Holes in immigration laws are allowing state court judges to grant custody of migrant children to American families without notifying their deported parents, the Associated Press reported Tuesday.
The AP scoured hundreds of court documents and immigration records to reveal several cases of children being permanently, legally taken from their families after initial separations.
The report focuses on the case of Alexa Ramos, who was separated from her mother, Araceli, for 15 months, to explain issues of the legal standing for children placed under the Office of Refugee Resettlement.
Araceli Ramos and her daughter fled from El Salvador to the U.S. to escape from the children's abusive father and were arrested upon crossing into the country by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Normally, running from abuse mean that Ramos would be granted asylum, but she was denied because of criminal charges against her.
After months of Ramos being in detention and Alexa being in foster care, the mother was deported after being unable to get a lawyer to defend her asylum request. She says she was forced by an agent to sign a waiver to leave her daughter behind.
Legally, when a parent is deported without their child, that child is not supposed to be allowed to be permanently adopted.
“And the reality is that for every parent who is not located, there will be a permanent orphaned child," U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw said in August.
However, the foster family that Alexa was placed into by Bethany Christian Services, allegedly ignored repeated requests from a variety of institutions, including from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), to return her to Araceli.
When officially ordered to return Alexa to her mother in December of 2016, the foster parents, Sherri and Kory Barr, sued claiming that she would be abused if returned home. A Michigan judge granted them guardianship.
After pressure from social media and the Salvadoran government for the family to be reunited mounted, the Department of Justice (DOJ) weighed in, saying that "the Barrs obtained their temporary guardianship order in violation of federal law.”
The Barrs' attorney and the Michigan judge were also found to have violated federal law by not notifying Alexa or her mother about the guardianship proceedings.
In a statement to The Hill, a DHS spokeswoman said that all of the cases the AP reviewed came under the Obama administration, emphasizing that all of the adoptions were done legally.
"DHS takes seriously our responsibility for those in our custody — without the opportunity to look into these claims as we were not provided a name, alien number, or identifying details we find this claim to be baseless," the spokeswoman said.
Alexa was finally returned to her mother in February 2017. Once returned home, Alexa took time to adjust to living in El Salvador, initially pining to return to Michigan and refusing to eat or play.
The case study presented is indicative of larger loopholes in the immigration system, the AP contends. Because state governments tend to run child-welfare systems, inconsistencies between federal law and its application at the state level are frequent.
AP's conclusions are especially important given that 300 parents were deported to Central America without their children just this summer as part of the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" policy at the border.
DOJ responded to requests for comment by referring questions to DHS.
—Updated Wednesday at 1:40 p.m.