WASHINGTON -- A 4-year-old girl born in New York was detained by immigration officials and then sent back to Guatemala, separating her from her parents, after she and her grandfather were stopped by customs officials earlier this month.
The girl, Emily Samantha Ruiz, is a U.S. citizen. But she, like many other children of undocumented immigrants, became caught in a web of complications for families with mixed legal statuses. On her way home from a trip to Guatemala with her grandfather on March 11, Emily was detained in Dulles International Airport when authorities stopped her grandfather on an illegal entry charge from more than a decade ago.
Authorities took her grandfather, a non-citizen on a valid work visa that allowed him to travel, into custody. But the young girl was detained in the airport, then sent back to Guatemala with her grandfather, citizenship notwithstanding.
Her family claims they were faced with a near-impossible choice by border officials: either have Emily sent to Guatemala or allow officials to put her in a juvenile facility in the United States, where she could be put in foster care or kept away from her parents.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which is housed within of the Department of Homeland Security, denied the family's version of events, claiming they did offer the Ruiz family an opportunity to pick the girl up from authorities.
"CBP strives to reunite U.S. citizen children with their parents. If the parents choose not to take custody of their children, CBP works with other agencies to ensure the children's safety and well being, up to and including releasing them into the custody of other relatives," spokesman Michael Friel said in a statement. "In this case, the parents were offered the chance to pick up the child, but elected to have her return to Guatemala with her grandfather."
Immigration lawyer David Sperling, who is representing Ruiz's parents, said federal officers did not offer Emily's father the option of picking her up in a way the man could understand.
"Mr. Ruiz categorically denies CBP's allegation that he was offered an opportunity to reunite with Emily," Sperling said in a statement. "The person from CBP that spoke to Mr. Ruiz only spoke English, even though CBP has many officers who speak Spanish at Dulles Airport. ... [S]ince a little child was at stake, why did they fail to provide a bilingual officer to speak to Mr. Ruiz?"
If Emily's parents had gone to pick up their daughter from authorities, they could have risked deportation along with her grandfather. Immigration law leaves few options for immigrants who entered the country illegally and hope to gain legal status, typically requiring undocumented immigrants to return to their native country for a decade before they can reenter the country legally. Emily's father, who told The New York Times he entered the United States unauthorized in 1996, could face detention if he encounters immigration officials.
More than 100,000 parents of citizen children were deported between 1998 and 2007, according to a 2009 Homeland Security report. Many families contain both citizens or legal permanent residents and undocumented immigrants, including those like the Ruiz family where only young children have U.S. citizenship. About 4 million citizen children have at least one parent who is undocumented, according to a Pew Hispanic Center study of 2009 census data released in August.
Emily Ruiz will likely be reunited with her family. Sperling plans to go to Guatemala, or send a staff member, next week to pick her up. Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) intervened on behalf of the Ruiz family on Tuesday, sending a letter to DHS calling for them to return the girl to her mother and father.
"This bureaucratic overreach and utter failure of commonsense has left a little girl -- a U.S. citizen no less -- stranded thousands of miles from her parents," Israel said in a statement. "I'm working with the family and their attorney to reunite Emily and her parents and asking for DHS to do a formal review of how this could have happened."
But without changes to immigration law, other families could be caught in similar situations. Senate Democrats, including Robert Menendez (N.J.), introduced a bill in the previous congressional session that would have given detained parents more time and access to support to reunite with their children. That bill, the Help Separated Children Act, never made it through Congress.
Michelle Brané of the Women's Refugee Commission told HuffPost that many families are separated when an undocumented parent enters deportation proceedings, and those numbers are increasing as the Obama administration steps up its enforcement efforts.
"What's happening with [Ruiz] is a slight twist on an issue we work on a lot, and that is the whole issue of what to do when a child is separated from their parents," Brané said. "The more common thing that we see are children whose parents are detained and the child is basically left behind. The reality is that once you've been separated like that, it is very difficult to be reunited with your child."
Parents facing deportation usually want to take their children with them, but first must arrange for the child's passport, educational records, plane tickets and other physical arrangements -- all of which are difficult to do from a detention center or under short time constraints. Although U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials are directed to avoid holding primary caretakers in custody unnecessarily, it can be difficult for parents to prove they are the sole caretaker of their child, Brané said.
Unless ICE improves its policies or Congress passes laws that allow some parents to gain legal status, families will likely continue to be separated under immigration enforcement.
"In theory, U.S. immigration law is supposed to be based on a family unity concept, yet the way our immigration law looks today, families are really being torn apart much more than being kept together," Brané said. "That fundamental principle of our immigration tradition has been lost."