A federal judge in Chicago on Thursday ordered the immediate release from detention of a 9-year-old Brazilian boy who was separated from his mother at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Judge Manish Shah said Lidia Karine Souza can have custody of her son, Diogo, who has spent four weeks at a government-contracted shelter in Chicago. The mother, who has applied for asylum, was released from an immigrant detention facility in Texas June 9. She then was staying in Massachusetts.
The decision came two days after a different judge ordered the government to reunite more than 2,000 immigrant children with their families within 30 days, or 14 days for those younger than 5. Souza's attorneys nonetheless moved forward with an emergency hearing in their lawsuit against the Trump administration to demand her son be immediately released. He has spent four weeks at a government-contracted shelter in Chicago, much of it alone in a room, quarantined with chickenpox. He spent his ninth birthday on Monday without his mom.
Souza has said that when she would call her 9-year-old son -- allowed just 20 minutes per week -- he would beg his mom though tears to do everything in her power to get him back to her. The 27-year-old woman, who is seeking asylum, searched for weeks to find Diogo after the two were separated at the border in late May. When she was released June 9 from a Texas facility, she filled out nearly 40 pages of documents that U.S. officials told her were required to regain custody.
Then they told her that the rules had changed and that she needed any family members living with her in the United States to be fingerprinted and still more documents.
At a hearing Thursday, government attorney Craig Oswald said U.S. officials have been "raked over the coals ... before" for not being thorough about such background checks, which he said are meant to ensure a child's safety.
Souza was seeking safety by coming to the U.S., but it's not the safety she sought for herself and her son. This was not the American dream.
"This ... is a nightmare," she said in an interview earlier in the week at a Chicago hotel.
At Thursday's hearing, Shah questioned Department of Justice attorney Sarah Fabian about whether the government has a process by which the boy's status could be switched from "unaccompanied" to "accompanied minor," making it easier to release him promptly to his mom. He was automatically designated "unaccompanied" after his mom was initially detained at the border.
"Not to my knowledge, your honor," Fabian answered.
After a pause, Shah said the lack of a process could raise major constitutional issues. He didn't elaborate.
For weeks, some of the hundreds of parents separated from their children at the Mexican border by the Trump administration have been battling one of the world's most complex immigration systems to find their youngsters and get them back.
For many, it has been a lopsided battle, and a frustrating and heartbreaking one. Most do not speak English. Many know nothing about their children's whereabouts. And some say their calls to the government's 1-800 information hotline have gone unanswered.
Huge logistical challenges remain, and whether the U.S. government can manage to clear away the red tape, confusion and seeming lack of coordination and make the deadline remains to be seen.
Among the complicating factors: Children have been sent to shelters all over the United States, thousands of miles from the border. And perhaps hundreds of parents have already been deported from the U.S. without their children.
Jesse Bless, an attorney from Jeff Goldman Immigration in Boston, one of two firms representing Souza, said some parents who are trying to get their children placed with friends or relatives in the U.S. are being asked by the government to provide, along with fingerprints of relatives, utility bills and lease information, which many newly arrived immigrants don't have.
Souza and her son were separated after she requested asylum, arguing her life was in danger in her native Brazil. "I came out of necessity," she said in an interview with The Associated Press on Wednesday.
After her son was taken, she had no idea where he was until another detained mother said her child knew a boy named Diogo in a Chicago shelter. She has been told the soonest he could be released would be in late July.
But she hopes her lawsuit will help reunite them sooner.
Souza, who moved in with relatives outside Boston, visited Diogo for the first time since May on Tuesday. They embraced, and she kissed him several times on the head and face, then grabbed his cheeks gently with her hands as they both cried.
"I missed you so much," she said in Portuguese.
Asked how he was, Diogo said: "I am better now."
Their visit lasted an hour. Then he returned to U.S. government custody.
"He cried a lot when the time came to say goodbye," she said. "He thought we would be taking him home."
Associated Press writers Julie Watson in San Diego; Morgan Lee in El Paso, Texas; Sonia Perez in Guatemala City; and Will Weissert in McAllen, Texas, contributed to this report.