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Border Protection Disputes Account Of 3-Year-Old Asked To Choose Between Parents

Tania and Joseph's 3-year-old daughter, Sofi, plays with a car in the shade at a shelter in Juárez, Mexico, last week.
Claire Harbage
Tania and Joseph's 3-year-old daughter, Sofi, plays with a car in the shade at a shelter in Juárez, Mexico, last week.

Customs and Border Protection officials are denying that a Border Patrol agent asked a 3-year-old girl to choose which of her parents would be sent back to Mexico.

A Honduran couple named Tania and Joseph told NPR that an El Paso Border Patrol agent told them last week that the family would be separated – one parent would go to Mexico and the other would be allowed to take the children into the United States. They said the agent asked their 3-year-old daughter, Sofi, to choose which parent she wanted to go with. [NPR is not using migrants' last names in this story because they are in the middle of immigration proceedings.]

In a statement, a CBP spokesman said the family was temporarily separated during processing.

"The mother and children were placed in a holding area with other female head of household family units and the father was held with other adult males. The child was not offered a choice between parents," the spokesman said. "Mother, father and children were processed as a family unit and were transferred out of Border Patrol custody together under the same disposition."

The family's lawyer, Linda Rivas of Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center in El Paso, said Tania and Joseph have repeated their account that the agent told them the family would be separated and asked the younger daughter to choose which parent she would go with. The couple has two other children, a 9-year-old daughter and a 6-year-old son.

The CBP statement came four days after NPR asked the agency to respond to the allegations from Tania and Joseph.

CBP would not answer NPR's questions about whether the agent told the family they would be separated after processing.

"During processing, our agents review each unique case, including criminal and immigration history, in determining an individual's disposition," the spokesman said.

The family's description of an attempted family separation drew widespread criticism.

Tania, Joseph and the family crossed the U.S.-Mexico border in El Paso in April. Tania said the family fled to the United States to seek asylum after the gang MS-13 killed her mother and sister-in-law and then threatened her.

The family was sent back to Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, under a Trump administration program called Migrant Protection Protocol, which requires thousands of people to wait in dangerous northern Mexico cities while their immigration cases are heard in U.S. courts.

At the family's initial hearing in an El Paso court on July 10, Rivas, the family's lawyer, told Immigration Judge Nathan Herbert that the family shouldn't be in MPP because Sofi had a serious heart condition and had suffered a heart attack. Herbert said he didn't have the authority to remove the family from MPP but asked a Department of Homeland Security attorney to take note of Rivas' concerns.

A doctor examined Sofi the next day at a CBP facility and determined she had a serious heart condition, Rivas said. The doctor told the Border Patrol agent that the family shouldn't be sent back to Mexico, she said.

According to Tania and Joseph, it was then that the agent told them the family would be separated. The children wrapped themselves around their father and began crying, they said.

Tania and Joseph said the doctor, whose name they couldn't recall, told the agent over several hours that the family shouldn't be separated. The next day, July 12, another agent agreed to release the family together, Tania and Joseph said.

Robert Mooreis a freelance journalist based in El Paso.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Robert Moore