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By Kristina Cooke and Mica Rosenberg
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) -Ten-year-old Leonardo had not seen his mother in years. His hope, as he set out from Guatemala with his aunt and her young daughter, was that they would all be able to reunite with his mother, Emiliana, in California together.
Instead on Feb. 23, he descended an escalator in the Los Angeles airport for the long-awaited reunion alone. After Emiliana finally embraced her son with tears streaming down her face, Leonardo's first question was: "Why aren't Aunt Rosa and my cousin here?"
As President Joe Biden's administration grapples with how to house thousands of unaccompanied minors crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, advocates say ending a long-standing practice of separating children like Leonardo from caretaking relatives would help reduce overcrowding in U.S. government custody.
Under U.S. immigration law, families are narrowly defined as children and their parents or legal guardians. Children separated from grandparents, aunts, older siblings and other relatives are classified as "unaccompanied" and sent to shelters or foster care overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) until they can be released to a vetted sponsor, usually a parent or close family member.
Immigrant advocates say the separations are, in many cases, unnecessary. They argue that thousands of children could stay out of the shelter system if they were released with their accompanying relatives to pursue U.S. asylum cases in immigration court.
Since November, a handful of nonprofit groups that work with unaccompanied children have compiled tallies showing that as many as 10-17 percent of children in custody were separated from relatives, according to three people briefed on the data, all of whom requested anonymity to discuss internal estimates.
The numbers have not been made public before and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency told Reuters they do not track such separations.
The White House referred a request for comment on the policy of separating children from relatives to CBP and the Department of Homeland Security, which said the statutory definition of an unaccompanied minor is a child with no parent or legal guardian available to provide care.
About 11,900 children were in HHS shelters and nearly 5,800 children were in border patrol custody as of March 28. To reduce overcrowding, the administration is rapidly expanding emergency influx shelters and surveying military bases to host migrant children.
Immigrant advocacy groups are working on a provision they hope will be included in the upcoming U.S. government spending bill that would fund reception centers where children could remain with non-parent family members and be evaluated by child welfare experts for joint release, according to a draft text reviewed by Reuters.
While it is too early to say if the proposal will become law, Biden has hired members of the advocacy community as top immigration advisers, and his administration consults with them frequently.
Salvador Zamora, a former CBP official who retired in December, questioned how such a center would work in practice. Verifying the nationality and identity of a person arriving at the border is time consuming, he said.
The process involves backlogged consulates of the migrants' country of origin, who often need to send officials to the municipality the person claims to be from. "How do we verify identity, nationality, let alone familial status within a reasonable amount of time?" he said.
Echoing those concerns, Chad Wolf, who was acting homeland security secretary under President Donald Trump, said changing the policy could encourage smugglers to falsify family relationships.
"I am afraid that the current administration is going to start looking at solutions to speed up processing," he said, "and then with some of those decisions, they could choose expediency over safety."
NOWHERE TO GO
When U.S. authorities separated Leonardo and sent him to a shelter in New York, they expelled his aunt Rosalina - eight months pregnant at the time - and his cousin Marisol to Mexico.
The policy used to expel them, a Trump-era public health rule known as Title 42, was implemented in March 2020. Biden has left the rule largely intact, although he has exempted unaccompanied minors.
When Rosalina was expelled, she fainted on a street near the international bridge in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.
"I had no idea where I was, I had no idea where to go," Rosalina said in an interview from a Mexican shelter where she is staying after recently giving birth to her baby. She said she fled Guatemala with Leonardo and Marisol after a brutal assault and fears going back.
The family asked to be identified by their first names for their safety and so as not to impact their asylum claims.
While Leonardo had his mother waiting for him, some children separated from their relatives at the U.S.-Mexico border do not.
Yliana Johansen-Méndez, legal services director at the Immigrant Defenders' Law Center in Los Angeles, said around 16 percent of the 327 unaccompanied children interviewed by her organization between December and March 24 had traveled with family members who were expelled under Title 42. Some had no other potential sponsors in the United States, she said.
Relatives traveling with children have often raised them for years and are "psychological parents," said Amy Cohen, a child psychiatrist and executive director of nonprofit Every.Last.One, which helps get children released from immigration custody. The separation from these adults is "just as wrenching, just as damaging" for children as separation from their mother or father, she said.
Some migrant children may feel closer to the relatives they have traveled with than the family they are joining in the United States, even if they are their parents.
When Emiliana fled Guatemala in 2017 to get away from her abusive husband she was only able to cobble enough money together to take one child. She made the painful decision to take her then 2-year-old daughter and leave then 7-year-old Leonardo behind with his grandmother. After his grandmother died in 2019, Rosalina took care of him.
Back now with his mother in Los Angeles, Leonardo doesn't want to leave her side. At times he is jealous of his younger sister, now 5, while his sister also struggles with the new competition for her mother's affections after getting used to being an only child for the past three years. "It's quite difficult," said Emiliana. "If I hug one then the other one gets upset."
Leonardo asks about his aunt and cousin constantly, Emiliana said, telling her he is asking God that they be allowed into the United States.
(Reporting by Kristina Cooke in San Francisco and Mica Rosenberg in New York, editing by Ross Colvin and Aurora Ellis)