‘Every mom’s worst nightmare’

A Sacramento attorney helped a migrant family separated at the Texas border. Here’s what their story says about the president’s return to an inhumane policy.

Maggy Krell, chief legal counsel for Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California, is representing a Honduran family that was separated at the border last year.

Maggy Krell, chief legal counsel for Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California, is representing a Honduran family that was separated at the border last year.

Photo by Margherita Beale

On June 5 of last year, a Honduran woman seeking asylum entered the United States at the southwestern border near McAllen, Texas, with her 6-year-old son.

That same day, Patricia and Alessandro were apprehended by U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents and detained in a hielera—a term that means “icebox” in Spanish and that is used by detainees and guards alike to describe the crowded, cold immigration detention cells filled with other scared parents and small children, some as young as a few months.

The next morning, mother and son were separated—with no information about each other’s whereabouts or whether they would be reunited. It would take a Sacramento attorney to answer those questions.

Alessandro was among the nearly 3,000 children who have been forcibly separated at the border from their parents or caregivers by a Trump administration that isn’t above using fear and trauma in its policy of deterrence. Despite federal court orders to reunite the parents and children, an estimate from mid-July shows that at least 30 children who were separated from their parents at the border more than a year ago remain apart. But those numbers are actually much higher.

In May, the Trump Administration acknowledged in court documents that at least 1,712 immigrant children could have been separated from their parents under its “zero tolerance” policy, which was suspended in June 2018. Meanwhile, the administration has just announced a new policy that would allow migrant children to be detained indefinitely.

Patricia, who asked that she and her son be identified only by their middle names due to fear of retaliation, spent the next five weeks separated from her son. Apprehended near McAllen and transported 60 miles to the Port Isabel Detention Center, she now faced the unlikely prospect of reuniting with her son.

Then a former state prosecutor from Sacramento showed up. She said she wanted to help. She said her name was Maggy.

Doubling down on family separation

Maggy Krell, who worked in the California Attorney General’s Office before joining Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California as its chief legal counsel, was in Texas as part of the Texas Civil Rights Project. Krell said she was sent to Port Isabel Detention Center to volunteer because family separation is at the heart of her family health care provider’s core values.

Krell said because Patricia’s asylum case is still pending, she cannot comment on the circumstances of the family’s decision to flee Honduras.

With the help of several other attorneys, Krell was able to secure the $1,500 bond necessary for Patricia’s release and, eventually, get Alessandro released from the foster facility where he was being kept in Texas.

“Nobody told her whether he was OK and who was taking care of him,” Krell recounted in an Aug. 13 interview at her Sacramento office. “Every mom’s worst nightmare.”

Krell, who spent 15 years as a state prosecutor and ran unsuccessfully for the Sacramento County district attorney in 2014, compared the practical effects of the family separation policy to some of the most sensitive crimes she has handled.

“As a prosecutor, I’d handled human trafficking cases and even murder cases where I’d spoken first-hand with parents who had kids that were missing,” she said. “This was close to that.”

The mother and son now live on the East Coast with Patricia’s brother. Alessandro is about to start the second grade and Patricia is working at a restaurant, Krell said. Their asylum case is still pending and, if unsuccessful, the family would be at risk of deportation.

Krell is representing Patricia and Alessandro pro bono. Planned Parenthood joined law firm Arnold & Porter earlier this month in filing a claim against the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Health and Human Services on behalf of Patricia and Alessandro.

Arnold & Porter represents eight other families affected by the administration’s family separation policy. Krell said that under the Federal Tort Act, the claim filed is for “intentional infliction of emotional distress,” but also to hold the government accountable for the family separations.

While Alessandro and Patricia were separated, President Donald Trump signed an executive order ending his administration’s policy of separating migrant families, which was followed by a court order requiring families to be reunited.

But family separation never really ended.

On Aug. 21, the Trump administration announced new rules that would allow migrant families to be held indefinitely. U.S. Rep. Doris Matsui of Sacramento joined other Democratic members of Congress in condemning the move.

“By seeking to deny migrant families basic human rights, the Trump Administration is again betraying the values of our country,” Matsui said in a statement. “We cannot repeat the mistakes of our past, and we cannot allow the White House to end decades-old legal protections and indefinitely detain vulnerable migrant children and families.”

This came shortly after the administration also announced that immigrant families held at the border would not receive flu vaccines.

Spreading fear to Sacramento

Immigration advocates in Sacramento say the administration’s assault on immigration and asylum requests has spread fear even here, where local and state politicians have asserted numerous “sanctuary” protections.

“People … stay in their homes and they don’t want to go to the grocery store or send their kids to school or go to work, and that’s really unfortunate,” said Autumn Gonzalez, a labor attorney and organizer with NorCal Resist, an advocacy group that formed to focus on immigration after Trump’s election. “I feel like it’s driving people back into the shadows in a way that for most of my adult life, they’ve been moving in a positive direction.”

Both Gonzalez and Krell say that avenues exist to help asylum seekers and undocumented families. Planned Parenthood has volunteer opportunities, such as escorting immigrants to get health care services, Krell said.

Also, whenever the federal government issues a proposed rule such as this month’s public charge rule—which would deny immigrants green cards if they have received a range of public benefits, effectively discouraging immigrant families from accessing food assistance or medical programs—the public can send in comments that the government is required to review.

Gonzalez said NorCal Resist offers training to people who want to accompany asylum-seeking or undocumented people as they make their ICE check-ins, court dates and doctors and lawyer’s visits.

“It’s really hard,” she said. “You’re new to a country you don’t know your way around. You don’t have a car or a job. So they’re very dependent on the community to make sure that they get all these important dates so that they can win their asylum case and can stay here legally. So there’s a huge need for more people to do that.”

Patricia and Alessandro still suffer from the trauma they underwent while separated, according to their asylum claim.

It states that when they first arrived on the East Coast, it was difficult for Alessandro to attend school; at times he refused to leave the house altogether. To this day, he fears being away from his mother even for short periods of time, the claim says.

Patricia avoids the news because mentions of immigration issues scare her. She feels “hopeless and wracked with guilt for Alessandro’s experiences during the separation,” the claim states.