It had been more than 10 years since Gari, an undocumented immigrant from Guatemala who was living in Santa Fe, had seen his younger brother. So he was surprised earlier this year when he received a call from a federal government agency telling him his teen brother had emigrated alone from the Central American country to the Arizona-Mexico border.
The boy was in the custody of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which asked Gari to take legal guardianship of his brother.
At first, Gari was apprehensive because it would require him to give his personal information to a federal agency — something that virtually all unauthorized immigrants try to avoid. But Health and Human Services officials assured him in January that it wouldn’t jeopardize his own safety. The boy just needed a legal guardian as he dealt with his own immigration case, they said.
Gari, 34, was arrested at his home Aug. 14 by federal immigration agents who had used his little brother as bait.
Before they took Gari away, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents also had asked for his wife — who has a 7-year-old son and 11-month-old daughter with Gari — but she wasn’t home at the time.
ICE is holding Gari — who is only being identified by a nickname — in a facility in Chaparral and is waiting to present his case to a judge who will decide if he should be deported.
Gari’s case illustrates the effects of President Donald Trump’s hard-line approach to immigration enforcement, which was central to his campaign. Previously, immigration agents wouldn’t target an unauthorized resident who was sponsoring a child. But that changed under the Trump administration, which has increased immigration raids and other efforts to apprehend people living in the country illegally.
Last week, Trump announced he will end an Obama-era program that offers temporary protection to young unauthorized immigrants, allowing them to work and attend college in the U.S. without fear of deportation. Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, also known as DACA, has provided renewable, two-year work permits to nearly 800,000 young people. Trump’s controversial decision to unravel the program has ignited protests, both locally and nationally, and has raised fears among young immigrants about their future in the nation.
The Trump administration also recently ended a 2014 program initiated by former President Barack Obama that allowed unaccompanied children from Central America to stay in the U.S. legally with a relative who has authorized immigration status as the children’s legal cases make their way through the court system.
“This is a good example of Americans not understanding when they say they want to punish immigrants,” Allegra Love, a local immigration attorney, said of Gari’s case. She is representing his younger brother.
“We didn’t think this would happen,” said Gari’s wife, Marisol, 33, who asked that their full names not be published out of fear that immigration officials will target her, too. “We just didn’t imagine this.”
Gari’s 17-year-old brother, a student at Capital High School, is one of 170,000 children who have fled poor and violent villages and cities in countries such as Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador since 2014, according to government data.
The Department of Health and Human Services, which runs the Office of Refugee Resettlement, is tasked with reuniting unaccompanied children and youth with relatives in the U.S.
“Our programs encourage reunification of children with their parents or other appropriate adult relatives,” the office’s website says. It doesn’t distinguish between relatives who are U.S. citizens or legal residents and those who are living in the U.S. illegally.
But earlier this summer, the Trump administration announced that ICE would be targeting the relatives of unaccompanied children and teens and charging them with the crime of helping human traffickers.
ICE officials say the effort is part of a broader mission to disrupt human trafficking and arrest people who have paid smugglers to sneak in minors into the U.S.
So far, ICE has arrested more than 400 people under the mission, including at least three in New Mexico, and the effort is ongoing, according to news reports and an ICE spokeswoman. Many of the people arrested are sponsors of unaccompanied minors and some are, as officials describe them, collateral arrests — other unauthorized immigrants encountered by agents during the course of an operation.
Immigrant advocates say the mission is inhumane and will do little to actually disrupt any human trafficking rings.
“They’re going after the low-hanging fruit,” Love said.
She said she knows of at least three cases in Santa Fe in which ICE agents arrested sponsors of unaccompanied minors.
The mission pits ICE — which has a goal of finding and deporting the estimated 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the country — against Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement.
The Health and Human Services Department said it doesn’t have data to show how or even if ICE’s mission has affected the way the agency has handled cases of unaccompanied minors and its effort to find sponsors for them. Regardless of ICE’s efforts, a spokeswoman said, the department will follow its directive to continue to find sponsors.
“Under ORR [the Office of Refugee Resettlement] policy, safe and timely release must occur within a setting that promotes public safety and ensures that sponsors are able to provide for the physical and mental well-being of children,” said Victoria Palmer, the spokeswoman.
César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández, an immigration law professor at the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law, criticized Trump’s policy of targeting child sponsors, saying it undermines the efforts of the Office of Refugee Resettlement.
“I think the message is quite clear to families: They ought to be frightened, they ought to be scared and not trust representatives of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, because any exposure to the federal government means that ICE might come knocking on the door,” he said. “And that does a disservice to the ORR staff and also their humanitarian mission.”
Leticia Zamarripa, a regional ICE spokeswoman based in El Paso, didn’t answer questions about how many immigrants in New Mexico were targeted under the mission and how many of the 400 people arrested actually were charged with human trafficking-related offenses.
But she defended the agency’s mission to apprehend child sponsors.
“ICE aims to disrupt and dismantle end-to-end the illicit pathways used by transnational criminal organizations and human smuggling facilitators,” she said in a statement. “As such, we are currently conducting a surge initiative focused on the identification and arrest of individuals involved in illicit human smuggling operations, to include sponsors who have paid criminal organizations to smuggle children into the United States.
“The risks associated with smuggling children into the United States present a constant humanitarian threat,” she added. “The sponsors who have placed children directly into harm’s way by entrusting them to violent criminal organizations will be held accountable for their role in these conspiracies.”
Marisol said her husband didn’t pay anyone to help his young brother cross the border. When her husband found out the boy had come alone, he was angry, she said.
No one in the family wanted — and none expected — the teenager to make the dangerous trek alone from poverty-stricken Guatemala to the U.S., she said. But the teen, escaping a violent uncle, left his village and tried to seek refuge here, hoping to find a brother he had only heard about through anecdotes and whom he hadn’t seen since he was 6 years old.
“The road from there to here is too dangerous,” said Marisol, who took nearly the same path for similar reasons a decade ago. “When he talked to him,” she said of her husband, “he was mad at him and scolded him because something bad could have happened to him.”
Gari’s brother also feels guilty, Marisol said.
“The brother is sad. He says this is all happening because it’s his fault,” she said. “He sometimes starts crying.”
Marisol, who met her husband soon after they both moved to Santa Fe from Guatemala, said her baby girl has had a hard time sleeping since her father was apprehended and won’t eat her meals. Her 7-year-old also is struggling emotionally, not knowing if his dad will come back.
“We’re devastated,” Marisol said. “When we go to bed, the boy asks for his dad, and to make him feel better, I tell him, ‘He’s coming home soon.’ ”