Is a callous immigration system tearing siblings apart?

Liz Goodwin
·Senior National Affairs Reporter
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Vladimir Gongora, 20, and his sister, Patricia, 18, at the Queens, N.Y, apartment where they live with their parents. (Photo: Yana Paskova for Yahoo News)

When Vladimir Gongora arrived in New York City three years ago, he didn’t know his own name.

Vladimir was born deaf in the small village of Cuyantepeque in the northwest corner of El Salvador. He wasn’t allowed to go to school and never learned to read or write.

“He used to cry and cry because he couldn’t ask for anything,” his mother, Dolores remembers. Then, when Vladimir was about 7 years old, he began gesturing to his little sister, Patricia, who was just 5. Bit they bit, they formed their own sign language, which became increasingly complex. Patricia translated her brother’s signs into Spanish for her parents, and all of a sudden, Vladimir was no longer so alone.

“I would invent a word if he couldn’t understand me,” says Patricia, now 18.

Their invented language lifted Vladimir out of his isolation, and the two became best friends — watching soap operas together and playing soccer and hide and seek.

They’ve been inseparable ever since. But a U.S. immigration court could soon force them apart.

Vladimir and Patricia both crossed the border on their own to join their parents in New York City — Vladimir in 2012, Patricia two years later. The two were part of a surge of unaccompanied minors from Central America who arrived at the southern border of the United States. Last year, Vladimir was granted asylum by the federal government because of the persecution he faced in El Salvador for his disability. (He was, among other things, denied access to schooling.) His sister also claimed asylum but was denied by the asylum office in April, despite her key role in helping her brother communicate. Now the government is pushing for her deportation, an action her attorney is appealing.

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“We’re all surprised by this,” says Jodi Ziesemer, a lawyer with the Catholic Charities nonprofit that represents Patricia. “They’re given discretion on sympathetic cases to not go forward [with deportation]. And it seems like of all the cases in the universe, these would be the most deserving of that exercise of discretion.”

As the nation’s overburdened immigration courts sort through tens of thousands of these unaccompanied minor cases, some siblings are receiving different judgments that could lead to brothers and sisters being torn apart — one on the path to U.S. citizenship, the other sent back to a violence-plagued Central American country with little hope of ever returning. Ziesemer also represents another sibling pair facing separation — the 14-year-old younger sister was granted asylum because local gangs were threatening her. Her 16-year-old brother’s request was denied, though the gangs threatened him as well. He is in removal proceedings. (Ziesemer is appealing the case.)

A feature of immigration law makes these potential ruptures even more poignant: If Patricia is deported, she can never legally return to the U.S., even on a brief tourist visa. Meanwhile, Vladimir couldn’t visit her in El Salvador for years, because it could jeopardize his asylum status to return to the country that he claimed he needed protection from. Liz Jordan, an immigration lawyer for the nonprofit The Door in New York City who represents two young siblings, describes these decisions as “effectively lifetime determinations.”

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In this June 2014 photo, a group of immigrants from Honduras and El Salvador who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border illegally are stopped in Granjeno, Texas. (Photo: Eric Gay/AP)

Patricia is just one of more than 100,000 children who was apprehended without a parent or guardian at the U.S. border between 2014 and 2015, attempting to flee her increasingly violent country and join her family in the United States. Many of these children’s families had heard rumors that all children would be given legal status once they reached the border, and they saved thousands of dollars to buy their kids’ passage north with coyotes. Most of the Mexican children who were caught were quickly deported. But because of a 2008 federal anti-trafficking law, the tens of thousands of minors who made the longer journey from Central America on their own were released to a family member or to foster care in the U.S. and then given the opportunity to argue their case in front of an immigration judge.

This influx of kids caught the Obama administration by surprise, and at first the government did not know where to house them all. Portions of military bases were opened to the children during the height of the crisis in 2014. The Obama administration bought radio ads and billboards in Central America to try to persuade people not send their children to the U.S., and Mexico set up more immigration checkpoints to crack down on migration from Central America. Now the flood of children has slowed, but the work of the nation’s chronically overburdened immigration courts is just beginning.

Unaccompanied minors were generally put on “rocket dockets” — guaranteed a preliminary hearing within 21 days instead of the years it takes before most immigrants to see a judge. This short timeline can make it challenging for the young immigrants — some are just toddlers — or their relatives to find an attorney; the court does not provide defendants with a public defender as in the criminal system. Patricia and Vladimir are lucky — they have attorneys and live in New York City, where the city council has allocated funding for nonprofits to represent unaccompanied minors. Most of the kids in their situation are on their own.

Still, Patricia’s attorney is concerned that the immigration judge will not be swayed by her arguments for asylum. To win asylum, applicants must prove that they faced persecution because of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a certain social group in their home country. Ziesemer plans to argue that Patricia was discriminated against for her brother’s disability and also targeted for violence because of her gender in El Salvador, where gangs have become increasingly brazen and violent. But she realizes the odds are long. “We recognize the legal case is not extremely strong,” Ziesemer said. “Either they grant asylum or they issue a deportation order.”

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In this August 2015 photo, soldiers guard a gang-controlled neighborhood in Ilopango, El Salvador. The country’s coroner’s office confirms August as the deadliest in El Salvador’s history. (Photo: Salvador Melendez/AP)

It’s unknown how many siblings are in Patricia and Vladimir’s position. But several immigration lawyers around the country say they’ve had problems getting siblings both approved for asylum, even when they faced nearly identical experiences in their home countries. Matt Maiona, an immigration lawyer in Boston, represents a brother and sister who both crossed the border together, fleeing gangs in Central America. The brother is 18 and was granted asylum, but the sister, who is 18, was not granted her claim. Maiona is appealing. Another immigration lawyer in Miami, Jacob Ratzan, had two clients who presented nearly identical claims for asylum in 2012 to two separate judges. One sister was denied, the other approved. Both ended up going back to Russia rather than face separation.

The trend has made Jordan nervous for two of her clients, 12-year-old Camila and her older brother, Javier, also 12. The pair crossed the border together last summer to reunite with their father, who was already in New York. Like Vladimir, Javier is also nearly deaf and relies on his sister to help him communicate.

“My nightmare in this case is that he gets to stay and she doesn’t,” Jordan says.

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At their last court date in September, Javier, in a plaid button-down and jeans, his hearing aid snaking around his ear, guided his sister through the low swinging door and in front of Judge Barbara Nelson, who spent all morning adjudicating minors’ cases at the federal immigration courthouse in Manhattan. Camila sat in one of the two chairs on the defendants’ side, and Javier stood behind her. Camila nervously clutched a bright yellow folder, which included some work from her Basic English class and a “good citizenship” award from school. She hoped it could persuade the judge to let her stay.

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Jordan, their attorney, asked the government to consider dropping the case entirely given Javier’s disability. (She’s also pursuing other legal strategies to persuade them to close the case.) Nelson set their next court date for a few months in the future to discuss that request. After the brief court appearance, Camila, who is in seventh grade, said she likes school in the U.S. much better than those in El Salvador and wants to stay. “There they would make us sweep and clean the floors, but here no,” she said.

Having a family member win asylum or other immigration status does not guarantee you will get it, immigration lawyers say.

Kathryn Mattingly, a spokeswoman for the Executive Office for Immigration Review, said judges evaluate each case on its own merits. “Our immigration judges adjudicate each case individually based on current U.S. law, regulations and precedent decisions,” she said. “They consider all evidence from both parties.”

Since Vladimir came to New York City, he has been learning American Sign Language at the Lexington School for the Deaf in Queens. Patricia, who is in 11th grade and learning English, wants to become familiar with American Sign Language too so they can branch out from their private language. Vladimir only recently learned his own name and his sister’s, now that he can write. His sign for Patricia was cupping his two hands next to his cheeks, miming her full face. (Patricia laughs when he makes the gesture.)

I asked Patricia if she could get Vladimir to tell me he felt when he first got to New York without her. They pointed rapidly at each other, signing in their invented language. “I felt bad. I felt much happier when my sister arrived,” she translated in Spanish.

Patricia asked Vladimir what he would say to the judge, who she sees for a hearing on Oct. 20. He quickly flashed signs back to her, which included his miming straightening a tie, which is his sign for “judge.”

“I would ask the judge to please give her a paper, please,” Patricia translated.

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Vladimir and his sister, Patricia, converse in sign language, at home in Queens, N.Y. (Photo: Yana Paskova for Yahoo News)

So far, only a tiny sliver of unaccompanied minors who have been through the system have achieved formal legal status like asylum. The vast majority have been given “informal” relief, which means the court closes their cases without ordering them deported or giving them the right to live in the United States. Between Oct. 1, 2013, and the end of August 2014, only 313 of the tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors were granted asylum or some other formal legal status in the U.S., according to a report by the Migration Policy Institute. And though more than 13,000 minors were ordered removed in fiscal year 2014, only 1,800 were actually deported. If the courts continue this trend, most of the children who crossed the border by themselves will end up remaining and settling in the U.S. but without affirmative legal status. That limbo state makes it hard for them to fully integrate and start new lives here.

Patricia’s best hope is that she is given this informal relief and not ordered deported. In this scenario, a world of opportunities would separate her and her brother if she remains in the country without legal status and he eventually receives a green card through his asylum status. She couldn’t work legally, travel to another country or have any way to apply for legal status for years. But that would be far better than a deportation order. Even if the government did not track down Patricia and enforce the deportation order, she would live with the fear she could be deported for the rest of her time in the United States. Any interaction with law enforcement could lead to her removal.

“It would be the most intense pain that could happen to him,” their mother, Dolores, says of Vladimir losing his sister. “He wants to be with her.”

Dolores remembers the two years they had to spend apart, before Patricia came to New York City. “Every day he asked, ‘When am I going to be with my sister?’ It would be very, very hard.”