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In San Diego, A Mother Remains Separated From Her Child


The U.S. government has until Thursday to tell a federal judge in San Diego why more than 570 immigrant children are still separated from their parents. Government lawyers say these parents have committed crimes, and that puts their children at risk. But the ACLU, which sued to end the separations, sees it differently. It says in at least 30 cases, the parents may have committed what the ACLU calls minor crimes, the sort not serious enough to keep them from their children. KQED's John Sepulvado has one mother's story.

JOHN SEPULVADO, BYLINE: Long bus rides with a 3-year-old can be challenging for any parent, so imagine this one mother's reality. Fleeing drug cartel assassins which, she says, show up at her house. She grabs her daughter and gets on a bus headed towards San Diego. We're calling her M, and we're not using her name because of the threat to her family in Mexico and because M's case is still pending before immigration authorities. During this multiday bus trip, M's 3-year-old daughter was a big ball of energy, she says, that basically drove the other passengers nuts.

M: (Through interpreter) She ran in the back of the bus until she got tired, and she watched television on a seat or looked at the phone. She likes cartoons.

SEPULVADO: When M got to the border, she and her daughter applied for asylum. That was about four months ago. Now M is being held in a Southern California detention facility. Her daughter is in a foster group home in Los Angeles.

M: (Through interpreter) The social worker told me they're telling her I'm in the hospital. So she always asks to talk to the doctor, to tell him to let me leave to go get here. She always says the same thing. Mom, come get me. There are some times that I can't talk to her because she just cries and cries. I say calm down, honey. I'll get you.

SEPULVADO: But lately, it seems the 3-year-old girl is losing hope that her mother will ever come. M begins to cry.

M: (Through interpreter) One time, it hurt me a lot because she said, I'm going to stay here, right? You don't love me anymore. You're going to leave me here. You aren't going to come for me. And I told her don't say that. I love you. I adore you.

SEPULVADO: Her daughter's fourth birthday was just a week away.

M: (Through interpreter) I say, I'm going to buy you cake. And she says, I don't want cake. I want you to come for me.

SEPULVADO: A federal judge ordered the government to reunify families with small children, like M's, almost a month ago on July 10. But for M, that process didn't happen. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials disqualified her from reunification because, they say, of her criminal background. M does admit to a criminal background. In fact, almost 20 years ago, she was charged with selling drugs. She disclosed this to officers at the border when she applied for asylum. ACLU attorney Lee Gelernt says this crime does not justify keeping the family separated.

LEE GELERNT: The judge has made absolutely clear that the government has no right constitutionally to take away someone's child for a criminal conviction that's not serious enough to bear on their fitness to be a parent.

SEPULVADO: Some of these hundreds of parents are still separated for what the ACLU sees as vague reasons, such as alleged gang affiliation or, in some cases, just because, quote, "red flags were raised." And for younger kids, like M's, we know that at least two parents were kept from their children for DUI charges. ICE hasn't actually told M's lawyer what kind of crime is keeping her away from her child. Kate Clark is a lawyer with Jewish Family Service. She represents M.

KATE CLARK: So we've just been told that she falls outside of the class for the nationwide litigation that's going on for the family separation case. So we haven't been told specifically any charges that disqualifies her from being in the class.

SEPULVADO: ICE and attorneys for the government did not respond to a half-dozen requests for comment on this case. The ACLU has insisted in court that the government should provide more information about all parents who have not been reunified because of alleged criminal backgrounds. The government has until Thursday to do so. For NPR News, I'm John Sepulvado. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John's from Southern California. He attended Journalism School at Florida A&M in Tallahassee. John's reporting has earned four Edward R. Murrow awards for investigations, and he shared in a Peabody for CNN's Gulf Coast Oil-Spill Coverage. He has also won numerous other national and regional awards for his investigative and multimedia coverage.