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Migrant seeking asylum says his toddler was taken away at the U.S. border

At least four Central American men in this California detention facility say U.S. immigration officials took their children after they arrived at the border, asking for asylum. Immigration and Customs Enforcement says the agency separated the children for their safety, because the men didn't have enough proof they were the fathers. Special correspondent Jean Guerrero of KPBS in San Diego reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The New York Times and The Washington Post have reported that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is considering new rules to deter those entering the U.S. illegally, separating children from their parents.

    Under current rules, families are kept together, unless immigration officials determine parents do not have sufficient documentation for their children.

    From PBS station KPBS in San Diego, Jean Guerrero reports on one family already undergoing the traumatic experience of separation.

    Jose Demar Fuentes (through interpreter): I feel powerless not being with them, not being able to hug them, kiss them, play with them.

  • Jean Guerrero:

    At least four Central American men in this Otay Mesa detention facility say officials took their children from them after they arrived at the border asking for asylum.

    In a statement, ICE said, "For the safety oft children involved, ICE must require documentation of these family relationships."

    The agency says that's because smugglers often pair children with non-parents. The agency says the men didn't have enough documentary proof that they were the fathers, and that officials are trying to verify familial relationships through the consulates.

    But Jose Demar Fuentes says he gave customs officials at the port of entry his son's original birth certificate and his Salvadorian I.D.

    KPBS has seen copies of those documents.

    Jose Demar Fuentes (through interpreter): I wasn't going to come to a strange country that isn't mine, to present myself with a child, without documents.

  • Jean Guerrero:

    Immigration officials sent his 1-year-old son, Mateo, to an Office of Refugee Resettlement facility in Texas, more than 1,500 miles away.

    Fuentes traveled from El Salvador to the U.S. with his partner, Olivia Caceres, and their two sons, Mateo and Andree (ph), in a caravan of asylum seekers. They were on the road for more than a month, traveling on Mexico's infamous train, La Bestia.

    The family says they were fleeing gang violence and extortion at home. We visited Fuentes' partner, Olivia, at a migrant shelter in Mexico, where she's staying with Andree until they learn more about what's happening with Mateo.

    Olivia Caceres (through interpreter): This is the first document they give us in the hospital, so I kept it. He had the original birth certificate of the boy.

  • Jean Guerrero:

    She says the family split up in Northern Mexico because they were in a rush to get Mateo to the border. The boy was weak and dehydrated after weeks of traveling. The couple didn't have enough money for the four of them to get to the border right away.

    Olivia Caceres (through interpreter): The priority was always Mateo, his health. Andree is older. He says, mommy, mommy, don't go, mommy. Mateo is fine with his dad.

  • Jean Guerrero:

    The couple didn't think us immigration authorities would separate a father and a 1-year-old child. They thought the duo would either be detained together or released on parole.

    Lisa Chavarria is an immigration attorney. She says families seeking asylum are less likely to be released on parole under the Trump administration.

  • Lisa Chavarria:

    Now what I see is a leaning toward detain, detain, detain. And if there's not a place to detain a father and a child, then it's — they're going to detain them separately.

  • Jean Guerrero:

    Chavarria says family detention centers are currently focusing on women and children. She says the separation adds to the traumas of violence they're fleeing in Central America.

    In the migrant shelter in Mexico, Andree plays with other children whose parents also brought them from Central America. They sing songs they learned on the journey.

  • Boy (through interpreter):

    Why do they kill us? Why do they take our lives?

  • Jean Guerrero:

    Caceres says she's been repeatedly calling the facility in Texas where officials sent her youngest son, Mateo, but that all she's received is a single call back letting her know that the boy is fine.

    The Office of Refugee Resettlement has declined to comment on the boy's case, citing privacy concerns. Immigration officials have the discretion to let the father out on parole at any time, but under the Trump administration, the policy has been to detain for at least six months.

    Caceres says the boy has a right to be with his father, that Fuentes is the best caretaker.

    Olivia Caceres (through interpreter): Everyone knew him in the caravan because, once, when Mateo was very sick with a bad fever, all night, Jose was holding him and pacing with him.

  • Jean Guerrero:

    Caceres says she's heard that U.S. officials take good care of children and that she's trying to focus on that, to stay positive for Andree.

    Back in the detention center, Fuentes says Caceres tries to keep him calm over the phone.

    Jose Demar Fuentes (through interpreter): She gives me strength. How am I, do I eat, do I sleep to relax, that everything's going to be fine, that Mateo's in good hands, that she's taking care of Andree.

  • Jean Guerrero:

    Fuentes graduated from the Catholic University of El Salvador with a degree in journalism.

    Jose Demar Fuentes (through interpreter): I like to know stories. I like to write.

  • Jean Guerrero:

    But before he could pursue his dream of becoming a journalist, he and his wife began to fear for their lives. The couple says gangs were extorting them for money they didn't have, and Fuentes' close friend was killed.

    Fuentes says he wanted to be a good father because he never knew his own. He was raised by his mother, who died a few days before he graduated.

    Jose Demar Fuentes (through interpreter): She told me she was proud of me. It's sad to have the family fragmented. One person in one place. My mother in the sky. My son, I don't know where. Olivia with Andree.

  • Jean Guerrero:

    He says he's placing all of his faith in the institutions of the U.S., and hopes he will be reunited with his family on American soil.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Jean Guerrero in San Diego.

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