A 15-year-old boy from Houston, who was picked up by immigration authorities in Texas and sent to the Homestead children’s detention center even though he has lived in the U.S. since he was an infant and his parents live in the U.S., walked out of the facility on Sunday, two days after a story about his plight appeared in the Miami Herald.
The teen, who had been detained during a traffic stop while he was a passenger in his uncle’s car near Houston, was separated from his parents for more than two weeks.
Hours after the story ran on the Herald’s website Friday, the boy’s story was brought up in front of a House Oversight Committee. Illinois Congresswoman Robin Kelly entered it into the record and demanded that the Inspector General’s Office open an investigation into the practice of detaining children who have not been stopped at the border and whose parents live in the U.S. Officials have told the Herald at least 20 kids in a similar situation have ended up at the Homestead center for unaccompanied minors over the past year.
On Sunday afternoon, just moments after the boy was reunited with his mother, the teen told the Herald that, in just a few days, he had been transferred in handcuffs from Refugio County Police in Texas, to U.S. Customs and Border Patrol to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcment and ultimately into the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services.
The boy, whom the Miami Herald is not identifying because of his undocumented immigration status, said that until he got to Homestead he was not allowed to call his mother, wasn’t given an opportunity to shower or brush his teeth for five days.
“When I was inside Homestead, someone told me I was in the news and that the government was talking about me, and that I get to go home,” the boy said. His mother’s rejoicing wails could be heard in the background. “I just got here and I don’t know what to feel.”
The teen entered the country in 2004 when he was a 9-month-old infant. He has lived in Houston his whole life with his mother, who is also undocumented. The boy said he didn’t know which airports he was flown from and to while he was detained.
On June 26, he said he was detained in Texas while he was leaving a construction site with his uncle and other coworkers. The boy had wanted to help his mom with some bills and save up for a new iPhone.
“The officer pulled us over and said we were speeding. He asked my uncle, who was driving, for his license, and he gave [the officer] his Mexican passport,” the teen said. “The cop asked me for my documents and I said I didn’t have them with me. He made some calls to immigration, I was handcuffed and taken to the jail.”
According to Refugio County police, the boy was detained on an immigration violation. Because his biological parent was not present during the traffic stop, he was classified as an “unaccompanied minor.”
According to the U.S. government, an unaccompanied minor is defined as anyone with no lawful immigration status under age 18 who has no parent or legal guardian in the United States, or has no parent or legal guardian in the United States available to provide care and physical custody.
A few hours after the teen arrived at the county jail, Customs picked him up and sent him to a facility in Corpus Christi. From there, he said, he was taken to an ICE juvenile detention facility in McAllen, Texas.
“I begged to call my mom at all three places but they were like: ‘You can’t get a call,’ ” he said. “ Oh, and I didn’t get to shower, or brush my teeth for those days.”
CBP policy specifies that “unaccompanied alien children must be offered use of a telephone.” ICE‘s handbook says its staff should “assist juveniles by providing them a phone call to their parent, guardian, consular officer, or legal representative, and provide them with a list of free or low-cost legal service providers.”
From McAllen, the boy was put on a bus for Homestead, where he arrived on June 30. Two days after that he was finally allowed his first call — one of two five-minute calls a week. His mother at that point still had no idea where her son was, despite calling more than half a dozen law enforcement and and immigration agencies.
“He was so desperate and crying so hard,” she told the Herald last week. “My heart was in pieces but at the same time I got my heartbeat back when I heard his voice. Can you imagine what it’s like not knowing where your son was for five days?... I thought he was either dead or kidnapped.”
After arriving in Homestead, the boy was given clothes and toiletries, as well as hot food.
“I was vaccinated though, eight times. I told them I was already vaccinated but they gave me eight different shots and I felt dizzy for the rest of the day,” he told the Miami Herald. “They told me it was normal.”
The teen, an advanced honor roll student and avid soccer player who just got accepted into a dual enrollment program at his community college, told the Herald “there are lots of kids in there that have family waiting for them just like me.”
“But I’m not sure why they are still in there,” he said. “They told me I was lucky to get to go home.”
The teen and his family could now face deportation.