Ricardo de Anda, a Texas lawyer, with Byron Xol, 9, a migrant who was separated from his father in May 2018 while the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy was in effect. (Ricardo de Anda)

Byron Xol was riding in a van, his Pokémon figurines in tow, heading to his fifth home in 10 months. The 9-year-old Guatemalan, separated from his father last year at the border under the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” crackdown, had been stuck in a cycle of moving from place to place in Texas while federal authorities tried to find him a place to live until he could be reunited with his family.

But before the van could reach San Antonio, a federal judge issued an emergency order last week blocking the government from taking him anywhere. U.S. District Judge Fernando Rodriguez Jr. ordered Byron returned to his previous shelter, citing a child psychiatrist who said moving the boy again could amount to “yet another damaging, frightening and discouraging trauma.”

The judge’s temporary order, pending a hearing scheduled for Monday, landed in the middle of the debate about the Trump administration’s approach to handling thousands of migrant children who have been surrendering at the U.S.-Mexico border, alone or with their parents. The lawsuit that prompted the order, and other similar cases, is an example of an urgent question facing the Trump administration: What should be done with the children arriving at the southern U.S. border?

Byron’s case is unfolding in federal court in Brownsville as children are becoming the fastest-rising cohort of border apprehensions. Federal officials have not provided a full accounting of their data, but an official familiar with U.S. Customs and Border Protection statistics said that about half the family members are children, while a smaller number of children are crossing on their own.

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Taken together, 95,000 children and teenagers crossed into the United States between October and February, making up 35 percent of the 268,000 people taken into custody, a higher percentage than in past years, the official said.

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said this week that children are increasingly “being used as pawns” to help adults gain entry into the United States, and she warned that the immigration system is nearing “meltdown.” Advocates and Democrats contend that child migration has been building for years and that the U.S. government has failed to adapt.

U.S. Health and Human Services officials declined to comment on the judge’s order, but in court records filed Friday, they said they had to move Byron to deal with an “unexpected” influx of minors last summer and fall. They are seeking to place him in foster care until they can arrange to get him to family members; his father was deported without him.

Byron’s lawyer, Ricardo de Anda, says he plans to ask the judge Monday to release the boy to a family designated by his parents.

Such cases present a deep quandary for the U.S. government as officials try to handle an influx of children, navigate court cases, find shelters and foster homes and attempt to get children to their parents, some of whom have been deported.

President Trump and Homeland Security officials are again lobbying Congress for the flexibility to expand the number of family detention beds and hold minors longer to allow for deportation proceedings, along with other measures, describing the situation as a national emergency at the border. Child-welfare advocates are urging Trump to treat the Central American families as refugees, asking for faster asylum hearings and assistance that takes children into account.

“You’re talking about some of the most vulnerable people in the world,” said Jennifer Podkul, senior policy director at Kids in Need of Defense, a group that represents children in immigration court. “This enforcement mission has not caught up to the reality: These are mostly children.”

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Federal officials say the border security deal between Trump and House Democrats last month includes $415 million for humanitarian aid at the border, including a new holding facility in El Paso and improvements to medical care, something that took on greater urgency after two Guatemalan children died in federal custody last year.

But without consequences, officials say, migrant families will continue streaming toward the United States because they often are released into the country within days of applying for asylum, in part because of a lack of space in U.S. detention centers. Family members account for about 136,000 border apprehensions this fiscal year, but U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has only about 3,000 family detention beds.

Approximately 27,000 unaccompanied minors have been apprehended at the border this year, and federal law requires their transfer to U.S. Health and Human Services shelters until they can be released to parents or guardians.


Trump sent all members of Congress a letter in January urging them to change the rules to “allow for the safe and humane return of illegally-smuggled minors back to their families in their home countries,” calling children “ the biggest victims of all.”

But lawyers say Trump is making children his target: Since taking office, his administration has tried to block some minors from seeking abortions, separated them from their parents and delayed their release from federal custody.

Child-welfare advocates say children struggling with poverty and violence in Central America encounter new traumas in the U.S. immigration system, such as cold and crowded detention cells and shelters.

In Byron’s lawsuit, child psychiatrist Amy Cohen said the longer a child is detained, the greater the potential psychological and physical harm.

Unaccompanied minors spent an average of 60 days in HHS custody last fiscal year, up from 41 days the year before. Lawyers discovered that the agency recently transferred 16 minors to residential treatment centers in Arkansas, Oklahoma and other states without disclosing the relocations to them as required. The transfers, first reported by Reveal, included two minors who had been detained since 2017 and seven since 2018, according to data obtained by The Washington Post.

The HHS division that oversees the shelters said information about the temporary placements was in each child’s files and that the list will be updated. In a statement, the agency said it “takes the safety and security of every minor referred to our care with the utmost seriousness.”

Once children are released, there is no guarantee of a future in the United States. Justice Department figures show an average of 644 children each month are failing to show up for their immigration hearings and are then ordered deported in their absence.

Among those in legal limbo is Byron. In court filings, Cohen said the boy has suffered trauma dating to 2017, when gang members stabbed his father nearly to death and threatened the child’s life. The trauma continued when they fled months later in the darkened hull of a tractor-trailer to the U.S.-Mexico border, where U.S. officials separated them.

Under the policy at the time, adults were detained and nearly 500 were deported, while more than 2,700 children were sent to HHS shelters. In documents filed with the court Friday, HHS officials said they had to move children around to ensure they were housed safely and grouped according to age and gender.

Trump ended the zero-tolerance policy on June 20, and since then, border apprehensions have soared.

Byron’s lawyer said he will ask the judge Monday to place the boy with a Texas family until his father is allowed to return to the United States and seek asylum.

Federal officials say they will oppose placing the child with a family he did not previously know and plan to keep him with a foster family. They said their mandate is “to ensure the safety and well-being of the unaccompanied alien child.”