I don’t know where my dad is right now,” he said.

For several weeks Cesar had not known where his son was. He tried calling a government hotline established for separated parents, but they only took down his details and offered no information in return. He sent a letter addressed to Abilio, and perhaps that reached him, because a few days later he received a phone call from his son. During their 50 days apart, he spoke to his son twice. Each time it was a relief, though he felt disturbed too. His son sounded so adult the second time they spoke. He told his father, “God help me, I don’t want anyone to go through what I’m going through.”

Cesar thinks his son has become more timid because of the trauma and he believes his personality is forever altered. Experts have said the mental distress caused by Trump’s family separation policy amounts to child abuse, and can inflict permanent psychological damage. Abilio is now on medication and is seeing a therapist at Berks. Cesar was hopeful he was getting better, though his son still misses his mother and younger brother terribly.

Cesar has no idea for how much longer they will be incarcerated. His lawyers at Aldea have requested they be released on humanitarian parole, though they are not optimistic that ICE will show this compassion.

They are also challenging Cesar’s deportation order. Anyone who enters the US and requests asylum should be granted a “credible fear” interview to determine if they are eligible to apply, and Abilio was never given one.

Cesar was interviewed and rejected, but Hoffmann, his lawyer, contends there were serious problems with how it was conducted. Cesar was under extreme psychological stress during the interview, because Abilio was still 1,000 miles away and Cesar had no idea when he would see his son again. And bizarrely, Abilio is not mentioned in the credible fear summary documents, even though one of Cesar’s greatest fears is that his son will be harmed should they return to Brazil.

For now, Cesar is putting his faith in God and can only wait and pray for a positive outcome. I asked him what he dreams about, what he wants for the future. He said all he thought about was his family.

“I just want us to be together again,” he said.