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3-year-old asked to pick parent in attempted family separation, her parents say

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Tania and Joseph's 3-year-old daughter, Sofia, plays with a car in the shade at a shelter in Juárez, Mexico, last week. Sofia has a serious heart condition and had a heart attack.
Tania and Joseph's 3-year-old daughter, Sofia, plays with a car in the shade at a shelter in Juárez, Mexico, last week. Sofia has a serious heart condition and had a heart attack.
Claire Harbage

At a Border Patrol holding facility in El Paso, Texas, an agent told a Honduran family that one parent would be sent to Mexico while the other parent and their three children could stay in the United States, according to the family. The agent turned to the couple's youngest daughter — 3-year-old Sofia, whom they call Sofi — and asked her to make a choice.

"The agent asked her who she wanted to go with, mom or dad," her mother, Tania, told NPR through an interpreter. "And the girl, because she is more attached to me, she said mom. But when they started to take [my husband] away, the girl started to cry. The officer said, 'You said [you want to go] with mom.' "

Tania and her husband, Joseph, said they spent parts of two days last week trying to prevent the Border Patrol from separating their family. They were aided by a doctor who had examined Sofi and pleaded with agents not to separate the family, Joseph and Tania said. [NPR is not using migrants' last names in this story because these are people who are in the middle of immigration proceedings.]

Tania and Joseph said they spent parts of two days last week trying to prevent the Border Patrol from separating their family.
Tania and Joseph said they spent parts of two days last week trying to prevent the Border Patrol from separating their family.
Claire Harbage

Morning Edition reported last week on the Honduran family, who were sent back to Juárez, Mexico, after crossing into El Paso in April. They are part of a Trump administration program called Migrant Protection Protocols — also known as "remain in Mexico" — which requires thousands of Central American migrants to wait in dangerous cities in northern Mexico while their immigration cases are handled by U.S. courts.

At a hearing on Wednesday, the family's lawyer, Linda Rivas of Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, asked that they be removed from MPP because of Sofi's heart condition. The couple has two other children, a 9-year-old daughter and a 6-year-old son.

Sofi's chest bears the scar of an earlier surgery. Rivas presented evidence from a Mexican health clinic that the 3-year-old girl had suffered a heart attack, a revelation that seemed to stun Immigration Judge Nathan Herbert. The judge said he didn't have the authority to remove the family from MPP but asked the Department of Homeland Security lawyer to take note of Rivas' concerns.

On Thursday, Sofi was examined by a doctor working on contract for DHS, who told Border Patrol agents the girl had a serious heart condition, Rivas said. Tania and Joseph don't remember the doctor's name.

Sofi's 6-year-old brother plays with other children at a shelter in Juárez last week.
Sofi's 6-year-old brother plays with other children at a shelter in Juárez last week.
Claire Harbage

"They spoke to me at around 3 or 3:30 p.m., and they told me: 'Sign here, because we are giving you and your children permission.' And I said, 'I came with the children's father,' and he said, 'Not him. Only you and your children.' And the doctor said it's important for the family to stay [together], and even the doctor said 'They entered as a family and they have to leave as a family.' "

The agent insisted on the separation and asked Sofi which parent she wanted to go with, Tania said. 

"The doctor told me, don't let them ask her because they don't have the right to ask a minor," she said. 

The doctor stayed an hour after his shift ended at 9 p.m. Thursday trying to prevent the separation, Tania said.

When the three children realized the family faced separation, they latched on to Joseph — the son around his neck and a daughter around each leg, the parents said. Joseph was taken to another cell.

"I was going to be separated from my children and my wife, and I would have to go back to Juárez on my own," Joseph said through an interpreter. "I felt devastated."

The family's fate was left unresolved Thursday night. The doctor returned Friday morning and made the case for keeping the family together to another Border Patrol agent, Tania said.

"He explained to the other officer that they all have to enter as a family. It was the morning shift officer. He replied, yes, he was going to give him [Joseph] entrance. He also said they were giving us different court dates and the doctor told him, no, that we had entered as a family and that they had to give us the same date to all," Tania said.

The family was released on Friday to an El Paso migrant shelter and spent Saturday at a small Airbnb. On Sunday they flew from El Paso to join relatives in the Midwest.

Linda Rivas, executive director of Las Americas Immigration Advocacy Center, represents Tania and Joseph. Rivas asked the family be removed from Migrant Protection Protocols because of Sofi's heart condition.
Linda Rivas, executive director of Las Americas Immigration Advocacy Center, represents Tania and Joseph. Rivas asked the family be removed from Migrant Protection Protocols because of Sofi's heart condition.
Claire Harbage

The Department of Homeland Security did not respond to NPR's questions about the family's treatment while in Border Patrol custody or about the decision to remove them from MPP and allow them to stay in the U.S.

DHS guidelines say that people with "known physical/mental health issues" are exempt from MPP, but the Border Patrol twice sent Sofi and her family back to Juárez — the first time in April, then again in June after El Paso Catholic Bishop Mark Seitz brought the family to a port of entry and implored that they be allowed to stay in the United States because of the child's illness.

The family fled Honduras after Tania witnessed her mother get killed. Her sister-in-law also was a witness and was later kidnapped, tortured and slain to keep her from testifying. The gang MS-13 then posted a note on the family's door telling them they had 45 minutes to leave, Tania said. That's when the family left to seek asylum in the U.S.

Rep. Veronica Escobar, an El Paso Democrat whose office assisted the family in its efforts to be removed from the MPP program, said she is asking DHS  to investigate allegations that the Border Patrol planned to separate the family and asked a 3-year-old girl to pick which parent she would go with.

"It's an outrage, and it's absolutely horrifying that a toddler would be asked to choose between two parents. It was just stunning to me. It's one thing to read about it; it's another thing to actually hear a parent recounting the story firsthand in their own voice," Escobar said.

The family will pursue its asylum claim in U.S. immigration court.

"We cannot go back to Honduras," Tania said. "We hope that the children could study here because in Honduras there are no opportunities for the children to go to school, for them to grow. We are honest people. We don't want to harm anyone. We just want an opportunity."  Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.