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Worried Guatemalan mom waits in US for a daughter taken away

Buena Ventura Martin Godinez
The Associated Press

HOMESTEAD, Fla. (AP) — She came to the U.S. to help her family and ended up having it torn apart instead.

Buena Ventura Martin Godinez, a petite mother of two, carried her infant son from Mexico into the U.S in May, fleeing what she said were threats from violent local gangsters demanding money in their hometown in northwestern Guatemala. Her husband followed two weeks later with their 7-year-old daughter. All were caught by the Border Patrol.

Now, despite their request for asylum, the family is scattered. The husband, convicted of the misdemeanor offense of illegal entry into the U.S., awaits almost certain deportation at a jail in Atlanta. Martin, a heavy black monitoring device strapped to her ankle, and her baby boy are with relatives in a gritty town south of Miami. Their daughter is in the custody of a child welfare agency in Michigan, making tearful calls to a mother desperate for her return.

“Every time she calls, she cries. I tell her we never should have come here,” Martin said as she cradled 10-month-old Pedro in the front yard of her in-laws’ house as the sun went down Wednesday. “I never thought it would be like this.”

The family is one of thousands who have tried to find refuge in the U.S. in recent weeks only to be caught up in the harsh reality of an immigration system that has never been as welcoming as many desperate migrants hoped and has grown harsher under President Donald Trump, with the separation of parents from children as a means of discouraging illegal immigration.

More families are crossing the Southwest border from Guatemala than any other nation, with 29,278 families apprehended between October and the end of May.

Martin and her husband, Pedro Godinez Aguilar, could easily have been apprehended under the previous administration, too, and would have faced a tough battle for asylum. But the father wouldn’t have been prosecuted for a first-time crossing; he would likely have been briefly detained with his daughter and then released with a monitoring device while they battled their future out in court. And their daughter, Janne, wouldn’t have been shipped alone across the country, leaving them desperately trying to get her back.

It is a bitter lesson for people like the 29-year-old Martin.

“I see now that it’s not true that people count here, that the laws protect families,” she said in an interview with The Associated Press. “It’s a lie.”

Central Americans now make up half the people crossing the border from Mexico, a trend fueled by poverty and violence associated with gangs and drug cartels as well as lawlessness and corruption that are a legacy of the civil wars that flared in the 1980s and 1990s and featured U.S. involvement. Experts say traffickers feed the trend with false accounts of the likelihood that migrants will be able to stay in the U.S. and support families at home.

Many of those caught are like Martin and are found to meet the initial threshold of showing a “credible fear” of persecution at home, allowing them to stay in the country until a judge can make a final determination. But asylum cases are rarely successful; just 11 percent of Guatemalans who claimed asylum immediately upon entering the U.S. won their cases in 2016, according to data from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

“It’s an uphill battle,” said Aileen Josephs, an immigration attorney in West Palm Beach who has represented people from Central America.

Martin, who worked as a nurse in Guatemala, said she and her husband decided to leave San Juan Atitan because masked men were demanding extortion payments from her husband’s small business selling internet access. She set off first with the baby, and her husband followed with their daughter two weeks later.

They traveled by bus to an area just south of the border in Arizona. She said they didn’t use smugglers, though many Central Americans do and find themselves paying off the fees for years. Martin said she waded through knee-deep water with several other migrants and was immediately apprehended. Court records show her husband was caught in the same area on May 16.

That set off the family’s odyssey through the new, harsher immigration system. Martin was held for a week with her infant in Arizona and Texas, at times sleeping on the concrete floor of a detention facility before she was released with the monitoring device. Her husband pleaded guilty two days after his capture. Their daughter was transferred to the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services, which placed her in a program in Michigan run by Bethany Christian Services.

Martin didn’t get to speak to her daughter until June 6, or three weeks after her husband was apprehended. They have spoken several times by phone in recent days. “I tell her I love her so much, to forgive me for everything that is happening,” she said, her eyes at times filling with tears.

A medical consent form that she signed and sent back to Bethany at a computer at a small shop in Homestead seemed to spark anger in the woman who stands less than 5 feet tall. “She’s my daughter. It’s my responsibility to take care of her health,” she said.

A federal judge has ordered the government to reunite more than 2,000 children with their families within 30 days, or 14 days in the case of those younger than 5. Bethany Christian Services says in a statement that the organization is working to safely reunite every child in its care with relatives.

Martin hopes to get her daughter back any day now, but the future is uncertain. She can’t afford a lawyer and has been getting some help from a local activist. She has work with a nearby plant nursery, earning $9 an hour, and puts her baby in day care as she presses her case for asylum.

“What I want is that they bring me my daughter and let my husband go,” she said. “I ask God for an opportunity to live here with my family together.”

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See AP’s complete coverage of the debate over the Trump administration’s policy of family separation at the border: https://apnews.com/tag/Immigration

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