Sixteen-year-old Matheus da Silva Bastos hasn’t seen his grandmother, who has been his caretaker for much of his life, for ten months. ICE agents separated da Silva Bastos, who has autism and severe epilepsy, from his grandmother Maria Vandelice de Bastos upon their arrival at the New Mexico border from Brazil. Vandelice de Bastos noted in her asylum claim that her grandson’s disability made him a target at home, according to a report in the Texas Tribune, and though she cleared her preliminary “credible fear” interview — a required interview with immigration officers that assesses the legitimacy of an asylum claim — ICE agents still sent her grandson thousands of miles away to a holding center in Connecticut.
According to those taking care of him at the Department of Children and Families, da Silva Bastos has struggled since his arrival at the Connecticut facility. “Matheus was raised and cared for by his grandmother while in Brazil and is now having a lot of difficulties in his new environment,” one caretaker wrote in a letter obtained by the Texas Tribune. “Having his grandmother present would be beneficial.”
Da Silva Bastos’s case is not unique. Across the United States, ICE agents have been separating disabled children from their families. Of the estimated 11,786 children currently held in ICE detention, it’s unclear how many have disabilities, but that number may be in the thousands if it tracks with the 12.6 percent of Americans who are reported to be disabled. And while ICE is offering many migrant parents of both disabled and non-disabled children a loaded offer — to see their children, they have to waive both their rights and their children’s rights to remain in the U.S. — that choice is all the more pressing for parents of disabled children, many of whom don’t have access to proper disability services in ICE facilities.
Though President Trump signed an executive order on June 20 that would begin housing undocumented children with their parents, a reversal of his previous policy, officials aren’t clear how to reunite already separated families. With all that uncertainty, disabled children are once again left without access to services, while their parents are put in the impossible situation of simply hoping for the best.
The reports of abuse are galling. In a phone call, Sirine Shebaya of the group Muslim Advocates told The Outline that in Port Isabel, Texas, she met a mother who had been separated from her seven-year-old deaf and mute child after crossing the border. Though the mother knew where her son was, “she had no way of being in touch with the child and the child had no way of seeing the mother and knowing the mother is looking out for him.” Shebaya said, “The child is obviously in a new place and has gone through a traumatizing experience in order to get here.”
On June 20, Quartz reported that staff at the Shiloh Treatment Center in Texas made “developmentally disabled girls fight for snacks.” Last week, Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray highlighted the story of a 10-year-old girl with Down syndrome — which U.S. Customs and Border Control verified — who was separated from her mother and detained in a facility for minors in McAllen, Texas.
Though Shebaya couldn’t comment on specific cases, she lambasted ICE’s offer to reunite parents with their children in exchange for leaving the country. “Being forced to choose between [asylum claims] and their children is essentially extortion,” she said.
Further complicating the matter for parents separated from their disabled children is the fact that many families can only access the health care they need in the U.S. Last May, The Atlantic interviewed an undocumented couple in Santa Cruz, California who feared that deportation could mean their 8-year-old daughter, diagnosed with cerebral palsy and epilepsy, would lack the medical services on which she depends. That fear is exceedingly common — according to the magazine, parents are “increasingly are seeking help to stay in the country so they can tend to very sick children, according to interviews with doctors, lawyers and others who work with immigrants.”
None of this is a new problem. Last September, NPR reported the story of Irma and Oscar Sanchez, the parents of a two-month-old baby with pyloric stenosis, a rare condition that triggers extensive vomiting. Nurses at their local hospital in Harlingen, Texas told the Sanchezes that their baby needed treatment from a hospital in Corpus Christi in order to survive. Though the hospital was only two hours away, a Border Patrol checkpoint lay in its path. The parents, who were undocumented, agreed to make the trip to save their newborn, knowing full well it could lead to their deportation. After their arrival at the Corpus Christi hospital, while they were waiting for the surgery, the couple was arrested and booked.
ICE has displayed little empathy for the plight of undocumented immigrants who depend on medical services. As David M. Perry noted in Pacific Standard in January, ICE has even begun targeting hospitals, where many sick and disabled immigrants are especially vulnerable, even though the agency does not permit arrests in hospitals. Instead, they have detained patients immediately after their hospital discharges. Last year, for instance, ICE arrested at least three immigrants seeking medical attention in Oregon. “ICE has turned rapacious, sweeping aside long traditions protecting medical facilities such as hospitals from enforcement actions,” Perry wrote.
Even those undocumented immigrants with more permanent living situations are afraid to access disability services. One Texas woman, Marlene, has been using Medicaid to pay for speech therapy for her son, who is a citizen, but she told PBS this week that she’s become increasingly fearful that using the government program will let ICE agents track and arrest her because of her citizenship status. Maria Hernandez, the executive director of Vela, an Austin-based nonprofit for children with disabilities, noted to PBS that other undocumented parents who rely on Medicaid services for their children have been put in the same situation: “We are seeing families having to make this impossible choice.”
Meanwhile, the Trump administration is trying to discourage disabled immigrants from becoming U.S. citizens. Last month, the Department of Homeland Security proposed a regulation that would make it more difficult for immigrants who rely on disability services to enter the country. “An alien’s health is a factor that must be considered when making a public charge determination,” the proposed rule noted. Public charge determinations — which classify immigrants as “likely to become primarily dependent on the government for subsistence” — are used as grounds not to admit immigrants into the U.S.