Like tens of thousands of migrants seeking asylum in the United States, Valquiria de Faria Teixeira and her 8-year-old son arrived at a border town in Texas and made their claims.
Then, an already bad situation got much worse.
De Faria Teixeira was separated from her son, Abel, and thrown into detention, where she has languished for the past 11 months as she fights a legal battle to end her “unduly prolonged, unjustified and punitive” incarceration.
“They came here for safety, but they were arrested and treated like criminals,” said their lawyer Eduardo Beckett in a telephone interview from Texas.
Although the pair followed the proper legal channels and requested asylum at an official port of entry last March, they were immediately held at the El Paso Service Processing Center and the next day border officials took Abel away from his mother, Beckett said.
Abel was detained for two weeks at a children’s facility in El Paso before he was picked up by his dad, who had previously fled their home in Brazil and now lives in Boston with Abel’s older siblings.
De Faria Teixeira, 39, who claims to have fled drug traffickers and corrupt officials in Sao Sebastiao do Anta, in southeastern Brazil, was among hundreds of migrants who met with an Amnesty International delegation on a recent mission to investigate the impact of U.S. President Donald Trump’s policy on asylum seekers and migrants travelling to the U.S.-Mexico border.
The key conclusion the delegation came away with is that the U.S. is not a safe country for asylum seekers and Canada must withdraw from the Safe Third Country Agreement that restricts refugees to seeking asylum in the country they initially arrive, whether it is Canada or the U.S.
“At every turn during our visit along the border, I heard of cruel human rights violations against refugees and migrants at the hands of U.S. officials,” Alex Neve, secretary general of Amnesty International Canada, told the Star in an interview.
“I was even more outraged that Canada defiantly maintains that the U.S. is safe. It is not even close. At this time, the U.S. is a cavalierly, cruelly and obviously unsafe third country. Canada’s position is deeply troubling.”
Neve said de Faria Teixeira’s story was one that especially stuck with him during the trip. She was found by Homeland Security officials to have demonstrated a “credible fear of persecution or torture” in an interview, yet was still separated from her son and detained.
“Valquiria and Abel’s story is an emblematic and heartbreaking example of one of the particularly mean-spirited policies pursued by the Trump White House, forcibly separating families, very often including young children, when they make asylum claims and are taken into immigration detention,” said Neve.
“It violates international law, violates numerous U.S. directives and laws, and is quite simply, a cruel tactic that is meant to break the spirit of refugees and migrants and deter others from coming to the U.S.”
The Amnesty delegation — which also included representatives from the U.S., Mexico, Belgium, Norway and Ireland — visited refugee shelters, observed border crossings by migrants and met with local community support groups and asylum seekers themselves in Tijuana, El Paso and Ciudad Juárez.
Trump has declared border security a national emergency in his bid to build the border wall, but Amnesty International said the situation at the border is really a crisis of “conscience, compassion and justice.”
Neve said the delegation’s first views of the border were of the wall that already exists and the sea of migrants who were denied entry to the U.S. and must get on the asylum wait list.
Amnesty officials also visited the volunteer-operated Padre Chava and Al Otro Lado shelters for migrants who have yet to make their asylum claims at the border and those who have been turned back. They also escorted three unaccompanied minors from Honduras to the port of entry.
“When they made their asylum claims, they were told they had to leave and add their names to the unofficial list that determines which individuals can come to the border on which day to make their claims,” Neve said.
“That was outright wrong as it is U.S. policy that unaccompanied minors do not have to wait the weeks or months for their name to slowly get to the top of the list.”
As for de Faria Teixeira, Beckett, who has been practising refugee law in Texas for a decade, said there is no legitimate reason for her indefinite detention.
“My client has no past criminal history and there is no basis to support any finding that she is a danger to the community or a threat to national security or that she would flee,” Beckett said.
“The U.S. Customs and Border Protection has no grounds to separate her from her child. There’s no evidence she is an unfit mom, or she posed a danger to her son that warranted the family separation.”
According to Beckett, de Faria Teixeira and her son had been following the trail of her husband and two older children, who had allegedly fled death threats in Brazil and arrived in Boston months earlier, seeking to be protected from the drug-lord and corrupt police.
In a credibility interview with border officials last March, de Faria Teixeira said she witnessed uniformed police officers hanging out with and using drugs with drug traffickers in her neighbourhood and was threatened when she confronted them.
“The central government has lost control of the local police in many parts of Brazil due to the economic crisis and corruption,” she said in an affidavit for her asylum case. “We could not rely on the police for our safety.”
Yet, in September, a refugee judge denied her claim saying she could have moved somewhere else in Brazil and that the threat she had faced wasn’t based on race, religion, political opinion, nationality or membership in an ethnosocial group. She’s now appealing the asylum decision.
“Valquiria suffers from anxiety attacks due to the ongoing distress of her continuing separation from Abel. Each day that goes by, her mental state worsens,” said Beckett. “Her son believes she has abandoned him and she blames herself for it.”
Nicholas Keung is a Toronto-based reporter covering immigration. Follow him on Twitter: @nkeung