Nation

A Brazilian mother seeking asylum was freed from detention. Her son was not

The border fence near Santa Teresa, N.M., the town where Lidia Souza and her son Diogo presented herself to immigration authorities, seeking asylum from imminent, personal violence in their native Brazil.
The border fence near Santa Teresa, N.M., the town where Lidia Souza and her son Diogo presented herself to immigration authorities, seeking asylum from imminent, personal violence in their native Brazil.

It’s been 23 days since Lidia Souza has seen her son, held his hand, or hugged him good night.

Luana Mazon
Lidia Souza and her son Diogo

The two, fleeing what Souza characterized as imminent, personal violence in their native Brazil, were separated by immigration authorities at the US-Mexico border last month.

Souza, who came to the United States seeking asylum and is now staying in Hyannis, spent weeks in detention in Texas not knowing where her son, Diogo, was being held. But then a conversation with another mother who was also being detained provided her with the kernel of information she needed to find him. The mother, also Brazilian, had been able to speak with her daughter, who was being held in Chicago. The little girl had a friend there named Diogo.

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Souza, 27, got the phone number of the facility, called, and asked if her son was there. He was.

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She was eventually released from detention. Her son, however, was not.

They now are allowed to speak twice a week for 10 minutes at a time. One of those calls was Monday, his ninth birthday, which they spent more than 1,000 miles apart.

Diogo is one of the more than 2,300 children who have been separated from their parents at the country’s southern border as part of the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance policy” for people who cross the border illegally. Parents have been separated from their children and taken into custody for prosecution while their children are treated as “unaccompanied minors” and held in makeshift detention facilities and other shelters.

President Trump abruptly reversed the policy this week, issuing an executive order to stop separating parents and children at the border and instead to detain family members together. The order said that it would petition the federal courts to reconsider a 1997 decision that limits the government’s ability to detain children for more than 20 days.

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But the order did not address how to reunite families already broken apart.

“I’m very unhappy, sad, and frustrated. This is inhumane. The children are innocent. They don’t have to go through this,” Souza said in a phone interview. “[Diogo] complains that he’s lonely. He complains that he’s hungry. He got chicken pox, and they put him in a room and isolated him from everyone else. He just cries all the time.”

Souza said that she presented herself to immigration authorities on May 29 in Santa Teresa, a town on the border of New Mexico and Texas.

She and her son spent the next day and half in custody together. Immigration authorities interviewed her and determined that she did have a credible fear of persecution if she was returned to Brazil. It’s the first step in the legal process to seek asylum.

When they first arrived at the detention center, Souza said Diogo watched as agents handcuffed another mother and led her away. His mother said Diogo “went to bed that night crying for the child.”

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Despite the interview that found her fears credible, she was still placed in handcuffs.

Souza said she begged officers to remove her son from the room to spare him the sight. Her son, she said, asked her, “Mom, you’re going to go to jail. What did you do wrong?”

“No, not jail,” She says she told him. “I’m just going to be someplace with other mothers and you’re going to be some place with kids.”

Then, he also asked not to have to watch as his mother was taken away, she said.

“I had no clue where my son was going. They just took him away,” she said. “But I knew where I was going, which was a federal jail facility.”

She was then separated from her son and sent to federal court in El Paso, Texas.

Jesse Bless, Souza’s attorney, who works for Immigrant Avenues, said his client was “robo-prosecuted” in federal court for entering the country illegally and told to sign a document if she ever wanted to see her son again. Immigration officials did not give her a copy of the document, so it’s unclear exactly what she signed, he said.

“Our assumption, at this point, is she signed a plea deal and was sentenced to time served and transferred back to immigration custody,” he said.

She spent another seven days in detention before being released with a phone number to call to find her son. The number, Bless said, doesn’t work.

Souza’s family paid for her to fly to Massachusetts, where they live in Hyannis, and they immediately contacted Bless’ office for help. Souza said she was told by immigration officials on Monday, her son’s birthday, that they weren’t able to release him.

“It’s a constant run-around with no end in sight,” Bless said. “They have assumed control of the child like they were his parent or like he’s an orphan, and he’s not.”

Bless and Souza have sent Heartland Alliance, an organization that operates shelters for unaccompanied minors in the Chicago area, a notarized 36-page application, fingerprints, and additional paperwork to try to reunite mother and son.

“There’s no mechanism. They don’t have a way to reunite the family. They’re just making it up day by day,” Bless said.

On Thursday, Souza checked in with Immigration and Customs Enforcement and was told to return in a year for her asylum case. Her son, however, remains in the government’s custody.

Souza’s case has caught the attention of the Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey and US Representative Joe Kennedy III.

No children have been placed in Massachusetts as a result of the federal government’s family separation policy, according to the governor’s office. But there are families in Massachusetts, like Souza’s, that have been affected.

Elmer Oliva told the Worcester Telegram & Gazette that he came to the United States from Guatemala after three people in his family were killed. He said his wife, 17-year-old son, and 9-year-old daughter followed, crossing the border in Texas more than a month ago. The children were separated from their mother for five weeks. They were reunited with their father this week, but their mother remains in custody, he said.

“It’s very hard. It’s tough for them. It’s tough for me,” he said in an interview that was posted on the Telegram’s website.

Gladys Vega, executive director of the Chelsea Collaborative, a social service agency in a community where nearly half the residents were born outside the United States, said the group received a phone call Thursday from a woman looking for help.

The woman said her niece and her niece’s daughter were apprehended at the border in Texas and separated, Vega said.

The woman wasn’t sure when they were detained or how long they had been separated, so Vega told her to get as much information as possible and call back.

And Vega suspects this won’t be the first such call her organization receives.

“We have to get prepared,” she said.

Akilah Johnson can be reached at akilah.johnson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @akjohnson1922.