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When Elena¹ finally escaped from her abusive ex-husband, she knew that she and her 13-year-old daughter Cristina would not be truly safe unless they left Honduras. Elena’s ex-husband was involved with a dangerous street gang, and he and his fellow gang members could reach her anywhere in the country – putting her life and her daughter’s life in danger. To get away, Elena made the brave decision to take her daughter on the long journey to the United States-Mexico border. There, she hoped that they both could apply for asylum, to stay in safety in the U.S.

When Elena and Cristina presented themselves to immigration officials at the border, Elena explained that she was afraid to return to Honduras. Under U.S. law, she should have been interviewed to determine if her fears were credible, but this never occurred.

Then, the unthinkable happened: U.S. officials forcibly separated Elena and Cristina, so that Elena could be prosecuted criminally for crossing the border illegally. No one told Elena where they were taking her 13-year-old daughter or how Elena could reach her. Elena was rushed through her legal proceedings. It was not until several weeks later that she was able to speak to her daughter again – no thanks to the officials, but rather because a relative managed to find out Cristina’s contact information and get it to Elena. She learned that Cristina had been sent to a foster family in the Northeast, where, lonely and frightened, the young girl had fallen into a deep depression.

Two months later, having spoken to her daughter only a handful of times, Elena was deported – right back to the life-threatening situation she fled in the first place. As soon as she arrived, her ex-husband and other gang members began to stalk her, and Elena had to once again go into hiding. She was desperate to see her daughter, but she knew that Cristina could not return to Honduras, or she would be in danger too.

A Justice in Motion Defender first spoke to Elena in August, as part of Justice in Motion’s efforts to help reunify families under the ACLU’s Ms. L. v. ICE class action lawsuit. It took two months for our on-the-ground Defender to make contact with Elena, who was deep in hiding. When we finally reached her, our Defender explained the legal processes underway in the U.S. and Elena’s options for her family. Armed with this information, Elena made the heartbreaking choice to have her daughter stay in the U.S., rather than put her life in danger by having her returned to Central America.

We informed the government of Elena’s wishes, but our work was not yet over. Understanding that Elena was in immediate and serious danger, we worked with our partners to refer her to a legal organization, Al Otro Lado, that could evaluate Elena’s case and give her specialized guidance as she sought protection.

Elena needed safety, and for that, she again needed to leave Central America. Our on-the-ground Defender helped Elena to meet with Al Otro Lado and to collect the documents she needed to support her case and reunite with Cristina. We hoped that Elena would be able to return to the U.S. to seek protection through the Ms. L. v. ICE litigation. But as the U.S. government shut-down in early 2019 stalled any hopes of getting Elena quickly to safety, her advocates realized they needed to take a different tack if they were going to help Elena out of danger.

As a result, Elena joined a group of 28 other parents, all of whom had been seeking asylum but were separated from their children by the U.S. government. The group lawfully traveled together through Mexico to the southern U.S. border to present their cases. On their journey, Justice in Motion Defenders helped to arrange safe houses and transportation, and they made sure that Elena and others had the documents and information they needed to present their cases accurately. In March, Elena and the other parents presented themselves at the U.S. border. Elena spent six weeks in detention while she waited for her credible fear interview. An incredible community of lawyers and advocates worked tirelessly to keep Elena and these brave parents in the media spotlight and fight for their freedom.

In early April, Elena passed her interview, and she was finally released after more than a month in detention. With help from her lawyers and many other advocates, Elena was reunited with Cristina. They are now staying with a family in the U.S., where they can pursue their asylum cases in peace – far from the dangers they faced in Honduras.

We are proud of, and humbled by, the incredible efforts our partners and Defenders have made to ensure that these separated families’ legal rights are respected. The fight is not over, as families confront an increasingly restrictive asylum system and seek justice for the harms they suffered.

With your help, we will continue to work across borders to ensure that no parent or child is forgotten, and to uphold the rights and dignities of all migrants and their families.

We thank Together Rising and an incredible community of donors for making this work possible.

¹All names and identifying details, including country of origin, have been changed for privacy and confidentiality.

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