In Honduras, Carlos Castillo Estrada couldn’t escape MS-13. The violent international street gang robbed him once on a bus in San Pedro Sula, again as he rode in a van and a third time as he returned from the store, even stealing his groceries.
But when Castillo and his 12-year-old son fled to Mexico, he said they were threatened by drug traffickers.
So on June 2, the single father and his son walked across a border bridge in Eagle Pass, Tex., and asked for asylum in the United States.
Instead, they were among the more than 2,500 families separated under the Trump administration’s short-lived “zero tolerance” policy.
After public outrage and a class-action lawsuit, a federal judge ordered the government to reunite the families. But the July 26 deadline came and went for Castillo, who had been deported once before following a DUI.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement didn’t cite the DUI or deportation when he asked why he hadn’t been reunited with his son, he said. In fact, they wouldn’t tell him anything. Finally, the frantic father turned to a social worker at the shelter where his son was being detained 1,200 miles away.
The reason, he recalled her saying, was that ICE thought he was member of the 18th Street gang, MS-13’s rival.
“I was a victim of gangs,” he told The Washington Post in several telephone interviews from Port Isabel Detention Center in Texas. “They robbed me three times. I don’t know where [ICE] got that accusation.”
ICE spokeswoman Adelina Pruneda declined to discuss Castillo’s case, citing “ongoing litigation” — an apparent reference to the class-action lawsuit.
Six weeks after the deadline, more than 400 separated children remain in U.S. government shelters. Most of their parents have been deported, but several dozen remain in ICE custody, many barred from being reunited with their kids for deportation or released because of “red flags.”
Though most of these red flags are U.S. criminal records, some aren’t convictions at all but rather contested allegations of gang involvement in Central America.
One mother has been imprisoned without her son since March because of a warrant in El Salvador accusing her of ties to MS-13, according to her attorneys, who say the charge is baseless.
Another has been separated from her daughter for more than two months after telling an asylum officer that 18th Street made her hide weapons in Honduras.
Other separated parents have been released but still struggle with the aftershocks of being labeled gang members.
“It’s very much a theme of this administration that all Central Americans carry the threat of gang violence,” said Denise Gilman, director of the University of Texas Immigration Clinic, who has represented parents stripped of their children because of gang accusations. “Casting Central American asylum seekers as gang members, even when most of them are fleeing gang violence, not perpetrating it, really affects their ability to get a fair day in court.”
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has said being a victim of gang violence is no longer grounds for asylum in the United States.
ICE says it follows specific criteria for labeling someone a gang member, but the decision to reunify families is ultimately made by the Department of Health and Human Services.
HHS is “committed to . . . reunifying separated families safely, absent red flags related to parentage, parental fitness, or child safety,” spokesman Mark Weber said.
“Information regarding gang affiliation . . . may be considered when evaluating parental fitness or child safety,” he said, adding that the information is usually provided by ICE or Border Patrol and that HHS tries to vet it, but that can take time.
For Raquel Cañas Mejia, ICE’s claim that the single mother is an MS-13 member was less of a shock than an old nightmare suddenly resurfaced.
The 33-year-old had crossed the Rio Grande with her two sons on June 20, the day President Trump announced an end to his family separation policy. They spent 10 days together at a family detention center in Dilley, Tex., where she said her youngest son was given drugs that made the autistic 9-year-old unresponsive.
But on July 1, as the first wave of separated families were already being reunited, Cañas’s was torn apart. When she asked immigration officials why they were taking away her sons, she said one replied: “You know why.”
It wasn’t until later that ICE appeared to confirm her fear: the very man she was fleeing in El Salvador had upended her hopes for a new life in America.
Three years earlier, Cañas had been brutally beaten by three police officers in her hometown of San Vicente, El Salvador. In police reports, court testimony and interviews with asylum officers and reporters, Cañas’s version of events is consistent. A sergeant with a grudge against Cañas spotted her in a restaurant and dragged her outside, where he and two other officers sprayed her with Mace and pistol-whipped her until her arm shattered, she said. Then they arrested her and told her to repeat their version of events.
In his police report, the sergeant claimed Cañas was an “active member” of an MS-13 clique who had insulted the officers and rushed at them with a knife.
“It’s an absurd accusation, made by the police to justify why they beat me,” Cañas said.
After surgery, more than 20 stitches and seven days in the hospital, Cañas reported the incident to prosecutors. The officers, not Cañas, were charged with assault, and she testified against them repeatedly.
After the sergeant was arrested for murder last year, she said she was approached this spring by a stranger with a message from the sergeant.
“The sergeant said that if I didn’t leave in a week, I would be killed,” Cañas told an asylum officer, according to a copy of her interview.
Cañas suspects the sergeant’s accusation against her somehow made its way to ICE.
All ICE will say is that on June 30, it received information that Cañas is a “documented MS-13 gang member.” ICE spokeswoman Sarah Rodriguez refused to say where the accusation came from other than “an official source” and a “government database.”
But at a July 31 hearing, ICE did not mention the MS-13 allegation to an immigration judge, who granted her a $5,000 bond.
Other parents also claim unreliable information from Central America has kept them apart from their children.
One Salvadoran mother has been separated from her 4-year-old son since March because of an MS-13-related criminal warrant that her lawyers say is baseless. According to attorneys with the National Immigrant Justice Center, a Chicago-based nonprofit group, the pair came to the United States to flee gang violence. Now they are 1,400 miles apart and have spoken only a handful of times.
In some cases, the parents themselves are the source of the information leading to their separation.
Cinthia Quiroz Vallecillo came to the United States with her 9-year-old daughter on June 7, at the height of the family separation crisis. After crossing the Rio Grande illegally, they were arrested and detained in Dilley.
Quiroz told an asylum officer she had run a barbershop in San Pedro Sula, where she was extorted by the 18th Street gang that controlled her neighborhood. But the gang members also demanded free haircuts, she said, and when they came into the shop, they told her to store their guns in case police arrived.
After twice agreeing to hide their guns, Quiroz then refused, only for police to enter the barbershop and catch a gang leader with a weapon.
“They told me that now they are going to kill me and my daughter,” she told the asylum officer, according to a copy of the interview.
Quiroz denied any affiliation with the gang, answering “No, God forbid” when the asylum officer asked whether she was ever in a relationship with a gang member.
The officer determined she was credible and had a legitimate fear of being tortured if she returned to Honduras. But the official also deemed her a “security risk” based on her admitting to a “serious nonpolitical crime outside the United States.”
Shortly after the interview, her daughter was taken away. On Wednesday, after ICE raised the gang allegation during a hearing, an immigration judge denied Quiroz bond.
Julie Pasch, a lawyer with the South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project, said contested gang allegations have long been used to split families at the border but that the recent outrage over “zero tolerance” has put the practice under new scrutiny.
“It’s very difficult for these parents to prove that they don’t have these gang affiliations,” Pasch said. “Generally speaking, they don’t have an opportunity to see what the evidence is and thus have no opportunity to contest it.”
Lee Gelernt, the lead attorney in the American Civil Liberties Union’s class-action lawsuit, said families separated because of gang accusations reveal how little proof is needed in the immigration system compared with U.S. criminal courts.
“You’re only supposed to be able to take a child from their parent if it’s such a serious crime that it bears on your fitness as a parent,” he said. “The state of New York couldn’t walk into family court and say, ‘We suspect the father is part of a gang, so we’re going to take the child away.’ ”
Yet that’s exactly what happened to Cañas, whose older son was recently released to relatives in California but whose autistic son remains in a shelter near Houston. Cañas is living nearby so she can visit him twice a week. When he’s not asleep from medication, he whispers to her that he wants to leave.
“I lie to him and tell him we’ll be together soon,” she said, sobbing. “I’m not a criminal. I have the right to be reunited with my children.”
After three months behind bars, Castillo was also desperate to have his son back. He lost the boy’s mother when she died giving birth to their second child in Honduras, he said. The baby died, too.
His son felt betrayed and abandoned by his father, and had begun acting out at the shelter, Castillo said. The 37-year-old had given up on raising his son in the safety of the United States, instead asking only that they be deported together, as soon as possible.
But on Friday, a day after The Post asked HHS about his case, Castillo was taken out of his cell and to a visitor’s room, where his son was waiting for him.
“We were crying,” Castillo recalled. “It was an incredible emotion.”
Even more incredible was that he and his son were then allowed to leave. After months of silence over his case, including the apparent gang accusation against him, ICE had suddenly granted Castillo “humanitarian parole.”
“I always said the accusation wasn’t true,” he said by phone from a South Texas hotel room on Saturday morning, as his son slept nearby. On Sunday, the two would begin a long bus trip to New York, where Castillo would have an immigration hearing in three months.
Castillo didn’t know if the gang allegation would resurface.
“I don’t have any idea what’s going to happen,” he said of the hearing. “But it’s not the same being locked up as it is being free. In three months, I can get a lot of proof to show the judge. That’s what I’m planning to do.”
Maria Sacchetti contributed to this report.