U.S. deported 4-year-old girl without offering parents all options, attorneys say

March 28, 2011

U.S. immigration authorities deported March 11 to Guatemala a 4-year-old American girl, Emily Samantha Ruiz, daughter of undocumented immigrants, together with her grandfather, without offering her parents all the options so they could bring her home, two attorneys said.

According to the family’s attorney, David Sperling, the customs agents that contacted the father told him there were two options: Emily could either be taken to a child detention center in Virginia or be sent with her grandfather back to Guatemala.

The Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency, however, claims Leonel Ruiz was given the option of coming to Virginia to pick up Emily.

“CBP strives to reunite U.S. citizen children with their parents,” CBP spokesman Lloyd Easterling said. “If the parents choose not to take custody of their children, CBP works with other agencies to ensure the children’s safety and well-being, up to and including releasing them into the custody of other relatives.”

“In this case, the parents were offered the chance to pick up the child, but elected to have her return to Guatemala with her grandfather,” he said.

The parents of the girl are undocumented and, perhaps afraid they would be detained themselves, preferred to send their daughter back to Guatemala with her grandpa, rather than have her sent to a strange place far from home.

But, according to Jeanne Butterfield, special counsel for the Raben Group and the former executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, “there is no basis in the law to deny custody to parents based solely on their immigration status.”

Butterfield, who took part in a press conference organized by America’s Voice to allow Sperling to present his case, said that the Customs and Border Protection agents had three other options.

The girl could have remained on the flight to her final destination – New York – an agreement that attorneys reach with airlines so that minors can fly accompanied by a flight attendant; a third party – a friend or relative – could have picked her up in the name of her parents; or she could have temporarily entered a child-protection program.

The attorney said that “this incident underscores the ugly, polarized debate and climate around immigration that exists right now, in which the undocumented, even parents, are seen as less than human.”

Butterfield recalled that there are close to 5 million American children whose parents are undocumented, and of those a great number have to suffer the absence of at least one parent because mom or dad has been deported.

Emily was deported on March 11 together with her grandfather, when, after going on vacation to Guatemala, they were returning to the United States on a flight that made a stopover at Dulles International Airport in Virginia, while the girl’s parents were waiting for her in New York.

The grandfather, Sperling said, had a work visa that was still in effect, with which he had entered the country and worked in recent years.

It was discovered, however, that the grandfather had an immigration infraction on his record dating to the 1990s, according to some media outlets, though immigration authorities have not specified why he was deported.

Sperling, who is representing the Ruiz family pro bono, said that a CBP official called asking for identity data for little Emily’s father, Leonel Ruiz, a New York resident, and for her mother.

After checking the data by computer, the agent called back and Ruiz acknowledged that he was an illegal alien. He had entered the United States in 1995 when he was 17. He is now 32.

It was then that the agent told him he could not send him his daughter and offered him the two cited options – nothing more – according to the family’s attorney, who considers that the authorities should not have checked the immigration status of the American girl’s parents.

Sperling will travel Monday to Guatemala, and plans to bring Emily back to the United States on Wednesday. “My priority is for the girl to be returned to her parents, where she belongs. They (the CBP) treated her in an inhuman way, as a second-class citizen,” the lawyer told EFE

As to whether the parents are afraid they’ll be deported, the attorney said that U.S. authorities would have to start legal proceedings.

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