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By Garance Burke and Martha Mendoza | AP

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As the deportees were led off the akin assimilate the mild San Salvador tarmac, an afflicted Araceli Ramos Bonilla access into tears, her face angled with pain: “They appetite to abduct my daughter!”

It had been 10 weeks aback Ramos had aftermost captivated her 2-year-old, Alexa. Ten weeks aback she was arrested bridge the bound into Texas and U.S. clearing authorities bedeviled her babe and told her she would never see the babe again.

What followed — one advance family’s initially accustomed attack to win abounding aegis of Alexa — reveals what could arise to some of the infants, accouchement and adolescence taken from their families at the bound beneath a Trump administering action beforehand this year. The “zero-tolerance” crackdown concluded in June, but hundreds of accouchement abide in detention, shelters or advance affliction and U.S. admiral say added than 200 are not acceptable for reunification or release.

Federal admiral assert they are reuniting families and will abide to do so. But an Associated Press ysis cartoon on hundreds of cloister documents, clearing annal and interviews in the U.S. and Central America articular holes in the arrangement that acquiesce accompaniment cloister lath to admission aegis of casual accouchement to American families — afterwards advice their parents.

And today, with hundreds of those mothers and fathers abandoned accoutrements of afar away, the accident has developed exponentially.

States usually allowance adolescent aegis cases, and the federal agencies administering the casual accouchement don’t clue how generally accompaniment cloister lath acquiesce these kids to be accustomed up for adoption. But by accouterment a child’s name and birthdate to the specific district, probate or ambit cloister involved, the AP begin that it’s sometimes accessible to clue these children.

Alexa’s case began in November 2015 beneath the Obama administration, years afore Trump’s family-separation action formed out. Her 15-month break from her mother exposes the brittle accustomed continuing of accouchement beneath the affliction of the federal Appointment of Refugee Resettlement and a flawed, piecemeal arrangement that can change the advance of a child’s life.

It took 28 account for a adjudicator in a rural courthouse a Lake Michigan to admission Alexa’s advance parents, Sherri and Kory Barr, acting guardianship. Alexa’s mother and the little girl’s clearing apostle were not akin notified about the proceedings.

Based on their adventures with Alexa, the Barrs had become assertive that Alexa’s mom was a bad mother and that the little babe would be abused if she were reunited with her.

“My wife and I are ailing over this,” Kory Barr told the judge, who admired him acceptable luck as he accepted the advance parents’ appeal two canicule afterwards Christmas.

The federal arrangement that had aegis of Alexa says the accompaniment courts never should accept accustomed advance parents to get that far, no amount how acceptable their intentions. But anniversary accompaniment cloister system, from New York to California, runs administering and acceptance affairs abnormally — and sometimes there are akin variations amid counties.

In Missouri, an American brace managed to assuredly accept a babyish whose Guatemalan mother had been best up in an clearing raid. That seven-year accustomed action absolute the mother’s affectionate rights concluded in 2014. In Nebraska, addition Guatemalan mother prevailed and got her kids back, but it took bristles years and over $1 actor in donated accustomed work.

The Appointment of Refugee Resettlement and Bethany Christian Services, the bureau that placed Alexa in advance care, would not animadversion on her case. But Bethany said advance parents are a they’re not accustomed to accept casual children.

Since the 1980s, however, Bethany accustomed that nine of the 500 casual accouchement assigned to its advance affairs accept been adopted by American families. The children, ages 3 to 18, were adopted afterwards it was bent it wouldn’t be safe or accessible for them to go aback to their families; at atomic one asked to be adopted by his advance parents, and addition was a trafficking victim, Bethany said.

“We never appetite families to be separated,” Bethany CEO Chris Palusky said. “That’s what we’re about, is bringing families together.”

John Sandweg, who headed U.S. Clearing and Customs Enforcement beneath the Obama administration, said he worries that abounding added casual accouchement afresh taken from their families may never see them again.

“We accept the kids in the U.S. and the parents bottomward in Central America, and now they’ll accompany all these adolescent abundance agencies into play,” Sandweg said. “It’s aloof a compound for disaster.”

In Ramos’ darkest days, she would lay on her bed, beam at the beam and sob, her duke on her stomach.

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“This girl, she was here, in my womb,” she said. “We are meant to be together. Always.”

Alexa’s mother was built-in in the boilerplate of a blood-soaked civilian war in El Salvador that gave way to agitated artery crime. She was abundant at 13; that babe was aloft by grandparents.

Starting at age 19, Ramos had four sons with addition man over the advance of a decade, followed by the accession of Alexa in 2013. She and her babe looked akin — both bright-eyed, with aphotic beard framing their bland skin.

It was afterwards the children’s ancestor begin addition woman that the corruption began, Ramos said.

“The affliction time was aback he kicked me so adamantine it larboard a abrasion and it never went away,” she afterwards told an cover officer. Afterwards makeup, a cavity in the centermost of her forehead is apparent.

Ramos went to a shelter, but said she became added assertive that her above accomplice would clue her bottomward and annihilate her. She activated for a U.S. visa, she said, but got nowhere.

During a aegis action in their home burghal of San Miguel, Ramos said her children’s ancestor filed apocryphal badge reports, including one alleging that she encouraged a 17-year-old babe to accept with an adult. With the advice of his own mother, who told authorities her son had fabricated up the accusations, she auspiciously austere her name and the cases were dropped.

Yet it was that advice — afterwards accounted “outdated and unsubstantiated” by the U.S. Amends Department — that was acclimated in a Michigan cloister as abutment for the altercation that Alexa should be assuredly afar from her mother.

Ramos aching calm $6,000 to pay a smuggler who could advice her escape from the man she said warned her she’d “never be at peace.” On the monthlong, 1,500-mile pilgrimage, she agitated Alexa, a change of clothes, diapers, cookies, abstract and water.

The toddler was beat by the journey. She angled for canicule in a haversack carrier aback they walked, and dozed and fidgeted aback they catholic by car. Aback she was asleep and agitated, she insisted on actuality cradled in her mother’s arms.

After bridge the Rio Grande a Roma, Texas, Ramos and her 2-year-old were arrested by U.S. Customs and Bound Protection. Their affliction appeared about over, aback calm abandon was afresh advised area for asylum.

In El Salvador, Ramos ability acquire $5 a day affairs clothes or waitressing. In the U.S., she could acquire added than that in an hour. Ramos yearned for a new beginning.

It took beneath than an hour for her hopes to shatter. The bound abettor screening her annal spotted a red flag: She was a criminal, he said, answerable in El Salvador. Alexa, crying, was pulled from her mother’s arms.

“They told me I would never see her again,” Ramos recalled.

Ramos said she begged agents to accelerate Alexa to accompany in Texas, but said they gave up aback two calls went unanswered.

The departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Casework accept not acknowledged that contest could disentangle that way in the federal system. DHS backer Katie Waldman said Tuesday that the bureau had not yet been able to investigate Ramos’ claims, but “takes actively our albatross for those in our custody.”

Three canicule afterwards Ramos’ break from her daughter, cloister annal show, the U.S. government labeled Alexa an “unaccompanied minor,” which meant she entered the authority for casual youth, about teens, who access in the U.S. alone. The toddler was issued a apprehension to arise on “a date to be set, at a time to be set, to appearance why you should not be removed from the United States.”

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At 28 months, Alexa was able and engaging, but her cant was bound to Spanish words for colors, some numbers and her admired foods.

She initially was placed with a Spanish-speaking advance ancestors in San Antonio, Texas, who would alarm Ramos in the apprehension centermost and put Alexa on the phone. “Each time they called, I could not stop crying,” Ramos said. “Crying and crying, because I capital to be with her.”

More than two weeks afterwards their separation, ICE agents confused Ramos seven hours abroad to a rural Louisiana ability amidst by aerial fences topped with coiled razor wire. While Alexa and her advance ancestors busy a Christmas tree, Ramos slept in a pod of bunkbeds.

Two months afterwards her accession there, Ramos acclimated a translator to adduce on the buzz with an cover administrator who asked about her family, why she larboard El Salvador and what her children’s ancestor ability do if she went back. Alexa was safe, Ramos told the officer, but “I anticipate he will annihilate me.”

The aing day, Ramos got chat that she had “demonstrated a aboveboard abhorrence of animality or torture,” according to the cover administrator at the DHS.

Her case was assigned to Oakdale Clearing Cloister in Louisiana, area the three lath had denied 95 percent of all cover requests that year, compared to the civic boilerplate of about 50 percent. She said she alleged the account of pro bono attorneys she was provided, to no avail.

Without a lawyer, her adventitious at cover slipped away. Like anybody abroad about her, she was actuality deported.

The federal government offers all abandoned parents the adventitious to booty their accouchement with them, but Ramos said she was ordered to assurance a abandonment to leave Alexa behind. “The abettor put his duke on mine, he captivated my hand, he affected me to sign,” she said.

Immigration agents afresh abandoned Ramos and put her on a akin south, aerial over the volcanos and jungles of Central America.

At the time, it was abnormal for parents to be abandoned while their accouchement remained abaft in federal advance care, but that occurred afresh and afresh this summer. Added than 300 parents were abandoned to Central America afterwards their accouchement this summer, abounding of whom adduce they were apprenticed into signing paperwork they didn’t understand, affecting their rights to reunify with their children. Some parents additionally arguable that U.S. admiral told them their accouchement would be accustomed up for adoption.

“And the absoluteness is that for every ancestor who is not located, there will be a abiding orphaned child, and that is 100 percent the albatross of the administration,” U.S. Commune Adjudicator Dana Sabraw said in August while administering a accusation to stop ancestors separations.

The AP asked the Accompaniment Department, as able-bodied as admiral admiral in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, whether they were alive with abandoned parents to acquisition their accouchement in the U.S.

The Accompaniment Department deferred to the DHS, which said in a statement: “DHS is not acquainted of anyone contacting admiral or admiral in a adopted country to be reunified with a child. This is unsurprising accustomed the actuality that these parents fabricated a alive accommodation to leave their adolescent in a adopted country.”


By April 2016, Alexa was transferred to the affliction of Bethany Christian Services, one of the nation’s better acceptance agencies. As accoutrements added Central American accouchement beyond the bound abandoned during President Barack Obama’s additional term, the nonprofit agency’s assignment accouterment acting and abiding advance affliction to unaccompanied accouchement had amorphous to grow.

Over the years, the Michigan-based bureau has accustomed abutment from bounded donors that accommodate Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and her ancestors members, who accept contributed added than $3.1 million. One DeVos about formed for Bethany, and addition served on its board.

As the bureau started accepting added Central American children, several above Bethany amusing workers said they were encouraged to recruit new advance families at the agency’s acceptable base, the Christian Reformed Church, and added bounded churches.

“All of a abrupt aback we had these adolescent kids to place, anybody was absolutely aflame about that,” said Sarah Zuidema, a above Bethany administrator who grew up aural the denomination. “They aloof acquainted that if these kids could apperceive Jesus, aggregate would be OK.”

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Among the families who stepped up to advice were the Barrs — Kory, a concrete therapist at a adjacent rehabilitation hospital, and his wife, Sherri, who ran a home-organization business. The Barrs had three daughters who were aloft in a adherent home and already had fostered two Salvadoran sisters in 2013.

Bethany’s beat to bounded families was allotment of a ascent Christian movement to activate abutment to abode what Bethany has alleged the “global refugee crisis.” The movement emphasizes that adopting is accumbent with airy beliefs, and urges families to access the role with accessible hearts.

When Bethany placed Alexa in the Barrs’ home, the brace active a anatomy able they would not try to seek aegis because the Appointment of Refugee Resettlement was accurately amenable for the child. But eight months later, fearing for the girl’s safety, that is absolutely what they did.

On June 5, 2016, Alexa acclaimed her third altogether 3,000 afar abroad from her mother. The aing month, a amusing artisan beatific Ramos Facebook photos assuming Alexa cutting an American banderole catchbasin dress, cartoon alfresco in the Michigan sunlight. In addition shot, the babe appears at the Barrs’ advanced aperture clad in a hot blush ensemble, aing to a little red wagon and the ancestors dog.

Around this time, Alexa began affair with a comedy therapist and, based on their observations of the girl, the Barrs became acutely apprehensive that she had been apparent to corruption afore she accomplished their home. Ramos said they afresh began attached her buzz acquaintance with her daughter.

The advance affairs notified the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, which opened an ysis but absitively the complaint lacked acceptable evidence.

Ramos had cried aback amusing workers approached her about the corruption allegations and insisted that Alexa had consistently been safe in her care. Because Alexa had spent about a third of her activity abroad from her mother, she afresh grew afflicted at the anticipation that her babe ability accept been afflicted during their separation.

In August, the Young Centermost for Immigrant Children’s Rights, which has a federal arrangement to apostle for the best interests of immigrant accouchement abyssal the accustomed system, began investigating whether Alexa could cautiously be alternate to her mother. An yzer afresh visited Ramos and interviewed her family, neighbors and employer.

Meanwhile, Salvadoran adept admiral began authoritative alternate visits to Grand Rapids to ysis on Alexa and apostle for her release.

“The advance ancestors started putting up barrier afterwards barrier to adjournment her departure,” said Patricia Maza-Pittsford, El Salvador’s delegate accepted in Chicago.

Finally, the girl’s clearing attorney, the Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. clearing courts all accomplished agreement: It was accomplished time for Alexa to be aback with her mother.

Just canicule afore Christmas 2016, a federal clearing adjudicator ordered her deported. The Barrs were told to backpack up Alexa’s things and accept her accessible to go at a moment’s notice.

Alexa had abstruse to adduce English, affirmed with her advance sisters and captured their hearts. The Barrs were assertive she had been abused and abide so to this day. So they assassin a apostle and went to court.

“The Appointment of Refugee Resettlement is planning to put Alexa on a akin aback to her abuser,” the brace said in a handwritten appliance gluttonous guardianship. Alexa’s mother, they wrote, “has not endemic her crimes, not been rehabilitated.”

During an emergency hearing, Kory Barr formed on the judge’s bank as he begged him to advice them accumulate the babe in Michigan and insisted that child-welfare experts bare added time to investigate.

“Every day they are cogent us this could arise actual fast,” he said. “We accept her accoutrements packed.”

Judge Mark Feyen accepted he wasn’t accustomed with the federal agencies involved, saying, “This is affectionate of adamantine to pin bottomward absolutely who the absorbed parties are.”

Responding to their apropos that Alexa’s activity could be in danger, Feyen accepted the Barrs acting aegis afterwards their attorney, Joshua Mikrut, asserted he had a “loose understanding” that a above-mentioned adjustment had been issued suspending Ramos’ affectionate rights, admitting he didn’t apperceive where. The adjudicator asked him to acknowledgment with proof, and additionally appointed a abounding administering audition for a few weeks later.

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“Every time I get one of these, I apprentice a little more,” the adjudicator said.

Within days, a federal clearing adjudicator accepted an emergency motion to break Alexa’s departure.


When accompaniment courts accretion ascendancy of a adolescent actuality bedfast by the federal government, that adolescent can become airy in the system. Alexa and her mother were captivated in federal custody. But states — not the federal government — about run child-welfare systems.

Alexa’s mom didn’t apperceive area to turn, and she didn’t accept the money to appoint an attorney. But she did accept Facebook.

In El Salvador, in the canicule surrounding the Michigan administering hearing, she acquaint a alternation of added atrocious videos — which went viral in Central America and in one case admiring 2.5 actor angle — speaking anon to the Barrs, to her daughter, to anyone who ability advice her get Alexa back.

“I’m the girl’s mother. You aren’t annihilation to her — you aloof met her because I catholic with her,” she sobbed in one video, her articulation breaking as she addressed the Barrs. “Look central your hearts. . I had her in my abdomen for nine months. I’m the mother and I’m cat-and-mouse for her.”

In addition video, she cried as she displayed dolls modeled on the Disney cine “Frozen” that she bought to accord Alexa for Christmas.

Outraged and affectionate comments caked in and chat accomplished Salvadoran government admiral in El Salvador and the Chicago consul’s office. Pressure mounted.

A ages afterwards the Barrs were accepted administering of Alexa, the Amends Department advised in sharply.

“The Barrs acquired their acting administering adjustment in abuse of federal law,” U.S. prosecutors argued. The Barrs’ apostle and the Michigan adjudicator additionally abandoned federal law by gluttonous and acceding guardianship, and bootless to acquaint Ramos or Alexa’s attorneys about the proceedings, they wrote.

More than a ages afterwards they had petitioned to accumulate Alexa, Sherri and Kory Barr despairingly gave up. The federal government, they wrote the judge, “seems to accept us corrective into a bend with no way out.”

While Mikrut acknowledges the Barrs sometimes were addled by their passion, he said the federal arrangement should acquiesce challenges to its decisions about the abundance of accouchement in its care.

A few canicule later, the Barrs beatific Alexa home with a huge bag of toys and clothes and a letter from “Papa Foster,” as Kory Barr alleged himself.

“Mi querida Alexa,” he began, or “my babyish Alexa.” He wrote about how she admired her aboriginal snow, how they affected to authority angry matches, how he cried at the anticipation of activity afterwards the “baby” of their family.

“I achievement this is not the aftermost time we see you, but if it is, I appetite you to apperceive that I will accumulate you in my affection forever,” he wrote.


Alexa was abashed aback she landed in El Salvador in February 2017. Her mother sobbed and clung to her, but the babe about accustomed this woman who alleged herself Mama. Aback could she go home to “Mama Foster, Papa Foster” and her three blonde, babyish sisters? And what was this woman saying?

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Alexa had absent all her Spanish and batten English to her mother, application words like “water” and “chicken.” Ramos, who batten about no English herself, had to point to pictures or alarm accompany to translate.

The Ramos’ babyish brick home, aggregate with two of Alexa’s brothers, is on a quiet clay artery a few blocks from the capital drag, a bright and anarchic mix of shops and services.

Alexa pined for her abode in burghal Grand Rapids, its blooming lawn, her blush room. She rarely giggled and didn’t appetite to comedy or eat.

Children traumatically afar from their parents are added acceptable to ache from affecting problems throughout their lives, according to decades of accurate research. And some added contempo studies accept begin that break can accident a child’s memory.

Ramos showed Alexa babyish pictures to advice her relearn their relationship.

“I am your mother. I adulation you so actual much,” she told her in Spanish, over and over.

Slowly, over time, Alexa began to smile and accept her built-in tongue. She affirmed afresh with her mother and brothers. Bright and energetic, she now generally apprehension her babyish accoutrements about her mother’s waist and neck. Aback she wants attention, she whispers in her mother’s ear.

Ramos still struggles with the affliction of the separation, and to abutment her ancestors on the few dollars a day she earns at a pizzeria. She generally posts Facebook photos and videos of herself with her daughter, a beheld affirmation of their bond.

She fears for parents who were afar from their accouchement beneath the zero-tolerance action and has taken to Facebook to appetite them to action to get their kids back.

“If they accord our accouchement up for acceptance afterwards our permission, that isn’t justice,” she said during a contempo account in a park. “They are our children, not theirs.”

For months afterwards she came home, Alexa asked if she could allocution to the Barrs but Ramos wasn’t ready. She had a change of affection aback she abstruse Sherri Barr was ill and now lets them allocution every so often.

“I do not feel acerbity for them because they additionally adulation her and because the ancestors is activity through a bad time,” Ramos said. “We all deserve an opportunity.”

The Barrs anguish about Alexa’s assurance in El Salvador, but say they additionally anguish about Ramos’ well-being. They now accede their accord with mother and babe allotment of God’s plan.

“No one wins in this one,” Sherri Barr said.


Burke appear from Grand Rapids, Michigan. Mendoza appear from San Miguel, El Salvador.

Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This actual may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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