Parents tell a Texas court their reasons for coming to the US as families are divided at the US border
Márcio Goulart do Nascimiento stood shackled, wearing a blue jail jumpsuit, in federal court with eleven other men on Friday afternoon in El Paso, Texas.
Two weeks ago, just outside El Paso, border patrol agents caught Goulart do Nascimiento, trying to cross into the United States with Eliana, his wife, his nine-year-old son and his 15-year-old daughter. Border patrol agents arrested him and took the children into custody of immigration services – splitting up the family. That was the last time he saw his children.
Migrant, Rob Rogers
At the courthouse in El Paso, Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy
on immigration can be seen firsthand. Announced by the US attorney general, Jeff Sessions, in April, the policy means that everyone caught crossing the border illegally is prosecuted – resulting in more jailed adults and, in the past six weeks, nearly 2,000 children being separated from their parents. Each day, dozens of parents from Central and South America face charges of attempting to enter the US illegally and tell their story.
After sentencing Goulart do Nascimiento to time served for unlawful entry, the magistrate judge Miguel Torres asked him if he wanted to say anything to the court.
“I decided to come to the United States with my wife and two children because if I stayed in Brazil they would kill my entire family,” he told Torres, who looked on with dismay.
In the moments available to him, the 38-year old Brazilian laborer told the court through an interpreter why he fled his hometown of Vitória, some seven hours north-east of Rio de Janeiro.
“I wanted to go file a complaint against a drug house in my neighborhood,” he said. “So I went to the police station to complain about this drug trafficking spot and they told me if I filed a complaint I would be killed. That’s when I decided to flee with my wife and children to the United States. I learned yesterday they killed my landlord because he helped us flee to the United States.
“Please forgive me. I came with my entire family because I did not want us to be killed.”
Just after he finished his statement, Goulart do Nascimiento had a seizure. Other prisoners caught him, and a court worker managed to sit him in a rolling chair as his body went limp and his eyes shut.
The judge called for a paramedic and court marshals rolled the stricken father away to a holding cell. His seizure stopped the proceedings, but only momentarily.
On that day, Juan Francisco Fuentes Castro, 49, was also in the courtroom. Border patrol agents had apprehended him and his two daughters – one recently turned 18, the other 16 – at about 9.30 at night on 1 June. Court documents show the border patrol agent “noticed that the subjects’ clothing, from the knees to their feet, was wet”. The Salvadoran family had waded the river to enter the United States from Ciudad Juárez, Mexico.
Through a Spanish interpreter, Fuentes Castro implored the court to forgive him. “I felt powerless. El Salvador is going through a terrible moment. The only thing I could think is I had to get my children out of there. I am very sorry.” At the time of his arrest, he gave contact details for his sister in California. Border patrol agents attempted to make contact with his sister but could not get a response. When US immigration
authorities cannot make contact with a family member who might take care of the children, they are taken into custody and placed in foster care or an immigration detention facility.
On Monday morning, the scene in the courtroom was unchanged: shackles, blue jumpsuits, all detainees with translator’s headsets in their ears. Every day the women and men on trial for illegal entry to the US are different individuals but the proceedings are mostly the same: “Yes,” “No,” “Guilty” – on repeat. On Monday, Torres managed to plead and sentence 14 people for immigration violations in one proceeding that lasted an hour and 10 minutes, finishing just in time for a lunch break.
Proceedings do slow momentarily when a defendant refuses to plead guilty. José de Jesús Días, who was apprehended by border patrol after crossing the river from Mexico with his 16-year-old daughter, refused to plead guilty on Monday until he knew his daughter’s whereabouts.
His attorney, Sergio Roldan, said Días would plead guilty only when his daughter was in the custody of his sister, who lives in Nevada. But for her to take custody of his daughter, she would have to petition for adoption from a state court in Texas, a process likely to take at least two and a half weeks. Roldan, who has 25 clients who have been separated from their children, said this was the first time he had one refuse to plead guilty until they knew where their child was.
Elizabeth González Juárez knows where her daughter is. She had pleaded guilty and been sentenced when the judge asked her if she had anything she wanted to tell the court. A single 30-year-old mother from Guanajuato, Mexico, she said she came to the US because she wanted to protect her three-year-old daughter from her violent father, a drug dealer, who had abused González and her daughter. She told the court she was trying to get to her mother, who lived in Fort Worth, Texas.
Her defense attorney, the federal public defender Darren Ligon, said his client’s boyfriend was a gang member in Ciudad Juárez.
“The terrible thing is that the thing my client was attempting most to avoid has actually happened,” he said. “Immigration authorities handed her daughter back over to the abusive father at the international bridge. They contacted him in Juárez and he came to pick up his daughter.”
The judge, Philip Martinez, told González her story was “heartbreaking indeed. Maybe you can pursue an asylum claim in immigration court but this situation is changing daily so I do not know if you will be successful.” Martinez referred to Jeff Sessions’s decision not to allow spousal abuse or gang persecution as grounds for asylum claims.
González was sentenced to 60 days in jail and one year of probation. After she serves the time left in her jail term, she will be placed in immigration proceedings and might be deported, unless the Trump administration
grants her political asylum.
González told the court: “I just want custody of my daughter. I was just trying to protect my daughter from her father.”