Unlike her time growing up in El Salvador, Laura Maradiaga is not paralyzed with the constant fear of murder in Houston. The 11-year-old can walk to Fondren Middle School to study multiplication tables and English or relax with her mom, older sister and Lalo, the family dog, at the playground near their apartment.
Last year, her mother, Dora Alvarado, said she realized that if Laura and her 15-year-old sister, Adamaris Alvarado, didn’t flee El Salvador, they would die. Gang members had already been killing their family members after one of Laura’s relatives witnessed a murder and testified in court, and then Adamaris was accosted by a member of MS-13, who threatened to murder her and her family if she talked about the harassment.
“That’s when mom told us we were going to the United States,” Laura said to the Houston Chronicle.
Laura and her family were apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border on Oct. 5, 2018, and released to pursue their asylum claim. They’ve checked in with Immigration and Customs Enforcement every two weeks since November, a total of 10 appointments without missing a date.
Yet when the family appeared in immigration court on Wednesday, Laura was abruptly given an order to be deported back to El Salvador — without her mother or sister. The move would separate an 11-year-old daughter from her family, they say, back to a place where her life is in danger.
The child’s solo deportation is all because of a clerical error, her attorneys argue, in part caused when the government shutdown earlier this year forced the court to reschedule her family’s court dates.
During a Thursday news conference, Laura held her mother’s hand in a vice grip, fighting off tears while saying she desperately wants to stay. “I feel bad because I don’t want to be separated from my family,” Laura said in Spanish. “I don’t want to be taken away from my mom.”
Laura’s case comes as a flood of Central American migrants make their way to the border to seek asylum, while the Trump administration fights, so far unsuccessfully in court, to force those pursuing asylum to wait in Mexico. Last year, the Justice Department, under then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, made it significantly more difficult for asylum seekers like Laura’s family to cite fears of gang or domestic violence as rationale to stay in the United States.
But Laura’s family says the threat in El Salvador is real. At the news conference, Alvarado held up a printout of a Facebook post featuring a photo of the body of a 12-year-old girl who was recently found dead on a dirt road in the La Paz region of El Salvador, their old home.
“It’s just violence for the sake of violence,” Alvarado told the Chronicle.
Cesar Espinosa, executive director of Immigrant Families and Students in the Struggle, an immigration advocacy group supporting the family, told The Washington Post that Laura and Adamaris would face violent retaliation in El Salvador.
“She’s terrified of going back and so is the family,” Espinosa said. “It seems baffling to threaten to deport an 11-year-old while her immediate family is fighting their deportation cases.”
Laura’s legal counsel says her situation started with the government shutdown. The family was given a notice to appear in immigration court on Feb. 2, but with the government closed as President Trump and Congress squared off over funding for his border wall, their date had to be rescheduled to March 12. When the family showed up for that hearing, the interpreter told them that Laura’s name was not on the docket, said Silvia Mintz, the family’s immigration attorney.
“The translator said, ‘Do not worry, maybe Laura doesn’t have court today,’ ” Mintz said.
Then, in late March, the family received a letter that they were unable to read because they do not understand English. On Wednesday, the family returned to immigration court for their next hearing and, through another interpreter, found out that the letter was an order of deportation for Laura.
Judge Clarease Rankin Yates of the Houston Immigration Court had marked the girl as “not present” at the March 12 hearing. Neither Laura’s mother nor sister are listed on the order, which is signed by Yates. “No good cause was given for Respondent’s failure to appear at the hearing,” the order reads. “Therefore, the Respondent has abandoned any and all forms of relief from removal.”
Laura’s attorneys say that either the interpreter at the March 12 hearing erred or the order is because of a Justice Department clerical mistake.
Either way, Espinosa said it’s the first time his organization has seen a child ordered deported without their family.
“I hope the judge can see it was a clear mistake on behalf of the court,” Mintz said. “I don’t think it was ill-intentioned, but it shows how overworked these courts are.”
Espinosa added, “She should not have slipped through the cracks.”
A request for comment to the Executive Office for Immigration Review, the branch of the Justice Department that handled her case, was not returned late Thursday.
Mintz said she will file a motion to reopen the case, adding that the best-case scenario is that the court agrees to keep considering Laura’s asylum case. The attorneys hope Laura can return to court by the end of the month, Espinosa said.
“It’s a sad story that we’re hoping for a happy ending, or at least a peaceful ending, where the family gets to stay together and not have an 11-year-old removed from her mother,” Mintz said.
On Thursday, Laura told reporters she wants to be a police officer when she grows up, and is applying herself in school to better learn English. At the news conference, she clasped her mother’s hand and said she never wanted to leave her side.
“I want to stay with her,” Laura said.
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