The Five-Year-Old Who Was Detained at the Border and Persuaded to Sign Away Her Rights

The Five-Year-Old Who Was Detained at the Border and Persuaded to Sign Away Her Rights

Photograph Courtesy Eugene Delgado Helen had been brought to Baytown, a shelter run by Baptist Child & Family Services, which the federal government had contracted to house unaccompanied minors.

She was granted an hour of “Large Muscle Activity and Leisure Time” each day, and received lessons on the human respiratory system, the history of music, and “the risk and danger of social media.” “Helen,” a caseworker observed, “has excellent behavior at all times.” She had no major sources of stress, her reports noted, aside from “being separated from her family.” Her teachers encouraged her to develop “SMART goals”—ambitions that are “Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound.” Helen’s goal was simple: “Minor disclosed wanting to live with her mother and family in the U.S.” According to a long-standing legal precedent known as the Flores settlement, which established guidelines for keeping children in immigration detention, Helen had a right to a bond hearing before a judge; that hearing would have likely hastened her release from government custody and her return to her family.

At the time of her apprehension, in fact, Helen checked a box on a line that read, “I do request an immigration judge,” asserting her legal right to have her custody reviewed.

(“In a Flores bond hearing, an immigration judge reviews your case to determine whether you pose a danger to the community,” the document began.)

After that, Noehmi and Jeny were allowed two ten-minute calls with Helen per week, during which the girl often pleaded, “Come get me, Grandma!” The government collected fingerprints and other information from Noehmi and Jeny, to determine whether they were Helen’s rightful guardians; the Office of Refugee Resettlement soon deemed Jeny a fit sponsor, Delgado told me, but the completion of Noehmi’s background check was delayed for unexplained reasons.

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