Over the weekend, Buzzfeed News reported that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents separated an immigrant father from his 1-year-old son when the man requested asylum at the U.S. border. According to ICE, he couldn't prove his relationship to the child. On Tuesday, however, attorneys for the family claimed that the father had the child's original birth certificate in hand.
In a statement to Buzzfeed, ICE officials confirmed that the agency did in fact separate Fuentes from his son at the U.S. border last week, but the agency claims that the separation was justified. ICE says that families crossing the border must prove their relationship because human smugglers can often use non relative children as a prop when crossing the border to decrease their chances of being caught and detained.
“Mr. Fuentes did not have a passport or birth certificate or other form of identifying documents to verify he was the father of the child, and the child was too young to answer the officers’ questions,” ICE spokeswoman Lauren Mack said.
Jose Demar Fuentes, a father of three from El Salvador, arrived at the U.S. border with his infant son last week. Fuentes told Buzzfeed News that in a series of meetings, immigration officials reportedly told him that if he didn't agree to separate from his child, his immigration case would take longer and "there would be problems."
“They said we’d better agree because it was ‘better to do it the good way and avoid using force in front of the kids,’" Fuentes said. “That made us all agree.”
Fuentes said that after he agreed to the border officials' demands, he was reportedly removed from a Border Patrol holding cell and separated from his son, Mateo. Fuentes is currently being held at a detention facility in San Diego. He does not know where the agents took his son.
Pro-bono immigration lawyers working on Fuentes' case disagree that ICE's explanation holds up. Erika Pinheiro, policy director for Al Otro Lado, a pro bono immigration legal services group, claimed to Buzzfeed News that Fuentes had his Salvadorian ID and his son's birth certificate with him when he was being interrogated by ICE officials.
“They’re just trying to justify something they never should’ve done in the first place, and it’s a clear lie because we have proof,” Pinheiro told BuzzFeed News. "This is the administration’s way of punishing families and deterring people from seeking asylum.”
ICE's supposed treatment of Fuentes seems to align with a disturbing policy outlined by the Department of Homeland Security in March. According to Reuters, three government officials claimed that DHS was planning to separate mothers from their children at the border in an effort to deter families from immigrating to the United States.
The department defended the policy in a statement to Reuters.
”The journey north is a dangerous one with too many situations where children - brought by parents, relatives or smugglers - are often exploited, abused or may even lose their lives," the statement read. "With safety in mind, the Department of Homeland Security continually explores options that may discourage those from even beginning the journey."
Immigration advocates, however, argue that women and families do not choose to take the dangerous journey to America; rather, many Central American families are forced to immigrate to escape violence or persecution in their home countries.
Fuentes fled El Salvador with his wife and son and only $35 in his pocket. His wife remained in Mexico with the couple's other son since the family did not have enough money to complete the journey to America, according to Buzzfeed. They are both still waiting to be reunited with Mateo.